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Germany's eternal dissident: Singer Wolf Biermann

Laura Döing
July 7, 2023

A new exhibition dedicated to German singer-songwriter and famous former East German dissident Wolf Biermann reflects the history of a divided Germany.

Wolf Biermann sitting next to a microphone, hand on a guitar.
Wolf Biermann in Cologne in November 1976: He didn't even play his most critical songs — out of cautionImage: Wilhelm Bertram/dpa/picture-alliance

 Wolf Biermann's career is so directly intertwined with the history of East and West Germany that Berlin's Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) is now dedicating an exhibition to the poet and songwriter. Upon finishing school, he left Hamburg to emigrate to East Germany, as he believed he could live out his communist ideals there. But then the protest singer was spied upon by the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic's (GDR) secret police. Banned from performing in the East, he was eventually expatriated back to the West.

Learning he was expatriated from the radio

After being forbidden to perform publicly for 11 years by the East German authorities, on November 13, 1976, Wolf Biermann was surprised to be allowed to travel to Cologne for a concert. That night, sitting on a bar stool with his sleeves rolled up, armed with only his a guitar, he mocked and protested against the (GDR) to a crowd of 7,000 people.

Although the singer-songwriter was not allowed to distribute his recordings in East Germany, his songs were so popular in West Germany that they had found their way back into the GDR in the form of clandestine copies. 

Three days later, still on tour in West Germany, Biermann learned while listening to the radio that he would be deprived of his East German citizenship for betrayal and defamation of the GDR.

"I felt cast away," he wrote about the anxiety the news provoked in his 2016 memoirs, titled "Wolf Biermann: Warte nicht auf bessre Zeiten!" (Do not wait for better times).

His expatriation triggered protests. A petition to the government was signed by the GDR's most important intellectuals, including Stephan Hermlin, Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym, Günter Kunert, Heiner Müller and Jurek Becker. This response made the regime nervous: Surveillance, work bans and arrests increased.

The actors Manfred Krug and Armin Mueller-Stahl left the country. "The East German authorities were expecting an angry media reaction from the West, but they didn't expect that a group of recognized authors and artists from the GDR would protest for the first time publicly through a petition," Biermann wrote in his autobiography.

At the time, he didn't know that the authorities had decided to strip him of his citizenship long before the first West German concert, even though what he said on stage was used as the official justification afterwards.

The GDR, the country he had chosen as his home, and where he had lived for 23 years, no longer wanted him.

Parents made Biermann a communist

Biermann owed his communist allegiance to his parents. His father Dagobert was a shipyard worker, communist and Jew, who had resisted the Nazis and landed in prison.

His mother, Emma, wanted the young boy to remember his imprisoned father and hid a little present every day in his name. Whenever the little Wolf would find these small toys or candies, she would explain that his father had sent them "through the moon beam."

When his father was deported from prison to Auschwitz and murdered there in 1943, his death certificate landed without a stamp in Biermann's mailbox. "An absurd joke from the Holocaust," wrote Biermann.

Communism and anti-fascism were inculcated in Wolf Biermann almost religiously. He was 6-years-old when he escaped the Allied bombing of Hamburg during World War II. "My mother had only one goal since these dark times," he recalled, "I should survive in order to avenge my father and build communism."

The GDR, which welcomed him at the age of 16, became a land of hope, a "fatherland," as he described it, or an opportunity to create paradise on Earth. His deceased father remained the guardian of his faith in "true" communism. 

In East Berlin, Biermann studied economy, math and philosophy. Bertolt Brecht became his greatest influence. "I licked, I chewed, I swallowed and I enjoyed the great poet," wrote Biermann.

He started working as an assistant theater director at the Berliner Ensemble. The theater would become a turning point in his life. He would start playing his own songs — which also pleased the composer Hanns Eisler, who had long been Bertolt Brecht's musical and political associate.

Biermann grew a mustache and turned out to be quite a womanizer. Altogether, he became the father of 10 children.

His love affair with East Germany, however, dwindled quickly. When he planned to stage a play dealing with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1963, the government closed down his newly founded Workers' and Students' Theater.

In 1965, GDR authorities also prohibited him from performing publicly and publishing his works.

Even though Biermann's East Berlin apartment was bugged and under surveillance, it became a meeting point for critics of the regime. It felt to him like "the waiting room for the world revolution," he wrote about that period.

He was still performing at concerts. His bitter songs provided hope to fellow dissidents. His song "Ermutigung" (Encouragement) became the hymn of the oppressed in East Germany, where he encouraged everyone "not to harden in these hard times; not to embitter in these bitter times; not to get frightened in these frightening times."

He saw blind loyalty to the East German regime as betrayal of communism and the revolution. The Ministry of State Security, the Stasi, feared the influence of his bold texts. By then, Biermann had released six LPs and several poems in West Germany. He was so popular that it protected him from imprisonment.

Wolf Biermann with journalist Günter Wallraff, shortly after leaving East Germany
Biermann with journalist Günter Wallraff, shortly after leaving East GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Even after losing his citizenship, Biermann kept believing in communism — but not in the GDR. He finally broke with the ideology in 1983. "And that was the decisive jump in my life," he wrote. Communism, he added, "is a way through hell to force paradise on Earth" and is a social idyll that requires oppression and exploitation.

Far from retirement

To this day, Biermann has remained an outspoken critic and is still performing around Germany and Europe.

When he won the Ovid Prize for his lifetime achievement in October 2021, he passed it on to imprisoned Belarusian activist Maria Kolesnikova, as a sign of solidarity with the work of those who are fighting against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

Now his life and work is revisited through the exhibition "Wolf Biermann. A Poet and Songwriter in Germany," which runs at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin from July 7, 2023 through January 14, 2024.


This article was translated from German and is an updated version of a profile from November 15, 2021.