History has some strange coincidences, unrelated moments that, when put into a wider context, take on extra significance or irony. For instance, it’s April 20th, 1939, and in Berlin, the Third Reich is holding the largest military parade in its history.
All the pomp, all the stage-managed show of power, is to commemorate Hitler’s 50th birthday, and repugnant as it is to modern ears, the man was loved, even deified. People sent him gifts, buildings were erected in his honour, and low alcohol beer and a new edition of Mein Kampf were released.
And yet despite this outpouring of adoration, his intentions were clear – countries such as Austria and Czechoslovakia had been annexed, and just a few months earlier, Krystallnacht had made the Third Reich’s intentions towards the Jewish population quite obvious.
So, on one continent a show of power for a regime based on oppression and racism. Elsewhere…
Elsewhere, also on April 20 1939, Billie Holiday walks into the World Broadcasting Studios in New York and records ‘Strange Fruit’. The first time a protest song really enters the ‘mainstream’, ‘Strange Fruit’ is devastating; written by Jewish poet Abel Meeropol, the song conjures a horrific image – bloated, rotting fruit hanging on trees in the southern states which turns out to be the victims of lynching. At the end of an evening out at a nightclub, patrons were confronted with the realities of race in America, and ‘Strange Fruit’ is now considered to be one of the most important songs ever recorded.
There’s no direct correlation between Hitler’s birthday parade and a Billie Holiday recording session, other than them taking place in the same day. But they seem to illustrate two extremes of human nature – on one hand hatred, oppression, intolerance backed up by numbers and firepower; on the other, righteous anger at the same. Two moments, two countries, two contexts, but somehow they speak to each other across the years.
So Hitler’s parades remind us of the dangers of idolising dictators; ‘Strange Fruit’ helps bring those dangers right down to earth, focusing on individuals (a photograph of the bodies of lynching victims Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith was the inspiration behind the song) and serving as a terrifying reminder. The primary victims of racist madness in Germany were Jews, African-Americans in the US, but strange fruit hangs from trees throughout the world.