Students become familiar with one of the most famous political resistance songs created in the Emslandlager concentration camps in Lower Saxony. "The Peat Bog Soldiers" is a song to hear, interpret, sing, and accompany with instruments. Through an analysis of the melody and lyrics, the students learn about the historical background.
The students are introduced to "Die Moorsoldaten" ["The Peat Bog Soldiers"], one of the best known songs of the socialist and communist political resistance [see Audio]. The song was composed and sung in the early concentration camps after 1933 and transmitted by the prisoners into the expanded German concentration camp system, where it continued to be sung after 1939. "Die Moorsoldaten" was written in the Moor concentration camps, a chain of fifteen concentration camps opened in Nazi Germany in 1933, and known collectively as the Emslandlager. One of the most famous prisoners was the journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, initially a prisoner in Esterwegen in 1933, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935 [see Visuals].
The lesson begins with the song’s melody, which forms the basis for all text materials. "Die Moorsoldaten" is a song to hear, interpret, sing, and accompanywith instruments. The lesson takes two hours.
"Die Moorsoldaten" is one of the best known songs of the political resistance movement against National Socialism. Its forceful lyrics and folk melody have established it as an important historical source.
There are different accounts of the song’s origin, which is unusual in musicology. The reason for this may be that its authors gave only vague accounts of its origins after their release from imprisonment so they would not endanger those still in the concentration camps.
All accounts of the creation of the song agree that it was composed in the summer of 1933 at the Börgermoor concentration camp, close to the town of Papenburg in the Emsland region. Börgermoor was the first Emsland concentration camp. Conditions in the camp were especially brutal and the song was written in response to brutality by camp guards. The camp commandant prohibited prisoners from singing "Die Moorsoldaten" because of its last line. Nevertheless, the song spread rapidly and became internationally known [see Documents].
Wolfgang Langhoff and Johann Esser wrote the lyrics [see Documents]. The music was composed by Rudi Goguel and was later adapted by Hanns Eisler and Ernst Busch. Langhoff, Eisler, and Busch were all active in the German Communist party.
"Die Moorsoldaten" may only be discussed, sung, or played in the classroom, after the teacher has explained the structure of the concentration camp system. It should be made clear that various prisoner categories and groups were persecuted by the Nazis.
A unit about the song may be developed in two parts.
The instructor sings (or hums) the tune to the class (or may use a taped instrumental rendition in the classroom). The following musical aspects of the song should be mentioned:
Time/Rhythm: The song is in four-four time, a style supporting the idea of "Soldaten" ["Soldiers"].
Harmony: The harmony switches between major and minor chords. This mechanism allows the song to sound melancholy but also hopeful. The last section of the song is challenging and defiant.
Melody: In the original song, the first three notes are the same, signifying the despair of the camp. The refrain begins with a jump of six notes, which seems emotional and dramatic. The first and second bars and the fifth and sixth are the same melody, but are played two tones up. This type of sequence is used in folk songs and popular music.
The lyrics are clear, making it easy to understand the prisoners’ situation. The song also uses metaphors. The title "Die Moorsoldaten" ["The Peat Bog Soldiers"] is one example, playing on the forced labor and militarized daily routine of the concentration camps. The use of words such as "verstaut" ["stowed away"] or the sentence "Ewig kann's nicht Winter sein" ["It cannot be winter forever"] is also significant.
The success of "Die Moorsoldaten" is based on its appealing tune, which contains both textual and musical surprises.
Practical Classroom Experience
Music is an important educational classroom tool and the song "Die Moorsoldaten" is a good case study.
Students in seventh, eighth, and ninth grade in secondary schools in Schleswig-Holstein were emotionally moved by hearing and singing this song. This response can be intensified by including materials about the song’s origins.