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Not Germany’s Bob Dylan—He's Germany’s Wolf Biermann

Not Germany’s Bob Dylan—He's Germany’s Wolf Biermann

Wolf Biermann, eighty-five today, outlasted Nazism and then communism. Happy birthday.

Hannes Stein

One of Wolf Biermann’s first childhood memories is of a black leg. It was dangling over the side of an American Jeep that was driving down the street next to the railroad station in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in the spring of 1945. Wolf, then nine years old, was puzzled. “They had the Soviet star on the sides of their cars,” he remembered, “only it was white instead of red.” He couldn’t understand why.

The relaxed Black soldier with the dangling leg was driving the Jeep and smoking a cigarette. With a finger he flipped the butt away. It arced high, then landed in the gutter: “I remember the mad dash as two Germans tried to get hold of that cigarette butt.”

At this point Wolf Biermann had already survived several world-ending catastrophes. The first one took place in November 1941, when his entire paternal family—around twenty people—was deported from Hamburg to Minsk. There, along with many other Jews, they were shot. Biermann himself was not deported because, under Nazi racial laws, he was a “Mischling ersten Grades,” a “half breed of the first degree:” His mother, Emma, was not Jewish. Still, he remembers how, when he was young, the cousins with whom he played wore the yellow star on their coats.

Biermann’s father, Dagobert Biermann, lived just a little while longer. He was not only a Jew but a communist; he served time for political reasons. But in February 1943, Dagobert was released to a place nobody had then heard about: Auschwitz. Emma later received an official document stamped by the Standesamt, the civil registry office, of Auschwitz (which did not exist), informing her that her husband had died of “cardiac insufficiency.” Nobody knows whether he was shot, whether he died in the gas chambers, whether he was murdered on the spot, or whether he was allowed to work himself to death.

The next world-ending catastrophe that Biermann experienced was Operation Gomorrah. In the summer of 1943, the Royal Air Force bombed the working-class quarters of Hamburg. Some thirty thousand civilians died. Biermann, then six and a half, was at the center of the firestorm. Emma carried him on her back and jumped into one of the many canals in their neighborhood of Hammerbrook. The Nazis sent him and other Hamburgers who lost their homes in the conflagration to Deggendorf; that was why Biermann was there in the spring of 1945 to see the dangling black leg. Biermann and his mother had reason to see it as a symbol of their personal liberation. Other Germans, not so much.

Biermann turns eighty-five today. A lazy person might call him Germany’s Bob Dylan. Before Covid, he filled concert halls as he unpacked his guitar and started singing, His autobiography. Warte nicht auf bessre Zeiten! (Don’t Wait for Better Times!), became an instant bestseller when it was published in 2016. But I’m not that lazy person, so I’ll tell you something different. As a composer, Biermann is deeply influenced by the German romantics: He is the latest heir to the genre that the French, for want of a better word, call “le lied” (not exactly chansons). Think Es zogen zwei rüst’ge Gesellen (Schumann, Romanzen und Balladen I, Op. 45). Think An die Musik (Schubert, Deutsch-Verzeichnis D. 547). It is easy to miss the connection when you listen to a Biermann song like Und als wir ans Ufer kamen, one of his masterpieces—because he always sounds as if he has just downed two bottles of whisky and smoked several packs of cigarettes. (He hasn’t; he just disdains operatic bel canto.)

Biermann is deeply influenced by German romanticism as a poet, as well—in particular, the German Jew Heinrich Heine. There is the romantic irony, the sharp political satire, the sometimes bawdy sense of humor, the old-fashioned insistence on rhyme, meter, and beautiful metaphors. Of course, there is also quite a bit of Bertolt Brecht’s hard, gray matter-of-factness in Biermann. (Nobody who writes 20th-century poetry worth mentioning does not carry around that slab of granite.) To me, though, the Heine streak seems stronger.

So, Wolf Biermann is not the German Bob Dylan: he is the German Wolf Biermann, quite incomparable. Like all true artists, he stands for himself.

He became famous mostly for two things. First, in 1965 he was banned in East Germany—to which he had emigrated as a teenager, being a good communist and all. After he was banned, he gave concerts only in his apartment at Chauseestrasse 131, which soon became the most important address of the East German opposition. Dozens of Stasi operatives were tasked with watching him, Official State Enemy No. 1, around the clock. (The only reason Biermann did not end up in prison like Václav Havel was that Biermann had already become too well known.)

Second, in 1976 the blockheads who ruled the German Democratic Republic (GDR) used a West German concert tour of Biermann’s to deprive him in absentia of his GDR citizenship. The result was a protest movement the likes of which East Germany had never seen before. It was one of the factors that led to the fall of the Wall thirteen years later.

But this was not the reason why I called him a few days ago in Hamburg, where Biermann now lives with his family. We have known each other for more than thirty years, and I wanted to talk with him about America: about the way he, a lifelong leftist, saw the latest incarnation of this complicated country.

Wolf talked about the time in 1966 when his ban by the East German government was still fresh and the folk singer Joan Baez visited him in his East Berlin apartment. That was courageous of her; but more courageous, even foolhardy, was that she insisted he should be in the audience that night at Die Diestel, a small but famous East German cabaret club where she was performing. (She could have filled a stadium, but the East German authorities did not want matters to get out of hand.) Needless to say, the Stasi stopped Biermann at the entrance. Baez, however, had reserved a ticket for him and would not have it: She said that if Biermann was not allowed in, she wasn’t going to sing.

The Stasi guy went to make an urgent phone call—then returned, all smiles: “Mr. Biermann! But of course you’re welcome here.”

Baez announced at the end of her concert that she wanted to dedicate her last song to Wolf Biermann, who was sitting right there among the audience. Then, she belted out, “Oh, Freedom,” the anthem of the American civil rights movement. When she did, Biermann told me on the phone this year, Baez’s interpreter “suddenly couldn’t understand English anymore.”

The cameras filmed the whole thing. “But the East German authorities,” said Biermann, “were very principled. They didn’t just edit out the ending; they didn’t broadcast a single minute of it.”

In 1983 Biermann was a visiting professor at Ohio State University. For half a year he taught courses on the aesthetic theory of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel—in German. I asked him what baffled him most about the United States during those six months. “That it is so beautiful,” he answered. “That all prejudices against America are dog shit. That this is a great country full of wonderful people—people who are curious, who ask you questions, who want to learn things they don’t know yet—and don’t constantly teach you lessons about what you should know.”

Biermann also told me about a Black church service in Georgia. What about it? Well, Biermann—the atheist who didn’t believe in God but in his creation, Man—loved it! “Their fierceness,” he said, “was a good fit for my fierceness, which so often gets on the nerves of Pamela,” Biermann’s wife. “These guys were undamped in the vehemence of the emotions they showed. They were not saintly—they were shamelessly direct, joyful, and aggressive.” There was a slight pause. Something crackled in the transatlantic phone line between Hamburg and New York. “Perhaps in that sense I’m a Black American,” Biermann chuckled.

Perhaps he is. May you live to be 120, my friend.

Hannes Stein, born in Munich, Germany, in 1965, works as a cultural and political correspondent for Die Welt. His third novel, Der Weltreporter (The World Reporter), was published in February by Galiani Berlin.

Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1201-046 / Waltraud Grubitzsch (geb. Raphael) / CC-BY-SA 3.0