The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Dave Brubeck – Fighting Communism with Jazz

Renowned American jazz musician Dave Brubeck talks about his experiences of performing in the communist block in this excerpt from a previously unreleased interview in 2008. Accompanied by a charming animation by Patrick Smith.

January 31, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rocking the Wall: East German Rock and Pop in the 1970s and 1980s


The influence of popular culture was viewed as dangerous and potentially subversive in communist Eastern Europe (as previously discussed on The View East  here). Consequently, the regimes in power attempted to monitor and control the music scene. Musicians were faced with high levels of censorship, while those who were unwilling to conform to state restrictions frequently became targets for harassment and repression. This article, by guest author James Shingler, considers the impact of popular music in the GDR during the 1970s and 1980s. By exploring the changing relationship between state authorities, musicians and music fans in the GDR during the latter decades of communist rule, James suggests that by the end of the 1980s the music scene had become an important platform for promoting reform and resistance.


Rocking the Wall: East German Rock and Pop in the 1970s and 1980s

By James Shingler.


Throughout the forty years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) viewed the impact of popular music on East German youth culture with a mixture of suspicion, distain and hostility. The official view promoted by the SED was that popular music was nothing more than a dangerous American cultural weapon designed to corrupt its young people, turning them away from socialist ideals. The cultural, economic and political freedoms expressed through Western popular music were of great concern to the Party, so as the Cold War developed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the SED increasingly took a hard line towards popular music. However, the early 1970s saw a relaxation of the hard line policies that the SED had implemented in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than outright repression, the official policy became one of attempted cooperation between the Party, musicians and fans. The accession of Eric Honecker as General Secretary in 1971, combined with a period of détente in the Cold War, led to some liberalization of popular music in the early 1970s.


The 1970s


The early 1970s saw the official release of records by a number of Western artists in the GDR, including The Beatles and Bob Dylan as well as home grown rock bands such as The Klaus Renft Combo and The Puhdys on the state record label AMIGA. East German rock music developed its own distinctive style and grew rapidly throughout the 1970s. The SED actively encouraged musicians, so long as they were prepared to comply with the Party line, something which was policed by the requirement for a state-issued Auftrittserserlaubnis (performance permission) to allow groups to play publicly. Political controls over the media, such as the 60/40 clause (which stated that 60% of all music broadcast or performed had to come from the GDR or other Socialist States); the fact that Western bands were not permitted to play in East Germany and the state monopoly over the production and distribution of records meant that ‘approved’ East German rock bands were essentially ‘protected’ against foreign competition.

However, state policy remained restrictive and was frustrating to those artists who expressed themselves in a way that the SED disapproved of. Song lyrics would be examined by officials before artists were permitted to release their records on AMIGA. Failure to comply with official guidelines had far reaching consequences as illustrated by the case of the Klaus Renft Combo who were banned in 1975. On 22 September 1975, the band were summoned to the Ministry of Culture to perform in order to have their Auftrittserserlaubnis renewed.  On arrival however, the band were told by a member of the committee that ‘we are here to inform you today, that you don’t exist anymore’. The committee told the band that their lyrics ‘had absolutely nothing to do with socialist reality… the working class is insulted and the state and defence organisations are defamed’. In the aftermath of the hearing the band discovered that not only were they unable to perform concerts, but that the Ministry of Culture had reprinted the entire AMIGA catalogue so they could leave the band out. As Renft acknowledged ‘we simply did not exist anymore …  just like in Orwell’ (Klaus Renft speaking to Anna Funder, Stasiland, Granta: 2004). Shortly after the hearing Renft defected to West Germany where he found employment as a radio DJ. Two of his colleagues in the band, Gerulf Pannach and Christian Kunert, were less fortunate and were imprisoned until 1977 when West Germany bought their freedom.


The Klaus Renft Combo, a successful East German rock band who were banned by the authorities in 1975:


The 1980s


The early 1980s marked a high point for indigenous popular music in the GDR with bands such as The Puhdys, City, Karat and Silly achieving widespread popularity. These bands wrote their own music and sang in German, in stark contrast to earlier groups who had largely replicated songs by Anglo-American artists, and held relatively privileged positions in the GDR music scene, as reisefähige (travel-capable) bands. This led to limited musical exchange between East and West Germany, with The Puhdys, City and Karat permitted to tour inWest Germany, while the SED also allowed a limited number of Western artists to play in the GDR.


The Puhdys, an indigenous East German rock band, were widely tolerated by the authorities:


Regardless of the privileged positions that these bands held, they still were subjected to a lyrical tightrope between expression and censorship, which meant that any critical sentiments had to be concealed. According to Toni Krahl, the guitarist and singer of City‘every line was weighed and politically sounded out… not only by the censors, but also by the audience’. Maas and Hartmut state that ‘the poetry of GDR-rock was highly developed and the audience became use to reading between the lines’ (Maas, Georg and Reszel, Hartmut, ‘Whatever Happened to…: The Decline and Renaissance of Rock in the Former GDR’, Popular Music, 17/3 (1988), pp. 267-278). Despite the popularity of these bands they received criticism from punk and dance fans who suspected that established rock musicians were too close to the powerful. The biggest GDR musicians thus found themselves stuck in the middle of conflict between the Party and young people. As Olaf Leitner states ‘the leadership [the SED] demanded conformity, the fans opposition’ (Olaf Leitner, ‘Rock Music in the GDR: An Epitaph’, in Ramet, S.P (ed.), Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia, Westview Press: 1994).


Punk Rock


While more mainstream artists enjoyed relative success and freedom, the early 1980s also saw the emergence of a distinctive GDR punk rock scene, which was quickly dismissed by the SED and the FDJ as subversive and a dangerous phenomenon. The East German punk scene differed from Western punk; according to Patricia Simpson in Britain and the United States punk was seen as a response to ‘unemployment, to middle-class lifestyles, ethics, and privilege, and to cultural boredom’. Punk bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash in the UK and The Ramones and The Dead Kennedys in the US ‘adopted forms of an ideology that was anti-ideological and behaviour that mocked approved social customs and manners by inverting gestures of the socially acceptable’. Conversely, punk in the GDR adapted the sound and fashion of Western punk to the political, social and cultural environment that existed in East Germany at the time. Simpson argues that, ‘with no official unemployment to complain about, for example, GDR punk instead negated the prevailing work ethic, whose purpose was to maintain freedom or strengthen socialism’. In the West, punk was viewed as a nihilistic movement where as in the GDR, punk was fuelled by optimism and an aspiration to revolutionise society (Patricia Simpson, ‘Germany and Its Discontents: Die Skeptiker’s Punk Corrective’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 34/3 (2000), pp. 129–140).


The early 1980s saw the development of an underground punk rock movement in the GDR. However the authorities viewed punk music and fashion as subversive.


East German punks remained on the outskirts of mainstream society; a Stasi report from 1981 estimated that there were around 1,000 punks and 10,000 sympathisers in the GDR (Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and Reality, Pearson: 2003). Punk was primarily an underground movement; many bands performed concerts in their own garages and recorded and distributed their music on self made cassettes. However, as the movement grew, Stasi agents were increasingly able to infiltrate the punk scene. As with jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and beat music fans in the 1950s and 1960s, punks were subjected to a campaign of repression from 1981 onwards, involving the usual Stasi tactics of arrests, interrogations and prison sentences. The SED associated punks with degeneracy, especially in their appearance, believing that their scruffy clothes and dyed hair portrayed an aggressive, provocative manner. A Mohican hairstyle was often sufficient for a punk to be hauled into custody by the police. The Stasi banned punk bands viewed as hostile toward the GDR. In August 1983, members of the East Berlin punk group Namenlos were arrested and sentenced to between 12 and 18 months in prison for ‘disparaging the state’.   Members of the punk scene were also routinely recruited by the Stasi as Inoffizieller Mitarbeiters (Unofficial Collaborators) to report on other punks. In the mid 1980s Frank Zappe, bass player in Leipzig based band Wutanfall was recruited by the Stasi as an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter after a period of sustained pressure. Zappe talks about his experiences with the Stasi in the video below:



The Stasi were so successful in infiltrating the punk scene that one punk band in Jena consisted entirely of Inoffizieller Mitarbeiters!  The late 1980s saw a shift in Party policy in relation to punk as certain groups, such as Die Skeptiker were professionalised by the State. Just as it had done with rock groups in the 1970s and early 1980s the Party offered support to punk bands in the form of recognition, record contracts, and sponsorship of the FDJ, in return for their compliance.


The Beginning of the End


By the late 1980s, there were a number of different musical styles that were fashionable within the East German music scene. There were around 400 professional groups in the GDR ranging from mainstream rock groups such as The Puhdys and Silly to the punk rock and heavy metal of Feeling B and Prinzip. However, East German music fans also had a healthy appetite for Western popular music. A small section of records by Western artists deemed acceptable by the SED including Phil Collins, Michael Jackson and Santana were released on AMIGA throughout the 1980s. However, these records were only released in small numbers and were difficult to get hold of. Most music fans simply resorted to taping their favorite song directly off West German radio stations and exchanging them with their friends and other music fans.  

The summer of 1987 saw West Berlin host a series of open air concerts close to the Berlin Wall. Artists including David Bowie, The Eurythmics and Genesis appeared to large crowds in front of the Reichstag. On the other side of the Wall, thousands of East German fans tried to get as close to the Wall as possible to hear the music coming from the West. They were met with heavy resistance from the guards policing the border, which led to clashes between border guards and young East Germans. Realising that suppressing popular music in the aftermath of the riot would only inflame tensions, the SED attempted to win back the support of East German youths. The following year a series of concerts were organised in East Berlin, designed to counter performances from Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd that were taking place close to the Wall in the West. In East Berlin, Western stars, such as Big Country, Bryan Adams and Marillion performed alongside East German bands like City. On 19 July 1988, Bruce Springsteen performed the biggest rock concert in the history of the GDR in front of 160,000 people.  During the concert Springsteen told the crowd ‘It’s nice to be in East Berlin. I’m not for or against a government. I came to play rock ‘n’ roll for you, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down’. Springsteen’s words reflected the mood of young people in the crowd, sparking wild cheering and celebrations.


Bruce Springsteen performing to large crowds in East Berlin in July 1988:


In September 1989 the new opposition movement Neues Forum (New Forum) issued a declaration known as Aufbruch 89 (Initiative 89) which called for ‘democratic dialogue’ and ‘a political platform for the whole of the GDR that should enable people from all professions, trades, social circles, parties and groups to discuss and work out society’s vital problems’.

In the same month, singer-songwriters Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel drafted a document dubbed the Rocker Resolution which was signed by a number of well known artists including Toni Krahl and Tamara Danz, lead singer of Silly. The Rocker Resolution became an important part of the reform movement within the GDR. The state controlled media refused to publish the Resolution, so bands and artists were encouraged to read the declaration out at concerts and other public events to spread the message across the country. The widespread distribution of the Rocker Resolution lead to an extraordinary meeting of the SED’s Committee for Entertainment in October 1989, which resulted in ‘the first official acknowledgement of and reaction to the worsening political situation in East Germany’ (Schulz, Hiltrud, Ear to the Wall:Rock in Late 1980s East Germany, 2008). According to Toni Krahl the aim of the Resolution was ‘not to open borders or to unify Germany, but to democratise the GDR’.

The fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the beginning of the end for the GDR and symbolized the start of the re-unification process that was completed on 3 October 1990. On 21 July 1990, Pink Floyd performed their album The Wall at Potsdamer Platz, among the ruins of the Berlin Wall, with guest appearances from artists including Van Morrison, The Band, and Bryan Adams. The concert was attended by an estimated 500,000 people, from both Western and Eastern Germany.


About the Author:

James Shingler has just completed his BA (Hons) in Modern History and International Relations at Swansea University, UK. During his final year of study James researched and wrote his history dissertation about the influence of Western popular music on youth culture in the GDR between 1949 and 1990.  James is now planning to study for a MA in History at Swansea.


For more information on this topic see:

Dennis, Mike, The Stasi: Myth and Reality, London: Pearson Education Limited, 2003.

Fenemore, Mark, Sex, Thugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll, New York: Berghahn Books, 2007.

Funder, Anna, Stasiland, London: Granta Books, 2003.

Leitner, Olaf, ‘Rock Music in the GDR: An Epitaph’, in Ramet, S.P (ed.), Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia, Oxford: Westview Press, 1994.

Maas, Georg and Reszel, Hartmut, ‘Whatever Happened to…: The Decline and Renaissance of Rock in the Former GDR’, Popular Music, 17:3 (1988), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 267 – 278.

Poiger, Uta, Jazz, Rock and Rebels, California: University of California Press, 2000.

Schulz, Hiltrud, Ear to the Wall:Rock in Late 1980s East Germany, DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Simpson, Patricia Anne, ‘Germanyand Its Discontents: Die Skeptiker’s Punk Corrective’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 34/3 (2000), Michigan: Michigan State University pp. 129–140.


July 15, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Video May Have Killed The Radio Star, But Did Popular Culture Kill Communism?

Actor Larry Hagman has recently reiterated claims that glitzy 1980s American soap opera ‘Dallas’ helped topple communism. 79 year old Hagman, famous for playing villainous oil baron JR Ewing in Dallas, is probably best remembered for his character’s involvement in one of the earliest soap cliff-hangers, the ‘Who Shot JR?’ storyline that ran 1979-1980. He is currently filming a comeback series of the soap.

Hagman has argued that Dallas successfully opened the eyes of many East Europeans to the superior quality of life in the West. Famous for its depictions of gratuitous wealth, sex, intrigue and power struggles, at its peak in the mid-1980s Dallas was translated and dubbed into 67 languages and shown in over 90 countries on both sides of the iron curtain, attracting global audiences of over 100 million. Even hard-line communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu allowed Dallas to be broadcast in repressive Romania. Ostensibly, this was in order to illustrate the corruption and moral decadence of capitalism, but the soap attracted a huge following, quickly becoming the most watched TV show in Romania.  As a result, after the collapse of communism and the execution of the Ceausescus in December 1989, the full-length pilot episode of Dallas – including a previously censored sex scene, which could now be edited back in – was one of the first foreign shows to be broadcast on Romanian TV.

Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing in Dallas, recently argued that the glitzy 1980s US Soap contributed to the collapse of communism.

In an interview recently published in Australian newspaper the Fairfield City Champion, Hagman claimed:

“Romania put on Dallas to try and show how corrupt the American system was and it ended up with them lining up Ceausescu, who was the dictator, and shooting him 500 times – they wanted all that stuff they didn’t even know was out there … He let that show in to show how decadent we were and they said, ‘Yeah, we want some of it’.”

Despite the vast gulf between people’s lifestyles in the Soviet bloc compared to the glamour portrayed on screen in Dallas, Hagman argues that there were elements of the show that had a more universal appeal and transcended the iron curtain, claiming that “Everybody has a jerk like JR in the family, and somebody like a Sue Ellen and a Bobby.”

Hagman’s recent comments have been reproduced by the tabloid media in the UK, including The Sun and The Daily Mail. However, in an earlier article entitled ‘How Dallas Won the Cold War’ published in the Washington Post in 2008, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch have also argued that Dallas may have played an important role in the fall of communism, claiming that:

“The booze-and-sex-soaked caricature of free enterprise and executive lifestyles proved irresistible not just to stagflation-weary Americans but to viewers from France to the Soviet Union to Ceausescu’s Romania … ‘Dallas’ wasn’t simply a television show. It was an atmosphere-altering cultural force (which) helped define the 1980s as a glorious decade of greed, ushering in an era in which capitalism became cool, even though weighted with manifold moral quandaries”

In actual fact, glamorous and fantastical TV shows such as Dallas painted a highly unrealistic picture of the lifestyles enjoyed by the majority of citizens in the West and there is an argument that this led many in the  communist bloc to have inflated expectations about what life under capitalism would be like – believing that in the West everybody lived in a mansion and had a swimming pool in their back gardens –  perceptions that led to subsequent disappointment and disillusionment in the years following the revolutions of 1989.

Hagman is not the only celebrity to claim to have made a contribution to the collapse of communism in recent years either. In a 2004 interview with German TV magazine ‘Spielfilm’ Actor, singer and recently turned reality TV judge David Hasselhoff also suggested that his 1989 hit ‘Looking for Freedom’, may have played some part in bringing down the Berlin Wall. The song was Number 1 in West Germany in the autumn of 1989, when waves of protest began to mount in the GDR and Hasselhoff has argued that his lyrics inspired East Germans to push for change. ‘The Hoff’ has even suggested that this contribution should be recognised by the inclusion of his photograph at the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin! His comments were subsequently picked up by the BBC Magazine who ran a story asking ‘Did David Hasselhoff Help End the Cold War?’

David Hasselhoff believes that his 1989 hit 'Looking for Freedom' contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tone of the article suggests that the BBC posed this question with its tongue very firmly in its cheek. Similarly, Hagman’s view that it is possible to somehow trace a direct consequential link between Dallas and the execution of the Ceausescus is both vastly over-simplistic and slightly ridiculous! At the same time however, there is a real case to be made about the role that popular culture played in helping to undermine communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. There is a growing body of academic work relating to aspects of Western popular culture and its role in influencing and radicalising communist youth, and Gillespie and Welch make a serious point in their Washington Post article when they state that:

“The impact of ‘Dallas’ on people’s worldviews reminds us that the ‘vulgar’ popular culture that left-wing highbrows and right-wing cultural conservatives love to hate is every bit as important as chin-stroking politics in fomenting real social change.”

During the Cold War period, Western culture was portrayed as subversive and as a potentially dangerous influence by the regimes in power in the USSR and Eastern Europe. High levels of censorship and media restrictions were enforced to try to prevent people gaining access to non-communist culture, which propaganda presented as ideologically inappropriate and morally corrupt. As a result, anyone who openly displayed their liking for Western music, fashion or ‘unsuitable’ Hollywood movies were marked as ‘subversive’ by the state and became likely targets for repression and harassment. However, the regimes were never able to prevent people gaining access to popular culture and their task became increasingly difficult during the latter years of communism as numbers of privately owned television sets and video recorders steadily increased across the block.

The enforcement of cultural controls had always been particularly problematic in the GDR, where citizens could pick up Western transmissions by tuning their radios to the relevant frequencies and turning their TV aerials to point westwards. But elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the authorities also found it increasingly difficult to maintain the necessary levels of control over their citizens’ listening, viewing and reading habits. From the 1960s, popular black market items included prohibited Western music and films (which were smuggled in on cassette and VCR and then copied for illegal distribution),  magazines and fashion. Westerners who were able to venture ‘behind the iron curtain’ were likely to be approached on the street and propositioned about the sale of any branded clothing they were wearing – particularly Levi jeans, which were seen as a ‘status symbol’ in the 1980s. One report from Poland described how, in the early 1980s customers at a Warsaw market would ‘pore over second hand Beatles records and Playboy magazines smuggled from the West’. A second report published by RFE/RL in 1985 outlined how the booming informal trade in such ‘subversive items’ operated, describing exchanges at a Hungarian bar frequented by foreign truck drivers:

“American cigarettes and prewashed jeans, the most coveted articles on the black market, exchanged hands, The Jukebox blared out the latest hits, the air was thick with smoke, it was difficult to hear oneself speak”.

The same was true in the Soviet Union, something which was addressed in Mikhail Safanov’s 2003 article ‘You Say You Want a Revolution’. In this thought provoking piece, Safanov argues that The Beatles may actually have done more for the collapse of totalitarianism in the USSR than high profile dissident intellectuals such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Mikhail Safanov has argued that The Beatles did more for the collapse of communism in the USSR than dissident intellectuals such as Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov.

Safanov describes how The Beatles were proscribed by the Soviet authorities to such an extent that youths who sported ‘Beatles-style’ haircuts would be stopped on the street by policemen, who would accompany them to the nearest police station and forcibly cut their hair! Despite this however, ‘Beatlemania’ developed as a popular underground culture among Soviet youth, with their music disseminated in the form of illegal cassettes:

“The apolitical Beatles slipped into every Soviet flat, packaged as tapes, just as easily as they assumed their place on the stages of the largest stadia and concert halls in the world. They did something that was not within the power of Solzhenitsyn nor Sakharov: they helped a generation of free people to grow up in the Soviet Union.”

Safanov therefore concludes that:

“The history of the Beatles’ persecution in the Soviet Union is the history of the self-exposure of the idiocy of Brezhnev’s rule. The more they persecuted something the whole world had already fallen in love with, the more they exposed the falsehood and hypocrisy of Soviet ideology … Deep down, the Communists  felt (though no-one expressed it openly) that the Beatles were a concealed and potent threat to the their regime. And they were right.”

May 23, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments