It is of some small comfort that totalitarian regimes are never quite as total as either their leaders or subsequent historians might imagine. As much as the Bolsheviks may have wished to “abolish” religion, faith and observance persisted all through the Soviet sphere and contributed to the disintegration of the Communist system. Similarly and more recently, the Taliban exercised less than certain–and certainly less than the publicized–influence over the people of Afghanistan.

By the same token, we have long been used to the idea that the Nazis proscribed jazz and sought to ban it from every corner of the Reich. To the ideologists of National Socialism, it was a music of racial impurity, lumped in with other examples of entartete Kunst or “degenerate art,” damned as “Judaeo-Negroid” and not fit for the ears of good Germans. In recent years, this rather one-dimensional picture has begun to shift significantly.

One tiny example suggests the complexity of the real situation: the strange tale of guitarist Django Reinhardt, who managed not only to survive but to thrive in Nazi-occupied France, despite the fact that he was a gypsy, and a handicapped gypsy at that, thanks to the patronage and the protection of a jazz-loving Luftwaffe officer. Those last four words represent such an oxymoron that most recent encyclopedia entries on Django, who died half a century ago in 1953, make no mention whatever of Oberleutnant Dietrich Schulz-Koehn. One of the strangest photographs of the war was taken by Schulz-Koehn outside La Cigale, a jazz club in Paris. It shows a gypsy (Django), four Africans and a Jew posed smiling beside a fellow officer. The Germans were there not to arrest these men but to listen to them play. With its whisper of collaboration, this remains an awkward detail for jazz fans to deal with, but it is even more unsettling, given the prevailing notion of the Nazis’ attitude toward jazz.

There have been a number of attempts to rewrite this odd corner of popular music history. Michael Zwerin’s La Tristesse de Saint Louis: Swing Under the Nazis took its title from the habit of disguising jazz tunes–in this case “St. Louis Blues”–from the authorities under safely translated titles. The story of wartime swing is also told in a chapter in Hitler’s Airwaves, a study of propaganda broadcasting under the Third Reich written by business executive Horst J.P. Bergmeier and economist Rainer E. Lotz. Now, though, their exploration of the period has been taken a step further and given additional flesh in an ambitious box set of music with the arresting title Swing Tanzen Verboten: Swing Music and Nazi Propaganda During World War II, just released by the English firm Proper Records with text by Dutch jazz expert Joop Visser. Its four CDs are an eye-opening experience, not so much musically, though there are fine cuts by Reinhardt, but because they raise the possibility that far from banning jazz, the Nazi authorities were aware of and tried to harness some of its appeal.

Imagine for a moment that you are a British or American jazz fan in wartime scanning the airwaves in hopes of finding some familiar music. Out of the ether a male voice begins to sing a familiar melody. “I’m the Sheik of Araby,/Your love belongs to me./At night, when you’re asleep/into your tent I’ll creep./The stars that shine above/will light a way to love./You’ll rule this land with me/the Sheik of Araby.” Before the war you heard umpteen versions of this song, which was inspired by RudolphValentino in The Sheik. Even if a band didn’t have a singer, most fans could mouth the words. But this time, something strange happens. After that first verse, a voice cuts across the music: “Here is Mr. Churchill’s latest song.” The melody stays the same, but the words are unfamiliar. “I’m afraid of Germany/her planes are beating me./At night, when I should sleep,/into the Anderson I must creep./Although I’m England’s leading man/I’m led to the cellar by ten./A leader in the cellar each night/that’s the only damned way I can fight.”

That was certainly not the way Ted Snyder, Harry B. Smith and Frances Wheeler wrote it, so jazz fans will rightly insist on some personnel details for this curious performance. The band included Riimis van den Broek, Helmuth Friedrich and Ferri Juza on horns, Franz Muck on piano and the Krupa-like Fritz “Freddy” Brocksieper on drums. The conductor of the orchestra was a man called Lutz Templin, but he’d ceded nominal control to the singer Charlie Schwedler. “The Sheik of Araby” was one side of the first record issued in late 1940 on the Klarinette & Mandoline imprint, soon to be familiar from its maroon label and K&M prefix. As those altered lyrics suggest, the artists–Charlie and His Orchestra–weren’t merely German swing enthusiasts flouting their leaders’ disapproval. They were government employees broadcasting to the enemy in the enemy’s own language and in a musical form that their employers were nominally committed to stamping out. Though less well-known than the infamous Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce) or Axis Sally (Mildred Gillars), who broadcast on behalf of the fascist regimes, they were an important part of the Reich’s propaganda effort to smuggle a defeatist message into British and American homes.

The history of wartime jazz abounds with such ironies. That a form of music proscribed as “degenerate” should become an instrument of state policy seems more than a little perverse. Within weeks of Hitler’s coming to power in March 1933, the new Nazi government’s broadcasting authority announced the banishment of swing and hot music from the airwaves. Jazz had long been suspect and such a directive was inevitable, but in practice, it would be a further two years before Eugen Hadamovsky, the program director of RRG, could announce that “as of today, nigger jazz is finally switched off on the German radio.”

There was no more consensus in government circles about what defined jazz than there was in the jazz clubs and cellars of Berlin and Frankfurt, where such matters were debated as passionately as in New York or London. From an ideological point of view, jazz was “Judaeo-Negroid” music and thus complicit in the “shame of Versailles.” From a Nazi point of view, defeat in the First World War was the result of Jewish treachery at home and led to still further racial defilement, most hurtfully symbolized by the presence of black French colonial troops in the occupied Rhineland. The distorted rhythms and “atonality” of jazz might originally have seemed an unconscious expression of “Negroid” sexuality, but they became–to Nazi ears–part of a new Jewish fifth column, a sinister conspiracy to undermine Aryan culture.

The more extreme exponents of anti-Semitism and cultural nationalism, like ideologue Alfred Rosenberg’s Kampfbund fur Deutsche Kultur (Campaign for German Culture), would have happily cauterized cultural modernism and replaced it with a fey folk culture. To a degree, Hitler was of similar mind, but Hitler’s views on music and art were inchoate and largely unconsidered, expressing personal knee jerks rather than a coherent aesthetic philosophy. Much more significant to this story was the more thoughtful and sophisticated approach of his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. Whatever else he might have been, Goebbels was a man of some culture and viscerally opposed to the populist strain that ran through the lower ranks of the Nazi Party. He was also profoundly convinced that the radio loudspeaker was the key instrument in the struggle to maintain national unity and resistance to the forces of “Bolshevism” (a term almost as amorphous and cloudy as “jazz”).

The piano-playing, widely read Goebbels saw an urgent need to maintain a certain level of sophistication in German broadcasting. There was no such consensus within his ministry. His deputy Hans Hinkel would have sanctioned nothing but “good German music,” which usually meant ersatz folk songs and oompah bands. Surprisingly, given his somewhat exaggerated enthusiasm for Wagner and Bruckner (light operetta was probably more his speed), Hitler took a generally pragmatic view and in summer 1942, according to transcriptions of his table talk, was suggesting that propaganda broadcasts directed at Britain and America should contain a proportion of musical material that would appeal to such audiences. This was the policy that would prevail and would lead to the formation of Charlie and His Orchestra.

However ironic the story of wartime swing might seem, it is also full of gaps and occlusions. Jazz fans are as addicted to gaps in information as to the known details, and there is a perverse appeal in the Proper set’s fragmentary discographies and obscure personnels. The man chosen to lead the propaganda orchestra, saxophonist and violinist Lutz Templin, was not a card-carrying Nazi and seemed to have no strong political convictions. He had no strong musical ideology either. There is a certain mythology that Templin played hot music. Indeed, it’s probably safer to talk about German swing than German jazz, since there was little hot playing to be heard until the bebop revolution swept in at the end of the war and young men like the Mangelsdorff brothers in Frankfurt, Albert and Emil, began to construct a new German jazz inspired by the most advanced American models. For the propaganda swingers of the war years Paul Whiteman’s much-derided but hugely successful symphonic jazz was regarded as the acme of taste.

Five years ago, I spoke to a few surviving musicians of the period, for a BBC documentary series on wartime and propaganda swing. None remembered Lutz Templin as anything other than a competent player and leader, and this is borne out by the cuts on Swing Tanzen Verboten; they’re competent, but mechanical and rather soulless, and there is certainly no sign that any of these players ached to fire off a hot solo. A few of those I spoke with remembered or had heard of Charlie Schwedler as a smooth opportunist, happy to lend his light voice and unctuous personality to whatever message was required of him. Only drummer Freddie Brocksieper commanded anything like admiration. One elderly man, who’d played clarinet in a wartime orchestra in Hanover, and who declined to be named on air, said that Freddy was a finer musician than any of the Americans and the only one who had any real understanding of hot jazz. Musicianship, though, was secondary to a political message, and whatever their private instincts, these players must have been relieved to be not just surviving the war but seemingly contributing to the effort in a relatively risk-free capacity.

RRG’s “Political Cabaret” began broadcasting on shortwave to the United States early in 1940. Schwedler was, it seems, an occasional contributor, but it was later in the year before Charlie and His Orchestra was properly convened and began to issue those K&M discs that now represent the ambiguous legacy of wartime propaganda swing. Propaganda music had been made and broadcast since the early days of the so-called Phony War. The first listed by Bergmeier and Lotz is a sourly anti-Semitic reworking of the old Protestant hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” recorded on October 11, 1939, by one Erhard Bauschke and his orchestra. The sentiments are generic and predictable; the rhyming is, by comparison with what followed, fairly sophisticated: “Onward conscript army,/marching on to war,/fight and die for Jewry,/as we did before.” Later on, the propaganda lyricists had to adapt to events as quickly as possible. The Gershwins’ “They All Laughed” provided a useful template, especially in the dark days after Dunkirk when it was thought the British might be intimidated into defeatism. “They all laughed at Germany and its leader/when he said that Germany will rise/…They all laughed at Germany wanting colonies/said, she was reaching for the moon!/Now it’s a joke to deny German victory/wise guys have to change their tunes.” George was already dead by this time, but Ira, the lyricist, must have been turning uncomfortably in his sleep as lines like these went out over the airwaves.

Just as “St. Louis Blues” was translated as “La Tristesse de Saint Louis” in occupied France to keep the suspect title from the ears of Wehrmacht soldiers, so the W.C. Handy song was also turned into a propaganda vehicle, introduced by Charlie as the lament of a Negro working on the London docks during the blackout. “I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down/’cause the German, he done bombed this town.” The revisions, here and elsewhere in Charlie’s repertoire, hardly constitute deathless blues poetry, but they survive in a curiously subversive relation to the original. Just as jazz musicians understood the power of transforming a light and simple song into something dark and resonant–John Coltrane’s reworking of “My Favorite Things” would be a good example–so the very familiarity of these songs increased their propaganda value; given that British and American audiences could hum the melody, how long would it be before they treacherously sang the new words as well? It is as unwise to underestimate as it is difficult to quantify the impact on listeners–and, as Goebbels hoped, sophisticated listeners–in the Allied countries.

The success of the German propaganda effort can only be judged in the context of ultimate defeat, but it is clear that during the war Goebbels and his more responsive officials found a way of harnessing modern technology with the most flexible and responsive form in popular music and creating a propaganda weapon of considerable power. Some “black” stations, like Radio Arnhem, were conceived with such skill that Allied troops and even some of their intelligence officers were convinced that they were listening to the real thing. The supply of English-speaking Nazi sympathizers willing to broadcast on behalf of the Axis was never large. For all the publicity given to “Lord Haw-Haw” and to Ezra Pound, for his insane ramblings on behalf of Mussolini, they were exceptions. Music proved to be a more potent and a more insidious propaganda device.

Listening to the tunes on Swing Tanzen Verboten is a fairly dispiriting business. Nothing here merits a second listen on purely musical grounds, and yet these strange survivals offer important historical insights. To repeat, it has been casually accepted that the Nazis and the Soviets “banned” jazz. Neither is more than hypothetically true. But while it’s long been understood that the Soviet authorities made a distinction between jazz as the spontaneous expression of a beleaguered proletariat and jazz as a bourgeois affectation, a similar finessing hasn’t until recently been applied to the situation in Nazi Germany. The survival of jazz under the Third Reich is a curious story of oversight and tacit tolerance.

The experience of Django Reinhardt remains the best clue to the reality. The same regime that first attempted to expunge the new Germany of the taint of jazz also kept many of the country’s swing musicians in employment. The idea of Goebbels as a jazz fan is fantastic nonsense, the kind of thing Mel Brooks or Woody Allen might turn into a screenplay, but Goebbels understood the semantics of jazz, its ambiguous resonance of both servitude and freedom, better than most of his colleagues. Jazz, we have been told in film after film and novel after novel, is the quintessential music of resistance and rebellion. In Josef Skvorecky’s fantasy The Bass Saxophone a single note from that improbable instrument is a clarion of freedom. But this is an unduly sentimental picture. Jazz is an existential form. It changes and adapts to circumstance and it takes on unexpected colorations, not just black and blue.