Our host Peter Craven speaks with Wolf Biermann about life in East and West Germany, his poetry and songs, and the highs and lows of being one of Germany’s best-known singer-songwriters.
Wolf Biermann is among the best-known singer-songwriters in all of Germany. The former dissident became famous when the East German government stripped him of his GDR citizenship and refused to let him return after his 1976 West German tour. He was an outspoken critic of East Germany’s communist regime, yet in the West, too, Biermann never tired of singing out as a moral authority against the transgressions of both German governments. With poems, songs, essays and polemics – and with his guitar as a weapon – he became a legend and figurehead for an entire generation of Germans.
Wolf Biermann, born in Hamburg on November 15, 1936, was raised by parents who were dedicated communists. His Jewish father, Dagobert Biermann, worked in the Hamburg docks. As a member of the political resistance he was arrested for sabotaging Nazi ships and was murdered at Auschwitz in 1943.
The young Wolf Biermann, too, was a fervent communist and moved to communist East Germany at age 16, where he studied political economy, philosophy and mathematics at Berlin’s Humboldt University. The East German SED party denied him his diploma on account of his rising criticism of the regime. Biermann didn’t receive his degree until 2008, when he was also awarded an honorary doctorate.
In reaction to his first book of poetry, published under the title "Die Drahtharfe," in 1965 he was served with a complete ban on performance and publication. His transformation from dedicated socialist to eloquent government critic was complete. In his songs and poems, the status quo in his second home, the GDR, wasn’t the only topic on his mind; the West German government received its fair share of criticism, too. Looking back, Biermann finds merit in his earlier poems. Yet he says he only found his true muse in the years following the ban on his work in East Germany.
In his private life, Biermann had an ongoing relationship with Eva-Maria Hagen, who supported him financially during his blacklisting. After he was forced into exile, she followed him to West Germany.
After he received a total ban on performance and publication he turned his apartment on Chausseestraße 131 into a meeting point for critical intellectuals from East and West. Here too he recorded his songs, which his friends smuggled into the West.
In 1976, Biermann was stripped of his East German citizenship after a November 13 concert in Cologne. The official reason: He had denigrated his country and the socialist cause. After his expatriation, Germany’s first television network, ARD, broadcast the legendary concert in its entirety. It was through this broadcast that many citizens of East Germany had their first encounters with Biermann and his songs. What followed was a flood of protest from writers and artists, such as Stephan Hermlin. Biermann’s deportation became a defining experience for members of East Germany’s artistic and dissident scene. Any hope of societal liberalization and increased freedom of expression after Erich Honecker’s 1971 rise to power was destroyed following the repressive action against Wolf Biermann, an event that caused a number of dissidents to reconsider their positions on the East German government. Shortly thereafter, more and more artists and intellectuals moved West. Some commentators saw Biermann’s forced exile in the West as the beginning of the end for the GDR.
After the reunification of Germany in 1990, Biermann’s songwriting turned once again to the topic of politics. He belonged to a group of citizen activists whose protests prevented further destruction of documents collected by the Stasi, the East German secret police.
Biermann has not shied away from taking a decided stance on the many issues, such as the American intervention in Iraq or conflict in the Middle East. He has come full-circle: from dedicated Communist to one of communism and socialism’s most dedicated critics. His central argument: Democracy and capitalism are adaptable, whereas communism is not.
In 2007, Biermann was recognized as an honorary citizen of the city of Berlin by mayor Klaus Wowereit. His other awards include the Georg-Büchner Prize in 1991, the National Prize of the German National Foundation in 1998, and the Federal Cross of Merit in 2006.
In addition to his numerous publications, Biermann’s best-known record is "Chausseestraße 131," named after his former home in Berlin. He has also published a number of books of poetry, such as "Heimat. Neue Gedichte" in 2006 and his most recent book, "Berlin, du deutsche deutsche Frau" in 2008, a lyrical declaration of love for the city of Berlin.
Wolf Biermann has 10 children. He lives with current wife Pamela, a painter, and their eight-year-old daughter Molly in Hamburg-Altona. For quite a while, he has toyed with the idea of moving back to Berlin, but he says his roots remain in Hamburg.