It was the record cover that gave the whole world a glimpse into a typical East Berlin living room: A desk with a typewriter in the foreground; in the background, a guitar rests on one armchair and Wolf Biermann sits in the other. The iconic album Chausseestrasse 131 was named after the poet balladeer’s Berlin address, which was constantly under strict surveillance. The GDR considered Biermann one of its most dangerous enemies of the state, and banned him from publishing and performing in 1965. But Biermann continued to record songs in his living room on a smuggled device until he was eventually expatriated in 1976.
Today, a new research building stands just a stone’s throw away at Hannoversche Strasse 28 – the MDC’s second location and home to the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB). Here, on September 9, 2019, Wolf Biermann and his wife Pamela held a concert called “Nachbarschaftshilfe” (Neighborly Help). The evening’s performance consisted entirely of songs written during Biermann’s time on Chausseestrasse.
The start of a new event series
“My older sister had this record,” reminisced BIMSB’s director, Professor Nikolaus Rajewsky. “I still remember the songs well.” When Rajewsky had the idea for a new event series entitled “Breaking Boundaries – Bridging Science, Arts, Humanities, Politics, the Clinic and the Public,” it was clear to him that it should kick off with two German legends: Wolf Biermann and Jens Reich.
The 150 invited guests were treated to a refined evening that touched on the topics of caution and fear, encouragement and bravery, defiance and the will to change, responsibility and cowardice.
Exactly 30 years prior to this event, Professor Jens Reich and 29 other dissidents signed the founding appeal of the Neues Forum (New Forum). “We call on all citizens of the GDR who would like to participate in the reorganization of our society to become members of the New Forum. The time is now,” it stated. “Historians today judge that, without a developed program, this appeal was politically completely naive. And yes, that is absolutely true,” Jens Reich said in his speech. “It was the reference to our legal intentions and the Constitution of the GDR that prompted hundreds of thousands of the country’s hitherto silent, disgruntled majority [...] to join the mainstream movement of regular citizens.” The protests on the streets were bolstered considerably by the unifying impact of the New Forum. The demonstration on November 4 in Berlin, where Jens Reich and others spoke publicly in favor of the New Forum, transformed Alexanderplatz into a sea of people.
A private niche
And yet Jens Reich still harbors some doubts. He wonders if a more determined protest like the one in Poland could have ended the GDR’s existence five or even ten years earlier, and describes how he too set himself up in a private counterworld – observing the work of seemingly fearless dissidents such as Wolf Biermann and chemist Robert Havemann with great respect, but at a safe distance. For pragmatic reasons, he “ignored his responsibility as a scientist to truth and solidarity,” particularly when he declined an invitation from Robert Havemann to visit his bungalow in Grünheide, which was under surveillance from all sides.
This dark fear
Having the courage to dissent or retreating instead into a niche is an issue that also concerns Wolf and Pamela Biermann. “Jens, you very bravely spoke about how cowardly you were. Not everyone can do that. I was at least as cowardly as you – I always had fear; after all, I’m no idiot! I can figure out what’s in store for me!” replied Biermann, before adding: “But the real question is: Who has whom? Do I have fear, or does fear have me? That’s why I wrote already in 1963 – before the ban – a song about this dark fear.” He then sang “Das Barlach-Lied” from his record Chausseestrasse 131, before performing “Selbstporträt für Rainer Kunze” with the lines: “Ach du, ach das ist dumm: Wer sich nicht in Gefahr begibt – der kommt drin um.” (Oh dear, that is dumb: Those who don’t put themselves in danger – inside they will succumb.)
Biermann is also familiar with the dilemmas that come with protesting. He recalled a concert he gave at the Hohenschönhausen Memorial. A woman who had spent time in the Stasi prison told him how much his song “Ermutigung” meant to her, and that she used to sing it over and over again in her cell. “But many people ended up in prison because of this song,” said Biermann.
Solidarity with the Friday strikes
And today? “We are living in a completely new world,” said Reich. He realizes that, as a natural scientist, he can take positions on important issues concerning the future, but must still remain determined – and that it is so easy to relinquish to others the task of giving public commentary. “We as natural scientists should show solidarity with the Friday strikes by schoolchildren. (...) It is our responsibility, without hysterical alarm but also without quiet resignation, to inform the public of the dangerous crisis that our planet faces and to help find ways to reduce the threat. This I have learned from my experience and from my mistakes. This time we can’t retreat into our shell and contemplatively – and haughtily – wait until the crisis of our planet is no longer manageable.”
Text: Jana Schlütter
The event series “Breaking Boundaries” seeks to bridge the boundaries between science, medicine, art, politics, and the public. Nikolaus Rajewsky, Scientific Director of the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB), conceived the series. BIMSB’s scientific motto is “Breaking Boundaries – Grenzen überschreiten.”