It is hard to overestimate the significance of the poet and songwriter Wolf Biermann for the cultural history of East Germany. When he was expelled from that state in 1976, his treatment at the hands of the communist regime of the German Democratic Republic came to symbolise a sea-change in the relationship between East German intellectuals and the ruling Socialist Unity Party. However, Biermann's importance as a best-selling poet, successful recording artist, popular performer and political commentator extends far beyond these political struggles, and it is above all important to recognise him as a unique public intellectual in post Second World War Germany.
Biermann was born the son of working-class communists in Hamburg in 1936. His father was arrested for his underground anti-Nazi activities under National Socialism, and, as a Jew, he was eventually murdered in Auschwitz. The young Wolf took up his father's legacy first as a member of various communist youth groups and eventually by moving to the German Democratic Republic in 1953, shortly before the workers' uprising of 17 June of that year. He studied political economy in Berlin, gave up these studies to train as a theatre director at the Berliner Ensemble, and then completed a further university course in philosophy and mathematics. His early career also brought him into contact with Hanns Eisler, the communist composer and an important collaborator with Bertolt Brecht, who was an important musical influence on the young Biermann.
Biermann emerged as a playwright, poet and songwriter in the early 1960s, and was a prominent participant in a controversial public poetry reading organised by the poet Stephan Hermlin at the Academy of Arts in East Berlin in December 1962. This evening marked the emergence of a new generation of poets, among them Sarah and Rainer Kirsch, Volker Braun and Heinz Czechowski, often referred to as the “Saxon School”, who challenged the literary orthodoxy of the East German socialist realist doctrine by emphasizing the personal, the subjective, the sensual and everyday experience, while remaining committed to the cause of socialism. Biermann and his contemporaries placed their hopes in a reformed, democratic socialism, and soon came under fire from the East German regime. Biermann was heavily criticised in the East German press and thrown out of the ruling Socialist Unity Party. Biermann was ultimately forced to turn to a West German publisher in order to bring out his first collection of lyrics and poems, Die Drahtharfe [The Wire Harp] in 1965, which was to become the single best-selling volume of German poetry in the post-war period, and his first solo commercial recordings also appeared with Western companies. His first solo albums had to be produced at home in his flat using primitive recording equipment smuggled in from West Berlin by friends: the noises of the Berlin street outside became an integral aspect of the soundscape of the album Chausseestraße 131, for example. Following a crackdown on dissident artists in 1965, Biermann was permanently banned from performing and publishing in the GDR. The newspaper Neues Deutschland [New Germany], the official organ of the Socialist Unity Party, justified these measures on the grounds of Biermann's alleged betrayal of socialist principles and the ‘pornographic' character of some of his songs. Over a decade later, in 1976, he was finally allowed to travel to West Germany on a short concert tour, during which one performance was broadcast by West German public television. Despite Biermann's clearly expressed solidarity with the socialist state and its political project, a stance which appalled conservative politicians in the Federal Republic, the criticism that Biermann did express during the concert towards his socialist home was used by the GDR regime in order to refuse him re-entry to East Germany, a decision which provoked considerable consternation amongst many well-known cultural figures in East Germany, who, even when critical of Biermann's stance, felt compelled to protest against the regime's measures. These protests marked the beginning of a final phase in GDR cultural policy, in which critical artists and writers were increasingly encouraged or even put under pressure to leave East Germany.
As already mentioned, the most shocking aspect of Biermann's expulsion was the writer and musician's clear and vocal commitment both to the socialist project and to the GDR, even though he roundly criticised the Stalinist attitudes that still dominated its political culture. His socialism remained intact despite his exile from East Germany, which made him an uncomfortable figure for those on the right who might have sought to make political capital out of his persecution; in fact, he was even more critical of West German capitalism and continued to see in the eastern bloc at least the hope of a reformed socialism. Even before his exile from the GDR, he had caused anger amongst conservatives in West Berlin with a song in response to the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutscke, the leader of the West Berlin student movement, in 1968. Here, Biermann claimed in his song ‘Drei Kugeln auf Rudi Dutscke' [‘Three Shots at Rudi Dutschke'] was the same right-wing political violence, inspired by an anti-communist press and conservative elites, that was prevalent in the Weimar Republic on the eve of the National Socialist dictatorship.
Unsurprisingly, with impending demise of the GDR regime in 1989, Biermann became an important commentator on the situation in the East, which at least initially seemed to offer the hope of a better form of socialism with the support of the GDR population. Controversially, Biermann even called in one song for the leaders of East Germany to be ‘pensioned off rather than punished' [‘nicht Rache, nein, Rente!'], and admitted to having ‘a bit of respect left' [‘ein Rest von Respekt'] for Socialist Unity Party leader Erich Honecker on account of the latter's persecution for the communist cause at the hands of the National Socialists. Biermann also became prominent in the debates surrounding the collaboration of authors and other intellectuals with the East German secret police, famously describing one of his younger colleagues, the poet Sascha Anderson, as an ‘asshole' [‘Arschloch'] in his acceptance speech for the Büchner Prize of 1991. Since German unification, Biermann's relationship to the socialist project has been significantly modified. Whereas he once espoused a utopian hope that the sclerosis of the Stalinist elites in the GDR would give way to a truly democratic socialist alternative, he now sees any form of utopianism as inevitably leading to totalitarianism and has become a left-liberal pragmatist as inclined to emphasise his family's Jewish heritage as he once was to refer to their communist beliefs (1).
As will be clear from the above, Biermann's adult life has been led very much in the public eye, and he has been and remains a controversial figure for many across the political spectrum. He was most recently in the news in 2007 after the social democrat Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit apparently attempted to block the award of the keys of the city of Berlin to Biermann, who had been vociferous in his criticism of the Mayor's policy of cutting public spending. In some ways, it is tempting to let oneself be distracted from Biermann's achievements as a writer and musician by his public persona, not least because, like the poetry of one of his great heroes, Bertolt Brecht, he so often thematises his own personal circumstances and his political struggles. In fact, Biermann's lyrics can seem to spend more time describing his position as persecuted poet than expressing the points of view for which he is being persecuted. But this is no simple narcissism: Biermann's songs and poems at their best use his family history and the details of his daily life and sensual experience as a springboard into a critical confrontation with the political status quo. For example, amongst his most moving texts, especially when performed as a song, is his ‘Großes Gebet der alten Kommunistin Oma Meume in Hamburg' [‘Great Prayer of the Old Communist Grandma Meume in Hamburg'], in which he assumes the voice of his own grandmother, a simple working-class woman who has endured unemployment, economic depression, persecution during National Socialism and the bombing of her home city of Hamburg during the war, in order to express an enduring faith in the coming of a just, communist society that takes on the form of a kind of folk religion: ‘Oh Gott, lass Du den Kommunismus siegen!' [‘Oh God, let communism be victorious!'].
This highly personal approach to political issues distinguishes Biermann from his great teacher Hanns Eisler, from whom he inherited a preference for strident rhythms and an eclectic montage of styles. The young Biermann did not seek, as Eisler did in the GDR, to write songs to be sung in the first person plural as a means of collective agitation. Equally, in opposition to the officially sanctioned political songs of the GDR in the 1960s, he rejected the use of music as an instrument for instilling a sense of solidarity and optimism about the GDR. Rather, in the mould of contemporaries outside Germany, including the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other American and English protest singers emerging from the folk revival, he created an artistic persona as a non-conforming individualist, a free spirit and independent thinker who, armed only with his guitar, was determined to be a thorn in the flesh of the establishment. Despite being part of a revival of interest in political song in the 1960s that extended far beyond the GDR and the German-speaking world, Biermann could nevertheless call upon German traditions in the creation of this persona and the development of his art. Brecht was clearly an influence, as were the 19th century poets Hölderlin and Heinrich Heine, both of whom have been taken as representatives of the ‘deutsche Misere' [‘German misery'], that is to say that historical isolation of German intellectuals in the face of their compatriots' conformism and authoritarianism. In the course of Germany's troubled relationship with democracy, intellectuals have often been driven into isolation and haunted by a sense of their own political impotence. This was a situation also familiar to reformed-minded GDR intellectuals, as Biermann asserted in his ‘Hölderlin-Lied' [‘Hölderlin Song'] of 1967:
In diesem Lande leben wir
wie Fremdlinge im eigenen Haus
[‘In this country we live
like strangers in our own house.]
Biermann's most important criticism of East Germany was that the utopian dream of a socialist alternative so cherished by its intellectuals had been abandoned by the state, to be replaced with a stagnant bureaucracy serving only careerists. In his song ‘Ah – Jaa!' [‘Oh – Yes!'] from 1966, for example, Biermann describes with characteristically biting sarcasm the kind of person who has benefited from the GDR's state socialism:
Nach seinem Posten schreit – und wie!
Der kleinste Bürokrat
Der Sozialismus hat gesiegt
Wenn er den Posten hat
wenn er die Pfründe hat
[‘Who calls for his post? – and how!
The smallest bureaucrat
the nastiest bureaucrat
Socialism is victorious
If he has his post
If he has his job for life']
The position of the dissident intellectual, as Biermann casts himself in this role, is characterised in turns by melancholic suffering, a witty defiance (as also often found in Heine) and visions of a utopian future that might still be achieved. Examples of all these elements can be found in Biermann's work, particularly before he was forced to leave the GDR. For example, in ‘Wie eingepfercht in Kerkermauern' [‘As if enclosed in a dungeon'], also from 1966, Biermann describes himself as if imprisoned in East Berlin, unable to make contact with his public in the GDR and condemned to loneliness and ineffectualness:
Wie eingepfercht in Kerkermauern
Liegt in den Mauern dieser Stadt
Wolf Biermann, beißt mit gelben Hauern
In die Steine und hat es satt
[‘As if enclosed in a dungeon,
Wolf Biermann lies between the walls of this city
And chews with yellowed teeth
On its stones and is sick of it']
Biermann's defiance of the authorities is not simply expressed by direct criticism, although this is an important feature of his GDR work. Rather, he seeks to create a persona as the outsider poet, who does not just outrage those in power by his refusal to keep to the rules of permitted discourse, but who is also an affront to the whole of conformist society in the way his life defies bourgeois conventions. Biermann often juxtaposes highly political themes with references to the body, sensual pleasure, and particularly sex, as for instance in ‘Die Stasi-Ballade' [‘The Stasi Ballad'] of 1967. Here Biermann bitterly reflects that, now he is banned from performing in public, the Ministry for State Security (the ministry that spied on the GDR's own citizens, commonly known as the ‘Stasi') is now the only truly attentive audience he has. Imagining his possible arrest by the ministry's spies (which never did in fact happen), Biermann conjures up a scenario in which he is either caught lying naked in the arms of his lover or drinking vodka with his close friend and, at the time, the GDR's most prominent dissident, Professor Robert Havemann. By imagining himself arrested not in the midst of a private concert amongst dissident friends or mid way through composing an oppositional text, but instead drinking or making love, Biermann depicts his political adversaries as joyless and puritanical; their enmity to such earthly pleasures reflecting their political narrow-mindedness. The GDR regime, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, was indeed puritanical as its objection to ‘pornography' in Biermann's work demonstrates. Amongst Biermann's chosen literary heroes, the French 15th century poet François Villon is significant here, in that Villon was also famed for defying the morality of his contemporaries. In his ‘Ballade auf den Dichter François Villon' [‘Ballad for the Poet François Villon'] from 1964, for example, Biermann describes a resurrected Villon, his ‘großer Bruder' [‘big brother'], causing havoc around East Berlin with his drinking, stealing, and womanizing, before frightening the border guards by taking a stroll along the top of the Berlin Wall. Biermann's interest in private pleasures has also produced some intimate and joyful love songs, such as his charming description of a breakfast scene in ‘Das Frühstück' [‘The Breakfast'] of 1974 or a day out with his lover in the song ‘Frühling auf dem Mont-Klamott' of 1966.
Biermann's utopianism, which has progressively declined since the demise of the GDR and Germany unification, expresses itself in both in hopeful and melancholic forms. In songs such as ‘So soll es sein – so wird es sein' [‘So It Should Be – So It Will be'] of 1969, for example, Biermann defiantly declares his faith that a true socialism in the GDR is possible and that the vestiges of Stalinism can be overcome. However, equally, many songs recognise the hopelessness of the situation, yet without wanting to let go of the utopian dream, such as in ‘Melancholie' [‘Melancholy'] written in March of 1989:
wer hoffnung predigt, tja, der lügt, doch wer
die hoffnung tötet, ist ein schweinehund
[‘he who preaches hope, well, he's lying
but he who kills hope is a swine]
The dead of the communist movement are often evoked in this context. For example in ‘So soll es sein' Biermann talks of the final realisation of the truly democratic socialism envisaged by German communist leader Rosa Luxemburg, who was murdered following the failed revolution in Berlin in 1919. In ‘Der Hugenottenfriedhof' [‘The Hugenot Cemetary'] of 1969, however, the dead of the communist movement are both an inspiration and a reminder of the failings of those who have usurped their legacy:
Wie nah sind uns manche Tote, doch
Wie tot sind uns manche, die leben
How close we are to some of the dead, yet
How dead to us are some who live]
Biermann was undoubtedly the most prominent and successful political singer and songwriter of his generation, in East and West Germany. He continues to be a significant public figure and commentator in unified Germany. Nevertheless, his legacy in musical and poetic terms is hard to foretell. Although his role in the cultural history of the GDR will continue to be seen as of central importance, his impact as a singer and poet in contemporary Germany, as opposed to his profile as a media figure, is now much more limited, not least on account of the decline of the genre in which he was so influential. The political song no longer attracts significant audiences amongst young people in Germany today. The socialist project that was at the heart of Biermann's work before German unification has lost its attraction for most Germans and even for Biermann himself.
(1) Cf. Peter Thompon's chapter on Biermann in David Robb (ed.), Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s (Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2007).
Clarke, David. "Wolf Biermann". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 10 January 2008
[https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=11941, accessed 23 October 2017.]