How Can Music Be Torturous?

Music in Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps

Singing on command, playing instruments in prisoners' orchestras and having to listen to this music was part of daily life in German Nazi Camps. SS-guards in many concentration and extermination camps purposefully used music to attack prisoners' identities, certainties and self-conceptions. Music in National Socialist camps was therefore a special kind of violence and torture. Focusing on the impact of music on the body through the lens of the emotion, this article argues that music, in its performativity and its performative effect, has the ability to affect the human body and, therefore, the emotions. Its strong, positive power to help people to survive stems from this ability. But it is also this strong impact which may become a destructive power. This article aims to illuminate how and why music can exert this power and how it was used by SS camp guards and perceived by prisoners as a special kind of violence and torture. It focuses on different situations of singing on command in concentration camp Sachsenhausen and on playing music in prisoners' orchestras, as well as listening to music in extermination camp Auschwitz Birkenau. By surveying the various ways in which music was embedded in violence in the camps and by interrogating the interplay between music, emotions and the body, this article seeks to offer an explanation of the potentially torturous nature of music and to clarify why it was used specifically in these sites and contexts.

Journal Music and Politics
Year 2016
Volume 10
Issue 1
Pages np

Brauer, Juliane (2016) How Can Music Be Torturous?: Music in Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps. In: Music and Politics, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. np. Available at


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