Metal Militia behind the Iron Curtain: Scene formation in 1980s East Germany

From Unearthing The Music

The following article was written by Dr. Wolf-Georg Zaddach (Leuphana University Lüneburg / University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar, Germany) for Metal Music Studies (Volume 2, Number 3) in 2016 and is reproduced here courtesy of the author and Intellect Ltd.

Metal Militia behind the Iron Curtain: Scene formation in 1980s East Germany


The article offers results from a three-year Ph.D. research about the East German metal scene in the 1980s. Due to the political circumstances of a divided Germany, two separate German metal scenes arise. In focus will be aspects of politics and cultural transfer and flow as well as practices of the metal scene in socialist East Germany. The socialist state understood metal as a threatening western youth culture, though it quickly became one of the most popular youth cultures during the 1980s. The article explains how the scene developed partly unofficial and illegal ways of scene formation with domestic gigging bands, supra-regional trade-off networks and correspondence system, prospering black markets, and DIY practices. Therefore, the article further points out to the ambiguity of the 1980s East German socialism with the argument that simple concepts of confrontation and conflict between the state and youth culture are too simplistic.

Heavy Metal, with its vital and mobilizing charisma, is of course part of the socialist music culture. (Profil 1987: 15)


Heavy and Extreme Metal in the context of totalitarian states is often seen as a problematic, even dangerous, cultural praxis due to the oppressive and controlling practices of totalitarianism (LeVine 2009; Hecker 2005: 60). Behind the Iron Curtain, in state socialism, metal had a problematic and ambivalent standing. Though the Soviet Cold War politics were unambiguous about western culture in theory, rock and metal scenes flourished differently behind the Iron Curtain (see Ryback 1990). The case of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the state socialist East Germany until 1990, seems especially promising, since there was between East and West Germany the artificial border between socialism and capitalism, embodying the Cold War.

When in 1987 a GDR official says in an interview that heavy metal is understood as being a part of the socialist music culture, and he further describes metal as the ‘contemporary magic formula of popular music’ (Profil 1987: 13), the question rises as to what the role of heavy metal in the GDR was and how it developed. In fact, 1987/1988 meant a turning point, a cultural and in some parts political turn towards a differentiated perspective of contemporary youth culture. Nevertheless, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, heavy metal was always suspected and fought as a so-called ‘extreme group’, among skinheads, punks and gothic fans by the Stasi, the state security service of the GDR. These contradictions played an important role in the scene formation in the GDR.

Wallach et al. describe metal as a phenomenon that is globalized and though ‘embedded in local cultures and histories’ is ‘experienced as part of a complex and historically specific encounter with the forces of modernity’ (2011: 4). By drawing upon their argument for the importance of concrete historical and local studies to understand the development and history of the globalized heavy metal culture, the present article aims to examine the circumstances of heavy metal culture in the state socialist GDR in the 1980s as well as the formation and development of the youth culture and the reaction of the state. There are specific historical reasons why we know internationally known German bands but basically know very little from the 1980s GDR. Nevertheless, the music scenes of the GDR and the German reunification represent some roots of today’s German scene and, more recently, internationally successful German metal bands like Rammstein, whose members grew up and played in the GDR’s underground punk scene.

Heavy and extreme metal behind the Iron Curtain? The aspects of politics, youth culture and cultural transfer and flow

If we understand genres as standing ‘at the nexus of musical form, social organization, and cultural identity’ (Waksman 2009: 6), our focus draws to the social circumstances of producing, receiving and sharing music and, therefore, social formations, which emerge around or in interaction with music and include one’s cultural heritage and the specific forms of adaptation of popular culture. A similar approach was suggested by the Austrian musicologist Kurt Blaukopf, who suggested the summarizing of all music-related practices under the term ‘musical practices’. Sarah Chaker used this approach to examine the black and death metal scenes in Germany (2014). As Keith Kahn-Harris puts it, ‘Genre is both a set of musical events and the social processes and communities that constitute those events’ (2007: 12). In this context, the concrete historical moment and perspective is important for the examination and understanding of genres. This is especially important with a genre like metal, an almost global phenomenon, which manifests differently in local contexts (von Helden 2011). It establishes, at the same time, specific sets of expectations in relation to the detailed, manifold understandings of subgenres and styles, as Robert Walser already argued with reference to Mikail Bakhtin’s idea of genre as a ‘horizon of expectations’ (Walser 1993: 27). The understandings and meanings of the boundaries of subgenres became clearer to scene members over time as a result of discursive practices, though discursive practices themselves are of a potentially mutable character. As the German sociologist Rainer Diaz-Bone has shown in a study about heavy metal as a cultural world and discourse, scene media and especially the editors and journalists of magazines and fanzines play a leading role in the fluid discourse about genre and subgenre (2002: 178–80, 295–96).

In the 1980s the music and its specific sound aesthetics were embedded in an emerging globally spread youth culture, a highly discursive cultural world with flows from ‘more established scenes to newer ones’ (Wallach et al. 2011: 20). As Deena Weinstein put it, ‘the direction of the first phase of metal’s diffusion was from more economically and technologically developed areas to less developed ones. Metal spread in this first phase of globalization behind the Iron Curtain as well as in areas of South America (Weinstein 2011: 44). Media technologies like tapes, radio broadcasting and printing technologies had an important impact in supra-regional scene formations and on the discourse on sound (in metal) (Wallach and LeVine 2011: 120; Weinstein 2000: 145–98). Beyond that, they became important parts of highly specialized social practices like tape trading and underground fanzine productions, and thus enabled a specific cultural transfer of metal additionally to the mainstream media (see Netherton 2015). The various ways and forms of cultural transfer and exchange are described in theory with numerous concepts and terms (see Burke 2009: 34–65). The term ‘cultural transfer’ refers to a concept developed by the French historians Michele Espagne and Michael Werner in the 1980s (Naumann 2012: 80–82; Trakulhun 2007). The ‘cultural flow’ of these media technologies enabled scene members to ‘achieve an externalization of meaning in such a way that people can communicate with one another without being in one another’s immediate presence’ (Hannerz 1992: 26). Yet the specific meanings could vary in different contexts – e.g., understanding the development of genres as contingent processes and, along with that, the need to focus on specific local social practices, places, artefacts and media (Nohr and Schwaab 2014: 142). As Weinstein stated, the history and spread of metal can be understood as a ‘cultural form that continues to generate varieties and hybrids while maintaining a continuity of code and a self-conscious that remain determinative wherever it travels’ (2011: 56).

Politicization and conflict with the state

A discussion of heavy metal, or any popular culture, behind the Iron Curtain should always include an awareness of political circumstances. The Cold War in Germany emerged from the installation of the socialist structures following the Soviet role model in the so-called Soviet occupation zone after World War II (Naimak 2010). ‘Culture’ was from the beginning of the Cold War included directly as a strategy or indirectly as the concept of the enemy’s culture (Gienow-Hecht 2010; Vowinckel et al. 2012, passim; Caute 2003; Eschen 2004). Jazz music, for example, was already politicized as ‘degenerated’ American culture in the Soviet Union back in the late 1920s by famous Soviet author Maxim Gorki, an idea that was recycled after World War II (Lücke 2004). One major consequence of the so-called Sovietization and follow-up laws was the control of the cultural field by the state. The media, the sector of recorded music and live entertainment – all state institutions – worked with the principles of the controlled economy and editorial offices, which were in fact responsible for censorship. This system had a large impact on music-related activities. A band could not simply play a show: before they could enter a public stage, they had to apply at the local classification committee, which examined the group’s live performance, visual appearance and, mainly, lyrics (Larkey 2000; Wicke 1998a). It became a strategy to revoke the performance licences of rock and metal bands, which often resulted in name changes. Another consequence of Sovietization was the collectivization of citizens into unions. The majority of young people (ages 14–25) became automatically members of the youth union, the Freie Deutsche Jugend/Free German Youth (FDJ). The union organized leisure activities and ran local club houses and live music venues, but was mainly intended as an important institution for ideological education. Furthermore, the lives of young people were highly standardized and restricted: access to higher education was not dependent on the individual but on political-ideological criteria and the shackles of governmental ‘manpower planning’, which coincided with the GDR’s ‘first-ever stagnation of labor resources’ in the 1980s (Stock 1994: 138).

Youth cultures, often with origins in democratic western countries, had a difficult standing in socialist countries. The typical youth and counter-cultures after World War II found their way to the people behind the Iron Curtain and attracted many of them, which implied almost always conflicts with the state (Poiger 2000; Fenemore 2009; Jansen 2010). In fact, since the 1950s, western youth cultures were stigmatized and politicized by the GDR government (Wierling 1994). In the socialist reading, a clear friend/enemy schematic structured the discourse and constructed an unambiguous exclusion of everything non-socialist (Stock 1994: 140; Satjukow and Gries 2004). One way of dealing with youth cultures like heavy metal was by attempting to build a connection between youth and criminality by using such terms as ‘Rowdy’ or ‘Rowdytum‘ – a term already used in 1937 to identify anti-Soviet propaganda in the Soviet Union (Weißgerber 2010: 276–83). German historian Thomas Lindenberger emphasized that in that manner often non-political acts and behaviour like vandalism, subsumed as ‘Rowdytum’, came close to political crime – while political crimes were the worst in state socialism. In fact, the penal code of the GDR intended a penalty up to a two-year prison sentence.

The politicization of youth and music cultures started, at the latest, with the so-called ‘Kahlschlag-Plenum’ in 1965, a plenary session condemning western popular music, and the following so-called Order 11/66 in 1966 on fighting political-ideological subversion and underground activities of the GDR’s youth (BStU 2015, my translation), which emphasized the importance of fighting against a western, hostile infiltration of the GDR’s youth. Following this, popular music in general was seen as a product of the enemy, as ‘Waffe der politisch-ideologischen Diversion (PID)’, a weapon of political infiltration. Heavy metal was in 1985 still declared a real product of the political western infiltration, a weapon to target and weaken the GDR’s youth (BStU MfS HA XX 6015, Bl. 157, file from the 26 February 1985), though the first official professional heavy metal of the GDR, Formel I, started in 1983. From the mid-1960s until the fall of the Berlin Wall the constant observation and targeted control of youth cultures was one task of the secret service, the ‘Stasi’. Heavy metal was declared ‘negative-decadent’ and classified as an ‘extreme group’ among skinheads, punks and gothics. Especially ‘negative-decadent’ was a clear reference to the cultural Cold War politics and a typical socialist strategy to denigrate cultural forms and aesthetics. Metal was suspicious of inciting ‘unsocial behaviour’, which meant being oppositional to the legal, moral and cultural norms of socialist society (BStU ZA MfS, JHS 20067; BStU BV Suhl, KD Schmalkalden 60: 2). It is striking how similar the arguments were compared to the discourse of the so-called ‘moral panics’ in western countries.

In 1989, the GDR’s secret service listed 1151 registered heavy metal fans, and in the eye of the Stasi the metal scene was the biggest, bigger than the punk or skinhead scenes (see Table 1). These numbers are based on regular counts of the scenes by observation and denunciations from every local Stasi department, and counted primarily conspicuous fans, sometimes with additional investigations, or assumptions about the sizes of single local fan groups. Therefore, the number does not represent a realistic amount of adolescents who considered themselves metal fans.

Heavy metal fans Skinheads and sympathizers Punks Grufties/gothics
1151 1001 599 435

Table 1: ‘Extreme groups’ and their quantitative appearance in the GDR in 1989, generated by the Stasi (Lindner 2008: 176; Wurschi 2007: 235).

The secret service started observing the scene in about 1982/1983. For the Stasi, the extreme groups had a seditious character. To have a strong argument to fight heavy metal, the Stasi created a connection to fascism that was one of the most powerful arguments in a self-declared anti-fascist socialist state. Therefore, they identified the ambivalent symbols of the metal world; prominent examples would be the SS-like runes in names like AC/DC, Kiss and Slayer, and the bands’ partly military looks. Though the stigmatization as neo-fascist slowly reduced, the Stasi kept believing that the heavy metal fans would remain a danger. Based on sociological studies and the insight that interests in music could change and the boundaries between youth cultures were not necessarily closed, they declared heavy metal fans as the punks or skinheads of the future (BStU BV Dresden Abt. VII 7484, pp. 176–77). In fact, heavy metal fans in the GDR were mostly apolitical, often integrated in everyday life – for example, at work in factories and so on. Being a metal fan was mostly limited to leisure time (Stock 1994: 137). The Stasi slowly recognized that and started to downgrade heavy metal fans as simple sympathizers of a fashion trend, or, in the view of the Stasi, less threatening, as simply music fans, as the file from 1989 shows:

"Their main interest is heavy metal music. That’s why they go to concerts or dance events as a group. Heavy metal fans with partly neo-fascist tendencies are just single phenomena." (BStU HA XX/AKG 80, p. 81)

The secret practices of the Stasi were observation, documentation, arrests and interrogations, threats and intentional subversion of the scenes. The internal guidelines 1/76 ‘about the development and handling of strategic processes’ summarized twelve methods of influence and manipulation, which show the knowledge and abuse of psychological insights (Giesecke 2011: 200). They established worksheets about the infiltration of scenes, and blackmailed and forced fans to become unofficial informants. Key words in these internal documents are (‘vorbeugen’/‘prevent’), (‘zerschlagen’/‘crush’) and (‘liquidieren’/‘liquidate’).

The files also reflect the very different levels of the official employees’ knowledge. Unintentionally funny terms such as ‘Happy Maddel-Fans’ came up. Though some Stasi officers could reach a considerable knowledge level regarding bands and current developments, they might have never heard the music itself. However, the Stasi could rely on academic research. To gain more knowledge about current developments of the youth, the state supported two important institutions: the Center of Youth Research/Zentralinstitut für Jugendforschung, founded in 1966, and the Center for the Study of Popular Music/Forschungszentrum Populäre Musik at the Humboldt University in East Berlin in 1983, led by musicologist Peter Wicke. These institutions were run and controlled by the state and Stasi. Nonetheless, they worked out extensive and remarkable studies, often not officially published due to censorship, and developed to some degree even state critical (not oppositional) and important voices in the discourse on youth culture and rock and heavy metal music.

The discourse on metal in the GDR: ‘Ignoring, excluding, redefining and integrating’

Politicization was not homogeneous. Different institutions of administration, unions and the secret service felt responsible to bring consequences against the scene (Wicke 1998b: 269). They often competed with each other over competence and power. Peter Wicke described the reactions to the establishments of new youth cultures as symptomatic and identified four, often mixed-up strategies: ignoring, excluding, redefining and integrating (Wicke 1998a). The heavy metal culture experienced, in a unique way, those four strategies. After a short phase of ignoring in the early 1980s, the following politicization and criminalization was the excluding strategy for years, with minor exceptions, like the first officially authorized professional heavy metal band, Formel 1. From about 1985 the discourse slowly tended towards redefining and integration. If we understand dictatorship as discourse (Sabrow 1999a), we understand the changes and transformation, the forms of inclusion and exclusion, and the turn towards an inclusion of metal in the official socialist culture of the GDR. The integrative discourse started in the middle of the 1980s, first by the media and journalists. The state broadcasting, especially, faced the wishes of young listeners, who wrote hundreds of letters asking for the airplay of particular metal songs.

The year 1985 saw several journalistic attempts to come closer to the seemingly ubiquitous youth culture of heavy metal. The music magazine Melodie & Rhythmus featured several articles about heavy metal with headlines and subheads like ‘Heavy, hard and wild: heavy metal’, ‘hair-raising’ (Melodie & Rhythmus, no. 3, 1985), ‘At war with Satan’ or ‘With hooks, chainsaws… (Melodie & Rhythmus, no. 4, 1985). Until 1989, fifteen further features about heavy and extreme metal bands like Metallica followed, seven of them about GDR bands and one about a Soviet band. The authors were mainly journalists of the youth radio station DT 64. The articles were remarkably informative and reflected the individual level of long-time journalistic involvement. Also in 1985 a music special discussed heavy metal in the national youth magazine Neues Leben/New Life, published by the FDJ. Here as well, the author remains relatively objective and tries to develop an understanding of the cultural world. The author introduces the topic with stereotypes such as ‘almost painful volume’, ‘aggressive music’ and ‘whipping guitar chords’, fans who ‘scream hysterical “action, action”, and everything just gets louder, wilder and more aggressive’. He admits that there is a boom in the country, and though all that aggressiveness and wildness is abhorrent for the ‘“normal” “listener”’ a fascination remains (Martin 1985: 8). In a typical pedagogical manner, he explains the history and development from hard rock to heavy metal as well as typical playing techniques and performance aspects. In the socialist reading, heavy metal’s success in West Germany is based on its compensatory function for the West German youth. It offers a way to deal with the circumstances of capitalism, ‘youth unemployment, a lack of apprenticeship positions, fear of the future’ (Martin 1985: 9, my translation). One should bear in mind that this argument cannot be read solely as an ideological expression. Remarkably, Robert Walser detects a similar ability of metal to process negative consequences of capitalism and modernity (1993: 171; Wallach et al. 2011: 15–26). To end the article in a positive manner, he quotes the West German band The Scorpions:

"We understand our music as a message, as a positive message. We have something to say with our songs. One of our LPs is called ‘Crossfire’. Basically it is the old story – destroy the cannons, give peace a chance." (Martin 1985: 9, my translation)

By referring to a quote by West Germany’s Scorpions the author offers an argument that allows acceptance and reinterpretation of a youth culture that had been categorized as noisy, mad and inappropriate. The topic of ‘peace’ became a main topic of the GDR’s society in the 1980s (Kowalczuk 2009: 234–38). More than that, it was one of the most important ideas of socialism, as the GDR’s constitution in its second edition from 1974 proclaims (Constitution of the GDR 1974, article 6, par. 2): ‘The close and brotherly [and irrevocable] alliance [with the Soviet Union] guarantees the people of the GDR the continued progress on the way towards Socialism and peace’. By defining heavy metal as an escape from capitalism, not as a result of it, the authors suggest an applicability of heavy metal in socialist countries.

The initial quote by the chairman of the task force for so-called ‘Tanzmusik’ at the Zentralhaus für Kulturarbeit in Leipzig, a task force for dance music, is a result of this changing discourse. In an interview in 1987 he spoke up for respect and tolerance concerning heavy metal. He emphasized that there has been a boom in music in the GDR and that heavy metal would be ‘a current magic formula of popular music’ (Profil 1987: 13). He pushed the integration of heavy metal with arguments that allowed the inclusion of the music into socialist life and culture. Indeed, he emphasized positive aspects and its relevance for a socialist education: heavy metal is vital, bodily activating, has a compensatory function and is therefore an eligible part of the socialist music culture. He even highly values the ‘artistic perfection […] especially when it comes to speed metal!’ (Profil 1987: 14). That expression of an inclusion of heavy metal by an official, not just a journalist, was very important.

The stance of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands/Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) also changed slowly. In fact, the SED may have changed its tactics due to a mass fight between skinheads and punks in East Berlin in 1987, the ‘Zionskirche-Skandal’, which was intensely discussed in the media in East and West Germany. The new strategy, the ‘cultural embracement’ of the youth, tried to accept and integrate the once-denied youth cultures into the official discourse, while at the same time the Stasi intensified its work. One consequence of the ‘cultural embracement’ was an increasing support and freedom for metal bands. For example, in 1988, the GDR speed/thrash metal band Biest could attend and win a prize at the ‘Werkstattwochen’, a national workshop and contest for bands in front of a jury of musicians, journalists and lectors with prizes such as recording sessions. These annual ‘Werkstattwochen’ can be read as another attempt at integration and establishment of a ‘socialist sound’ of heavy metal through a controlled incorporation into the socialist discourse. However, the rules of the most powerful aesthetic concepts, the Socialist Realism and the Socialist entertainment art, were still in charge, and censorship was still active.


The 1151 that the Stasi registered as metal fans were mainly born between 1965 and 1975; the large majority were male apprentices or skilled workers. As a report by the criminal investigation department in 1988, heavy metal fans could be found everywhere in the republic, from big cities like East Berlin, Leipzig or Erfurt to small municipalities in the countryside (BStU BVfS Leipzig, Abt. XX 00126/01, p. 11). Though academic reflections about the GDR often neglected heavy and extreme metal, it was one of the most popular youth cultures of the 1980s GDR, and compared to punk it was less political and oppositional. Alienated from the socialist Utopia, heavy metal fans in the GDR shared a common perspective among other young people. Historians identified the GDR generations born after 1960 as ‘the distant generation’, which was less interested in the public, political life and more on the search for individual freedom and expression (Wurschi 2007: 31–52; Lindner 2003). Youth cultures like heavy metal offered a ‘symbolic dropout’ (Stock 1994; see Saunders 2007: Ch. 2, Pos. 1593), while metal was an attractive and ‘affective alternative for disempowered youths’ not just behind the Iron Curtain (Wallach et al. 2001: 7). This has to be seen in the context of a general paling of the claim to power and the conception of the western enemy in the 1970s and especially the 1980s (Sabrow 1999b: 100).

In a letter to the moderator of a heavy metal programme at the youth radio station DT 64 in early 1988, a female metal fan describes the distancing and further problems:

"I found my way into heavy metal because of a group of boys, who influenced me a lot. Before that relationship, HM [heavy metal] was for me only chaos, meaninglessness, madness, listened by misfits, drunkards and freaks. By chance I got to know some of them more personal. I noticed that many boys have problems with their parents, with girls, in the school, at work. Almost all of them can’t deal with our society. They are sick of all the empty words and phrases about plan realization, as you can read often in the newspapers. Most of them are working and know what it looks like in reality. They try to suppress or drown all these problems in alcohol. That’s why these boys are often so aggressive. A sign of devaluation by fans of other music styles turns often into heavy bashing. Prejudices against other music fans should rather defused. One likes interesting lyrics, the other the aspects of dancing, another is captivated by the incredible sound of an e-guitar. One should not demote other youth because of their different opinions about music and call oneself out the only ‘pure’." (Letter from 2 February 1988, DRA H006-01-06/0039, 200126, my translation)

This female fan, who did not mention her age, expressed several issues of being a fan in the socialist regime: the relation to the permanent, but obvious, ideological influence and politics in state socialism; the relation to other youth and youth cultures; and the individual, more psychological level. In fact, several Stasi files and interviewees report about a general high consumption of alcohol and almost regular conflicts especially at the dance events in FDJ-youth clubs (Saunders 2007: Ch. 2, pos. 1521). The self-image is often described as ‘freak’ (in English), determining the level of emotional involvement, knowledge, and therefore being an insider or an outsider. The other nicknames may repeat scornful stances from outsiders, which she experienced once she was an outsider herself or since she is a part of the scene. Beyond that, the distancing appears almost as an escape into the cultural world of heavy and extreme metal. However, it would be too simplifying to understand the appearance of heavy metal in the GDR exclusively as the youth’s reaction to the oppressive conditions of socialism. What we have to consider as well is the dimension of ‘aesthetic fascination’ or ‘aesthetic attention’, which can lead to different modes of aesthetic perception and an ‘aesthetic of appearance’, as German philosopher Martin Seel puts it (2000), in terms of metal described as ‘sonic and affective overdrive’ by Wallach et al. (2011: 13). This perspective allows us to understand the interest of youth in heavy metal not only as a somehow political stance or reaction, but rather as a part of aesthetic practices of an identity-searching youth without neglecting the concrete conditions of the environment. Artefacts, especially media such as tapes, have an important impact on this. By understanding heavy metal as social and aesthetic praxis, one can understand, for example, the negotiation about the development towards extreme metal within the scene, which led to an increasing split between heavy and extreme metal fans, and also reflects an increasing generational difference of the heavy and extreme metal world. In this perspective, the change of aesthetic practices and discourse was a nexus of the transnational cultural world of metal and the environment of the GDR.

Sharing and trading: Tape trading and black markets

Being a fan in the GDR meant being communicative as well as willing to cooperate with others and to spend a lot of money and time for the passion. Following German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, specific artefacts are required to enable specific social practices (2008: 115). In the case of metal those artefacts are LPs, posters, shirts and magazines, as well as instruments and amplifiers. Those artefacts were important to build up a scene. Metal fans actively built up something by themselves as a counterpart to the state-controlled media, live entertainment sector record studios and distribution. Retrospectively, the scene was organized by partly supra-regional trade-off networks and correspondence systems, prospering black markets and local practices of DIY-fashion production and tape recording.

Due to the limitations of official releases of metal or even international hard rock LPs, black markets with smuggled LPs flourished. A used LP could easily cost about 150 Marks. Trainees, who typically begin their professional education after leaving school at the age of 16 or 17, could earn about 500–600 Marks a month. Smuggling LPs into the GDR was not a trivial act – those accused could face several years in prison and high monetary fines. To avoid getting caught several techniques were employed. Usually, one had to travel abroad to buy LPs and bring them back. Retired persons more often had the privilege to travel – for example, to West Berlin. Letters to their grandparents, often confiscated by the Stasi, show how sophisticated practices of smuggling became. These practices also included tricks to get LPs past the border guards more easily, like a Slayer LP in the cover of well-known Schlager or pop music instead of the original ones. Beyond that, fans tried to get in touch with other fans, bands, or journalists abroad, asking for contacts, shirts, LPs and so on (see e.g. BStU BV Halle, KD Hohenmölsen 1034, p. 4). The Stasi confiscated letters to bands like Tankard in Frankfurt/Main (BStU BV Suhl KD Schmalkalden 558, pp. 21–22) and even to Corrosion of Conformity in Raleigh, North Carolina (USA) (MfS BV Suhl KD Schmalkalden 566, pp. 48–49). It may have been naivete, or a belief in an ‘imagined community’, that drove GDR fans to write to people they had never met, but it may also show a desperation and fear of being not ‘metal enough’. In a continuously growing and developing international scene, the integration into this scene seemed to depend on access to the objects and artefacts of the culture. Such actions, it seems, stemmed from a desire to be a part of an imagined metal community, one that transgresses state borders and unifies members despite the background of the Cold War and Iron Curtain. The general lack of artefacts evoked specific forms of high social standing and dependencies, of social and cultural capital following Bourdieu. For the case of the GDR, Bourdieu expanded his capital theory with political capital (1998). However, the general shortage of goods, and the high amount of delay and waiting time more likely enabled the rise of the ‘administrator of the shortage’, not just politicians, but also normal persons like craftsmen, who simply had access to or offered the desired goods and services in exchange (Wolle 1999: 213–15). Due to the limitations and conditions of unforeseen transfer into the GDR, some individuals of the metal scene could benefit too. Forms of manipulation and corruption were typical practices in everyday life (Kowalczuk 2009: 128–34; Maaz 1991: 65). As one interviewee stated,

"Even if the guy with this new Slayer LP is a complete idiot, you would go visit him with a bottle of wine or so and ingratiate yourself just to have the chance to listen to the music one more time."

Once they possessed original LPs, they tried to build an exchange network with other fans they may not even have seen or met before by simply publishing small advertisements in newspapers. In those networks, they shared their ‘sacred’, long-awaited LPs in order to receive, in return, another long-awaited one. Fans then copied those sources of music onto tapes, developed almost ornamental techniques of decorating, but, more importantly, wrote down every bit of information they had in an almost archival manner. The East German sociologist Manfred Stock, who wrote a dissertation about the GDR’s youth cultures of punk, skinhead, gothic and heavy metal in 1989, acknowledges:

"Astonished the outsider notices the treasure of the heavys [heavy metal fans]; the huge music archive, meticulously arranged file-card boxes, in which the unwieldy amount of LPs, tapes and CDs are catalogued, and which are under the conditions of GDR of a high value." (Stock and Mühlberg 1990: 124)

As Andy Brown states, ‘the wearing of metal t-shirts tends to be viewed as an authentic means of making a statement about allegiance to a music style or particular group’ ( 2007: 72). To deal with the lack of merchandise, fans developed techniques of copying and painting band shirts and LP covers. Craftsmanship skills, part of the general education in school, were used in the metal world to create the best, as close as possible to the original looking t-shirt in town – an activity close to the everyday life concept of Socialist competition. For example, at sport events organized by the youth union the metal shirts became a kind of symbol, an expression of social inclusion and exclusion, marked through the passionate expenditure of wearing the right outfit. As a fan remembers, ‘The studded belts were usually self-made, out of NVA belts [military belts, the author]. I hammered the rivets into that for hours, my parents weren’t very happy’ (quoted in Lindner 2008: 179, my translation)

Figure 1: Self-made t-shirt with a copy of the ‘Hail To England’ LP cover of Manowar (source: the author).

Hard’n’heavy – metal in the state radio

Even though getting copies of LPs or tapes was difficult, depending on their personal networks and monetary background, fans could already listen to metal on the air in 1983–1984. In the 1960s, the state radio launched a daily youth programme, which in 1987 became a twenty hours-per-day station (Larkey 2000: 56).

The level of censorship varied. The youth station was less ideological and it was driven by the conviction that one can reach the youth with politics only if they accept the programme, most importantly the music (Wicke and Müller 1996: 97). For the listener, the radio offered specific programmes for desired titles and complete LP sides, which functioned as a record service. Programmes like Beatkiste would broadcast contemporary pop music. Due to the high requests for heavy metal, Metallica’s Ride the Lightning or Manowar’s Sign of the Hammer, for example, could be listened to, though with some delay, usually several months after the official releases (Breitenborn 2010: 113f.). After the youth station became more independent with extended airtime, and due to the high amount of requests for heavy and extreme metal, a specialized metal programme was established. In late 1987, the programme Tendenz Hard bis Heavy broadcasted every Saturday afternoon one hour of international and national heavy and extreme metal, local tour dates, and a little information about the international scene. This programme is a notable example of the slow change of discourse from ignoring and excluding towards the integration of metal, and at the same time an important medium of cultural transfer and flow (Lindenberger 2004; Hagen and DeNora 2012). It furthermore became an important virtual place of the scene discourse. In fact, the further development of the programme reflects the increasing differentiation of the GDR’s metal scene. While there was a slightly more aged cohort that first socialized with heavy metal, the younger fans got more involved with extreme metal, insofar as they knew about it. Thrash metal, mainly Metallica, Slayer and Kreator, was especially popular. Almost every week, fans wrote to the youth station discussing the past programme and its songs: thanking, complaining, asking for more extreme metal or expressing a lack of understanding of the ‘thrash-chaots’ (DRA, H006-01-06/0035 800167, letter from 5 August 1987, my translation). The term ‘chaots’ was occasionally used by heavy metal fans to talk about thrash metal fans as chaotic persons and their chaotic music. Though the term expressed contempt, it also slightly implied a caring, almost educative, component by the usually older heavy metal fans.

At the same time, it has to be seen in the context of the self-images not just of the metal fans but of other youth cultures as well, like the previously mentioned ‘freak’ was a common and positively used term to talk about metal fans. Also, other youth cultures and movements in the GDR, like ‘Gammler’ (derived from ‘to laze’) or ‘Tramper’ (derived from ‘to tramp’), used terms similar to ‘chaot’. From a cultural practices perspective, it seems that adolescents playfully and ironically transformed once condemning terms by society and the state into positive self-images and description. An example of this would be the aforementioned SED’s plenary session in 1965 (‘Kahlschlag-Plenum’), where the head of the state, Walter Ulbricht, called youth rock fans ‘maniacs’. The fans contributed to the discourse by liking or disliking the omnipresence of thrash in the programme, disliking the music itself because of the lack of ‘musical reflection’ (DRA H006-01-06/0040, 400363, letter from 19 April 1988, my translation), but also calling out for solidarity and tolerance within the metal world:

We really dislike the disparaging comments on thrash and especially on Kreator. We don’t think that saying ‘Kreator is terrible’ goes together with the much-acclaimed tolerance. Even though we are thrashers [thrash fans, the author], we don’t allow ourselves to be driven to say anything like that about other metal styles. (DRA, H006-01-06/0039, 200300, letter from 4 February 1988, my translation)

The active writing of the scene members is also part of a general practice of writing letters in socialism: the so-called ‘Eingabe’, ordinary letters by citizens to the authorities. This official form of communication was often used to participate in political debates or complain about the circumstances of everyday life, and it was ‘indeed explicitly conceived to be an integral part of ‘socialist democracy’ (Fulbrook 2005: Ch. 13, pos. 5853, Kindle edition). Even young metal fans adapted and used this practice to talk about metal and its role, especially in the youth radio station. The following example may be an exception in terms of the writer’s political thinking, but expresses the desire of, and limited access to, heavy metal music:

Clearly, in my opinion heavy metal is discriminated against if you compare the amount of airtime with other popular music. […] As incomprehensible as the ‘aggressiveness-relieving effect’ of heavy metal seems to be for some politicians and journalists, this desire and popularity must be taken into account. The 50 minutes once a week simply ignore this. (DRA H006-01-06/0040, 300533, letter from 21 March 1988, my translation)

In this letter, the metal fan defends heavy metal further as an expression of an independent and open-minded youth, echoing the calls for an adequate socialist personality, a discourse with roots in the 1950s, by arguing and demonstrating that heavy metal fans are politically interested.

While the Tendenz changed towards a stronger integration of extreme metal, the popular programme began to integrate more national bands in the show. Therefore, it is no surprise that the GDR speed and thrash metal band Biest earned third place in the 1987 national rock poll, with a celebration of the heavy metal culture with their song ‘Ich bin geil auf Heavy Metal’/‘I Go Nuts for Heavy Metal’, my translation). One curiosity in the context of Cold War tensions was the broadcasting of the song ‘Bombenhagel’ by the West German band Sodom in early 1989. This anti-war song features a guitar solo that includes the national anthem of West Germany. Afterwards the chief editor of Tendenz, Mathias Hopke, needed to explain and justify himself in front of the station’s director; even the Stasi intervened (Okunew 2015: 36). The accepted argument that the song would be an anti-war song and the transmission of West Germany’s national anthem would help identify the enemy’s anthem in the future shows the ambiguity of and individual double-dealing with the ideological involvement and the possible free spaces in everyday life in late, declining state socialism. In fact, GDR bands were inspired by the song and started to cover it at shows, and could justify themselves with the airplay in the state radio (BStU Karl-Marx-Stadt, KD Klingenthal 22, pp. 70–72). The Sodom example is just one of many examples that show how much the cultural infrastructure was infiltrated as people tried to avoid the states’ power and control (Wicke 1998b: 270).

Figure 2: Self-made concert announcement for the band Manos, confiscated by the Stasi. The genre description reveals the lack of clarity about the spelling of ‘thrash’ (source: BSTU BV Halle, KD Querfurt 53, p. 4).

The scene’s discourse through letters and the metal programme reveals another limitation of the cultural flow: the misspelling of ‘thrash’. While West Germans learnt English shortly after World War II, in the GDR the first foreign language was Russian. Thus, many had problems with understanding English titles, band names and lyrics, because the main language of metal was English (Weinstein 2011: 45). The pronunciation of the English ‘th’ often becomes a ‘t’ by German native speakers (Collins and Mees 2013: 215–16). In the case of thrash metal, this turned into something comical: East as well as West German fans could not always pronounce it correctly, and ‘trash’ metal diffused into the GDR’s scene knowledge: reproduced in numerous letters, even in songs and album titles (‘Let’s Trash’ by Rochus or ‘Crash Trash’ by Biest). In a letter to the radio station, one East German fan even wrote ‘träsh’, which is a combination of the lost or shortened ‘th’ and an ‘ä’ as the closest sounding German equivalent to the English vowel (DRA H006-01-06/0041, 600484, letter from 27 June1988). In West Germany, the increasing numbers of well-informed and internationally networked professional magazines and fanzines like Rock Hard or Metal Hammer, labels and promoters generally corrected such mistakes in the scene’s discourse, though with a delay as well, as I show with a detailed analysis in my dissertation. Behind the Iron Curtain, a fan simply could not check the spelling that easily, which is one reason why the GDR’s scene slowly adapted the correct form.


This article aimed to examine a specific historical and local period of metal scene formation: socialist East Germany until 1989. As shown, despite Cold War politics and huge shortages and delays in artefacts and knowledge, there was an important scene formation. Heavy metal, and later on, with some delay, more extreme subgenres, became a widespread youth culture of a ‘distant generation’, for which metal embodied an aesthetic fascination as well as a ‘symbolic dropout’ from the Socialist regime (Stock 1994). The scene formation also mirrors the translocal aspects of the differentiation of the metal world. Thrash metal especially became a popular subgenre within the scene, and, at the same time, the core and manifestation of the distinction within the metal world, as it was intensely debated between heavy and extreme metal fans. Metal fans in the GDR had to deal with delays and shortages of artefacts and knowledge, but could benefit at the same time from the airplay of metal music at the state youth radio station. The scene members often felt, at least some of the time, a burden and an almost inferiority due to the forced restrictions and limitations. This was also a widespread feeling for GDR citizens. The feeling of inferiority was a result of Cold War politics, which partly prevented and mainly reduced the cultural transfer from western countries into the GDR. Furthermore, this examination has shown that it would be an oversimplification to speak of the metal scene as solely oppressed by the totalitarian character of state socialism in the GDR. Without a doubt, oppressive mechanisms and secret service investigations were the norm and had important impacts on the lives of some fans. Also, a part of the complexity is that the official discourse slowly changed after a phase of ignoring and excluding towards integration within the socialist system. This change enabled further presence and acceptance of metal in the media, especially the radio, and in the field of live entertainment.


  • BStU – Der Bundesbeauftrage für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic).
  • DRA – Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (German Broadcasting Archive).


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