Beatles Platz on the Reeperbahn
Beatles Platz on the Reeperbahn

“We Grew Up In Hamburg”

Hamburg is not on the coast of Germany. Like Liverpool, London and New York, it is on a river. The River Elbe. By the 1860s, Hamburg was considered the leading port on the European mainland, second only to London in the volume of its trade. Trade between Britain and America was particularly important. Hamburg was also regarded as a main port for transatlantic passenger traffic.

The migration of millions of central Europeans to the New World was a lucrative business for two Hamburg shipping businesses, the Sloman line and the Hamburg-American-Packet-Transport-Company (HAPAG) which began a regular passenger service to New York in 1848. Between 1834 and 1924 a staggering 5 million people emigrated from Germany to America via Hamburg. In 1891 alone, nearly 150,000 people left.

Swing Music and the ‘Swing Kids’

In the 1930s, St. Pauli’s nightlife was dominated by the Swingjugend (Swing Kids), a youth movement that started in Hamburg in 1939 and spread to Berlin and other German cities.

They were a kind of informal anti-Hitler Youth, rebellious kids whose love of jazz inspired their non-violent resistance to the Nazi orthodoxy. Proto-beatniks with uncropped hair and Union Jacks pinned to their coats. The movement was a challenge to Hitler announcing that all German adolescents had to join a Nazi youth movement.

They challenged the Nazi image of youth by growing their hair and wearing fashionable clothes. They also listened to swing music, which was seen by the Nazis as Black music and met at secret dance halls. This often led to clashes with the Hitler Youth and the security forces. The Nazis saw swing as degenerate “American nigger like jungle music” created by African Americans and disseminated by the Jewish dominated media industries.

The Swing Kids were mostly middle and upper class (and, it must be stressed, largely apolitical). Although the music they listened to was American, the swing kids dressed in clothes which imitated English fashions. Thus, they often wear pleated jackets in tartan designs, some even carried umbrellas in imitation of the British foreign secretary at the time, Anthony Eden.

Rock And Roll

In October 1958 a concert by Bill Haley and the Comets in Ernst Merck Halle led to a riot in which dozens of seats were broken and more than 100 policemen were deployed to clear the hall.

In late 1959, a St Pauli entrepreneur named Bruno Koschmider sought to tap this new market by opening the Kaiserkeller, a ‘dance palace for youth’. But initially this basement club attracted little notice, so Koschmider continued to search for a gimmick that would distinguish it in a crowded entertainment landscape. He found it in rock ‘n’ roll, which by this time had been driven underground in West Germany after violence at showings of Rock Around the Clock and Bill Haley’s 1958 concerts.

With the absence of any decent local music, they had to import it. First came Tony Sheridan and the Jets from London and then Derry and the Seniors, followed by The Beatles, from Liverpool.

Discover more about The Beatles in Liverpool and Hamburg in The Beatles Fab Four Cities.

David Bedford and Richard Porter

Explore The Beatles Hamburg