One of the most important events in the story of East German cinema was the expatriation of folksinger Wolf Biermann. It had more impact on filmmaking in the GDR than any other event short of the 11th Plenum. So how did this relatively insignificant political misstep play such havoc with the East German film industry? This time on the East German Cinema blog, we’ll take a look at Biermann’s expatriation and its effect on the East German film community.
Wolf Biermann was a West German. He was born in Hamburg, the son of two devoted and highly active members of the German Communist Party (KPD). His father, Dagobert Biermann, was a dockworker who also happened to be Jewish. During the Third Reich, Dagobert Biermann joined the resistance and started working to overthrow Hitler by feeding information to the exiled KPD. He was arrested and charged with sabotaging ships. Being Jewish, he was soon sent to Auschwitz where he was killed.
Wolf Biermann was very much his father’s son, not afraid to speak his mind even when it didn’t conform to the party line. Prior to Hitler’s takeover of the German government, Dagobert Biermann raised some hackles by suggesting that the KPD and the Social Democrats (SPD) should join forces to prevent the Nazis from gaining a foothold in the government. Ernst Thälmann—exhibiting a brickheaded, “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude toward compromise that Tea Party members would envy—refused to countenance such an idea. We all know what happened next.
After the War, Wolf Biermann joined the Free German Youth (FDJ) and represented West Germany in the FDJ’s first national meeting. It wasn’t long, though, before West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer—who had lobbied prior to WWII for the Nazis to have a bigger voice in the German government—had the organization banned. Seeing all around him how the Adenauer government was suppressing socialist organizations while promoting ex-Nazis, Biermann decided to immigrate to East Germany, where he hoped things would be better.
In 1959, Biermann started working at the Berliner Ensemble—the theater company founded by Bertolt Brecht, who had died a year earlier. Through the Berliner Ensemble, Biermann met Hanns Eisler, who fled to East Germany to escape persecution by the House on Un-American Activities in the United States (for more on Eisler see, The Crucible). Eisler became a mentor to Biermann, and helped promote his budding career as a songwriter. In 1961, Biermann formed the Berliner Arbeiter-Theater (Berlin Workers’ Theater). He wrote a play, Berliner Brautgang (Berlin Bridal Walk), about the building of the Berlin Wall, but the play was banned before Biermann ever got a chance to see it performed. Biermann was banned from performing for six months. It was a punitive slap on the wrist. Perhaps the SED figured this would be enough to get Biermann back in line, but they didn’t know Biermann.
In 1965, his book of poetry, Die Drahtharfe (The Wire Harp), was published in West Germany, which immediately led the SED to brand him as a “class-traitor”—a term they liked to throw around when anyone had the temerity to suggest that maybe the SED wasn’t absolutely correct in their interpretation of Marx. Biermann was put on a blacklist, and not allowed to perform in East Germany or use the available recording facilities. To get around this, Biermann recorded his album Chausseestraße 131 (his actual address) using a recorder and microphone that a friend had smuggled into the country.
The SED’s attempt to silence him failed miserably, as did their attempts to discredit him. Things came to a head during the World Festival of Youth and Students, when he was visited and defended by Joan Baez,and Karsten Voigt—the chairman of Jusos, an SPD youth group for budding social democrats. Even more than the Berlin Wall, the blacklisting of Biermann served to alienate the SED from the political left in the West, the one group of people in the West that still showed some support for the GDR.
Embarrassed by the negative press in both right- and left-wing media, the SED dropped the ban on Biermann He began to perform again and was allowed to travel to West Germany for concert dates. Perhaps they thought Biermann would soften his criticism after that, but he was outspoken as ever. The folks in the government were getting tired of this Wessi pointing out their flaws, and decided to do something about it.
So it was that, while performing at a concert in Cologne in 1976, Biermann was expatriated for “gross violation of civic duties,” which is to say, he wasn’t willing to toe the SED party line. In a reaction to this, 41 actors, poets, and writers signed a letter of protest against the action. In the following days, more people joined the protest until there were over 150 signatures. This wasn’t an assortment of malcontents and intellectuals either: popular movie stars, directors, writers and musicians also joined the protest.
This could have been an important moment for East Germany, signifying a turn toward a truer socialist democracy, where the voice of the people still mattered, but it would have required less of a Stalinist in power than Erich Honecker. As they had with every previous historical turning point, the SED went in the wrong direction. Rather than listen to the protest, the government came down hard on the signatories, marginalizing them in any way they could, and, in some cases, eliminating their sources of income.
As a result, several well-known and popular films stars applied for exit visas immediately and moved to West Germany. One of the first was, naturally enough, Biermann’s wife Eva-Maria Hagen, followed soon after by his step-daughter Nina Hagen. Nina Hagen had already become a pop star in East Germany with silly songs about having a cold, or forgetting to buy color film, but upon arriving in the West, her image would undergo a complete transformation, becoming the punk goddess she is known as today (for more on Nina Hagen, see Today is Friday).
Those asking for exit visas weren’t second-tier stars either. Top names such as Manfred Krug, Katharina Thalbach, Angelica Domröse, Hilmar Thate, Cox Habbema, and Armin Mueller-Stahl decided to take their chances in the West, rather than put up with the hassles and constant surveillance that occurred after they signed the protest letter. Those who stayed found fewer opportunities to work, but things weren’t exactly a bed of roses for those who left either. Krug, Thalbach, and Mueller-Stahl landed on their feet with successful careers in West Germany. Cox Habbema was Dutch anyway, so leaving the country was a less of a big deal for her. Domröse and Thate found it harder to find work in films in West Germany, and turn, instead, to the theater.
DEFA continued to make movies, and some very good movies at that, but much of its luster was gone. Worse, the Biermann incident convinced the SED that they needed to step up their surveillance. The use of informants (IMs) increased dramatically at that time, peaking out at 203,000 in 1977. Far from bolstering their authority, the SED was setting themselves up for a fall, but by the time they realized this, it was too late.
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