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There's a Riot Going On:

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Even at 600 pages, the published edition of There's A Riot Going On included only around 75% of the original full-length manuscript. Here, for the first time, is a section that was omitted from the book late in the editing process, and was intended to act as the prologue to the main text of the book.


Thirty-two watchtowers shadowed the border that divided the city. Beneath their gaze ran two twelve-feet concrete walls, flanked by fences of mesh and barbed wire. Between them, armed patrols drove alongside an anti-vehicle ditch and a shallow layer of sand that concealed tripwires and landmines. The 'anti-fascist wall of protection' was officially impregnable.

But the wall that had separated East and West Berlin since August 1961 could still be breached. Although several dozen residents of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had died while attempting to cross to the West, many more had succeeded, leaping from buildings that fringed the wall, or managing to outrun the sharpshooters and dogs of the East German police. In early October 1964, work was completed on a secret tunnel under the border, just wide enough for a man to squeeze through. Two days later, the tunnel was unearthed and destroyed by the authorities, but only after fifty-seven people had taken advantage of this escape route from the GDR's communist dictatorship. They risked their lives to reunite families split by the Berlin Wall; to escape surveillance and persecution by the GDR's secret police; or simply in pursuit of the dream of liberty.

 Cast adrift by the illogical geometry of post-war European politics, West Berlin stood in the heart of enemy territory, a beacon of democracy, capitalism and freedom. For those in the East, it held the promise of exotic and forbidden pleasures, so close that they could almost be tasted. In October 1964, East Berlin was also being tantalised by radio network SFB, which carried the sounds of the West through the wall. The East German authorities made perfunctory efforts to block its signal, as they had with the Voice Of America. But the insidious radio waves carried Western culture into the East, undermining the cultural straitjacket that the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had tied around half of the European continent.

Like Hitler's Nazi Party before them, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe had declared culture a war zone. As early as 1946, when post-war maps were still being redrawn, the chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, Andrei Zhdanov, had warned against Western - in other words, American - attempts to 'poison the consciousness of the masses'. Zhdanov recognised the uncanny power that music had to undermine political purity, lamenting his nation's 'predilection for, and even a certain orientation towards, modern, western bourgeois music, towards decadent music'. 

Zhdanov's concerns were soon multiplied by the pervasive dangers of pop, rock'n'roll and jazz. In 1952, Hungarian dance orchestras were given a secret order to slip American numbers into their repertoire. Any revellers who failed to vacate the dance-floor as soon as they recognised the strains of this capitalist propaganda would be earmarked for investigation, on the grounds that they were potentially 'spiritual agents of the imperialists'.

The death of Stalin in 1953 heralded a loosening of cultural restrictions across the Soviet bloc. Scholarly attempts were made to portray jazz as the music of the proletariat. But the hedonistic sound of rock'n'roll had few defenders. A Soviet military spokesman in 1962 pinpointed the perils faced by 'ideologically and morally unfortified young men and women' when confronted by 'the foul wind wafting from enemy shores'. The result, he declared, must be 'an amoral infection that penetrates us'.

The sexual symbolism was no coincidence. In a network of societies dependent on cultural control, unchecked eroticism represented a source of danger. Yet the 'foul wind' of American music, and the perfume of freedom that followed in its wake, provoked both the body and the mind. Under the assault of rock'n'roll and pop tunes, the dictatorships found their psychological grip on their subjects waning. In the USA, popular music began to offer a vehicle for social commentary and even political protest. Although little of this music was yet 'wafting' across the Berlin Wall, a similar spirit began to emerge in the GDR.

Its champion was Wolf Biermann. Raised in the Western city of Hamburg, he was inspired by events across the border in 1953. In the wake of Stalin's death, East Germans took to the streets, to demand a less totalitarian, more humane form of socialism. 17-year-old Biermann moved to East Berlin, where he joined the Berliner Ensemble and began to write satirical songs about his adopted home. His hero was playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, a fellow migrant who insisted on the right to lampoon the country he had chosen as his own. (Brecht had responded to the 1953 demonstrations by suggesting that if the GDR government could not control its subjects, then it should dissolve them and appoint a new 'people' in their place.) Like Brecht, Biermann refused to toe the party line. On 11 December 1962, he stood before an audience of political and cultural luminaries at Berlin's Academy of arts, and delivered a song entitled 'To The Old Comrades'. Its lyrics lambasted the ruling elite for their cultural conservatism, and called for them to stand aside in favour of youth.

Biermann paid a price for his lese majeste: he was banned from public performances for three months. Then his licence to work was quietly restored, and his profile mirrored the increasingly relaxed stance adopted by the GDR over the next year. In the spring of 1964, he was permitted to appear at a mass rally in East Berlin. It was effectively an admission of his right to disagree with the authorities, who took no action as he appealed for political change.

This mellow breeze of liberalism prepared the way for more exotic winds, carried over the wall from the West. It was the season of youthful exuberance, as British rock'n'roll bands, or 'beat groups', stamped their brand on the popular culture of the West. After West Germany rapidly submitted to the Beatles and their peers, it was inevitable that radio networks such as SFB would carry their music across the so-called 'Iron Curtain'.  The staid dance bands who had dominated youth entertainment in East Germany paled by comparison. Soon the GDR's city cellars resounded to the rhythms that had shaken Liverpool two years earlier, as young men formed 'Beatle bands' in honour of their rebel heroes. The 'Beatle bands' diversified to reflect the full range of styles on offer in the West, from surf guitar instrumentals to raucous rhythm & blues. Records smuggled into East Germany surfaced on the black market, forcing the state record company, Amiga, to act. In 1965, it issued the first 'official' Beatles release in Eastern Europe, without paying a penny of royalties to the group.

The 'Beatle band' phenomenon was now spreading across the Soviet bloc. Some Russian commentators defended the Beatles' intense popularity by emphasising their 'proletarian' backgrounds and praising them as champions of the global working-class. Such analysis was irrelevant to the group's new fans, who began to mimic the Beatles' effervescent fashion sense and reflect their gently mocking view of authority.

 During 1964, economic conditions eased for the first time since the establishment of the GDR. East German civilians could indulge in a spree of consumerism that was mild by Western standards, but heightened the atmosphere of social liberation. The new liberalism was apparent across the arts. Stefan Heym's novels tested the boundaries of the one-party state, while films such as Jahrgang 45 (Born In '45) and Das Kaninchen bin ich (The Rabbit Is Me) incorporated techniques borrowed from nouvelle vague French cinema. The discussions about democracy heard in The Rabbit Is Me caused such a stir that 'rabbit films' became common parlance for any picture that challenged political orthodoxy.

East German society was now growing impatient with its masters. Walter Ulbricht, leader of the governing SED (Socialist Unity Party), was alarmed by the Westernisation of his nation's culture. He scarcely needed the hurried reminder of his duties that came from Moscow. Having released the pressure valves, Ulbricht's regime had two alternatives: allow the GDR to find its own equilibrium, or restore strict controls from above. Under the ethos of the Soviet bloc, the latter was the only feasible choice. Moral justification was easy to find: if current trends proceeded unchecked, then the East would find itself awash in the same currents of drug abuse and sexual licentiousness that the West was experiencing.

 The clampdown came immediately after a performance by the Rolling Stones in West Berlin. The Stones' incendiary brand of R&B music was quite capable of stimulating an audience by itself, but legend suggests that lead singer celebrated his arrival in Hitler's former capital city by goose-stepping across the stage and offering the frenzied crowd a Nazi salute. Police halted the performance after three songs in a vain effort to restrain the fans. Later, members of the audience threw rocks at police officers, overturned cars, and wrecked the trains returning them to the suburbs.

The Stones' Berlin riot secured the final nail in the coffin of East German liberalism. The GDR could not boast any groups as unfettered as the Stones, but the Butlers, led by Klaus 'Renft' Jetzch, ran them close. Their live performances were unrestrained, and even on record, this Leipzig-based band sounded like a manic hybrid of the Shadows, the Beach Boys, and Link Wray. This hotchpotch of influences was defiantly at odds with the culture of communism. On 21 October 1965, Leipzig city officials forcibly disbanded the Butlers, on the grounds that they were damaging the reputation of the nation's artistic community.

Like the Stones' fans on the other side of the wall, the Butlers' supporters reacted with fury. Approximately 1,000 youths gathered in Wilhelm-Leuschner Square to protest the decision. Police released dogs into the crowd, before troops bombarded the demonstrators with water-cannons. 267 people were arrested, many of whom were sentenced to hard labour in the coalmines. By comparison, the forced cancellation of a Wolf Biermann concert at the Congress Hall in Berlin seemed a relatively benign gesture. These were not isolated measures. The state record label Amiga cancelled production of all Western pop releases, while concerts, no matter how low-key, were now monitored by members of the secret police, who reported to Berlin about the material that had been played, and the response of the crowd.

The authorities didn't restrict themselves to assaults on rock'n'roll. At the Eleventh Plenary Session of the SED's Central Committee, held on 16-18 December 1965, all aspects of the arts came under fire. Novelist Stefan Heym was denounced; the producers of the 'rabbit films' were denigrated, and their movies withdrawn from circulation; and strict limitations were imposed on the GDR's radio and TV network. The Eleventh Plenum also devised new regulations to control the nation's popular music. Henceforth, East German groups would be barred from playing 'dirty' music, such as R&B material written by the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Pretty Things. No group could fill more than 40% of its repertoire with Western songs. Bands with English names were forced to adopt more fitting German titles; the highly popular Team Four, for example, were renamed Thomas Natschinski & Gruppe.

 Rock'n'roll inspired the Eleventh Plenum's harshest language. Walter Ulbricht set the tone by declaring that 'The incessant monotony of the yeah, yeah, yeah [a reference to the Beatles' hit, 'She Loves You'] is not only ridiculous, it is spiritually deadening'. Future East German leader Erick Honecker, the founder of the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth, or FDJ) scolded his own organisation for its 'incorrect assessment of beat music'. He perceived a sinister American plot, as 'the enemy exploits this type of music to drive young people to excesses through the use of exaggerated beat rhythms'. Culture Minister Klaus Gysi supported his attacks, noting that the Beatles offered a perfect illustration of 'the class differences between socialism and capitalism'. Overall, he complained, Western influences were responsible for misleading East German youth about the supposed failings of their own culture, and the attractions of the West.

To correct this political error, the FDJ launched a concerned campaign under the title 'Blitz contra NATOsender'. It aimed to persuade East German radio listeners to slant their aerials away from the iniquitous radio waves of West Berlin, and towards the more respectable offerings of the East. Moreover, beat music and the 'Beatle bands' were to be phased out, and their place taken by exponents of the 'Singsbewegung' (literally 'singing movement': in effect, banal ditties with no threatening rock rhythms). 

It was a vivid demonstration of the power of rock'n'roll, even in diluted form, to challenge authority and threaten the political status quo. The rock rebellion was being repelled in the name of a revolution that had decayed into a parody of its original idealism, imprisoning the working-class it had been designed to liberate. In communist East Germany, rock had become a revolutionary force of counter-revolution, a capitalist assault on the stronghold of communism. For much of the next decade, it would occupy precisely the opposite role in the most prosperous bastions of Western capitalism.

copyright Peter Doggett, 2011

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