Nazi Soundscapes: Sound, Technology and Urban Space in Germany, 1933–1945 - Carolyn Birdsall. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012


By Trever Hagen


There is no shortage of books that concern National Socialism. However those that develop a new dimension to this account as intriguing as found in Nazi Soundscapes: Sound, technology and urban space in Germany, 1933–1945, are few. Nazi Soundscapes addresses the rise, fall and memory of National Socialism, interfacing it with core concerns of the study of sound, particularly, how listening attention is shaped. Carolyn Birdsall takes this inquiry as a point of departure and uses a tall stack of data, set in a complex historical context, to show us the multiple hands involved in molding listening. The difficultly of the task, though, not only allows for the broad research question of listening attention to be examined rigorously but also begs a series of equally important corollary questions: How did sound contribute to the growth of National Socialism in Germany? How to place sonic research in historical methods?

To answer these questions, Birdsall guides us through an extended case study of Düsseldorf in the Weimar and Nazi periods, 1920s–1945 (just beyond the period of the book’s title). Couched in robust historical inquiry, the research focuses on contextual listening attention within the mediated sounds and daily activities of German modernity. Birdsall takes sound’s global sensory dimensions and aims to interrogate auditory experience within a sensory framework through mixed methods and sources: textual and secondary sources are met with earwitness testimony. These sources and perspective configure the book’s themes of “mediality, intersubjectivity, identity, perception and power relations” (17). Particularly, the themes are examined through consideration and analysis of how sound is appropriated, how meaning is articulated to sound, and how sound comes to be represented, not only within discourse but also as (inter)subjective experience.

By doing so, Birdsall contributes significantly to the body of literature on radio and mediated sounds’ impact on fascist aesthetics and how sound can underpin “control, discipline and terror” (28). Similarly, she grounds her research within the tradition of soundscape scholarship, drawing widely on R. Murray Schafer, however renovating his conceptual and analytical tools with injections from phenomenology, primarily by considering sound as an integration mechanism (rather than attention-distracting) that is historically contingent, thus warranting research on negotiated forms of listening attention.

The book is an interdisciplinary project: its theoretical concerns target central questions in sociology and psychology, its methodology is deeply rooted in historical method, and its textual analysis grows out of cultural studies. One of the many benefits of the research is that it sidesteps jargon yet interrogates these disciplinary boundaries while remaining authoritative in its tone. In addition to this interdisciplinary endeavor, the book is open access with a Creative Commons license, accessible online at OAPEN Library and includes a web-based audio companion of six tracks.

Nazi Soundscapes is divided into four chapters, each addressing a case study set within Düsseldorf. The first two chapters examine interwar Düsseldorf cases while chapter three begins in 1939 and the final chapter looks at sound and music in cinema from the wartime period with consideration of contemporary cultural memory. Throughout, sonic meaning is treated as indexical, as Birdsall asserts in the introduction, with analysis that bobs between historical, contextual analysis on sound, and sensory experience to interpretative, textual analysis of film, song and lyrics.

Acoustic Presence and Occupation

Chapter one focuses on the use and appropriation of commemoration practices. The chapter centers on the case of former soldier Albert Leo Schlageter, who was sentenced to death in 1923 by the French occupying forces of the Rhin-Ruhr (31) as a result of Schlageter sabotaging a French train in Düsseldorf. Subsequently, various political groups from Germany fought over Schlageter’s legacy, with the Nazis ultimately succeeding in 1933 making him a martyr, patriot and template of the “New Man” for National Socialism. This was done, as Birdsall argues, in part through sonic dimensions of commemorative practices, such as “the loud cheers of thousands and the sounds of marching feet producing intense resonances and reverberations …” (31). Birdsall’s argument leads us into how National Socialism used the mobility of crowds, combined with appropriation of a public commemoration event in order to occupy urban space. The chanting crowds were therefore active participants (even if unwittingly, as Birdsall seems to suggest), via bodily coordination and listening attention in the production of National Socialist agitation.

This presence in the streets leads Birdsall to a discussion of resonance, namely in regard to “acoustic presence” and “aesthetic occupation” (32). This focus addresses both the sound in the streets, in terms of reverberation as a form of sonic power across space and time, as well as the practice of collective sound-making in the street. In Birdsall’s account, this is the intersubjective component of identity formation via “being together” through sonic experiences - not only reception of sound but also production of sound, such as vocalizations like chanting and marching feet, particularly in rhythm (time signature) and in space (hard reflective surfaces of buildings on city streets). This collective action Birdsall refers to as “affirmative resonance,” which has implications of sonic omnipresence and overwhelming the senses (41).

A related acoustic concept Birdsall develops is “sonic brawling,” which frames political battles over public presence between the communists and the socialists in 1920s Germany. As Birdsall describes, this brawling developed from brass bands and agitprop theatre to microphones and loudspeakers, drawing a line in how listening attention is flexible and adaptable from one technology to another. Birdsall’s close attention to spatial vastness (59) and intersensorial considerations of sound and vision (60) shows how acoustic presence (as in affirmative resonance or brawling) in ritual events plays a role in reconfiguring disparate people as groups and communities.

The outcome or effects of acoustic presence are illustrated by success in large event gatherings, election victories, and various crowd-based sonic practices such as singing along (and therefore “brawling” with others) and chanting with acoustic symbols, the most notable being “Heil Hitler.” What we learn is how the extreme blanketing of public space by Nazi acoustic presence transformed or potentialized people’s actions, thoughts, beliefs and shaped the public imagination. The idea of a potentialized space that has an omnipresent dissemination and that overwhelms and disciplines the senses is a theme that Birdsall returns to in the following chapters.

Sounding Out the Other

Chapter two moves on to address the festivalization of the everyday. By this Birdsall shows us how Düsseldorf’s annual carnival is appropriated by the Nazis to promote a nationalist racial agenda. Through this appropriation, as Birdsall argues, a national space is produced that hinges on festival associations of “Heimat (homeland) and Volk (people)” adjusted to ritual and listening attention. Such preservation of Heimat in Nazi ideology via carnival appropriation led to group belonging based on race. This chapter seems an unlikely case for Nazi Soundscapes, yet it sets up Birdsall’s wider goal of considering how sound can provide platforms of action when appropriated by groups. She attests herself: “Carnival may seem a unusual ritual for this project, yet carnival’s noisy energy was compatible with National Socialism’s occupation of the urban environment” (101). This perspective shows us the gradual increase in presence of National Socialism in the urban space and how festivalization functions as community bonding and primes national racial thought and practice.

Ultimately this occurred by carnival parades stereotyping Jews along with racial implications of colonialism and purity in Germany. Birdsall notes that “carnival [became the] site of voicing exclusionary and anti-Semitic sentiments” (95). The chapter thus gives due notice to speech and its auditory - rather than only semantic - deployment of meaning. For example, while addressing the carnivalesque nature of hate speech and its exclusionary use for racial nationalism, Birdsall also weaves in vocal and facial comportment such as grimacing (93). Such a focus brings the reader into the moment, the action and the feeling of hate speech. Moreover, Birdsall continues this focus by exploring the local-national tensions between the sound of High German for a pan-German broadcast of carnival songs versus dialect and the local nature of the event. As well, she considers radio as a means to mimic Jewish accents in German, providing “acoustic recognition” of “the Other” (98).

The projection of difference and exclusionary practice that occurred in exceptional spaces, such as the annual carnival, was then extended to quotidian affairs and provided a platform and space for practices to emerge by the German public. This allowed for participation in anti-Semitic actions while assisting in legitimatizing the Nazi regime. The Nazi appropriation of annual carnival for organizing everyday life allowed the regime to build its ideology and practice via contrast structures to other social groups that, as the book argues, had its base in sonic experience.

Total War, Total Art

Chapter three develops wartime soundscapes between 1939–1945. It begins with radio listening and the formation of a national listening community and ends with the allied artillery shelling of wartime Düsseldorf in 1945. Addressing radio listening, Birdsall draws on Anderson’s “imagined community,” renovating the concept to address an “imagined national listening community” through the omnipresence of radio in space and time. This auditory omnipresence and imagined community dovetails with the attempted total control by the Nazi regime in a time of total war. It is in this exceptional setting of totality that Birdsall gives notice to contingent listening attention patterns, such as to sirens and alarms, and the subsequent sensory experience of a city during wartime.

For instance, Birdsall examines radio Sondermeldungen (special announcements) (105) that made use of iconic bravery and unity in the face of allied bombing. As well, she takes Sondermeldungen as an “acoustic intervention” within the wartime soundscape. This ties into a larger argument throughout the book that examines the difficulty in establishing sonic control and acoustic presence for political impact. Thus rather than a “total control” scenario over sound we see a far more dynamic, negotiated, “trial and error” set of practices of the Nazis.

Moreover Birdsall extends analysis of total war to address emotional centers such as fear and anxiety as a result of an environment of suspicion and espionage. Total war configures collectives as participating in a wartime community and therefore is subject to its special laws (135). In this context, Birdsall portrays wonderfully how the German public listened to illegal radio and illicit knowledge, addressing micro sociotechnical practices such as muffling the speaker as to not be heard by neighbors. This example of acoustic presence gets underneath dimensions of everyday reality and sound’s role as an organizing mechanism of practice and knowledge production.

Straying from the chronological development of the book, the final chapter turns toward music and sound in film. It devotes attention to the “art world” of cinema, from the advertisers to the projectionist, considering the entire “rhythmic unity” of a film’s life and its effects on audiences primed for National Socialism. It connects film production and industry with creative practice and craft of film making (e.g., montage) within the Third Reich’s agenda and Düsseldorf’s exhibition history.

The point of the chapter is to consider Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (as a “total” practice) with the rise in cinema during the 1920s (specifically, in Germany, via Walter Ruttman’s aesthetic practice) and therefore film’s “ideological currency” in National Socialism. Birdsall gives a textual analysis of Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, looking at the symphonic structure of the film and how the montage’s rhythm structured urban space (as opposed to a postcard view of the city), considering “symphony and rhythm as aesthetic organizing principles” (148). As Birdsall argues, film as such became a synesthetic tool appropriated by the National Socialists; cinema would be the art form to win over the “hearts and minds” of the German public (145). The chapter considers how filmic creative practices, such as developing newsreel commentary or montage, could be fashioned to meet the aims of “total control” - an indication of the ways in which artists/art can coax or use artistic devices to suggest and provoke feelings.

For instance, Birdsall illustrates how sound and music set the backdrop around which people build associations and pattern activity. In this sense, cinema is like the festival from chapter two with the aim of “social homogenization” (146), “collective national audience” (147) and a “harmonious, communal experience” for the German public (157). Sound’s role in creating this filmic totality mainly rested on listening attention: the cinema space became the totally controlled environment, a site of disciplining sensory experience.


Birdsall’s analysis of the Weimar and Nazi periods considers sound broadly: in music, as silence, noise or activity, as voice, vocalizations and language. The book gives deserved attention and insight into the micro, tacit ways in which these manifestations of sound can enter a social world and transform it in often happenstance ways. Such a perspective steers the research toward a balanced understanding of sound’s intersensorial relationship with technology and space.

Nazi Soundscapes shows us how sound can be metaphorically good to think with. Employing a handful of sonic concepts - including resonance, echo, noise - Birdsall cleverly draws on these acoustic phenomena to aid in understanding how articulated, associated meaning to sound changes over time. Yet Birdsall carefully writes the narrative in a way that does not overdetermine sound. Indeed, to say this book is only about soundscapes and technology would miss the depth of the study. Birdsall has written an intersensorial analysis with a strong, phenomenological focus on how sonic experience occurs in specific places, how this is embedded in discourse and how these relationships play out intersubjectively.

Nazi Soundscapes therefore shows us a striking account of how active sound is in creating socio-political worlds and how people and regimes, through trial and error, come to use sound for their advantage. In this regard, Birdsall’s scholarly efforts illuminate a path in sonic inquiry - how do sonic experiences structure action and how does action structure sound? How might sound shape consciousness and belief? By taking a complex case of 20th century European history, the rise, fall and memory of National Socialism, Birdsall’s answers are not only important in their conclusions but are also relevant for contemporary attention to sound and politics.


Trever Hagen is a JSPS postdoctoral research fellow at Kobe University. He has published essays and articles on underground music, listening and radio in former Czechoslovakia. Currently he is conducting ethnographic fieldwork on sound, improvisation and health promotion in Japan.