The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

hitler youth
Hitler Youth – not New Romantics

Back in the 80s – and the 70s – many pop bands toyed with Nazi words and imagery. Calling your musical combo after a department of the Third Reich or some ghoulish practice in the concentration camps was somehow deemed to be out there, challenging, even cool. Must say at the time, I thought it was stupid, crass and insensitive.

But I often felt like I was in a very small minority.

You can’t blame punk for the intrusion of Nazi references into pop. Wearing armbands with swastikas and Wehrmacht helmets had already featured with bands before then. But punk seemed to encourage a more blatant expression. It deliberately aimed to shock and offend – and violate normal codes of behaviour.

Why? Well, we were thirty to forty years away from Hitler. His shadow still loomed over us. An older generation still in their fifties had fought in World War Two. When it came to a generational clash, that meant young people taking on those who had served in WW2 or done National Service afterwards. It was a familiar whine of that generation that we needed ‘a good dose of National Service’. The response was a two-fingered salute replete with Nazi armband.

Looking back, I can’t imagine how some older people must have felt. And I’m not convinced it was a smart move for pop bands to adopt Nazi chic at that time. Or any time for that matter.

By the late 1970s, the neo-Nazi revival was in full swing. The National Front and British Movement were posing a very real threat to black and Asian Britons as well as clashing with left-wingers and trade unionists. To have pop bands glorifying the Third Reich in that climate was tasteless in the extreme. Yet – you still had rock combos wearing the Iron Cross or using the motif of the imperial eagle.

DISCOVER: Top pop hits in early 1981

Some very hip bands were criticised for using terminology rooted in Hitler’s Reich. Even though they weren’t Nazi in any sense. Joy Division, for example, was named after the sex slavery wing of Hitler’s concentration camps. This raised eyebrows in some quarters. And Spandau Ballet got it in the neck for that name from a Record Mirror reporter.

Unfortunately, the element of this project which I find disturbing, threatening and worthy of debate lies not in the music itself, but in the premise upon which our young warriors have erected their grandiose musical/lyrical edifice.

The journo went on to note that the album was white-on-white with a muscular naked form.  And the scribbler was rattled by a quote inside the record sleeve – “…the soaring joy of immaculate rhythms, the sublime glow of music for heroes…stirring vision….journeys to glory…”

The Record Mirror fumed that this linked Spandau Ballet to an ‘Aryan Youth ideal’ reminiscent of the Hitler Youth.  The review then went on to make it clear there was no linkage to far right groups being suggested just a deep sense of unease. The journalist suggested to readers that they play ‘Muscle Bound’ back to back with ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ from the movie Cabaret and observe how the ‘mood’ is the same.

“Tread very carefully for all our sakes,” the magazine warned the band.

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