Please note that this will act as a spoiler for the book.

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About the book

Clifford’s Blues is a novel about a black, gay jazz musician in Nazi Germany. The book takes the form of a fictional diary kept by American citizen Clifford Pepperidge to record his imprisonment in Dachau, the first German concentration camp established in March 1933.

At the beginning Clifford reflects on the freedom that he enjoyed in Berlin before the Nazis came to power, and the fact that unlike in his home country, he did not face discrimination because of his race. In the 1920s the law that outlawed male homosexuality was largely ignored in Berlin, which had a vibrant gay community and culture. Life changed for Clifford in 1933 when he was betrayed by his lover and taken into ‘protective custody’ for engaging in homosexual acts.

His incarceration in Dachau for the next 12 years forms the main segment of the diary. Clifford’s extraordinary survival throughout this period is attributed to ‘his music, his German and his body’, which were all subject to exploitation by the camp commandant, Dieter Lange, and his wife Annaliese. Through Clifford’s eyes we learn about the corruption amongst the Nazi guards, and their lust for alcohol, sex, drugs and jazz music – all of which were detested by Hitler.

Clifford has a ‘privileged’ position as Lange’s personal slave, living in the commandant’s house rather than the camp barracks and receiving better food than other inmates. He joins a group of prisoners forced to play music for the Nazi guards, and playing is at once a source of comfort and escapism, but also one of torture and degradation as they perform on demand for their captors.

We also discover details about some of his fellow prisoners, who have been sent to Dachau because of their race, religion, sexuality or political views. During the course of his internment, Clifford encounters people from different nations brought under Nazi rule, and rumours circulate about the fate of Jewish prisoners sent away from the camp to the ‘East’. As his diary traces the evolution of Dachau from a detention centre through to a concentration camp, readers sense the constant fear that all the prisoners experience, including Clifford, that they may be killed before liberation – particularly after the installation of gas chambers at the camp in late 1944.

The diary ends abruptly as Clifford awaits liberation by American troops – we do not know his fate, or his future. We are left wondering if he survived – if he returned to the USA and resurrected his career as a jazz musician – or whether he became one of millions of victims of Nazi Persecution.

This novel is thought-provoking and highly recommended for adult groups studying the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution. Please note that it contains very strong language and scenes of a sexual and violent nature.

Key themes

Sexuality

Race

Religion

Identity

Fear

Power

Hope

Extract from the book – ties in with the 2017 HMD theme ‘How can life go on?’

‘You can almost hear some giant unseen clock ticking to every train that rolls in, to every puff of thick black smoke the wind snatches from the chimney, to every number called at the morning and evening roll call. I keep wondering what the world will be like when this is all over, when the inmates of this great insane asylum get free of their keepers.’ (page 283)

Discussion questions

1.    How does Clifford talk about his life in America?

2.    Examine the theme of trust, which appears throughout the novel.

3.    What role does religion play in Clifford’s life in the camp?

4.    How important is music to Clifford’s survival?

5.    How would you describe Clifford’s relationship with Dieter Lange?

6.    How does Clifford feel about his fellow prisoners?

7.    How does Dachau change in the time that Clifford is imprisoned there?

8.    Discuss what might happen next, after the diary ends.

 

You can use HMDT resources to find out more about:

Nazi Persecution

Gay people in Nazi Germany

Black people in Nazi Germany

Music and Holocaust Memorial Day