Germany celebrates Wolf Biermann, the singer who united East and West

Berman said he was distressed at being removed from the country he held so dear to him, for all its shortcomings. While hundreds of people were risking their lives to cross illegally to the West, Berman’s heart yearned for the East. “With me, everything has always been the other way around – that’s almost the basic law,” he said.

Biermann’s dismissal led to protests by East Germany’s most famous artists, writers, and actors, and the government responded with further repression of artistic expression that remained in force until the fall of the Berlin Wall, 13 years later.

After German reunification in 1990 – in which he played an important role – Biermann remained active, albeit less in the spotlight. He continued to be a respected figure in the German left, even as he expressed unpopular opinions among his comrades: he supported the American-led war in Iraq, and criticized the peace movement that grew against it.

Standing in front of the wrought-iron Eagle Bridge in Berlin, Biermann recalled writing one of his most famous songs, “The Song of Prussian Icarus,” after he and Ginsburg crossed the bridge in 1976 and took pictures in front of the bird. Berman recalls that they bet on which of them would bring the iron creature to poetry.

That song, which has become one of his most famous, is Biermann’s archetypal ballad, a lyrical critique of the East German state that notes:

Barbed wire grows slowly
in the skin, chest, and bones
in gray brain cells

As the tour boats passed under their perch on the bridge, the same eagle looked out on a very different world. If Biermann now has an official place in German history, it is because of the role he played in shaping it.

Wolf Biermann: German poet and songwriter

until January 14, 2024, at the German Historical Museum in Berlin;