This Q&A was first published in the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Lyrics were often added to marching music, particularly in the 19th century, when repertoires of marching songs grew in many nations: Prussia’s ‘Hohenfriedberger March’, for instance, was written in 1845, and the Habsburg monarchy’s ‘Egerländer Marsch’ in 1891.
Songs such as these would often have been given many an airing by German and Austrian troops during the First World War, alongside old favourites such as ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’ (‘The Watchguard on the Rhine’). So, like every army at the time, the German military would have been buoyed by singing, from established anthems to soldiers’ ditties. Indeed, at Langemarck in 1914, German conscripts were said to have marched across no man’s land singing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles’.
The primary difference after the advent of the Nazi regime in 1933, however, was Goebbels’ awareness of the potential of radio as a vehicle for propaganda and escapism. This enthusiasm for the medium naturally gave a huge boost to the German music industry and many songs were popularised as never before, through being played on the radio and aired on the newsreels.
Alongside radio ‘hits’ such as ‘Lili Marleen’, therefore, military songs also grew in popularity, and in time every branch of the German military and almost every theatre of the war had its own theme tune. ‘Erika’ was popular with the Wehrmacht, for instance, while the tank crews had the rousing ‘Panzerlied’, and the Afrika Korps would have hummed ‘Panzer rollen in Afrika vor’.
So the Third Reich did a great deal to popularise marching songs and could almost be seen as the inventor of the genre, but it was drawing on a far older and much more widespread phenomenon.
Answered by Roger Moorhouse, the author of Berlin at War (Vintage, 2011).