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“Hatch Closed, Monkey Dead”: The Berlin Wall in Propaganda Songs

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The problem with having a social life is that it sometimes prevents you from reading books. On the other hand reading books can prevent you from having a social life. Loving books can be quite the balancing act. Until last Sunday evening I still had no clue what my subject for this week would be. Then our appreciated colleague Kasper helped me out by asking if spending some attention on pop-music from communist Eastern Germany would be worthwhile. Well, that is a subject that deserves some more elaborate attention in the near future. But it also being 25 years ago that the Berlin Wall was put down, I decided it would be worth to take a peek at communist songs that had the Berlin Wall as its main subject.

We will bury you!

The rulers of the German Democratic Republic were going to great lengths to legitimize their rule to their subjects. In 1946 elections for the local councils in the area, then still officially occupied by Soviet forces, took place. The members of the Socialist Union Party (SED) were quite confident that they would gain absolute majorities in every council. The people would know what would be best for them, wouldn’t they?

Well maybe the people did know what was best for them: despite harassment of the other parties partaking in the election, the SED was not able to get an absolute majority anywhere. Berlin proved to be the absolute low point, granting the communists a meager 19,8 percent of the vote. The communist authorities decided that repression and propaganda would be more fit to win over the hearts of the people. It would take until the year 1990 before the next democratic elections in Eastern Germany would take place. And those elections would result in the abolishment of the communist state.1

In their efforts to “assuage” the people, the communist regime had an Achilles heel, and that Achilles heel was the city of Berlin. That city was divided in a Western and an Eastern part. Making it rather easy to cross the border to West Berlin and never return. As Eastern Germany was plagued by economic mismanagement, food shortages, and low wages, more and more people fled the country. In the year 1956 more than 270.000 people chose to go to the economically thriving Western Germany. In 1961 a crop failure caused the number of refugees to rise spectacularly. In the first half of that year 207.026 people sneaked over the border.2 Party boss Walther Ulbricht was open to radical solutions now, and so was Nikita Khrushchev, the party leader of the Soviet Union. In 1959 Khrushchev had offered “peaceful competition” to the United States, but the Soviet leader is not known for his emotional stability. In 1956 he had shouted “we will bury you” when talking about the West, and it is rumoured that he advised Richard Nixon to go fuck his grandmother on one occasion.3 Now Khrushchev was ready for blunt action again: Ulbricht was permitted to build a wall to close the Berlin border.

The rebirth of peaceful Germany

On the morning of Sunday the 13th of august 1961 construction workers started building a fence to divide the city in two parts. This fence would slowly grow into a complex of two walls with a strip of death in between. On the same day the official party newspaper Neues Deutschland (New Germany) announced that:

The maintenance of peace demands that a bolt has to be provided to prevent the revanchists and militarists from the West from their doings. (…) It will open the path to the rebirth of a peaceful Germany.4

The newspaper was a bit vague on what that bolt would actually look like. But the message was clear: it was meant to prevent people from coming in, not to prevent people from going out:

To prevent any hostile activities from the revanchists and militarists from Western Germany and Western Berlin we will set up border patrols like they are usually present in any sovereign state.5

In another article it was explained that all people who had left the communist state in the years before had fallen victim to the manipulations of human traffickers from the West.6 The wall was there to protect the people from the Nazis that were still ruling on the other side. One day after the building of the wall had begun citizen Friedrich Otto, whose profession is described as cleaning out locomotives, comments on the happenings: “It was about time that we set the track to peace! Should we look at the criminal doings of the West without taking any action? No, I say, No!7

Bad luck for some, good luck for others

But newspapers were not the only way to provide the people with cynical propaganda in 1961. Soon songs appeared on the Eastern German radio that were meant to convince the people that the wall was the best thing that ever happened to them. On the 17th of August the song “The summer of 1961” had its first performance on public radio. The socialist poet Alfred Kahlau had provided the lyrics for it.

In the summer of 1961
Daily from noon to five
Border crossers are on the move

Hatch is closed, monkey is dead

In the summer of 1961
From the West-end
Human traffickers collect their bounty
And agents receive their weapons.

Hatch is closed, monkey is dead.8

The lyrics sound all the more cynical when you know that one year later the twenty two year old bricklayer Peter Fechter was shot while trying to flee across the new Berlin border. To the utter astonishment of Western police-officers, who could see everything from their side of the fence, the boy was left to die a gruesome death in no-man’s land. But still this was not the most cynical song that appeared in these days. The song “the 13” is providing us with a cheerful song telling us that the 13th of August was quite the merry day:

The 13 is bad luck for some
But good luck for other.

What is lost, will never come back

Choosing elbow-country

The Berlin Wall was there to stay. It became a part of daily life for the citizens in East- and West Berlin, an uncomfortable and sometimes tragic part, but still a part of life. It was not deemed necessary anymore to provide the people with cheerful songs celebrating its existence. Although: one year before the downfall of the German Democratic Republic a song by the semi-pop group Oktoberklub appeared, telling youth what to think of people still seeking to leave the country:

We feel hurt and betrayed
We have reached them our hand
But they chose the elbow
And chose an elbow-country
I cannot perceive them as heroes
Neither as martyrs who suffered from us
I just think they preferred more luxuriant pastures.9

That is all 25 years in the past now. The Berlin Wall is gone. It is estimated that around 245 people were killed in an attempt to go to elbow-country.10

Recently the celebrations to commemorate the wall being torn down exactly 25 years before have taken place. Shortly before that the memorial crosses in Berlin, which commemorate the victims of the wall, mysteriously disappeared. They were kidnapped by “the centre for political beauty” and reappeared at different spots at the European border in protest of the European continent creating its own walls to prevent refugees from coming in.11 I just wonder what Walther Ulbricht and Nikita Khrushchev would have made of that.

 

Herfst der muziek
11.90
Poëzie is een daad
8.75
Mijn zoon heeft een sexleven en ik lees mijn moeder Roodkapje voor
15.95
Sjeumig
9.99
Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. A.Malycha and P.J. Winters, Geschichte der SED. Von der Gründung bis zur Linkspartei (Munich/Bonn 2009) 46-48 

  2. Ibidem, 153 

  3. On his visit to the United States in July 1959. Found in A.de Botton, Status Anxiety (London 2004) 42 

  4. Neues Deutschland August 13th 1961 

  5. Neues Deutschland August 13th 1961 

  6. Ibidem 

  7. Neues Deutschland August 14th 1961 

  8. E.M.Hagen, Der Mauerbau 1961 im Hörfunk und Fernsehen der DDR, http://www.eva-maria-hagen.de/Ostzeit/Mauerbau.pdf. Last seen November 11th 2014 

  9. http://www.kampflieder.de/liedtext.php?id=4375, last seen November 11th 2014 

  10. For this kind of information even I tend to rely on good old Wikipedia: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todesopfer_an_der_Berliner_Mauer, last seen November 11th 2014 

  11. http://www.politicalbeauty.de/, last seen November 11th 2014