“East Berlin’s Youth Reject East and West”

On November 9, 1989, I crossed through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin and had the most interesting week of my life. Humboldt University Professor Peter Wicke had Invited me earlier in the year to give a couple of lectures in East Germany, and I had chosen November 9th as my arrival date.The following is an I published in the Ottawa Citizen on my return (Will Straw).

Straw Berlin title

“This is a song about AIDS and safe sex,” said the lead singer of Biest, one of East Germany’s leading Heavy Metal bands. “We’ve been doing it for a couple of years now, but with the opening of the wall we’re going to have to start worrying about these things.”

Five days after the Berlin Wall had been over-run, Biest were playing to a tiny and astonishingly well-behaved audience in one of East Berlin’s Youth Centres. The majority of their fans, I was told, had either gone to West Berlin or stayed home to watch a televised soccer match between the East German and Austrian teams. A dozen or so young boys positioned themselves in front of the stage, playing their air guitars, while the rest of the audience sat politely on metal chairs, nursing the juice-and-alcohol mixes which are the preferred drinks of East German youth. (Beer, as I discovered during my week-long visit to East Berlin, is associated with manual labour and corner taverns, and is rarely to be seen within discotheques or concert halls.)

Biest concluded their set with a song condemning the East German secret police. Backstage, members of the band were curious about Heavy Metal in Canada. Did I know Lee Aaron? Could they make it in Canada if they translated their lyrics into English? All had recently quit their day jobs, and in the excitement generated by political reform the band was looking to find an audience in the West. With only 16 million people, East Germany represented a limited market, and Biest had attained the upper reaches of domestic success. While the state-run record company, Amiga, had released Biest’s only recording, its producers had rendered their music slick and clean. Biest claimed to have dissowned the record.

Two nights earlier, I had been walking with my student guide along one of East Berlin’s main throughfares, looking for an open bar or café, when two teen-agers directed us to a nearby church. The Gesthemane Church had become a principal centre of oppositional activity in East Berlin, and had been the site of well-publicized hunger strikes and clashes with police during the early weeks of autumn. Tonight, it was the venue for a marathon concert by four punk bands.

As I entered, it became apparent that the only light within the church was coming from two candles on the altar. Directly in front of these, and with her band and its sound system beside her, a woman belted out a song in French (something about a man named “Johnny”). Several hundred young East Germans, in black leather or military surplus dress, sat on the backs of the pews, smoking cigarettes and drinking from pocket flasks. Others milled around the entrance, reading the resolutions and announcements with which the opposition group New Forum had covered the walls.

The concert was billed as a celebration of Revolution. Allegedly, it was intended to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution –hence the presence of a band from France — but its relevance to current events was obvious. The third group to play concluded by urging everyone to take to the streets, an invitation which met with limited success and some rolling of eyes. The last band, with a bitter irony which prompted applause, urged everyone to go out in search of empty soft drink bottles, which they might exchange for trinkets and pieces of chocolate in West Berlin.

Large numbers of young people to whom I spoke, in the week following the opening of the wall, expressed an ambivalence about recent events. The euphoria which accompanied the lifting of travel restrictions was very often tinged with a revulsion and sense of humiliation as the spectacle of millions of fellow citizens spending their 100 marks of “Welcome Money” was broadcast around the world. Among young bohemians, intellectuals and members of the alternative music scene in East Germany, the need to stake out a political and moral position between the oppressiveness of the past and the reckless consumerism of a possible future was apparent. Graduate students regularly insisted to me that they were going to West Berlin only in order to visit libraries or museums. A jazz trombonist at a concert I attended expressed thanks to his audience for not having gone to West Berlin that evening, but added that he hoped they had been in Leipzig (the site of large demonstrations a few hours earlier.)

I spent one afternoon in East Berlin listening to cassette rec ordings of the “1988 All German Democratic Republic Hip Hop Competition.” Rappers and turntable wizards from all over East Germany had come together one weekend for their moment of glory, and I was reminded, once again, that East Germany is one of the most media-saturated cultures in the world. The best of the entries, a song called “Gemina,” was a tongue-in-cheek ode to the East German company which manufactures sneakers, proudly proclaiming the superiority of Gemina footware over the Adidas or Nikes favored by American rappers. At times, the self-effacing irony with which East Germans talked about their own culture, and the mixture of fascination and anxiety with which they spoke of their prosperous and powerful neighbor, all seemed very Canadian.