Underrated: Wolf Biermann

The brave dissident East German singer and songwriter still standing up for freedom

Anne McElvoy

In the cultural tumult after fall of the Wall in 1989, a concert took place in East Berlin, special even by the standards of a magical year. Tears streamed down faces of audience and singer before a single note was struck. Wolf Biermann was back in town, rasping and strumming songs, by turns harmonious and gruff — a sardonic reckoning with the regime that had crumbled into dust.

More than any other cultural figure in the divided Germany, Biermann’s story showed how a stubborn quest for artistic and political freedom could finally triumph over a system built on destroying such aspirations. Yet he had started out as a True Believer in state socialism, arriving in the GDR in the 1950s, around the same time as Angela Merkel (later a fan) and in similarly untypical circumstances.

Merkel’s father wanted to spread the gospel as a left-leaning pastor. Biermann came from solidly communist stock — his father risked his life sabotaging Nazi ships and was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943 — and his mother encouraged him to study in the “anti-fascist” East Germany.

The young man’s talent for sharp lyrics and cross-hatching musical traditions marked him out as a gifted multi-talent. Biermann was a protégé of the composer Hanns Eisler (whose influence, along with Bertolt Brecht’s, pervades his songwriting), studied under the utopian philosopher Wolfgang Heise at the Humboldt University, and started directing at at the Berliner Ensemble.

As his lyrics became more critical, however, official support ebbed away. By 1965, he was branded a “class traitor”, banned from public performance.

It did not stop the music and Chauseestrasse 131 became his signature album of that era, recorded on home-made equipment. Samizdat copies of his songs were passed around on borrowed cassette tapes. He relished the hiss on the amateur recordings “because it meant that people were listening who weren’t supposed to hear me”.

In 1976, the mood in East Berlin against dissident writers hardened and Biermann’s success with audiences in the West was the final straw for GDR leader Erich Honecker. When the singer sought to return from playing a concert for the IG Metall trade union in West Germany, he was barred from entry to East Berlin and stripped of his citizenship.

The “Biermann affair” proved so decisive because it deepened the hostility of a generation of intellectuals towards the regime. Crucially, it galvanised support from many of the small country’s biggest artistic names who had previously tiptoed around the repression of fellow artists — the actors Armin Mueller-Stahl and Christa Wolf joined the protest. When I arrived in East Berlin to study in the mid-1980s, my classmates were still arguing about the case.

“Cast adrift”, as he put it, in prosperous Hamburg he later described in acidly comical terms to me the “curious caravan” of a girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend and a stepson who followed him to the West. “We thought it would work out great. Naturally, it didn’t.” A shifting cast of partner and wives (the most stable being his present alliance with a fellow chansonnier, Pamela Biermann) produced a total of ten children.

“The One from the East” captured the precarious state of East Germans forced into exile, taking aim just as squarely at his adopted homeland:

Here I am at last
A Westerner just like you
I find the living here is “bon”
Can babble away in your west-jargon
But too many extras here
Cost the soul so dear
For the one from the East.

Biermann kept his old loyalties as well as his grudges in the post-1989 reckoning. When Christa Wolf faced sharp criticism over her decision to keep a novel about the psychological torment of being watched by the Stasi unpublished until 1989 (the files would later show that she had, as a young woman, briefly signed up as an informant herself), Biermann nonetheless defended her against charges of cowardice. Writing in a dictatorship, he said, was a pluralist undertaking of different temperaments: “You might as well curse the apple tree for not bringing forth staves of oak.”

Since 1990, he has decisively parted company with the German Left, supporting military action in Kosovo and Iraq, defending Israel in heated public arguments, and recently berating Merkel’s Germany for a failure to show greater leadership on the world stage when conflicts loom. The famous barbs at the old communists have turned into fiery running arguments with its 21st-century heirs in Die Linke, Germany’s far-left party.

He’s most often found, these days, on the barricades of debate, vigorously defending the values of the West in a fresh era of divisions — the one from the East who finally made the West his spiritual home.

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