Nur wer sich ändert, bleibt sich treu
Issue 1 Spring, Article 21
John Shreve: Nur wer sich ändert, bleibt sich treu. Wolf Biermann im Westen
Carol Anne Costibile
Shreve, John. Nur wer sich ändert, bleibt sich treu. Wolf Biermann im Westen. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Langm, 1989. 230 pp.
Since November 1976 Wolf Biermann has lived in “exile” in the Federal Republic of Germany. Barred from returning to the GDR, his homeland of choice, Biermann was forced to make a life for himself in the West. John Shreve’s examination of Wolf Biermann’s life and works since the expatriation attempts to shed light on Biermann’s activities since 1976.
Biermann, a “living legend” in the GDR, has lost much of his appeal. Shreve points out that not much is written about him anymore:
Es ist stille geworden um Wolf Biermann. In der Tat. Es steht nicht mehr im Rampenlicht wir früher in seiner dunklen Ost-Berliner Altbauwohnung. Er wird weder verfolgt noch verboten und ist daher für die Medien weniger interessant als früher. Seinem Leben hier [in der Bundesrepublik] fehlt die Dramatik. Er ist keine Legende mehr.
The one-time East German dissident has no similar role to play in the West. Despite his exile, however, Biermann did indeed find much about which to write. He has produced eight records and three books, each of which Shreve examines: Trotz alledem (1978), Hälfte des Lebens (1979), Eins in die Fresse, mein Herzblatt (1980), Wir müssen vor Hoffnung verrückt sein (1982), Im Hamburger Federbett (1983), Die Welt ist schön (1985), Seelengeld (1986), and VEB-volkseigener Biermann (1988) as well as the books Preußischer Ikarus (1978), Verdrehte Welt- das seh‘ ich gern (1983) and Affenfels und Barrikade (1986).
Shreve’s book with interest scholars of contemporary literature and culture, particularly those studying the GDR. As a critical work, the book has one flaw: Shreve’s discussions of the records often resemble reviews, detracting from the interpretative flow of the work. This tendency is particularly disturbing in the analysis of Im Hamburger Federbett. He evaluates the songs without considering their political function. This reviewer would prefer more analysis of the works and a better presentation of the concept of Wolf Biermann as a Westerner.
This flaw does not detract from the importance of the study in general. And there are some particularly enlightening chapters including the discussion of Wir müssen vor Hoffnung verrückt sein, particularly the song “Von den Menschen.” In this instance Shreve emphasizes the interrelationship of the light, hopeful music, with the pessimistic lyrics. The bibliography is thorough, noting all of the editions of Biermann’s works and listing numerous reviews.
Shreve takes his title from Biermann’s Affenfels und Barrikade: “Ich will die schon gemachten meiden, will stattdessen neue Fehler machen. Und ich muß ja springen: Nur wer sich ändert, bleibt sich treu.“ Shreve and Biermann himself indicate that in order to survive, Biermann had to adapt. He adapted, but he never surrendered his old beliefs. He remained true to himself. Typical themes of Biermann’s work in the West include: a divided Germany (not two distinct nations), songs about political battles (in Greece, Nicaragua, Poland), love songs (songs which concentrate of the contradictions in life and love). Shreve indicates that Biermann’s motivations have not been altered, only that the political emphasis has shifted away from “die große Politik” (“der real existierende Sozialismus”); more often Biermann presents the conflicts of “die kleine Politik,” the daily relationships of people to each other at work and in love.
One could say that Shreve completed his book too soon. The tone of the book excludes the possibility of Biermann’s return to the GDR, and only hints at the possibilities for reform offered by Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. Since publication the circle has been completed. Biermann was allowed to perform once again in the GDR.
Carol Anne Costabile
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