Biermann, Wolf (b. 1936)

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BIERMANN, WOLF (b. 1936)


German songwriter and performer.

Wolf Biermann was born on 15 November 1936 and grew up in a Hamburg working-class milieu during the Nazi dictatorship. His father, a communist of Jewish origin, was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz when Wolf was only seven years old. In 1953 Biermann moved to East Berlin to finish grammar school and take up studies in political economy, philosophy, and mathematics. Meanwhile he also worked at the Berlin Ensemble of Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), encountered the composer Hanns Eisler (1898–1962), and founded a short-lived "Berlin Workers' and Students' Theatre," which was banned in 1962. From about 1960 he began to write lyrics and songs, heavily influenced by the current French chanson tradition as represented by Georges Brassens (1921–1981).

During the short period of cultural liberalization after the construction of the Berlin Wall Biermann established himself as prolific singer-songwriter, combining poignant polemics against the evils of Stalinist bureaucracy and a politicized subjectivism with the entertaining qualities of an astute singer and guitar player. He also gained recognition in such West German left-wing circles as the Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund, which invited him to tour in 1965. After the publication of some of his lyrics with the West Berlin publisher Wagenbach and an LP record with the West Berlin satirist Wolfgang Neuss (1923–1989), the East German politburo banned Biermann from any further public appearance in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The poems and the recordings of his songs, however, continued to circulate in secret, not least due to his lasting reputation in West Germany, where he was welcomed not only as an accomplished poet and singer but also as the rare case of a leftist opponent to both German states. Although under heavy surveillance by the East German secret service, his apartment in downtown East Berlin Chausseestraße became a hub of communication for political opponents inside the GDR and their contacts with Western artists and intellectuals. In due course the first of a series of five LP records that Biermann published with the American CBS record company was called Chausseestraße 131. The recording and smuggling out of the material was well known to the East German leadership, as was the ongoing underground circulation of his works within the GDR. Although the tone of his criticism became more provocative, Biermann was never formally legally prosecuted in the GDR.

Apart from very rare informal performances in church institutions, Biermann did not perform in public until he was invited by the West Germanmetalworkers'uniontotourinWest Germany. The first concert took place in Cologne on 13 November 1976. When the East German authorities permitted his visit, this was only a part of a detailed plan to get rid of this most irksome and uncompromising East German dissident. Four days after the first concert he was deprived of his GDR citizenship and forced to settle in Hamburg again. The highly symbolic stature Biermann had acquired by now became evident when hundreds of East German artists, intellectuals, and other citizens openly joined in opposition against this measure by petitioning and using West German media channels to publicize their protest. A wave of repressive measures (in particular against the less prominent among such petitioners) was the consequence while at the top level of GDR cultural life the Biermann expatriation was followed by a wave of partly voluntary and partly mandatory emigration to West Germany. This event marked the beginning of a growing and definitive alienation prefiguring the inner erosion of the regime in the second half of the 1980s.

In West Germany Biermann quickly took up engagements as a poet, singer, and commentator on political events, taking part in the fermenting processes of the new social movements of the post-1968 leftism, both in Germany and abroad. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 he immediately visited Leipzig and Berlin to perform in East Germany again. In the years to follow, however, he began to fall out with the left-wing mainstream due to his support of the U.S. intervention in the First Gulf War (1991), which reflected the priority he gave to the existence of the state of Israel. Also his uncompromising stance in dealing with the crimes and failures of the GDR did much to further his distance from the socialist cause (or what was left of it). It is in connection with his part in the effort to work through the past of the communist dictatorship that Biermann still appears in public in his old role as a singer-songwriter, poet, and political entertainer on rare occasions.

Looking back on his oeuvre, his early years up to his expatriation stand out in terms of quality through the high-pitched tone of a politically engaged subjectivity articulated to a wide repertoire of poetic forms from politically engaged poetry in German literature. Biermann can thus be seen in the tradition not only of Brecht (as a poet) but above all of Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), to whom he devoted a brilliant actualization of one his most important poems, "Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen" (Germany, a winter tale). Biermann has been presented with several literary prizes and awards, among them the highly prestigious Georg-Büchner-Preis in 1991, and received invitations as a visiting professor in Germany and abroad. His outstanding capacity to adapt poetry from other cultural, temporal, and linguistic contexts—"translation" would be much too weak a term for this—has also become evident in his rendition of poems from the Russian dissident poet Vladimir Vysotsky (1938–1980), William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) sonnets and, more recently, in German adaptations of Yiddish poetry such as the seminal "Dos lied vunem ojsgehargetn jidischn volk" (Song of the murdered Jewish people) by Yitzhak Katznelson (1886–1944).

See alsoBerlin; Brecht, Bertolt; Dissidence; Germany; World War II.


Primary Sources

Biermann, Wolf. Alle Lieder. Cologne, 1991.

——. Alle Gedichte. Cologne, 1995.

——. Wolf Biermann Edition, vols. 123. His complete collection on CD, available through LiederProduktion, Altona.

Secondary Sources

Rosellini, Jay. Wolf Biermann. Munich, 1992.

Thomas Lindenberger