You all know flossing, right? The sort of ridiculous, little dance that became a meme with kids and then went into Fortnight and now you can’t go to a ball game without seeing a bunch of people on the Jumbotron acting like they’re running a towel between their legs? Well, the 1930s had their own dance craze like that called the Lambeth Walk. And after a Nazi party member decried it in 1939 as “Jewish mischief and animalistic hopping,” a British video editor got to work.
The Lambeth Walk has a simple history, but like six things in it are named “Lambeth,” so we’re going to take this slowly. There’s an area of London named Lambeth which has a street named Lambeth Road running through it. Lambeth Walk is a side street off of Lambeth Road. And all of it was very working-class back in the day. So, Lambeth=blue collar.
Three Englishmen made a musical named Me and My Girl about a Cockney boy from Lambeth who inherits an earldom. It’s a real fish-out-of-water laugh riot with a cocky Cockney boy showing a bunch of stodgy aristocrats how to have fun. Think Titanic but with less Kate Winslet and more singing.
And one of the most popular songs from the musical was “The Lambeth Walk.” It was named after the side street mentioned before, and the lyrics and dance are all about how guys from Lambeth like to strut their stuff. The actual dance from the musical is five minutes long, but was cut down and became a nationwide dance craze.
The King and Queen were down with the whole dance, Europe thought it was a sweet distraction from all the civil wars and growing tensions between rival royalties, and the Nazis thought it was some Jewish plot.
Yeah, the Nazis were some real killjoys. (Turns out, lots of murderers sort of suck socially.)
A prominent Nazi came out and gave that earlier quote about Jewish mischief. Then World War II started in late 1939, and British propaganda got to start taking the piss out of Germany publicly. Charles A. Ridley of the British Ministry of Information went to Nazi Germany’s top propaganda film and started cutting it up.
Triumph of the Will was a 1934 video showing off the Third Reich, and it included a lot of video of Nazis marching and Hitler gesticulating. Ridley spliced, copied, and reversed frames of the video until he had a bunch of Nazi soldiers doing a passable Lambeth Walk.
Goebbels and other Nazi officials were not amused, but the anti-Nazi world was. It got played in newsreels and cinemas around the world. And Danish commandos forced their way into cinemas and played a version of the video titled “Swinging the Lambeth Walk.“