Another Brick in the Berlin Wall: Pink Floyd’s The Wall and East Germany’s Place in History

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on February 20, 2014.

“The GDR will be nothing more than a footnote in world history. The only thing that remains for us to consider is what comes next.” – Stefan Heym.[i]

“When people see that they’re separated from the band, they understand that’s not just about them, the audience, being separated from us, the performers. It’s also about separation between east and west, rich and poor, powerful and weak – you start finding parallels in other people’s experiences…” – Roger Waters, discussing The Wall when performed live.[ii]

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Originally released as a 1979 double-LP and adapted by Alan Parker into a 1982 film, Pink Floyd’s The Wall tells the story of a depressed, embittered rock star who builds a mental barrier, isolating himself from the outside world.

Pink’s journey includes some of the best and most famous rock songs of all time – “In the Flesh,” “Young Lust,” “Run Like Hell,” “Comfortably Numb,” “Hey You,” and “Another Brick in the Wall.” Legend has it that, after being kicked out of Pink Floyd, bassist and songwriter Roger Waters swore he would not perform The Wall, his magnum opus, again live until the Berlin Wall came down. Once the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, surprising people around the world, Waters rapidly planned a live rendition of his rock opera, which would be recorded for video and audio release later. Featuring a massive all-star cast, the concert, billed as The Wall: Live in Berlin, took place in the Potsdamerplatz on July 21, 1990, three weeks after the economic union of the two German states and approximately three months before full reunification.[iii], [iv]

Though he did not originally write The Wall as an allegory about the German Democratic Republic, better known as East Germany, Waters encouraged such an interpretation by performing the opera at the former Berlin Wall site. This choice drew rather obvious parallels between his protagonist’s isolation and that of the GDR. Indeed, The Wall speaks both to the GDR’s place in history and to the broader human condition. In doing so, the rock opera indicates that, at least from a philosophical perspective, the GDR is no footnote to history.

The plot of The Wall takes as its starting points two historical trends – the lingering effects of WWII and Cold War-era angst.[v] Elements are also taken from Roger Waters’s life and from the mental breakdown of Syd Barrett, a founding member of Pink Floyd. Early in The Wall, the central character (creatively named Pink Floyd) loses his father during WWII and grows up with a domineering mother, who grants her son little freedom. Pink endures an unpleasant adolescence, full of cruel teachers, the threat of nuclear war, and the inability to find a girlfriend his mother approves of. As an adult, Pink becomes a rock star, but grows increasingly depressed, especially after his wife cheats on him. No amount of expensive things or groupies can make him happy.

Disgusted with the world, Pink briefly becomes violent and then retreats behind a mental barrier, leaving him nearly comatose in his hotel suite. Despite his breakdown, his corrupt managers inject him with drugs and force him to perform. Going mad from drugs and the realization that he is trapped behind the wall, Pink imagines himself as a fascist dictator; it is left ambiguous whether Pink inspires his fans to riot, or if he merely hallucinates about uniformed thugs. In the end, Pink’s conscience protests and, in a surreal sequence reminiscent of Brechtian drama, Pink is put on trial by figments of his imagination. Reviewing his memories, Pink realizes that, even though he was wronged, he has become just as malicious as the cruel forces he walled off. The trial judge orders Pink to destroy the wall, and the humbled rock star complies.

Admittedly, The Wall is not a perfect allegory for the division of Germany. The songs about Pink’s tortured marriage and unsatisfying career as a rock star exemplify Waters’s neuroses, not the intricate series of political events leading to the GDR’s closed-border policy. However, when studied today (and if we take a postmodern theoretical approach toward the material), The Walluncannily explains the psychology of the German Democratic Republic. Imagine the GDR as a story’s main character, analogous to the character of Pink. WWII acts as a catalyst for the narrative: Pink grows up with a dead father and ensuing abandonment issues, while the communist GDR (much like its democratic counterpart, West Germany) is saddled with the Nazi legacy and damage from Allied bombing campaigns[vi]. An oppressive parent figure – the mother and the Soviet Union, respectively – shepherds the protagonist through the post-war period, allowing little independence in the process.[vii] Following a traumatic series of events (Pink’s education, career, and love life; the Berlin crisis and increasing Cold War tensions), the protagonist becomes distrustful of everything, to the point of being paranoid. Finally, he builds a wall, simultaneously blocking out and hiding from the rest of the world.

stagepig

 

Scaled stage design for the Berlin concert.[viii]

Although intended to solve all problems, the wall only worsens the protagonist’s life. Pink panics when he cannot find the “door […] in the wall” leading out of his prison[ix]; the GDR develops a police state that keeps much of the populace under surveillance (an arguably insane tactic in its own right). Meanwhile, corrupt outside figures (i.e., Pink’s managers and the Kremlin) exploit the main character because they stand to benefit from him. Pink’s managers want to keep making money off their rock star, and the Soviet Union props up the GDR regime as a check against the NATO countries[x]. However, by this point, the main character has ceased to be a pitiable figure, since he has evolved into the very thing he once railed against. Pink in his current mental state resembles Hitler, who began the war that killed Mr. Floyd. The GDR, with its massive state rallies, red propaganda banners, and goose-stepping soldiers, is indistinguishable from the old Nazi regime.[xi]

By this point in the narrative, things have become unsustainable, so the protagonist basically rebels against himself. Following the neo-Nazi rant, “Waiting for the Worms,” Pink’s conscience – or, rather, his identity as it was before the embittered dictator persona took over – puts Pink on trial. Similarly, by the end of the 1980s, East Germans form new protest associations and fail to be deterred by the totalitarian government, which refuses to admit that its policy of intimidation and isolation is wrong.

The regime’s dwindling support among its people shows that “danger [awaits] those who ‘do not react to life.’”[xii] Here, at the climax of the narrative (the trial and its real-life equivalent, the Monday demonstrations of 1989[xiii]), our hero’s fatal flaw becomes apparent: “The advantage of his delusion is that the blame always falls on something outside him. For good or bad, [he] is sheltered by a state that takes responsibility for everything; [he] himself is never to blame.”[xiv]Faced with this realization (and, in the GDR’s case, a growing number of dissidents demanding visas to West Germany), the main character lets his imprisonment end. The wall is torn down.

At this point in the Berlin concert, Roger Waters and the full company emerged for “The Tide is Turning,” a triumphant, albeit slightly cliché, song about hope for the future. This uplifting ending differed from previous, more solemn treatments of The Wall. The opera’s evolving ending reflects the changing state of affairs late in the GDR’s history. Consider how the original LP ends with an unfinished statement – “Isn”t this where we…” – that is completed back at the start of the album – “… we came in.” Essentially, Pink is trapped in an endless loop, unable to escape the cycle of depression and madness he has created. Similarly, in 1979 (when The Wall came out), no one anticipated that the Iron Curtain would fall – the repressive regimes would continue indefinitely.

In 1982, Alan Parker removed the end loop for Pink Floyd The Wall. Instead, the film ends with an ambiguous shot of civilians cleaning up the riot Pink caused, but Pink himself is nowhere to be seen. The film came out right as Ronald Reagan began his war of words against Communism. Reagan’s defiant stance made a showdown with Communism a possibility, but the effects of such a last stand remained ambiguous and hard to predict. No one knew what would happen to Europe if the Berlin Wall came down.

Finally, let’s return to the 1990 Berlin concert. Live in Berlin ends with the same trial sequence as the previous two versions, but then, rather than playing the loop or showing some ambiguous ending, the cast launches into “The Tide is Turning.” Clearly, a new narrative – tangible hope for a unified Germany – has replaced the Cold War angst of 1979 and the hesitant optimism of 1982. By conveying the jubilation and sense of possibility surrounding the Berlin Wall’s collapse, Live in Berlin becomes an unexpected yet surprisingly potent Cold War allegory. The Berlin recording also constitutes the most emotionally satisfying This money type came into being as credit card for students and is credit- that is, until the dotted line to debtor is cut. rendition of Waters’s work. Performed against the backdrop of the Cold War’s conclusion, Live in Berlin redirects Waters’s opera away from fatalism toward a progressive grand narrative, wherein history improves for the better.

Of course, the reunification of Germany was not entirely smooth; things were not perfect as soon as the Berlin Wall fell, and economic problems endure in the former East German territories.[xv]Grand narratives invariably crumble when human optimism gives way to the realities of change. As such, the grand narrative proposed by The Wall: Live in Berlin is a somewhat simplistic one. Nonetheless, artists can get away with broader, more streamlined arguments than historians can. Artists aim for broad emotional resonance, not academic nuance. Yes, Live in Berlin paints an overly rosy picture about German reunification. Still, as a work of art, Live in Berlin makes a powerful case for redemption and overcoming one’s flaws. So don’t listen to The Wall expecting 100% historical accuracy. Listen to The Wall because it compellingly comments on the philosophical ethos of the Cold War and evolving thoughts about the conflict’s outcome. After all, the thematic parallels between Pink’s story and the history of the GDR are uncanny.

So what about writer Stefan Heym’s claim that East Germany is only a footnote to world history? It is true that the GDR had limited economic power,[xvi] and the communist regime did little in the foreign policy arena besides functioning as a USSR satellite. Nonetheless, even though the GDR was only a supporting player in the Cold War, the forty years spent behind the Berlin Wall provide a powerful human story. Intended to be a socialist utopia, the antithesis of Hitler’s nihilistic nightmare, the GDR instead grew into another oppressive Soviet state, withering away and growing paranoid behind its border walls. After not too long, the GDR bore more than a passing resemblance to the old fascist government of Nazi Germany.

However, despite the cadres’ best efforts to mold the populace’s ideological allegiance, an idealized, democratized notion of the way things should be survived. Inspired by that enduring dream, East German civilians were able to recognize the crimes of their government and stand up to Erich Honecker’s totalitarian regime. Honecker’s lackeys, forced to recognize that their actions lacked popular support, admitted defeat and stood out of the way as East Germans tore down the Berlin Wall. Most East Germans had no idea what lay on the other side, yet they tore down the wall regardless, just as Pink overcame his bitterness, recognized his own guilt, and let himself be “exposed before [his] peers.”[xvii] This operatic narrative of a man (or a country) becoming the thing he sought to never be, yet admitting his flaws and changing for the better, is tremendously powerful. It speaks to the best in us – our ability to make progress, even if that progress doesn’t solve all our problems. (Germany remained troubled, and Pink would probably need years in therapy after tearing down his mental wall.)

Stefan Heym was right in one way, though – what happened next in Germany mattered very much. Despite the economic difficulties of reunification, The Wall: Live in Berlin captured the popular spirit regarding the reunion of the two German states. Consider, for a moment, the nature of the concert. Staged on short notice in the former No Man’s Land,[xviii] Live in Berlin featured performers from both the West (Uti Lemper, Scorpions) and the East (Rundfunkchor Berlin, Rundfunkorchester Berlin, and, in a rather surprising move for a subversive anti-war concert, the Marching Band of the Combined Soviet Forces in Germany).[xix] Members of the crew also came from both Germany’s.[xx] These people, who had been separated by politics and military force only a few months prior, came together with dignity for a musical event of unprecedented scale. The concert largely eschewed politics, while still acknowledging the darkness and anguish of the last forty years, and ended on a positive note: The future may be unknown, but if we tear down the bricks in the wall, we will triumph. A grand, mythologized narrative, perhaps, but a moving one all the same.

When evaluated through the lens of Roger Waters’s epic work, I think that it’s abundantly clear that East Germany is no footnote to the narrative of human history.

In recent years, Waters has toured with a new production of The Wall. He now avoids the historical specificity that he invoked in the Berlin concert. Waters plays video footage and project news headlines related to many current conflicts from around the world. He’s attempting now to position his work as a truly universal piece, applicable in some way to virtually any case of human suffering. But I think that I like The Wall best, and that the opera works most effectively, when it is presented in a manner emphasizing its Cold War roots. The Wall may have become an East German story unintentionally, but the opera has always been about division and alienation in the nuclear age. It’s not truly universal – its foundations are too deeply influenced by the Cold War to apply to all conflicts, and the German optimism it conveys was partially thwarted by the difficulties of reunification – but its power and thought-provoking content remain timelessly compelling.

Source: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-1ltPWWPjEHY/T7MW4H93ABI/AAAAAAAAAFg/E5FovZc4rjY/s1600/Roger_Waters-the_Wall-live_In_Berlin+front.jpg.
Source: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-1ltPWWPjEHY/T7MW4H93ABI/AAAAAAAAAFg/E5FovZc4rjY/s1600/Roger_Waters-the_Wall-live_In_Berlin+front.jpg.

[i] Cited in: Donna Harsch, “Footnote or Footprint? The German Democratic Republic in History” [23rd Annual Lecture of the GHI, Washington D.C., November 12, 2009], German Historical Institute Washington D.C., accessed April 28, 2011, http://www.ghi-dc.org/files/publications/bulletin/bu046/009.pdf.

[ii] “Roger Waters: The Wall Live at United Center, Chicago – Sept. 21, 22, 23 & 24, 2010,” Youtube, accessed April 28, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKaU20Ho2G0&feature=related.

[iii] “Excerpt from an interview with the BBC in 1990,” REG – The International Roger Waters Fan Club, accessed April 28, 2011, http://www.rogerwaters.org/bwbbcint.html.

[iv] Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., Germany from Partition to Reunification (New Haven: Yale UP, 1992), 247 and 252.

[v] This summary draws from material found in the original LP album, Alan Parker’s film, and The Wall: Live in Berlin. Many details that were implicit on the LP were made explicit in Parker’s version and then retained for the Berlin stage version. See: Pink Floyd, The Wall, CD, Hollywood: Capitol, 1994; Alan Parker, Gerald Scarfe, and Roger Waters, Pink Floyd The Wall, starring Bob Geldof, United Kingdom: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1982, Youtube, accessed April 23, 2011,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxNM7j_ppHI; and Roger Waters et. al., The Wall: Live in Berlin, CD, New York: Mercury, 1990, & United Kingdom: Tribute Productions, 1990, Youtube, accessed April 28, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WzduY6gWxI and additional links.

[vi] WWII also inspired pacifistic tendencies: Pink sings an anti-war hymn, “Bring the Boys Back Home,” and East Germany developed an “independent peace movement” in the 1980s, the same time period as when Roger Waters was writing The Wall (see: Turner, 221).

[vii] For an insight into the psychology of the USSR/mother figure, see this excerpt by Markus Wolf, who returned from exile with the USSR army at the end of WWII: “In the view of many Germans and much of the world, we returned from the East bearing with us another dictatorship. But we did not see ourselves, as the West would later taunt, as swapping a Brown for a Red tyranny… There was perhaps a rough streak in its methods, but we always felt that it was essentially a force for good…” – Markus Wolf and Anne McElvoy, Man Without A Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster (New York: PublicAffairs, 1999), 40.

[viii] See: “The Wall Live in Berlin,” REG – The International Roger Waters Fan Club, accessed May 1, 2011, http://www.rogerwaters.org/about_berlin.html.

[ix] See: Waters, “The Trial,” The Wall: Live in Berlin.

[x] Is there really much difference between the way greedy managers push unstable musicians to keep performing, and the way the USSR used East Germany (or the way America used West Germany) to advance its game of Cold War brinksmanship?

[xi] Consider a scene from near the start of Goodbye Lenin!: On the fortieth anniversary of the GDR, Mikhail Gorbachev and Erich Honecker survey legions of German and Soviet troops marching past the platform. The troops bear huge standards, goose-step, and salute the party box. Taken as a whole, the scene is highly reminiscent of footage from the old Nazi regime, when Hitler would review his soldiers. Citation: Goodbye Lenin!, directed by Wolfgang Becker (2003; New York: Sony Pictures Classics, 2004), DVD.

[xii]See: “Erich Honecker and Mikhail Gorbachev at the GDR’s 40th Anniversary Celebration (October 7, 1989),” German History in Documents and Images, accessed May 1, 2011,http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_image.cfm?image_id=3031.

[xiii] Turner, 230-234.

[xiv] Peter Schneider, The Wall Jumper (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1983), 94.

[xv] Stefan Berg, Steffen Winter, and Andreas Wassermann, “Germany’s Eastern Burden: The Price of a Failed Reunification,” Der Spiegel (September 5, 2005), last modified 2005, accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/germany-s-eastern-burden-the-price-of-a-failed-reunification-a-373639.html.

[xvi] Turner, 202-206.

[xvii] Waters, “The Trial.”

[xviii] See: “The Wall Live in Berlin,” REG – The International Roger Waters Fan Club.

[xix] “Roger Waters – The wall Live in Berlin part 11-11,” YouTube, accessed May 1, 2011,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwT5Ja_sI7M&feature=related.

[xx] “Roger Waters – The wall Live in Berlin part 11-11.”

The cover photo at the top of the page is drawn from the following website:

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