How East Germany’s Answer to Leonard Cohen Was Kicked Out of the GDR

Wolf Biermann at a 1983 peace concert in Hamburg, Germany.

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Why you should care

If you can't handle criticism, banish the critics forever.

If you ask Wolf Biermann, his 1976 expulsion from the German Democratic Republic was the beginning of the end for the Communist state. The details that connect the rock star’s expatriation to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall are more complicated than that, but then one of the things that made Biermann so successful was his simple style. That style would also lead to Biermann accruing a 10,000-page Stasi file compiled by 215 informants, reflecting a 20-point plan that his own government carried out to discredit him. Despite all this, he wanted to go back.

Born in 1936 in the western city of Hamburg to two Jewish socialists, Biermann was 7 when his father was deported to Auschwitz and killed. Combined with his mother’s communist ideals, this experience likely drew Biermann toward the newly formed GDR and its anti-fascist rhetoric in the aftermath of World War II. At 17, he moved to East Berlin. “He had a very romanticized notion of socialism and communism,” says Ann Stamp Miller, author of The Cultural Politics of the German Democratic Republic.

Biermann, Wolf - Musiker, Schriftsteller, D - Konzert in Leipzig

Wolf Biermann plays a concert in Leipzig.

Source Getty

Biermann quickly fell into the city’s intellectual scene and worked as an assistant director at Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble theater before forming his own theater company, the Berlin Workers’ and Students’ Theater. But even by the end of the 1950s, the GDR had began to show signs that — despite rhetoric about serving the people — it was largely run for the benefit of a tight circle of privileged bureaucrats. Biermann and his colleagues watched as the chasm between their Marxist ideology and the actions of the state grew progressively wider. And, because they believed so firmly in the cause, they began to speak up so that the system might improve.

While artists were integral to socialism, Miller notes that it was because they were expected to use their art to portray what she calls “boy-with-tractor socialism.” This was the type of literal, non-interpretive art that party officials wanted — paintings of young boys with tractors, party lines repeated verbatim. They were less interested in commentary.

The Ministry of Culture shuttered Biermann’s theater in 1962 after he tried to mount a play that dealt too explicitly with the Berlin Wall, a taboo topic for artists. Despondent, he turned to poetry and music, his work becoming more openly critical of the government. While a director is only effective with a play to direct, as a poet and musician, Biermann could go directly to the people with his message but wrap it up with a catchy hook, echoing work being produced in the West by Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan.

“I think that that was key to his work,” says Miller. “He wasn’t one of these intellectuals where you’d have to really sit and think about what he’s saying and what he’s doing. His lyrics were short, sweet, to the point.” Those lyrics formed songs like “Gesang für meine Genossen” (“Song for My Comrades”), where Biermann laments: “Now I sing for all of my comrades/ the song of the betrayed revolution./ I sing for my betrayed comrades/ and I sing for my comrades’ betrayers.” 

The GDR fought back: In 1963, Biermann was ousted from the Socialist Unity Party. In 1965, he was officially banned from performing in or outside of the country. Yet every time the Politburo muzzled Biermann, it had the inverse effect on both sides of the Wall, as East Germans were drawn to his activism and artists like Joan Baez championed his music in the outside world. Biermann still believed wholly in communism and socialism, but he also realized that cultivating fame in the West could be his insurance policy. If he were to disappear within the Stasi prison, likes so many of his comrades, people would notice. “His father clearly didn’t survive,” says Miller. “So he had to find a way that he could survive.”

A mass exodus of East German artists and intellectuals followed in Biermann’s wake.

By 1976, Biermann hadn’t performed a legal concert in 13 years. That year, however, he was granted a two-week tour of West Germany, starting in Cologne on Nov. 13 and ending in his hometown of Hamburg on Nov. 27. Seeing this as a sign of a gradual warming up of East German policy, a cautiously optimistic Biermann played his first concert in Cologne to a crowd of 7,000. Three days later, he was preparing for his second concert in Bochum when he learned that his GDR citizenship had been revoked.

His very public expulsion was the first of its kind, and it created a seismic shock wave within his circles of colleagues and fans. Biermann refused to seek West German citizenship and, while stateless, maintained allegiance to the GDR (or at least its ideals). In response, the citizens of the GDR reaffirmed their loyalty to Biermann: A mass exodus of East German artists and intellectuals followed in Biermann’s wake, as many believed it was better to leave the system than attempt to fix it.

Most damningly, the country’s Writers’ Union published a petition in December 1976 that was signed by many of the state’s most prominent authors. Once the petition was shared with the foreign press, there was no illusion as to who had been in the wrong in the case of Wolf Biermann. Whatever image the Politburo was trying to project to the outside world, its own citizens were now determined to tell their own truths.

Dissent blossomed in Biermann’s absence, and while there were a number of factors that contributed to the dissolution of East Germany by the end of the 1980s, the banishment of Wolf Biermann was certainly an overture, as well as a common refrain. Still alive and still performing today, Biermann, now 83, remains critical — but now he has the benefit of experience to see his place in history more clearly. “The longing of mankind for a juster society is born anew with each generation,” he wrote in Granta in 1991. “We cannot do otherwise, and neither do we want to.”

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