Art and Youth Culture in the German Democratic Republic

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Elly Walton - Hulton

Art and culture in the German Democratic Republic were represented by many creative people who felt the obligation to make their works about problems and challenges in their society. Up until 1965, the GDR Government did allow art to be free and critical. Western trends, such as beat music, spread amongst the young people unopposed. Bands like the Beatles continued their triumphant procession into Eastern Germany. But in December of 1965, the government changed their opinion. It prohibited western music, critical books, movies, and theater plays. Longhaired youngsters were labeled as “Amateur Bums” and sometimes even dragged to the hairdressers by the police. But even in the cultural ice age, essentially lasting into the eighties, that followed, the GDR Youth managed to be subversive and creative.

Early Protest and Bereaved Publicity

In the time directly after the government’s decision to shut down “western” music and prohibit critical art, numerous protests were organized in diverse forms. Some demonstrations were violently ended by the police, protesters were arrested and forced to work in the lignite mines. The government lost the hold over the young people in the country and tried to react. The single political party, the SED, found that the national art scenes were suffering from “ideological deficits” and started a widely ranged censorship. Artists or people who openly opposed the SED’s decisions would suffer professionally.

The critical young artists, bereaved of their public, were thrown back to a level of exhibiting for friends and acquaintances. But these circles of friends expanded to subcultural scenes. Art was shown in illegal galleries, nonconformist bands played shows as long as they were allowed to and unadjusted young artists kept creating after their day jobs had ended. The state, in turn, reacted with expulsions or occupational bans, among other tactics.     

The Uncontrollable Youth

But it did turn out, that the government of the German Democratic Republic could not completely control or tame its rebellious youth and their artists. During the seventies and eighties, it had to acknowledge and recognize a lot of the art and movements it had tried to oppress. It seems, that they could not triumph over quality. Art that critically observed the GDR’s daily life became highly valued among its citizens. Young artists simply kept undermining the monopoly on truth and information, the SED claimed to own. It took until the end of the eighties before the SED was not strong enough go effectively ban all critical art.

Of course, many young people were adjusted to life as the SED promoted it. The same goes for a lot of artists. Making compromises meant to be able to publish.

But publicity came at a prize: Not only the artists own integrity was now questionable, their young audiences were diminished as youth felt betrayed by their former idols. Countless kids and young adults risked a lot, possibly their freedom, to acquire western pop music or to record western music from the radio. Even clothing turned more into a statement than just garments. Just wearing jeans could be seen as a sign of protest.

Alternative Art and the End of the GDR

The largest parts of the GDR’s alternative art and music scenes had broken with the state and its corrupt ideals in the eighties. They were fed up with compromising and used all the loopholes the law offered to subvert the SED. Though the Stasi had spies in almost all groups and organizations, the quality of the art wasn’t questioned and the alternative art movements couldn’t be stopped. The scene had proven, that the German Democratic Republic was not almighty.