A "Nazi Song" Marches on China's Internet
As nationalistic Chinese internet youth rallied on a popular message board to plan an attack on media and platforms outside China's Great Firewall and oppose protesters in Hong Kong, they invoked disturbing notes from Germany's past.
As protests continued in Hong Kong over the weekend, one of the hottest trending topics on Chinese social media was a coordinated campaign by Chinese internet users to flood Western social media with messages of support for the People's Republic of China.
The campaign was organized through Diba (帝吧), one of China's largest message boards with more than 30 million users. According to the Global Times, a newspaper published by the flagship People's Daily, Diba created 16 chat groups to carry out the campaign, each with up to 1,000 participating members. The campaign began at 7 PM on Saturday, August 17, and it principally targeted Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – all services banned inside China.
In order to bombard the accounts of social media users identified as "violent Hong Kong protesters," and media outlets such as Hong Kong's Apple Daily, the participants first had to set up user accounts and download VPNs allowing them to bypass domestic internet restrictions.
This was not the first time external cyber attacks were organized through Diba. In a 2016 campaign referred to as the "Diba expedition to Taiwan," participants similarly crossed the Great Firewall to post tens of thousands of comments on the official Facebook page of Taiwan's recently elected leader, Tsai Ing-Wen. In the midst of tensions with Sweden last year, Diba users organized to flood the Facebook pages of the Swedish national broadcaster SVT and Sweden's Ministry of Foreign Affairs after SVT ran a satirical sketch about Chinese tourists.
But this latest attack over the weekend was exceptional in receiving strong and unambiguous support from state propaganda organs in China. The social media accounts of the People's Daily and the Chinese Communist Youth League, for example, posted lengthy articles detailing the campaign and praising Diba for its "positive energy," or zhengnengliang (正能量), a phrase describing content and actions favorable to the Party-state. Even Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播), China's carefully scripted official nightly newscast, reported on the campaign – a level of open official sanction and acceptance that surprised even Diba members, judging from their comments online after the program.
However, some criticism began surfacing online in China as internet users revealed that the song lyrics included in a post by Diba to its account on the Sina Weibo platform initially calling for the external action were actually from a "German Nazi song" (this is how it was identified in Chinese) bearing the title, "The SS Lightning Brigades are Marching" (SS闪电部队在前进). Online sources in Chinese identify the song of this Chinese title as being the official marching song of the paramilitary division referred to as the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, charged with guarding Hitler personally during the Second World War.
Suddenly mindful of the negative implications, both Diba and state media reacted with lightning speed, deleting all references they could to the lyrics and scrubbing them from the internet.
The lyrics in the Diba post read:
The air bristles with tension, the war is coming,
Tears cross my mother's face, and the motherland is behind me . . .
Look, the army of the people is marching!
According to sources on the Chinese internet, the "original SS song" begins with the same text, the only difference being that it is the "army of the SS" doing the marching. The lyrics continue, in the Chinese version:
Whether it storms or snows,
Whether the sun smiles upon us,
[Whether in] The day's scorching heat,
Or the ice-cold of the night,
Dusty are our faces,
But joyous is our mind,
Yes, our mind.
It roars, our tank,
There in the stormwinds.
The lyrics above, in fact, will be familiar to German readers as the Panzerlied, or "Tank Song," a Wehrmacht military march of the Nazi era. Composed in 1935, the song was removed from Germany's Bundeswehr Songbook in 2017 by Ursula von der Leyen, the current President-elect of the European Commission who at that time was Germany's defense minister.
As recognizable as this section may be, the first portion of the Chinese version, including the line about "the motherland," can be found nowhere in the German language. The reference to the motherland, in fact, provides one of the clearest clues that this is a Chinese invention. While the mother is a potent image of the nation in Chinese patriotic discourse, the metaphor does not work in German as “Vaterland” (fatherland) is the word for “motherland” in the German language.
Many Chinese online sources combine the lyrics of this alleged "Nazi song" with the music of "The Mass," a popular hit released in 2003 by the French band ERA that adapts the melody of Carmina Burana, composed by Carl Orff and highly popular in Nazi Germany after its premiere in Frankfurt in 1937. The earliest discussions of the "Nazi song" on the Chinese internet go back to 2005, suggesting that the "SS Marching Song" used by Diba in its call for a coordinated patriotic campaign on Western social media platforms is most likely a fan product created in China sometime after 2003.
Why would Chinese internet users expend such effort to create fake Nazi propaganda for domestic consumption? Perhaps more to the point, why is such material not restricted in China, given the sophisticated tools used to control the Chinese internet?
These questions are best answered with reference to China's socio-political context.