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How Punk and Heavy Metal Defied the Stasi, East Germany's Secret Police, and Helped Bring Down the Berlin Wall

By hollisterclothingoutlet 24/03/2022 776 Views

But new research shows how concrete, barbed wire and a massive effort by the secret police, the Stasi, have failed to silence the alluring beat of rock and roll and punk. Cómo el punk y el heavy metal desafiaron a la Stasi, la policía secreta de Alemania Oriental, y ayudaron a derribar el Muro de Berlín - El Mostrador Cómo el punk y el heavy metal desafiaron a la Stasi, la policía secreta de Alemania Oriental, y ayudaron a derribar el Muro de Berlín - El Mostrador

The rise of Beatlemania in the 1960s brought a scathing response from Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

"Do we really have to copy all the crap that comes from the West... with all its 'yeah, yeah, yeah' monotony," Ulbricht scoffed during one of his lengthy speeches to Communist Party supporters.

He was 70 years old and in some ways his comments were not so different from those of many Western politicians, says Dagmar Hovestaedt, a prominent figure in the BStU, the organization that investigates East German secret police files, the Stasi.

"The older generation, the war generation, was horrified at what the youth were doing," he says.

But for East German leaders, much more than that was at stake.

They feared that a love of Western music would lead to a love of Western politics, so they desperately tried to develop "their own version of cool youth culture."

There were dance steps that the State instructed, such as the Lipsi, an attempt to prevent the rock and roll dance from growing.

There was also a quota system which was very ridiculous and many were unaware of the amount of Western music that could be played at a party.

"You can't organize a youth culture," says Hovestaedt. "That's not how it works."

Many young East Germans kept glued to their radios, trying to find the latest hits on Western stations, and the Stasi did what they could to stop it.

If there's one story that symbolizes the GDR's paranoia about music - and the tragedy of being a youthful music fan there - it's the story of a Rolling Stones concert that never happened.

It all started in 1969 with a superfluous comment from a DJ on the radio station RIAS, which broadcast from West Berlin but was heard by many on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

Imagine, he said, if a Stones concert was staged on the roof of media mogul Axel Springer's publishing house (which had been purposely built in the west right next to the wall) so that those from the east could get as close as possible. they could and listen.

The idea quickly became a rumor in East Germany and many people believed it.

Thousands of young people were convinced that the Stones would really play.

They even thought it would be the same day their rulers were planning to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the GDR in East Berlin.

The Stasi went into alarm. They hated businessman Axel Springer, whom they saw as a capitalist who sought to turn young people away from communism.

Stasi files from the time show how invitations for Stones fans to come to Berlin were written in lime on roads in East Germany. Reports detailed how the Stasi located and detained the subversives.

Yet hundreds went to Berlin on the appointed day.

I met Eckart Mann, then 16 years old, at the same place he arrived in 1969, across from the Springer building. He had heard the rumor and remembers thinking, "The Stones are going to play here. Wow, wow, wow!"

The Stones never showed up but the GDR authorities did. As the crowd made its way to the Brandenburg Gate, the police arrived, and Mann was beaten and arrested.

He was found guilty of being an "anti-socialist element". In his files I discovered that the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, had taken a personal interest in his case.

Mann was given two years in prison and then sent back west, away from his family.

Cómo el punk y el heavy metal desafiaron a la Stasi, la policía secreta de Alemania Oriental, y ayudaron a derribar el Muro de Berlín - El Mostrador

"How was prison?" he wonders and shrugs. "It wasn't right, but what could I do?" he says.

Thus, a teenager paid a high price for his love of music.

That kind of retaliation was intended to dissuade young East Germans from dancing to "imperialist" Western tunes.

But what he actually did was fuel the hunger for Western music, which spread beyond the big cities.

Another teenager, Alexander Kuehne, was eager to bring more music to a remote village an hour from Berlin. But how did he manage to get the latest records from the West?

Since retirees were allowed to visit the West because they were not considered vital to the state, Kuehne took the opportunity to ask his grandmother to bring him the music.

But things did not go as he expected. His grandmother confused the punk band The Clash with the country singer Johnny Cash. You can still see the pain on Alexander's face as he recalls that "huge nightmare."

So instead he decided to transform his town into a major music center.

It was located on a major railway crossing and convinced all kinds of music fans and bands to congregate in a room behind the town bar.

"This place is where we had the biggest parties in East Germany," he says as he shows me around.

Farmers at the bar stared in disbelief as hundreds of new wave followers, or Glamrockers, flocked to the venue.

Because it was such a remote place, the police and the Stasi did not react quickly to these mass gatherings, except once when Alexander was arrested and taken to a police station where he was told that the Stasi would come for him the next day.

"He was very scared," he says.

Lucky for him, his mother had once taught the local police officer.

She asked him to release her child, and then busied herself dealing with the Stasi when they arrived. She never told her son exactly what happened. "She's my hero," he says with serene admiration.

However, in the case of large cities, the Stasi pressure was relentless against music fans who were seen as "subversive" and "anti-social".

I remember visiting East Berlin in the early 1980s, where I saw a couple of punks on the streets and thought they had to be very brave to wear ripped clothes, metal safety pins and spike their hair, when the regime wanted everyone parade in the uniform of a young socialist.

But how could the secret police deal with, or even understand, something like punk?

The archives contain recordings of Stasi meetings where chief Erich Mielke tried to understand, and pronounce, these totally baffling concepts like punk and heavy metal.

So I managed to track down Jürgen Breski, a Stasi officer who was ordered to monitor and infiltrate the punk scene.

He agreed to meet me in a discreet corner of a restaurant in the city and tell me what his bosses ordered him.

"They wanted me to assimilate these people into a socialist lifestyle, so we tried to fight anything that didn't belong in that," he says.

"The goal was to control 'the scene' as it expanded, to prevent it from becoming too well known."

In the end, the Stasi did what they always did, recruit as many informants as possible.

Other tactics included summoning members of illegal gangs to compulsory military service and sending them to different parts of the country: "Suddenly, the gang had no musicians," says Breski.

But many were determined to resist.

Dirk Kalinowski of the punk band Zerfall told me how the Stasi put heavy pressure on him and his band.

They survived as artists thanks to an extraordinary alliance with a Berlin church that gave them shelter. The GDR authorities, ruthless for the most part, did not feel comfortable attracting international attention for directly interfering with church activities.

The church, Kalinowski says, was a "protected space."

"They could stop you just standing in front of the door or going out. But you were safe inside," he recalls.

So his band, barred from regular recitals, was able to play in the middle of evangelical church services. The pastor would pause and then ask his mostly elderly congregation to hear something a little different.

"He was crazy," recalls Kalinowski.

"As a vocalist I could see right into the faces of the congregation who were totally shocked. The only relaxed ones were the kids who immediately jumped up. I'll never forget that and an old couple who covered their ears and left."

A church also facilitated another extraordinary concert, when British music producer Mark Reeder brought in a West German punk band, Die Toten Hosen, to play on the other side of the wall.

"I told my friends, 'If I get caught, I'm going to get kicked out of the country. When you get caught, your life changes because you're classified as an enemy of the state,'" Reeder recalls.

"They told me, 'We don't care, we'll do it anyway.'"

Campino, the singer of Die Toten Hosen, remembers that the band dressed up to go through the border controls between West and East Berlin: "We had to comb our hair, and wear traditional clothes."

He knew why the East German authorities would arrest them if they recognized them. "Punk rock didn't officially exist on the eastern side, and they didn't want the virus to spread in any way," he says.

Only about 25 were able to make it to the secret concert in a church in East Berlin. However, "everyone in the room knew that this was something very special and it might not happen again."

He was very impressed, he says, with the way young East Germans created their own cultural space, despite - or perhaps because of - all the pressure from the regime.

"They had a kind of pride, a belief. They said 'you in the West have the best clothes, fashion, all that stuff. But we have friendship and we help each other and we're not superficial,'" he says.

His camaraderie "meant more because they had to pay a higher price for anything that went wrong."

So this incredible musical life was worth living, it was the soundtrack to a kind of freedom that few thought was possible.

Yes, regimes could impose all kinds of restrictions. But even so, music lovers created free spaces, a unique state of mind in a Europe dominated by communism.

Since the mid-1980s, when a new leader in Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev, began to loosen Soviet control over East Germany, Western music has been resounding louder and louder around the Berlin Wall.

In 1987, nothing more and nothing less than a figure like David Bowie played right on the wall on the west side.

Bowie, a world star who had lived in Berlin, was well acquainted with the surreal atmosphere of the Cold War and the musical energy. And his followers in the East gathered near the wall to try to listen.

For the then young Deputy Chief of the East Berlin Police, Dieter Dietze, this posed a professional and personal dilemma.

He knew that a brutal police response - like the one against those who had come to see the Rolling Stones in 1969 - could backfire.

And as a rock fan himself, who once played in a band, he told me that he had a lot of sympathy with young people.

But the heads of the GDR wanted order above all else.

"It was clear to me that music, rock, belonged to the young, that there was no way they could be denied," he says.

The GDR authorities were persuaded to allow concerts on their territory by great world stars such as Bob Dylan and, in 1988, Bruce Springsteen.

That was seen as a safety valve to appease the younger generation. But the concerts simply amplified a new spirit of freedom.

Concerts like Bruce Springsteen's, says Dagmar Hovestaedt, "became a rallying point to demand human rights, access to travel and free expression. Imagine, 100,000 young East Germans singing 'Born in the USA' (Born In U.S.A.)".

Whereas in the 1960s Rolling Stones fans expected to hear from their heroes and faced persecution, "by the '80s the fear was gone, the state had lost control."

There are many reasons, political and economic, why the Cold War came to an end.

But also vital was that spirit of freedom that brought thousands to the streets in 1989 to challenge communist regimes.

And that spirit had its base -for many- in music.

After the fall of the wall and the disappearance of the GDR, the same fate befell the Stasi.

Former agents like Jürgen Breski have had a lot of time to reflect on their intention to control everything and why it doesn't work.

"From today's perspective it seems pointless, a waste of time," he told me. When it came to punk music "sometimes we had influence, but in the end there were no results".

And what about the young people persecuted, sometimes imprisoned, for their love of music?

"Today I would be against doing something like that. But you grow up in a society, you grow up with the norms of that society, you benefit from it. And when you later have the opportunity to look at it from a different perspective, you say 'Well It shouldn't have been like this.

Concrete borders, machine guns and barbed wire could stop some things, but not the music.

"Music enters your spirit and your head and you listen to it," says Dagmar Hovestaedt. For her, it all goes back to an old German proverb: Die Gedanken sind frei, thoughts are free.

"Music that cannot be stopped by borders constantly reminds you that there is joy in self-expression."

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