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the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

A photograph of two completed 'People's radio sets' produced at the Huth-Apparatebau factory, Hanover, ready for the German market.

Two completed 'People's radio sets' produced at the Huth-Apparatebau factory, Hanover, ready for the German market.

Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum (photo reference: BU12377)

articles > Periphery and centre...

Periphery and centre: German musicians in the early Cold War

Toby Thacker, University of Wales, Swansea

In the last few years, music has been drawn into our understanding of the Cold War. From a number of perspectives, historians and musicologists have used music, and debates about music, to cast light on gender identity, censorship, cultural regulation and generational conflict. We are now used to seeing particular types of music, like jazz, rock 'n' roll, and avant-garde music, as important carriers of a symbolic language in the Cold War, and to the idea that they were manipulated on both sides of the Iron Curtain to further larger objectives. (1) Individual musicians, like Shostakovich, have been intensively studied as iconic figures in the conflict between East and West. Using the highly charged example of Germany in the first decade of the Cold War we can also examine a number of musical controversies to illustrate relationships between Cold War centres and peripheries.

Before proceeding, was Germany at the periphery or the centre? If we view the Cold War as a trial of strength between the two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, and their associated client states, Germany, divided since 1945, and occupied by those two opposed alliances, was very definitely on the periphery. Neither the German Democratic Republic (GDR) nor the Federal German Republic in the early Cold War had significant military forces. Memories of Nazism were still strong, and neither German state could hope to play an influential role in the Cold War in ideological terms: both had first to establish some kind of respectable post-Nazi identity. On the other hand, this was geographically very much a centre of the Cold War. The tanks and artillery of NATO and Warsaw Pact faced one another directly across the border between East and West Germany, and the island outpost of West Berlin was uniquely important in every aspect of the Cold War. Musicians in Germany felt themselves to be at the heart of the conflict. This relates also to the special place of music in Germany. In most countries, music might well be considered something of marginal importance, of interest to a minority, a pleasant diversion for most, but not of central political or social weight. In Germany, there was a much more widespread sense that music was central to an understanding of collective identity, that 'Germanness' was quintessentially defined through music and relationships with music.

We must bear in mind also that certain types of music were more contested than others in the early Cold War, and they had a different international resonance. The classical tradition, so venerated in Germany, was identified there as 'German'. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, Germans wished mainly to claim it as their own, to defend this claim, and to advance interpretations of the classical tradition which were in tune with prevailing ideology. Twentieth-century modernism, although strongly identified with the Second Viennese School, had, in contrast, developed by 1945 as an international phenomenon, and it was as such that it was contested in Germany. Jazz and, after 1956, rock 'n' roll, were perceived in Germany as something alien, from America, Britain or France, often with 'Negro' influences seen lurking in the background. Dance music, which was so mixed up with jazz in postwar Germany, was, despite its German origins, increasingly seen as contaminated by foreign influences. The way that Germans reacted after 1945 to these different kinds of music therefore reflected not only their views of their own history and culture, but how they wished to project themselves to the outside world, and how they wished to react to influences from the outside world.

Finally, the ideological parameters for all debate on music in the early Cold War were established outside Germany, and, in that respect, clearly defined from the centre. Both sides of Germany after 1945 were subjected to a process of 're-education', a thorough reconstruction of their political and cultural landscape, by the Soviet Union in the East, and in the West by what was effectively a coalition of the USA, Britain and France. The Western Allies between 1945 and 1948 insisted that music, with the other arts in Germany, was reassigned to an apolitical sphere. Until 1947 the Soviet Union pursued a similar course in its occupied zone of Germany, but this changed in February 1948 with the propagation in Moscow of the famous decree on music, or as it often known, the 'Zhdanov decree'. Its central tenets were essential points of reference for Communists in all parts of Germany, and through the 1950s they framed the ideological battleground for music there. The decree demanded that music be melodic and simple to understand, and that in each socialist country it should be based on national forms. It rejected anything it represented as 'formalistic' or 'cosmopolitan', and gave a certain dubious legitimacy to the use of these terms to label any music, or interpretation of music, which Communists found unacceptable. The decree also legitimised the use of the terms 'realistic' and 'humanistic' to label any music of which Communists approved. (2) At a superficial level, insofar as German musicians in the early Cold War debated music in these terms, they were indeed driven from centres outside. Closer examination reveals though that they typically operated with considerable initiative inside this framework. (3)

Quite fortuitously, the onset of the Cold War coincided with a significant date in German cultural history, the 200th anniversary of the death of J. S. Bach in 1950. As soon as the GDR was founded, in October 1949, its leaders determined that they would claim Bach as one of their own, and assert that they alone could champion his music. (4) Bach and, by implication, a broader German musical tradition, was thrust into the arena of Cold War confrontation. The GDR's leaders commissioned a team of experts to prepare a new vision of Bach's place in history, and to support this with a programme of concerts, exhibitions, lectures, a documentary film and a raft of publications. The centrepiece was a Bach Festival in July 1950, with an international cast of musicians and an academic conference, to be held in Leipzig, the city most associated with Bach. No attempt was made to disguise the identification of the GDR's leaders with the festival, and with the vision of Bach promulgated there. It was not sufficient for the GDR to highlight its view of Bach as a 'progressive humanist', a 'forward-looking' musician who sought to escape the shackles of feudalism and clericalism, and to articulate the feelings of Leipzig craftworkers. Throughout 1950, in an increasingly poisonous public confrontation, the GDR accused German politicians, churchmen, and musicians in the West of 'falsifying' Bach by presenting him as a church musician, a religious composer. This was an imperialist conspiracy, building on a long tradition of bourgeois misrepresentation, intended to deny Bach's connections with ordinary people. Fantastic as it may sound now, the GDR claimed in all seriousness that this was part of a larger plot to cut German people adrift from their cultural inheritance, and thus to prepare them for war. The flavour of this is best conveyed in a 'Position Statement' adopted by the Politbüro in March 1950, which declared:

In the Bach Year, 1950, we will defend our national culture against all destructive and divisive efforts of American imperialism. Through dogged and indefatigable struggle against all efforts to falsify Bach, and to present him, in the fashion of cosmopolitan propaganda, as a "supra-national" church musician or formalist, we will show the national importance of Bach to the whole German people. (5)

In newspapers and on the radio, arguments over Bach raged in the early summer of 1950, intensified by defections, and allegations of leaked documents. Although musicians in the Federal Republic largely refrained from political bickering, journalists bitterly accused the GDR of 'misusing' Bach and his music for political ends. The arguments came to a head in July 1950, when a number of clerics and academics travelled to Leipzig to contest the GDR's vision of a secular, 'progressive' Bach. The GDR's President Wilhelm Pieck gave a keynote speech depicting the 'progressive' Bach, and linked him with contemporary developments, delivering a wider attack on 'Americanised' culture in the Federal Republic. 'German culture' there, he proclaimed, had been replaced by 'erotic magazines, cops and robbers novels, and films in which the mentally ill and gangsters appeared as heroes'. If composers there did not write 'Boogie woogie rhythms or abrasive neo-fascistic marches', they had to vegetate in poverty. (6) The academic conference was dominated by the composer Ernst Hermann Meyer, the man behind all the GDR's celebrations of the Bach Year. He was energetically supported by party colleagues from the GDR and other 'peoples' democracies'. In complex theoretical ways, blending analyses of social history and musical development, Bach was presented as a 'rationalist' and a 'realist', founder of a progression leading through Beethoven to contemporary Soviet composers.

How can we relate these obscure arguments about Bach with the relative influence of peripheries and centres in the Cold War? In some ways this can be done very directly, as the GDR did. Bach, it implied, had effectively anticipated Zhdanov's prescriptions for Soviet composers in 1948. He had used folk tunes as the basis for his music, he had written music that was cheerful and heroic, and that ordinary people could understand. The GDR also made sure that its vision of Bach was supported by the Soviet Union. A strong contingent of Soviet musicians, academics, and dignitaries made public appearances at the Leipzig Festival. Dmitri Shostakovich gave a speech at the closing ceremony. (7) As well as paying obeisance to the Soviet Union, the GDR in 1950 consistently argued that the Federal Republic, and its 'falsified' version of Bach, was controlled from behind the scenes by the USA and its imperialist allies. Taking the moral high ground, the GDR argued that priests, politicians and musicians in the Federal Republic were, consciously or unconsciously, serving Washington. What is most striking now is that this was clearly a German affair. There is no evidence that the USA or its NATO allies were dictating to Germans in the Federal Republic how Bach should be represented in 1950. Equally, although the Soviet Union undoubtedly approved of the way the GDR celebrated Bach in 1950, and gave its support to the whole venture, there is no evidence that it initiated or directed the Bach Festival. On the contrary there is abundant evidence that it was German musicians and politicians who did this. It was one way in which they could, and briefly did, make their periphery a centre of the Cold War.

German musicians in the Federal Republic who were involved in the confrontations, and in parallel celebrations of Bach in Göttingen in the West in July 1950 made their own Cold War statement by refusing to get involved in the politics. Hans-Heinz Stuckenschmidt provides an intriguing example. As well as working as a critic for German newspapers, Stuckenschmidt regularly reported on musical events in Germany for Musical America, an archetypal Cold War American publication. In 1950 he commented on the parallel festivals in Göttingen and Leipzig. Although he deplored the political manipulation that went on in Leipzig, he concentrated mainly on the musical performances there. His report on the Göttingen Festival carefully avoided politics. (8) The musical press in West Germany was silent.

In 1951 the GDR threw down another gauntlet, ostentatiously forming a state and party body for composers, the VDK, or 'Association of German Composers and Musicologists'. In itself this was a conscious Cold War gesture. A distinguishing feature of the opposed Cold War ideologies lay in their organisation of artists: in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, artists had to register with and participate in 'unions' and 'associations', more or less closely linked to the national Communist Party; in the West, artists were left to form such associations or groups as they chose, although in the USA they, like others, were harassed and persecuted if they joined the Communist Party. The opening conference of the VDK was one of those early Cold War occasions that now seem almost implausible. Rows of men, mostly middle aged, in grey suits, sat before the audience on a raised dais, backed by a slogan: 'A people is nothing without a real, great art. Art is nothing without the people.' The audience included the GDR's most senior politicians, Party Chairman Walter Ulbricht, State President Wilhelm Pieck, Minister-President Otto Grotewohl, Education Minister Paul Wandel, and the President of the Volkskammer, Johannes Dieckmann, as well as international representatives. The delegation from the Soviet Union was especially welcomed. (9) Telegrams of goodwill were read out to great applause, and a 'Board of Directors' was 'elected'. Comradely greetings and exhortations were exchanged. In other sessions there were discussions about musical composition, style and performance, and in the bureaucratic style favoured in the GDR, 'guidelines' were presented and adopted. At the end of the conference, the newly elected Chairman, the composer Ottmar Gerster, cried out: 'Long live the statesmen of the peace-loving nations, at their head Josef Vissarionovic Stalin! Long live the leading members of the peoples' democracies and especially the protector of our young Association, our beloved State President Wilhelm Pieck!' According to the published account, at the mention of Stalin the participants stood up and applauded heartily. (10)

The tone for all this was set by the opening speech, a long diatribe on 'American imperialism' delivered by Meyer. This, he alleged, was behind the propagation of certain forms of music in West Germany. The section of the speech in which Meyer likened 'boogie-woogie' to a 'poison gas', and pictured Germany overcome by a 'tidal wave' of 'Americanism' is surely one of the most lurid pieces of Cold War rhetoric to emanate from Germany at this time. Meyer also attacked the 'barbarism' of twelve-tone music. His description of the Federal Republic as an 'Aufmarschgebiet' is particularly instructive. This is a military term describing the area used during an army's preparations for an attack. To the GDR, the Federal Republic was not a state, but a militarised zone, a staging area for an attack on the 'peoples' democracies' of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. (11) Unlike the conference at the Bach Festival, which was attended by West German delegates, the VDK conference in April 1951 was exclusively a platform for Party orthodoxy. It was studiously ignored in the West, which defined its position precisely by the absence of any parallel organisations.

Similarly, when German musicians in the West organised festivals and conferences, they took care to avoid placing these in any obvious political context. One example is the 'New Music Festival' held by the North-west German Radio, Cologne, in May 1953, which was conceived as a celebration of internationalism in music. By this time, the Federal Republic had emerged as a centre of the international avant-garde: the annual summer schools at Darmstadt, and the revived Donaueschingen Festival had become points of pilgrimage for avant-garde composers and musicians from Europe and the Americas. The West German radio stations, established by the Allies after 1945, had become the leading patrons of this 'new music', sponsoring first performances and commissioning new works. A centrepiece of the festival in May 1953 was the official opening of a new electronic music studio in Cologne. Electronic music had a particular place in the Cold War. In the West it was seen as offering a technical potential for the total 'rationalisation' of music, in the East as a flight from reality and social responsibility. It is not coincidental that it should have developed particularly in West Germany. The opening of the Cologne studio was attended by carefully selected international guests, including a representative of UNESCO's International Music Council. The festival programme commented specifically on this: music was 'an expression of the way in which peoples were bound together, and therefore also of political importance'. (12) This obscure reference should be understood as part of a wider commitment to Western integration, an implied critique both of the isolationism of the Nazi period, and of the strident nationalism of the GDR's musical culture.

Was the Federal Republic's commitment to electronic music and experimentation foisted on it from outside, from America, France and Britain? Amy Beal has pointed out that the visit of the New York composer Edgar Varèse to Darmstadt in 1950, where he spoke about electronic music, was organised by the American State Department. (13) French, British and American musicians went on state sponsored tours in the Federal Republic, often playing in 'America Houses', or British and French 'information centres'. The GDR certainly believed that the obsession with experiment and abstraction was part of a larger imperialist design. This view, however, ignores other facts: the German musicians involved in the post-war development of experimental and electronic music had in most cases been working in this field well before 1945 and the onset of the Cold War. Another guest at the opening of the NWDR's electronic studio in May 1953 was Friedrich Trautwein, the German inventor of the 'Trautonium', an instrument developed in the late 1920s which had briefly attracted the attention of a number of contemporary composers. These German musicians did not need any outsiders to stimulate their interest in experimental approaches to music and musical instruments.

The position of jazz was complicated by racism, and because it was perceived by many conservatives in Germany (as elsewhere) as something outside the hallowed realm of high culture. As we know, the GDR was hostile to jazz, and until the late 1950s, made strenuous efforts to prevent its performance. Its position, typically, was slightly ambiguous, (14) and Meyer had tried to clarify this in his speech to the VDK and the GDR's leaders in April 1951. He made a distinction there between what he called 'original jazz' (Ur-Jazz), and the 'perfumed hit song'. By the former he meant the folk music of black American slaves, and he regarded this as the legitimate expression of the feelings of an exploited sub-proletariat. This was not window dressing: books of 'negro folk songs' were published in the GDR, and the black singer Paul Robeson was a celebrated hero there. The GDR believed that this genuine black folk music had been commodified by the entertainment industry and that its artistic values had been utterly lost.

Politicians in the Federal Republic, and a distinct majority of the educated, middle-class, middle-aged men who held positions of influence there were also hostile to jazz. It is as easy to find public and private expressions of a racist antagonism to jazz in the Federal Republic as in the GDR. Frequently, this antagonism was couched in snobbish terms, arguing that jazz was lacking in intellectual sophistication or spirituality. Uta Poiger has analysed effectively the discourses on gender which also typically permeated these expressions of hostility. If in the East jazz was considered a threat to the building of socialism, in the West it was seen as a threat to an ideal hard-working, family-oriented, religious society. Snobbishness and scepticism were more prominent in the attitude of American and British planners of the 're-education' project than outright hostility, but they certainly believed that it was not their business to promote jazz in postwar Germany. They recognised that there would be plenty of jazz introduced there in any case by armed forces radio stations, and were content to leave the matter there. As, in the years after 1945, Germans took over more responsibility in areas of social and cultural life, including education and broadcasting, they were on the whole not inclined to support or promote jazz. It was not introduced in school curricula, or taught in music academies. Radio stations were constantly criticised by listeners when they played jazz. Paradoxically there was a considerable minority, above all of younger people, already passionate about jazz and westernised popular music, and these thrived informally, in clubs and amongst amateur performers. The thousands of Allied soldiers needing entertainment provided employment for many German jazz musicians, and as records and transistor radios became available during the 'economic miracle', jazz became an ever larger consumer industry in the Federal Republic.

The defining difference in the reaction to the growing popularity of jazz and later forms of western popular music in Germany was that socialists in the East attempted to censor and prevent it, while capitalists in the West tolerated it, and made money at the same time. The publication of Joachim-Ernst Berendt's das jazzbuch in 1953, and the acceptance of his idea that jazz was a serious art form are significant milestones in the emergence of a more tolerant, pluralistic culture there. (15) In 1957 the Modern Jazz Quartet played at the Donaueschingen Festival, and in 1958 a university course in jazz was started in Frankfurt. No such public acceptance was allowed in the GDR. Courting great unpopularity, the GDR held out against jazz, even after the uprising of June 1953, which, unsurprisingly, was blamed on the influence of western popular culture. There was actually great discussion of jazz, and one Party member, Reginald Rudorf, made a courageous effort to change the Party line. Rudorf, like Berendt, was a lover of American jazz. He won the confidence of the Party as a young activist, and by 1952 was sufficiently trusted to write on jazz in the GDR musical press, at this stage much in the Party line. (16) Rudorf even worked briefly with the GDR's 'Dance Music Commission', a bizarre creation of the Party bureaucracies in 1953, but he soon wearied of Party orthodoxy. Between 1953 and 1957, he argued passionately that jazz was protest music which had become internationalised, and was now a suitable vehicle of expression for the German proletariat. He wrote lengthy historical explanations, and offered to lend his substantial collection of old American recordings to Party authorities, with programme notes, for analysis. He pointed out how jazz fans in East and West were typically anti-fascist, anti-militarist, and opposed to American racism. At public meetings, Rudorf gave the example of Sidney Bechet, driven from the USA by racial discrimination, who had recently played in Moscow and Leningrad. Rudorf was a great publicist, and, perhaps surprisingly, was allowed to broadcast frequently, to address public meetings, to travel to West Germany, and even to make a documentary film with the state company DEFA.

The GDR's Ministry of Culture alerted the Central Committee in March 1955 to his erratic behaviour, and reported him to the Stasi in April. He was rebuked and his arguments rebutted in Musik und Gesellschaft. He was summoned before the highest authorities of the VDK and the Ministry of Culture and bluntly warned to stop. Almost recklessly, Rudorf continued to speak at ever larger public meetings, and to broadcast. He made open attacks on the Party, arguing that it allowed sentimental kitsch into the GDR, but not black American jazz. In April 1957, Rudorf was arrested after addressing a large audience at a church in Leipzig; in September he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment under the 'boycott hate' law. The DEFA jazz film was not shown to the public, and through 1957 and 1958 there was a renewed effort to censor jazz, and rock 'n' roll in the GDR. (17) After his release, Rudorf fled to the Federal Republic. Jazz lovers there may have faced ignorance and indifference, but they were not treated like this.

In many ways the ideas which were most contested by musicians in Germany in the early Cold War were shared by the superpowers. The musical cultures of the Federal Republic and of the GDR increasingly resembled the structural models presented by the USA and the Soviet Union. The superpowers did try to influence cultural developments in Germany in a number of different ways. But Germany did have in the 1950s a distinct musical culture rooted in its own history, reflecting thus not only an accepted 'German' canon of great composers, but more recent memories of Nazi intolerance and persecution. Significantly, Rudorf was not persecuted at the request of the Soviet Union, and his appeal to what was going on there was ignored by authorities in the GDR. The musicians who were so embroiled in the confrontations of the early Cold War in Germany took note of the cultural ideals presented to them by the superpower centres, but provided their own distinct understanding of how these applied to their peripheral struggle.

  1. See Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (1999); on gender, Uta Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (Berkeley, Calif., 2000); on censorship see Toby Thacker, '"Anleitung und Kontrolle": Stakuko and the censorship of music in the GDR, 1951–1953', in Censorship and Cultural Regulation in the Modern Age, ed. Beate Müller (Amsterdam, 2004), pp. 87–110; on the avant-garde, see Toby Thacker, '"Playing Beethoven like an Indian": American music and reorientation in Germany, 1945–1955', in The Postwar Challenge: Cultural, Social, and Political Change in Western Europe, 1945–1958, ed. Dominik Geppert (Oxford, 2003), pp. 365–386. Back to (1)
  2. Alexander Werth, Musical Uproar in Moscow (1949), is an excellent introduction to the decree. Back to (2)
  3. For a fuller account of the reconstruction of music in Germany after 1945, see Toby Thacker, Music after Hitler 1945–1955 (forthcoming, Aldershot, 2007). Back to (3)
  4. See Toby Thacker, '"Renovating Bach and Handel": new musical biographies in the German Democratic Republic', in Musical Biography: Towards new Paradigms, ed. Jolanta Peckacz (forthcoming, Aldershot, 2006). Back to (4)
  5. Stiftung Archiv der Parteien- und Massenorganisationen im Bundesarchiv, Berlin (hereafter SAPMO-BArch), DY 30/IV 2/2/76, Stellungnahme des Parteivorstandes der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands zum Bachjahr, Anlage Nr.4 zum Protokoll Nr. 76 vom 13. März 1950. Back to (5)
  6. Wilhelm Pieck, 'Ehren wir Bach, indem wir seinem friedlichen Werk den Frieden erhalten!', in Bericht über die wissenschaftliche Bachtagung der Gesellschaft für Musikforschung Leipzig, ed. Walther Vetter and Ernst Hermann Meyer, 23. bis 26. Juli 1950, (1951), 19–27, 33–24. This contains all the speeches and papers delivered in July 1950. Back to (6)
  7. The speech is printed in Bericht über die wissenschaftliche Bachtagung, ed. Vetter and Meyer, pp. 457–461. Back to (7)
  8. Hans-Heinz Stuckenschmidt, 'Radio Stations Take On Added Musical Responsibility', Musical America, 71 (Feb. 1951), pp. 122ff. Back to (8)
  9. Musik und Gesellschaft, 1951/2, p. 38. Back to (9)
  10. 'Ein großer Schritt vorwärts', Musik und Gesellschaft, 1951/3, pp. 86–87. Back to (10)
  11. Ernst Meyer, 'Realismus – die Lebensfrage der deutschen Musik', Musik und Gesellschaft, 1951/2, pp. 38–43. Back to (11)
  12. WDR-Historisches-Archiv, Cologne, D919, neues musikfest 1953, 25. bis 28. mai. funkhaus köln. Back to (12)
  13. Amy Beal, 'Negotiating cultural allies: American music in Darmstadt, 1946–1956', Journal of the American Musicological Society, 53.1 (2000), 105–139. Back to (13)
  14. See Toby Thacker, 'The fifth column: dance music in the early GDR', in The Workers' and Peasants' State: Communism and Society in East Germany, 1945–71, ed. Patrick Major and Jonathan Osmond (Manchester, 2002), pp. 227–243; on the Federal Republic see Reinhard Fark, Die mißachtete Botschaft: Publizistische Aspekte des Jazz im soziokulturellen Wandel (Berlin, 1971). Back to (14)
  15. Joachim-Ernst Berendt, das jazzbuch (1953). Back to (15)
  16. See Reginald Rudolf (sic), 'Für eine frohe, ausdrucksvolle Tanzmusik', Musik und Gesellschaft, 1952/8, pp. 247–252. Back to (16)
  17. This summary is based largely on documents in SAPMO-BArch DR 1/243 and DR 1/236; on the film see Thomas Heimann, 'Vom Lebensweg des Jazz. Notizen zu einem umstrittenen Dokumentarfilm der DEFA', Das Jahrbuch der DEFA-Stiftung (2000), pp. 229–240. Back to (17)

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