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‘Satan demands total annihilation’: Heavy metal in the German Democratic Republic

From Unearthing The Music

MCB, a heavy metal band from the GDR. Photo sourced from Discogs (originally posted on www.deutsche-mugge.de)

The following article, written by German historian and sociologist Nikolai Okunew, was originally published in Metal Music Studies (Volume 2, Number 2) in 2016 and is reproduced here courtesy of the author and Intellect Ltd.

‘Satan demands total annihilation’: Heavy metal in the German Democratic Republic

Abstract

East German Heavy Metal fans established themselves as the largest or second largest subculture of the GDR in the 1980s. Yet, only few academic works have explored this group. Using sources from the Stasi Record Agency (BStU), documents from the German Radio Archive (Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv Babelsberg) and academic works from ZIJ, GDR’s Central Institute for Youth Research (Zentralinsitut für Jugendforschung), this article describes the practices developed by the East German Heavy Metal fans to cope with their special situation behind the Iron Curtain. The article also explores how the regime tried to deal with these deviant youngsters. Their practices were so closely linked to the party-state that they served no function when the Berlin Wall came down. The subculture therefore shared the same fate as the GDR and quickly vanished in 1989/90.

BREAKING THE LAW

It is April 1988. In a small village close to the Thuringian Forest in Eastern Germany the parents of a 17-year-old boy entered his room for the first time in years. What they discovered were strange marks on the wall: a five-pointed star, an inverted cross and the biblical number 666. Confused and worried, they immediately called the Volkspolizei (GDR’s People’s Police). During the interrogation, the adolescent declared that he had devoted his life entirely to ‘black metal’ music. The policemen dutifully noted eerie names of foreign bands, which the boy had called his personal favourites: King Diamond, Buffary [sic!] and Wayman[sic!].1Asked why he dressed in torn jeans and old T-shirts from the West, the young man explained that he would choose them over brand new clothes from the GDR any day. Yet, a radio station owned by the communist state broadcast a programme entirely committed to Heavy Metal – Tendenz Hard bis Heavy/Tendency Hard ‘till Heavy (1987) – which he proclaimed to be his main source for music (Doc. BStU I).

This case was not an isolated one: in 1988 in a sugar factory in Aschersleben an apprentice used his fingers to write the words ‘The end is near; Satan’s legions of death are ready for war. Satan demands the total annihilation – of the Public Owned Operation [Volkseigener Betrieb]’ in sugar dust. Luckily for historians, events like these were meticulously documented by the secret police Stasi (Staatssicherheit; Doc. BStU II). In the late 1980s, all provinces of the GDR witnessed the emergence of formations devoted to new and extreme forms of Heavy Metal (Doc. BStU II). Since the mid-1980s, the main insignia of the Eastern branch of the Metal subculture – black clothes, engine driver caps and long hair – had become so visible in East German cities that they even drew attention from the western media. Their numbers varied strongly over the course of years and in different regions, but it seems likely that Heavy Metal fans (called Heavies) established themselves as the largest or second largest subculture in the GDR, competing only with Skinheads and Punks (Doc. BStU III).

There are numerous works on subcultures in Eastern Germany, especially about the 1980s’ punk movement.2 Yet, few historians explored Heavies. Notable exceptions are Uwe Breitenborn (2010) and Caroline Fricke (2011). The former focuses exclusively on the aforementioned radio series, Tendenz, and its music, while the latter traces the development of Heavy Metal in the province of Thuringia.3 A comprehensive history of the Heavies linking the programme and the Stasi-records to the subculture remained desideratum. The aim of this article is to describe the Heavy Metal-subculture in the GDR while placing it in the broader cultural context of the later GDR society. Among the primary sources consulted are the files from the Stasi Record Agency (BStU), documents from the German Radio Archive (Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv Babelsberg) and academic works from ZIJ, GDR’s Central Institute for Youth Research (Zentralinsitut für Jugendforschung) from before 1990. The following section will provide a brief overview of the genesis of Heavy Metal in the GDR, while the subsequent section will describe the unique practices developed by the East German branch of the global Heavy Metal movement. I wish to demonstrate how these subcultural practices were structurally linked to the party-controlled environment and that the collapse of the authoritarian rule in East Germany led to the sudden demise of the Heavies.

UNLEASHED IN THE EAST

Heavy Metal was brought to the GDR by the western media. Allied radio stations like Radio im Amerikanischen Sektor (RIAS II; Doc. BStU IV) and British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS; Doc. DRA III) were planning their programmes for young soldiers stationed in continental Europe. While these stations aimed to satisfy troops hungry for musical novelties, they were also entertaining adolescents east of the Elbe river. Additionally, public radio stations from the Federal Republic, such as Bayern 3 und NDR 2, broadcasted weekly Heavy Metal shows, which also reached the DDR youth (Doc. BStU V). But it was RIAS especially – ‘the thorn in the side of the GDR’ – that designed its programmes specifically for young listeners on the other side of the Iron Curtain (Larkey 2007: 92). The introduction of new private radio stations in the Federal Republic caused further competition and the transmission of innovative musical products. These stations combined were able to broadcast a more diverse programme and to pick up on new trends faster than did the inert state-owned radio. The result of this radio-blitzkrieg from the West had a significant influence on East German youngsters and their declining interest in GDR’s state radio. Stasi-head Erich Mielke, among others, was concerned about the negative effects of these developments:

"There has been a tremendous increase in the share of programs marketed specifically towards young people in Western radio and TV-stations. The style and presentation of these shows lead us to believe that the aim is to use every possibility of modern entertainment to depoliticize our youth and cause social inactivity." - (Doc. BStU VI)4

According to Mielke, the biggest trouble caused by this – modern entertainment – was the development of new musical genres and specifically the subcultures linked to them. In the long run, these groups were perceived as shallow and as a threat to GDR’s military strength. This was a highly political matter, especially since the youth were considered to be the party’s Fighting Reserve (Kampfreserve). This train of thought is notable insofar as Mielke and others stopped believing that western broadcasting stations tried to politicize the citizens of the GDR against the party, but that they were now trying to depoliticize and paralyse them. Similar to the 1950s and 1960s, when jazz and rock were considered weapons in the Cold War, entertainment was once again viewed as a threat to the communist rule.

Starting in the early 1980s, the Stasi records document the full array of western subcultural movements in the GDR. Among them, punks, skinheads and heavy metal fans were the most prominent. Those phenomena were being handled differently on different political levels. On the one hand, the Volkspolizei and the Stasi strictly enforced law against deviant youngsters. On the other hand, there were attempts by the Free German Youth (FDJ) – the state’s socialist youth organization – and by younger apparatchiks to integrate the new stylistic developments into socialist aesthetics. It was this latter development that made it possible for the programme Tendenz Hard bis Heavy – dedicated exclusively to Heavy Metal – to exist in the socialist state radio in the late 1980s.

Radio waves traversing the Iron Curtain brought Heavy Metal to the GDR, but who were the people eager to listen to music that most people considered nothing but noise?

THE HEAVIES

In the late 1980s, extensive scientific liberties were granted to the ZIJ. The party acknowledged that it had lost its grip on the youth, and the ZIJ was given the task to figure out what exactly was going on with all those youngsters in strange clothes listening to even stranger music. In this context, several studies confirmed that the overwhelming majority of Heavy Metal fans in the GDR were considered proletarians (Steiner et al. 1999). Moreover, the majority of Heavies seem to have been apprentices (Lehrlinge) without higher education, working mostly in areas of manual labour. For example, in 1986, the Stasi arrested 36 Heavies after a concert. The records document the profession of eighteen of them – all were apprentices (Doc. BStU VII). Judging from the letters sent by the listeners of Tendenz to the station, most of them were either young workers (Doc. DRA II) or conscripts (Doc. DRA III). The insight that Heavy Metal was mostly consumed by young ‘proletarians’ was considered problematic by party officials because one of the main narratives legitimizing party rule included the notion that the SED was especially devoted to young members of the working class (Görnandt 1989: 142). It is remarkable that Deena Weinstein’s observation of the ‘blue collar’ habitus of Heavy Metal in the United States also applied to the GDR, although the social stratification differed from those of western societies (1991: 99).

High school students seem to have been mostly excluded from Heavy Metal in the GDR. Those still at school simply could not afford the insignia of Heavy Metal, let alone vinyl records and tapes from the Federal Republic. Women had to dispose of what was considered to be ‘feminine’ when trying to become a part of Heavy Metal (Steiner et al. 1999: 162). Furthermore, the insistence on certain qualities associated with male gender stereotypes, such as high tolerance for sound intensity and alcohol, a lack of respect for authorities and physical strength, were closely linked to the exclusion of homosexuals and Grufties – the Eastern blend of New Romantics and Goths (Reibetanz 2009: 69f., 149).

The proletarian nature of GDR’s Heavies is to an extent confirmed on a textual level. To gain some acceptance and recognition from cultural functionaries, most lyrics sung by the GDR bands had to be in German and sometimes in ‘proletarian’ dialects from Berlin or Saxony. They dealt with subjects directly linked to the world of their predominantly working-class consumers and accepted aspects of proletarian culture. Alcohol, male sexuality, motorbikes and conflicts with authority at home or at the workplace were the most prominent themes. State censors read lyric sheets very carefully and exercised their control mostly on this traditionally well-known field. As a result, lyrics rarely raised political questions openly, but it is still doubtful whether this practice was effective in keeping the Heavies in check. First, because there was little significance to lyrics in 1980s’ Metal to begin with, and second, because a fair share of the songs performed live were cover songs with lyrics in English and in vocal styles that were increasingly hard to understand. Heavies were simply less interested in the meaning of the songs than in their sound (Doc. BStU VIII; Weinstein 1991: 34).

Why was Heavy Metal so popular among the apprentices in the GDR? A letter written to the Tendenz by a young and newly introduced Heavy Metal fan establishes a connection between the working and living conditions in Eastern Germany in 1988 and the increasing number of Metal Fans:

"Heavy Metal to me was always chaos, senselessness and mischief. Music for bums [Asoziale], drunkards, maniacs and lunatics. But by chance I met some of these boys. I realized that many have problems e.g. with their parents, with the girls, in school or at their apprenticeship. Almost all of them fail to function in our society. The empty words about the plan and its fulfilment as you can read them frequently in the press just make them sick because many of them are already working folk and they know what it is really like. They push all those problems away; they try to drown them in alcohol. This is why these boys seem to be so aggressive." - (Doc. DRA IV)

In the newspapers and on TV and radio, values and morals were propagated that had no connection to the harsh reality young people experienced at work. Propaganda and media worked almost exclusively on an intellectual level: excessively long speeches, certain Marxist idioms and a very selective vocabulary defined politics and the simulated public pseudo-discourse alike. Seeking direct sensory experiences, the wretched state of socialism turned to Heavy Metal (Stock 1995:76). Music, live and at home, was now played louder than anything else in the GDR (Reibetanz 2009: 83–84). To enhance the music’s bodily effect, alcohol was consumed in high quantities: ‘at dance events of this [Heavy Metal] kind every attendant on average consumed 3-4 bottles of beer and not less than 8 4cl shots’ (Doc. BStU IX). Especially and not surprisingly, after nights of Heavy Metal and heavy drinking, the probability of brawls with and without the police rose (Doc. BStU X). Especially during Thrash Metal concerts, mosh pits occurred, which further intensified the corporal dimension of these events but what also were likely to irritate observers who had never seen anything like this way of dancing before (Doc. BStU XI).

The GDR sociologists even before 1990 concluded that the popularity of Metal among the working class youth was the result of an increasing social differentiation. After western media had broken the party’s cultural monopoly, Heavies had just chosen what suited their needs best: music that offered direct bodily participation (Steiner et al. 1999: 27f.). According to this development, the sociologist Holm Felber observed that young college students and academics preferred intellectual singer–songwriter material and protest songs:

"We can deduce that adolescents with higher education face reality and choose popular music using incorporated and habitualized techniques which are discourse orientated, judicial and rational." (1991: 81f)

Concluding from this, Felber assumed that Heavies – that is, mostly people without higher education – preferred music expressing emotions usually suppressed in party discourse. Just like horror movies were absent in the socialist cinema, certain negative emotions had no place in GDR’s music. Optimism was party doctrine. Extremely high-pitched vocals, screaming and growling offered a way out of this strictly regulated soundscape. Fear and anger could easily be transmitted through Heavy Metal even without any knowledge of the English language or any sort of musical education. The timbre of both instrumentation and voice were sufficient to understand the performer’s emotional state. Lyrics did not play an important role and most of them ‘are best understood as a loose array of fragmentary and suggestive signifiers’ anyway (Weinstein 1991: 34). Having explained who was listening to Heavy Metal in the GDR, the next sections will focus on a description of the subcultural practices themselves. They are mostly based on documents from the Stasi Records Agency, but also on sociological data previously gathered by Reibetanz, Steiner et al. and Stock.

OUTFIT

In 1986, a Stasi agent tried to describe the typical outfit of Heavies: "Followers of the so called Heavy-Metal-Music (extreme hard Rock); Similarities to western ‘Biker-culture’ – Leather clothes; leather hats, riveted jackets and pants[;] normal to medium length hair." - (Doc. BStU XII)

Heavies clearly strove to look like their western cousins. Images of these were available through western magazines, posters and album covers. As all this was hard to come by, the Tendenz played a role as a marketplace for goods that had been smuggled over the border – mostly from West Berlin (Doc.DRA V). The result was that Heavies resembled their western counterparts. Photographs in the Stasi archives confirm this (Doc. BStU XIII) and so did a visitor from West Berlin who was almost unable to distinguish between Heavies and ‘West-Bangers’ (Anon. 1987: 19–21). The attire was unsurprisingly understood as a matter of distinction: ‘I just like looking different in expensive leather clothes and rivets’ (Doc. BStU XIV). However, this distinction was never understood as a political or intellectual struggle: ‘We are just different from the other people around here’, noted a young man from Leipzig during a Stasi interrogation, expressing his disgust of Punks and the majority of the GDR society alike (Doc. BStU XV). Heavy Metal was insofar different from other subcultures in the GDR as its followers linked themselves solely to the music and not to higher political or ethical goals:

"Well [Skinheads] want to express, well I don’t know that they are Skinheads, that they are Germans. Punks, they want to show they are trash or whatever. We Heavies want to express that we love the music, that we like it and that it’s okay to dress like this." -(Steiner et al. 1999: 164)

Not everything that was needed for the outfit could be bought in the GDR. Heavies had to travel East and maintain relations with the West to acquire the Heavy Metal style (Doc. BStU XVI). Since this was rather expensive, a good part of the items needed were self-manufactured:

"Everything a Heavy-Metal-Fan wants came from the West. Here in the East we didn’t even have magazines, no clothes, we made them ourselves, somewhere, in private. If we had some money we went on holiday in Hungary and bought our stuff there." - (Stock 1989/1990: 140)

In trying to manufacture needed products on their own, Heavies proved to be very inventive: band-shirts and patches were made using overhead projectors, female contract workers from Vietnam helped them sew pants and jackets, soviet tracer ammunition was used to make bullet belts and shirts were painted black using charcoal tablets (Reibetanz 2009: 60–62). Rivets were so essential for the outfits that they were stolen in such quantities that problems in upholstery production arose because of their absence (Doc. BStU XVII).

During all this, Heavies profited from a school education that underlined the importance of mechanical skills – partly because the party understood that the population had to compensate for the constant lack of modern, i.e., western-styled clothes, in the GDR.

HEAVY METAL AT WORK

Heavies often underlined that their hobby was exclusively limited to their spare time and that it had no political implications (Doc. BStU XVIII). This is significant because in the state’s Marxist ideology the work was considered essential to human nature and because wilful absence from a designated working place was a crime in the GDR. Compared with other subcultural movements, Heavy Metal did not encounter as many problems as did other groups because Heavies were less likely to completely drop out from work. The Stasi even reported on a case of a group of Heavies expelling a member because he had lost several jobs and stopped looking for a new one (Doc. BStU XIX). Wurschi accounted for Thuringia – where Metal was the largest subculture – that Heavies were very well-integrated in the working place and that they had come to terms with ideological newspeak (2007: 31).

In 1988, a Stasi officer reported on two Heavies from Magdeburg in an old-fashioned manner defined by the ideological framework of class struggle: Both individuals mentioned above belong to a group with an American name that roughly translates into German to Schwermetaller [literal translation of ‘Heavy Metals’; NO]. They express their commitment to this group through their outfit and their habitus. Both dress in military style and hold fascist attitudes. - (Doc. BStU XX)

The quoted passage is not in itself surprising, but a small detail on the record is rather interesting. The last sentence was crossed out – probably by a higher ranking officer – and replaced with the words, ‘No incident with above mentioned individuals at workplace’ (Doc. BStU XXI). If the Heavies confined their activities to their free time and dressed normally during working hours, even the Stasi tended to tolerate them (Doc. BStU XXII). Additionally, not wearing their precious leather jackets and other markers outside their free time considerably lowered the risk of losing them through confiscation. This again made it possible for Heavies to be less visible at work. Just like in western countries, the 1970s and 1980s in the GDR were defined by an increase in the consumption and a decrease in working hours. The male apprentice had six hours of leisure time on average per day – plenty of time to fill with the little entertainment provided by the party (Görnandt 1989: 139). Another change was the role ascribed to work in general: Wurschi describes the generation born between 1965 and 1971, which was the generation most Heavies belonged to, as a distanced generation. This generation strove for individualization and self-realization despite the communist rule – not through it and its organizations. The main techniques to cope with the party rule became adjustment and inner immigration. In opposition to the GDR ideology, people increasingly understood work as a necessary discomfort and not (as preceding generations had) as part of the process to create a classless society in the future (Wurschi 2007: 42).

The ever-new variety of musical trends and subcultures made the individualism that the distanced generation longed for possible. A job or an apprenticeship was crucial to participate in this individualization that functioned mainly through consumption. The distanced generation worked hard, not for the state, but to be able to consume what was swept over from the West and to experience a form of collective individualism in their respective subcultures. Specifically, Heavies needed money for tapes, vinyl, travelling, concerts and clothing. As a result, Heavies rarely caused trouble at the working place, which contributed to the assumption of the GDR historiography that they – e.g., in opposition to punks – were apolitical in nature. Furthermore, external pressure from superiors at work to adjust behaviour and clothes stabilized the self-image of Heavies, which oscillated between hero and pariah (Stock 1989/1990: 135). In the GDR, work and Heavy Metal were compatible.

MEDIA

The collective experience of listening to music was the main activity for Heavies (Steiner et al. 1999: 160). However, it was not entirely passive: trading, recording and copying were important aspects of the process (Doc. BStU XXIII). ‘Back in the GDR, getting stuff was rather difficult. We mostly taped what was on the radio or copied tapes in the 100th generation’ (Rosenberg 2009: 8). By the 1980s, tape recorders were widely common in the GDR and very well liked. Felber determined that in 1988 around 80 per cent of all tapes circulating in the GDR were self-recorded (1991: 56). The process of collecting tapes was important to Heavies since the size of the collection and the musical knowledge linked to it defined the prestige inside the subculture (Stock and Mühlberg 1990: 125). Tapes constituted a form of subcultural capital. Therefore, individuals who knew ways of importing vinyl from the West – e.g., through the help of relatives – were especially important figures in the scene. Additionally, trading circles existed spanning the whole GDR and were connected to the global tape trading networks (Doc. BStU XXIV). Apart from the radio and tape-trading, trips to Hungary or Poland were the third major way for Heavies to acquire new material.

The Tendenz was a crucial institution for every serious collector because new songs and whole albums were broadcasted there frequently. It was also the place to go public for traders, sellers and buyers (Doc. DRA VI). In reverse, (illegally) recorded demo tapes of the GDR bands reached the DJs and were subsequently put on the air, which tremendously boosted the popularity of these bands (Doc. DRA VII).

The tape-trading practices point to two important aspects. First, it was nearly impossible to be a Heavy without being part of an extended and working network of likeminded people to compensate for the shortage of new music and information. These networks formed communities and made it possible to fulfil individual needs. In short, this form of individualism needed collectivism. The networks were fairly big and it was possible to participate in them without being personally acquainted with its members – structurally and aesthetically they constituted a semi-public sphere mostly detached from the simulated public orchestrated by the SED. Second, tape-trading is an example of how technological developments directly influence human society. Without (C-60) tapes Heavy Metal in the GDR could not have existed in the form it did. Their size and characteristics – especially the possibility of erasing and copying music– offered a way to work around the state media monopoly. Paradoxically, C-60 tapes were introduced by the party because it had finally acknowledged that new technologies from the West could not simply be ignored but were needed to appear competitive with the capitalist society. As a result, the SED provided the means to undermine its own cultural policy. Additionally, since most transactions were processed without money being involved, tape-trading – similar to certain practices connected to samizdat publications – further helped strengthening a community in the Maussian sense (Komaromi 2009: 657).

LIVE SHOWS

The situation of the state-organized venues such as youth clubs and open-air theatres in the late 1980s was rather chaotic. Formally, the SED had passed over the control of state-owned clubs to FDJ since it had become apparent that a micro-management was impossible for the party (Wicke 1998: 302). This became a problem, since FDJ members and club managers had been exposed to the western media in a way similar to their peers, and many of them had started to sympathize with the alienated members of the subcultures. Club managers had therefore often lost interest in managing their venues in an orderly socialist manner (Doc. BStU XXVI). In addition, countless semi-official clubs in churches, cafeterias, bars and allotments had emerged all over the country, in the metropolis of Berlin and the countryside alike (Doc. BStU XXVII).

Local party elites ended up with an enormous amount of power to either allow concerts in their districts to happen or to use police forces to arrest young – and rather easily targeted – Heavies right at the train station. As a result they experienced these decisions as frustrating arbitrariness since it was hard to predict whether an announced concert was going to happen or not. Bands eager to get permits to play faced a similar situation. Regional committees decided whether bands were allowed to perform live or not. Since a central party guideline was missing, those committees ended up in a position of tremendous influence on the cultural policy in their district. Nevertheless, bands could avoid censorship by changing their names or try to audition in another district if their first attempt failed (Doc. BStU XXVIII).

In big cities like Berlin, Heavy Metal shows were quite rare because the Stasi considered them a security risk. As a result, Heavies and bands had to travel a lot (Doc. BStU XXIX). Their destinations were usually located in the periphery since local security forces were expected to lack information on the scene and what bands were allowed to perform or not. For professional bands, this meant playing in front of rather small audiences as often as twenty times per month. Here again the Tendenz played an important role because concerts were announced there – often on deliberately short notice to avoid administrative intervention (Doc. DRA VIII).

To Heavies, the concert experience was as important as the collective consumption of music in their homes (Steiner et al. 1999: 43–45). Here it was possible to show publicly, collectively and excessively that one was part of a subculture. Heavies danced, drank and sometime even consumed marijuana (Anon. 1987: 19–21).

At the same time (i.e., under the influence) fights between Heavies occurred regularly (Fricke 2011: 367). Sometimes even the state security forces were attacked (BStU Doc. XXX). Alcohol, group dynamics and an openly repressive police formed an explosive mix and sometimes caused the crowds to chant explicit political slogans such as ‘Die Mauer muss weg!’/‘The Wall has to go’ (Doc. BStU XXXI). It is difficult to assess how many concerts ended in riot-like incidents and confrontations since the files in the Stasi archives tend to focus heavily on stories about violence and disorder. On the one hand, it seems plausible to assume that the majority of concerts played out just like rock shows in the West. On the other hand, popular groups like Biest, who voluntarily or not wrote lyrics opposed to alcohol, induced violence in the scene (Doc. BStU XXXII). Even if alcohol and violence were problems during Heavy Metal shows, it is questionable whether Heavies were the exception or the rule in this regard. After all, surveys from the late 1980s revealed that half of GDR’s youth was involved in one or more violent confrontations, which indicates that in their environment violence and substance abuse were almost ubiquitous (Brück 1991: 92).

The Heavy Metal heroes from West-Germany, Great Britain or the United States never played in the GDR. As a result, around 50 per cent of the songs played live by the GDR bands were cover versions trying to compensate for the absence of international bands. Technical and legal difficulties made it hard for Eastern bands to keep up with new extreme musical development from the West. Lacking the possibility to fully experience the musical transgressions of the 1980s, Heavies sought to transgress the spaces ascribed to them by the cultural officials and the party. Heavy Metal was only interesting if it was dangerous, and, in a state where the ruling party tried to occupy all spheres of society, danger was always connected to confrontations with the SED. One had to cross the boundaries of what it allowed, granted and secure (Kahn-Harris 2007: 33f). Here we might find the answer to the question why Heavies did not just enjoy their concerts and went home afterwards but kept clashing with party rule. From the Heavies’ perspective the free spaces opening up for them were either a sign of the party’s weakness or the result of personal and collective victory against the state and its security forces. The state’s power seemed subjectively challengeable either way.

HEAVY-POLITICS AND THE STASI’S PERSPECTIVE

After extensive lecture on the sources it is hard to presume a political nature of Heavies’ activities. Their clothing and music mainly served personal pleasure but it was here that conflicts with the party – which denied the existence of autonomous spheres of privacy – arose. Disregarding the bond between party rule, class and privacy by acting out personal preferences ultimately posed a challenge to one of SED’s central doctrines and ultimately to party rule itself: if individual choices were allowed in culture, why not in education or economy and ultimately in politics? From this perspective, Stasi’s grim fight against Heavy Metal and other subcultures deriving from the West was neither a waste of time nor irrational. It was consequential (Bathrick 1995: 240). Additionally, intergenerational preferences in habitus, music or fashion were not – unlike in the West – negotiated or debated on a mostly familial level since these were not regarded as purely private matters. Instead of their parents, Eastern Heavies faced the Stasi and the party in their fight for recognition (Wurschi 2007: 52)

Stasi’s perception of Heavies was of course not objective but linked to the officers’ own cultural preferences, milieu and education. Sometimes the files are so heavily biased that they reveal more about the checkist’s mindset rather than about what he was observing (Doc. BStU XXXIII: BStU). The Stasi read the appearance of Heavies as stylistically inspired by uniforms of the Third Reich (Doc. BStU XXXIII).

Black clothes, rivets and skulls were understood as symbols of fascism, militarism or sometimes simply western decadence (Fricke 2011: 368). Heavies were therefore classified as right-wing radicals supposedly controlled or at least influenced by western propaganda. Stasi’s persistence on outdated patterns of perception diminished the ability to analyse the situation even though massive information on the youth in the GDR was gathered over the years. Just like in Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a thin Man’, the Stasi knew something was happening but did not know what it was. In 1986, an attempt was made by the Stasi to analyse the entire data available on the situation of the youth in the GDR. The Heavies were described as follows:

"Especially the […] negative adolescent skinheads and Heavy-Metal-fans in GDR have a mindset and behavior strongly pointing to a glorification of fascism. These negative adolescents are characterized by a strong willingness to use violence, by nationalism, by hatred of foreigners and by propagandizing of anti-communist and anti-Soviet ideas. These groups bear special names which are often displayed on self- made patches on their clothes. For example Iron Fist and Black Eagels [sic!] etc." - (Doc. BStU XXXIV)

Certain symbols of power like fists and eagles were always related to Heavy Metal. In Stasi’s perception they had a political connotation since in their eyes many if not most of the Heavies were in fact fascists using similar symbols like the Nazis did. This limited capability of understanding modern phenomena in GDR’s youth is not exclusive to Heavy Metal, nor even to subcultural movements. For example, DJs in clubs were to follow a guideline from 1973 (Gbl. der DDR Teil I Nr. 38 vom 27, August 1973) regulating what music they were allowed to play. During a party in 1986 this guideline was ignored and several banned artists were played. The files offer a detailed list of artists and Stasi’s diffuse explanations why those artists were in fact banned: Dschinghis-Khan (Anti-Soviet; Violence); Village People (Racism, Violence); Kiss (fascism; use of SS-runes; performances in SA-uniforms/Punk-Rock), Frank Zander (Horror), Heino (Nationalism); Udo Lindenberg (anti-GDR agitation) (Doc. BStU XXXV). The Stasi completely failed to understand and evaluate the popular music of the 1980s properly. Adjustments were made and so observations corresponded with their expectations that everything that was new, unusual or considered aesthetically unpleasant was in fact of fascist origin and aimed to destroy the workers’ and peasants’ state.

The failure of the Stasi became so apparent that in the late 1980s stronger cooperation between the agents, sociologists and criminalists were established. This resulted in a slightly better and differentiated understanding of the youth subculture.

"We have to distinguish between mere fans of Heavy Metal music showing their allegiance to this kind of music only on certain occasions like dance evenings, discos and concerts and those who practice Heavy Metal as an aggressive and a social lifestyle." - (Doc. BStU XXXVI)

The acceptance of Heavy Metal fans that pursued Heavy Metal merely as a hobby meant that the Stasi could now focus on more apparent threats but also on an erosion of central beliefs of how privacy, security and society were connected in a socialist state. Now the Stasi increasingly accepted that individuals had personal preferences in fashion and music. The phenomenon Heavy Metal itself was no longer fought as a whole, but single aggressive delinquents were localized before specific strategies for each of them were put in place (Doc. BStU XXXVII).

Many Heavies were under surveillance for years; their phones were tapped and informers were employed even though the Stasi agents often noted that observed Heavies were neither dangerous nor involved in criminal activities. Here again, regional differences seem to matter. Heavies in Saxony were under great pressure until the Wall came down, while the Berlin scene was increasingly tolerated, possibly because a very visible political opposition that had to be dealt with emerged in the capital. Jens Gieseke pointed out that for the Stasi too, a command economy was at work and that the quality of informers and arrests mattered little compared with the quantity. Groups like the Heavies were simple to identify and it was always possible to find legal ground for an arrest. Therefore, Heavies were easy targets for agents looking to fulfil their monthly quota (Gieseke 2003: 232–36). Wurschi further points out that the idea that every Heavy and every Punk was a fascist agent is part of a ‘the more danger the more honor’ attitude of the Stasi. In this sense, their ‘fight’ against these groups proved not to be a petty one but an important part of imagined global class warfare (Wurschi 2007: 64).

The Stasi was increasingly confronted with a youth that derived its styles from the consumer societies of Germany and the western World. GDR’s modest wealth enabled groups like the Heavies to become a part of global subcultural developments (Stock 1995: 76). In the long run, the Stasi failed to fight these groups on a large scale. Only local groups were successfully disintegrated by the secret police, but by the late 1980s the Hydra already had too many heads. The massive numerical growth of the Heavies but also of groups following openly racist views are the best proof for this.

(SUBCULTURAL) COLLAPSE

Heavy Metal crossed the Iron Curtain via airwaves and was met by open ears in the GDR. For East German Heavies it was hard but not impossible to consume the music and to adopt correlating subcultural practices. Just like in the West, Heavy Metal was an extreme and sensual experience and a distinction from the mainstream society. As opposed to the situation in the West, the conflicts arising from this were not fought out on a private level, but between the Heavies and the party’s security forces and cultural officials. This process induced a stronger political notion into Eastern Heavy Metal and helped stabilizing Heavies’ self-image. The party trying to outlaw Heavies forced them to develop certain practices specific to the GDR. Subculture and hegemonic culture were closely intertwined. Tape-trading is less important if one is able to simply order albums via catalogue, shirts do not have to be self-made if they are sold after the show and usually no one in Western Germany has to fear to be beaten up by the police for long hair. The Heavies of the GDR are only understandable in the cultural context the ruling party created in the GDR. After the demise of the party and the collapse of the state, the once huge Eastern German Heavy Metal scene almost completely vanished in a matter of months. Its subcultural practices served no function in a capitalist society (Weinstein 1991: 118).

NOTES

  1. English was not a priority in the GDR’s school curriculum, which might have caused the confusion of the policemen and/or the boys’ flawed pronunciation. It seems plausible that the bands mentioned were Swedish Bathory and British Venom (and Danish King Diamond)
  2. An overview can be found in Wurschi (2007: 12).
  3. Wolf-Georg Zaddach (Weimar) is working on closing the existing academic gap with his dissertation.
  4. All quoted passages were translated by the author with the generous help of Mila Hadzhiracheva (Cambridge) and Thore Menze (Berlin)

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