Twenty years ago tomorrow the ‘iron curtain’ that had divided Europe in two for twenty-eight years was no more. People streamed over the border and silhouettes danced along the top of the grey concrete barricade. Suddenly the Berlin Wall, which had stood for so long as a symbol of division and hostility, was transformed into a symbol of freedom and of hope.
On that momentous night not a single shot was fired.
On that night not a single punch was thrown.
On that fateful night the people of the GDR, increasingly dissatisfied with ‘real existing socialism’, found confidence in numbers, took matters into their own hands, and peacefully put an end to the Cold War…
Tonight we celebrate this event with a concert, a ROCK concert to be more precise, because we recognise the part that rock music played in the people’s revolution. Tonight we acknowledge the power of music to unite and to inspire, to provoke and to protest…With this concert we pay tribute to the role of rock in the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc.
Following the death of Stalin, the ‘cultural thaw’ of the mid 50s- early 60s gave artists and writers more freedom of expression. Censorship was diminished and more room was given for experimentation and constructive criticism in art. In the GDR this gave rise to a flourishing underground folk music scene. Singers such as Wolf Biermann and Karls Enkel began to engage with feelings of political stagnation and betrayal in protest songs that resembled those of Dylan. But Biermann pushed the boundaries of freedom of expression too far. Despite his outspoken dedication to the socialist ideal officials considered his music too ideologically dangerous and so in 1976, when Biermann was on tour in West Germany, his citizenship was revoked. This event caused a political scandal that many deem to have heralded the beginning of the end of the GDR. But more important than the political scandal caused by this event was the emotional effect it had on GDR citizens. Celebrated novelist Christa Wolf describes the period following Biermann’s expatriation as a time of “existential crisis for the individual”. Suddenly, even the most dedicated supporters of the political ideal begin to seriously question the political means of attaining a socialist utopia.
Perhaps more significant than the music being made within the Soviet Bloc was the influence of rock music and rockabilly coming from outside it. One of my most vivid memories is the first time I heard ‘All my Loving’ by the Beatles. I was 11, in a school gym in Denmark, and the scratchy record captivated me. The effect that this song had on me was powerful and strange. It had me hooked, and it hasn’t let up since. But what was it about rock music that made it so powerful? What was it that captivated me, and a whole generation of Soviet Bloc citizens?
Rock music is the music of rebellion. It questions the legitimacy of authority and celebrates individualism. Because of this the Soviet Authorities considered it decadent, indulgent and ideologically dangerous. In fact, rock music was not as incompatible with the socialist ideal as those authorities made it out to be. Many contemporary rock songs openly criticised the actions and agenda of western politicians and championed the concept of a world based on equality. Ironically, political preoccupation with western rock music, only served to enhance the influence it had in the Soviet Bloc. The tendency of the GDR authorities to read political meanings into the most innocuous of rock and pop songs influenced audiences, who likewise read political dimensions into songs where often none was intended. A simple love song now represented not merely an individual desire but an individual freedom. The very absence of a political statement could make a rock song particularly politically powerful.
It was the freedom represented by rock music that made it so appealing and so significant. In the words of Czech politician Václav Havel the right to rock music was ‘a human freedom essentially the same as the freedom to write, the freedom to express and defend the various social and political interests of society’. Thus, the trial and imprisonment of Czech band Plastic People of the Universe in 1976 represented an attack on freedom of the Czech people. This event was a catalyst in the formation of protest group Charter 77, led by Havel, that campaigned for increased human rights. During the course of the late 70’s and early 80’s there was increasing demand for rock and roll records being sold on the black market. Old and young began tune into Radio Free Europe with increasing frequency. In doing this they became part of the free world, albeit momentarily, whether the system they were living under liked it or not. And, since the effect of this musical connection was neither visible nor quantifiable, there was little the system could do to control it.
Gradually and subtly, rock and roll was eating away at the political system. Music came to mean more to the people than the powers above. And so they played rock records and undermined political authority. These private acts of rebellion brought people together. Rock music united the citizens of the Soviet Bloc with the outside world and, more importantly, with each other.
Every beat helped to loosen the grip that the system had on the lives and minds of its citizens.
Every guitar riff gave the people more courage, bringing them ever closer to 9th November 1989 and the peaceful revolution.
Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we pay tribute to the songs that reunited two sides of a divided world. We pay tribute to the music of rebellion, the music, which questions the legitimacy of authority and celebrates individualism. This is why the GDR considered rock music to decadent, indulgent and ideologically dangerous.
But the truth is that freedom rocks
Be it heavy metal or simple love song -
Rock is a dream of equality that has reverberated around the world and brought walls crashing down
We dedicate tonight’s concert to those people who chose ‘Lennonism’ over Leninism and danced their way through the border control gates on the 9th November 1989. Here’s to them and to the power of music in making freedom a reality.