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Metal and the Holocaust: Too Much Transgression?

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Metal and the Holocaust title image

This article draws on some of the ideas discussed in more detail in my article ‘Engaging with absence: Why is the Holocaust a ‘ problem’ for metal?’ that appears in the September 2020 issue of Metal Music Studies, which I co-edited with Dominic Williams, on ‘Jews, Metal and the Holocaust’. 

Thanks to Gus Condeixa for creating the arresting images used in this article. Photos are from Wikipedia.

What do you do when you are drawn to the bad guys, but the baddest guys around are just too bad?

That’s the challenge faced by those who find the Nazis luridly fascinating and alluring, but who aren’t actually Nazis themselves. This fascination constitutes a rich seam of post-war popular culture and popular music in particular. David Bowie in his heroine-using Berlin years is one example, punk is another. As Jon Stratton has shown, the Holocaust hangs as a presence over punk as it developed from the mid-1970s. Indeed, The Ramones managed to contain both Jews who were haunted by the legacy of the survivors, and also non-Jews who were attracted by the irresistible transgressiveness of the Nazis.

The presence of the Holocaust in metal has not been extensively explored before the recent publication of a special issue of Metal Music Studies, which I co-edited with Dominic Williams, on ‘Jews, Metal and the Holocaust’. Like punk, one can find a similar sort of wrestling with the allure of the transgressiveness among non-Nazi metallers. of the Nazis

While openly neo-Nazi metal does indeed exist – mostly within what is known as the National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) scene – closer to the metal mainstream it is much more common to find a strategic attitude to the Nazis: That of revelling in aspects of their deeds and aesthetics, while ignoring their less convenient aspects.

So it is that Sabaton, the popular (and non-neo-Nazi) Swedish power metal band, can release songs like ‘Ghost Division’ that seems to celebrate the deeds of a Panzer tank division, and claim it as a ‘history lesson’:


Who are the Nazis here? In this kind of work The Third Reich was something produced cool uniforms, invincible tanks, mighty missiles, butch boys marching in-step, and all the tragedy and self-sacrificing heroism one could ever want. What’s not to like? From this perspective, the worst you can say about the Nazis is that, for all their genocidal homophobia, they were unintentionally camp as Christmas.

Unfortunately, that isn’t all the Nazis were. The Panzer tanks may have had smooth lines and unstoppable firepower, but they were put into the service of occupation, ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Nazis and the Third Reich were holistic creations; to focus on one aspect of them to the exclusion of all else makes no sense either historically or morally.

And so it is that the Holocaust will always have a presence in metal wherever a band produces art that invokes any part of the Nazi project, even when it is not spoken of directly and even when a metal act is sincerely non-Nazi. There is a constant risk of entanglement in political controversies, which makes the preservation of the space in which the Nazis can be engaged with a challenging undertaking.  

One example of how such challenges are negotiated is Lemmy of Motorhead’s attempts to reconcile his love of collecting Nazi artefacts – including a large selection of knives and SS memorabilia – with his stated lack of attraction (although not necessarily full-blown repulsion) to Nazi ideology. Lemmy and his band were both part of the metal world, while also exceeding it – indeed, the singer would proudly state at the start of shows ‘We play rock and roll!’ – yet his particular struggle with the consequences of his Nazi attraction is certainly one that exemplifies the struggles of others within metal.

In a readers’ question-and-answer session with Q magazine in 2000, in answer to the following question, Lemmy was quoted as saying:

You sympathised with the family of a deceased neo-Nazi on MTV and you collect Nazi memorabilia? Are you a Nazi? Stuart Barstow, Audenshaw, Manchester.

Well I never sympathised with the family of a neo-Nazi on MTV. That must be his paranoid delusions. No I’m not a Nazi. I have two black girlfriends in this city, so I must be the worst Nazi you ever came across. Half of my Jewish friends and black friends can go in my apartment and not be bothered by it, so he shouldn’t be bothered by it. Fuck off, Stuart. (Semi-irately) What’s the problem with this Nazi thing? The Nazis are gone. Gone. The only reason they ever made it was Hitler. The day after he shot himself they sued for peace. It was just him. Nothing else. There wasn’t an ideology that lasts for a thousand years, as has been proved. People have tried to start it up again all over the world and it’s not worked. Have I been following the Irving libel case? David Irving? He’s always having a go isn’t he? (An explanation follows vis-a-vis historian Irving’s claim that the Holocaust may have been exaggerated.) Well I don’t know about that ’cos I wasn’t there. I don’t believe they killed as many people as they say they did. Six million’s a lot of people, man. Four camps in Poland did all the killing. I really don’t know. I have no frame of reference. There are photographs but anyone can make photographs. You can fake anything. I think half of it’s true and half of it isn’t.

Lemmy’s response ranges between disparaging the Nazis and their racism, minimizing their importance, reducing the Nazis to Hitler, before finally flirting with Holocaust denial. The tone seems to suggest exasperation, which both reflects the serious of the charge of being a Nazi and the regularity with which it is put to him. The multiple strategies he uses to defend himself are neither extensively developed nor coherent. The well-worn ‘some of my best friends’ defence is simply cliché. But his commitment to Holocaust denial is also half-hearted, as it is unclear if he has even heard of David Irving.

In other statements, Lemmy seems to take a position on the Holocaust that certainly does not condone or deny it, but rather puts it in a wider context of human violence and cruelty, as in this undated interview:

‘I say, it was sixty years ago, so get fucking over it. Nobody says anything about the red Indians and there are still government buildings that fly the Confederate flag. That was just as much a Nazi state as Nazi Germany if you ask me. Cut the balls off of a guy if he tried to run away from the plantation. Remarkably similar to me. The thing with the red Indians is they were poisoned, murdered and slaughtered. Women and children, just so you could have this country. So I don’t think there is any difference really. Except that Americans were more thorough because the Indians are fucking gone and the Jews are still here.’

This response seems to eschew empathy with victims and their descendants. It also relativizes the Holocaust as simply ‘another’ instance of human cruelty. Yet, this cruelty does not imply, to Lemmy, that it is not right or proper to be fascinated with those who perpetrated it, or their memorabilia. Not only was Lemmy photographed wearing a Nazi-era hat, he was also, on occasion, pictured wearing a hat with Confederate cavalry symbols.

Given such contradictory and sometimes incoherent statements, how do we understand Lemmy’s apparent flirtation with Holocaust denial? For Lemmy and, I think, for elements within metal scenes more generally, a fascination with the Nazis fits in well within a wider interest in transgression. The Nazi period saw total war, endless violence and a shattering Götterdämmerung – as well as stylish hats and daggers. So, how does the Holocaust fit into this? Lemmy’s half-hearted flirtation with Holocaust denial should be seen, in part at least, as an attempt to ‘save’ the possibilities of a transgressive fascination with the Nazis from collapsing into something that is simply ‘too transgressive’.

In my article ‘Engaging with absence: Why is the Holocaust a ‘ problem’ for metal?’, I discuss how and why the Holocaust might be too transgressive for a scene that is based on a fascination with the ways boundaries can be crossed. While the Holocaust does have a presence in metal as a theme, it often constitutes a ‘problem’ that can only be ‘solved’ by treating it more carefully than other transgressive events in history are. ‘Final Solution’ by Sabaton, for example, is a sombre piece of cod-memorialisation very different from the upbeat tone of much of their work.

Even within NSBM, I argue, the Holocaust is often subtly effaced and de-personalised to shave off some of its power. 

That the transgressive may have its own boundaries is not itself surprising. Metal, after all, is a form of entertainment as much as it is a way of being in the world. To produce art that engages closely in the details of the Holocaust – from whatever perspective – invites not just scrutiny, but also condemnation if you do it the ‘wrong’ way. To preserve metal as a safe space within which to explore transgression, it is strategically a good move to avoid the Holocaust – it just isn’t worth the bother. 

In any case, there is also something about the Holocaust that seems to burst the boundaries of mass murder itself: its relentless, systematic, industrialised quality is qualitatively different from – say – a Viking massacre of Christians, and also much closer in time. While metal often celebrates pre-modern savagery, massacres by axe and sword are joyful spasms of violence, quick to burn out. They certainly didn’t require train timetables and countless clerks sitting in offices. Perhaps, from a metal perspective, the Nazis took the fun out of genocide?  

All that said, there have been occasions when metal has engaged with the Holocaust in ways that disturb in a more productive way. By making their own position difficult to perceive, metal artists can ask difficult questions of the listener: Who are you identifying with? Who are the heroes? What is the source of your fascination? The Meads of Asphodel’s Sonderkommando album (discussed by Dominic Williams in the special issue) certainly asks those questions:

And then there is Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’…

This track from 1986 that has becoming canonical in extreme metal. A lurid exploration of the ‘work’ of Josef Mengele, it is at once disgusting and disgusted; both an invocation of the Holocaust and the strongest possible condemnation of it. Certainly, it sonically distills the horror of the Holocaust into an aesthetically claustrophobic package:

The lyrics do not flinch from describing the horrors of Auschwitz, nor from the deeds of Mengele and some readers may want to skip them:

Auschwitz, the meaning of pain
The why that I want you to die
Slow death, immense decay
Showers that cleanse you of your life

Forced in
Like cattle you run
Stripped of
Your life’s worth
Human mice, for the Angel of Death
Four hundred thousand more to die

Angel of Death
Monarch to the kingdom of the dead

Sadistic, surgeon of demise
Sadist of the noblest blood

Destroying, without mercy
To benefit the Aryan race

Surgery, with no anesthesia
Fell the knife pierce you intensely
Inferior, no use to mankind
Strapped down screaming out to die

Angel of Death
Monarch to the kingdom of the dead
Infamous butcher
Angel of Death

Pumped with fluid, inside your brain
Pressure in your skull begins pushing through your eyes
Burning flesh, drips away
Test of heat burns your skin, your mind starts to boil
Frigid cold, cracks your limbs
How long can you last
In this frozen water burial?
Sewn together, joining heads
Just a matter of time
‘Til you rip yourselves apart
Millions laid out in their
Crowded tombs
Sickening ways to achieve
The holocaust

Seas of blood, bury life
Smell your death as it burns
Deep inside of you
Abacinate, eyes that bleed
Praying for the end of
Your wide awake nightmare
Wings of pain, reach out for you
His face of death staring down,
Your blood running cold
Injecting cells, dying eyes
Feeding on the screams of
The mutants he’s creating
Pathetic harmless victims
Left to die
Rancid Angel of Death
Flying free

Angel of Death
Monarch to the kingdom of the dead
Infamous butcher
Angel of Death

Angel of Death

The writing seems at times to be doggerel: who is being referred to in the line ‘the way I want you to die’? What does ‘abacinate’ mean? The perspective constantly shifts, from perpetrator to victim, from third person to second person. Yet a song that might easily be condemned as appalling writing at best and amoral quasi-Nazism at worst, also derives its power, as Williams argues, from precisely this unsettling lack of clarity. As Dominic Williams has argued, part of the ‘affective intensity’ of the song lies in the variability of its lyrical incoherence.

The question that we must ask of a song like ‘Angel of Death’ isn’t so much whether it is ‘offensive’ – it clearly is, for many, and not necessarily just Jews – but whether this offensive incoherence might take us somewhere aesthetically and morally. Might it not be the case that the sonic/lyrical gut-punch that ‘Angel of Death’ provides can make the Holocaust ‘real’ to us in a way that other representations might not? And might the difficulty of establishing the perspective it takes be a kind of difficulty that is worth living with, working with and struggling with?

I have no easy answers to such questions. What I can say is that every Jewish metalhead I know struggles with ‘Angel of Death’ yet cannot turn away from it and repudiate it. In this sense there is a similarity here with the struggle of Lemmy and others in the metal world: We are not in control of our aesthetic attractions; we cannot always choose what it is that we find alluring. But whereas Lemmy and the likes of Sabaton perform disingenuous circumlocutions in order to pretend that there is nothing problematic about what they love, Slayer and other acts like Meads of Asphodel are less prone to such bad-faith delusions. Struggling with a text like ‘Angel of Death’ may therefore be a more productive site of struggle for us as listeners too.

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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