I just see contradiction
Had to give up the fight
Just to live in the past tense
To make believe you were right
Warsaw - destroyed. Circa 1945
Originally recorded for the 1978 EP An Ideal for Living
, when Joy Division still bore the name Warsaw, the song “Warsaw” is the opening track from that original EP. Joy Division has often stirred up controversy with their Nazi-themed band names and song titles, including album covers featuring Nazi emblems. While the band denied neo-Nazi tendencies, their fascination with the Nazi regime is evident in many songs and no more so than “Warsaw.”
Warsaw, the capital city of Poland and seat of Nazi colonial administration during WWII, is a city bearing the scars of a bloody history. During WWII the city's Jewish population was rounded up and herded into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. In 1943, Hitler ordered the ghetto annihilated as part of his 'Final Solution' and, despite an uprising during which the prisoners held out for almost a month against heavily armed guards, the end result was a massacre, an extermination of the Jewish occupants. The bleak history of Nazi occupation in Poland and the atrocities committed in Warsaw have inspired many musicians, but perhaps none more overtly than Joy Division, who replaced their Warsaw moniker with a name borrowed from the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp. Despite the band's claim that they were not Nazi sympathisers, a song like “Warsaw” can't help but leave listeners wondering about the band's political ideals.
Current day Warsaw city center roundabout.
(thanks, Bpa, English Wiki)
“Warsaw” is directly inspired - perhaps even a biography of - Rudolf Hess, the prominent Nazi politician and Hitler's deputy during the 1930s and early ‘40s. His devotion to Hitler showed an almost sycophantic instability of the mind leading even Winston Churchill to label Hess a medical and not a criminal case. Despite his devotion to Hitler, Hess travelled to Scotland to broker peace negotiations with the UK in 1941, where he was captured as a prisoner of war. Tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to seven years in Spandau Prison, Berlin, Hess is still an icon of the Nazi era and his grave became a pilgrimage destination for neo-Nazis until his remains were exhumed and moved in 2011.
“Warsaw” opens with shouted numbers, 350125, Hess's prisoner of war serial numbers. For a song dealing with such dark and controversial subject matter, the tone seems almost unsuitably energetic and upbeat. The chorus again returns to Hess's prisoner serial number, a shouted chant of 31G. Despite this more upbeat sound typical of Joy Division's earlier apoplectic punk style, the lyrics of the verses indicate a more profound examination of Hess as a man torn between his devotion to Hitler and his own concepts of morality. The final verse in particular explores his dichotomy of character with the lines, “I just see contradiction, Had to give up the fight, Just to live in the past tense, To make believe you were right.” So perhaps Joy Division isn't sympathising with the Nazi movement at all, but rather expressing compassion for a man who is villainized without being fully understood.
Rudolf Hess at Nuremburg Prison, awaiting trial
“Warsaw” is brief tribute, running for a mere two minutes twenty-six seconds, to an era evoking strong emotional responses in most listeners. Regardless of the band's political leanings, “Warsaw” is exemplary of the band's early punk-influenced sound, which developed into the slower hit singles such as “She's Lost Control” and “Transmission.” Courageous or reckless for indulging their fascination with all things Nazi, Joy Division certainly struck out of 1980s convention with a song paying tribute to a Nazi politician. But perhaps “Warsaw” could also be seen not only as a tribute to Hess, but as an ode to Warsaw and the lives lost due to the inability of men like Hess to stand up to Hitler and stop the atrocities.
Interpret “Warsaw” as you will, but the name alone conjures dark images of concentration camps and black jackboots, ensuring that listeners will never forget those who lost their lives in WWII. ~ Suzanne van Rooyen
Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include
Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and
The Other Me. When not writing, she teaches dance and music to middle schoolers and eats far too much peanut-butter.