Wolf Biermann comes from a Communist, working-class family tradition. His father, Dagobert Biermann, a Jewish worker on the Hamburg docks, joined the Communist Party in 1921 and was active in the anti-Fascist resistance of the early and mid-1930’s. Arrested in 1937 for his role in sabotaging arms shipments to Francisco Franco’s Spain, he was sent in 1942 to Auschwitz, where he was put to death in 1943. Although Biermann hardly knew his father, he was reared by his mother and grandmother, both active Communists, in the spirit and image of the elder Biermann. This legacy of political activism and Communism would have a profound effect upon Biermann’s life.
In the spirit of his father, Biermann left his native Hamburg in 1953 to join in the socialist experiment under way in East Germany. There, he finished his high school education and, from 1955 to 1957, studied political economy at Humboldt University in East Berlin. In 1957, he interrupted his studies to take a position as a dramatic assistant at Bertolt Brecht’s theater, the Berliner Ensemble. Although Brecht had died the previous year, this confrontation with his work was of great importance in Biermann’s development. During this period, too, he met Brecht’s friend and collaborator, the composer Hanns Eisler, whose musical influence is readily apparent in Biermann’s songs.
The years from 1960 to 1964 represent a particularly significant period in Biermann’s life. He had returned to the university in 1959 to study philosophy and mathematics, but his studies were gradually replaced by an ever-greater emphasis upon his artistic interests. In 1960, at the relatively late age of twenty-three, he began to write and compose his first songs. The songs written after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 concentrated more and more upon the discrepancy between the promise and the reality of socialism in East Germany and quickly drew the attention of cultural authorities.
In 1961-1962, Biermann helped to found the Berlin Worker and Student Theater and wrote his first dramatic effort for its scheduled opening. His unpublished play “Berliner Brautgang,” a love story set amid the political tensions of the newly divided city, was never performed. Before its premiere, the theater was closed by authorities and Biermann was placed under a performance ban. The ban was lifted again in 1963, but Biermann was excluded from the Socialist Unity Party, in which he had been a candidate for membership.
During a brief period of relative cultural freedom in 1964, Biermann began to make a name for himself as a writer and performer of political songs. He was allowed to undertake a concert tour of West Germany, which established his reputation there as one of East Germany’s leading young poets, and which led subsequently to the 1965 publication in the West of his first book of poems, issued by a leftist publishing house. This brief cultural thaw, however, ended for Biermann as abruptly as it had...
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