The Red Woodstock: 10th World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin

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The GDR’s leaders were very sensitive about how their country was perceived internationally. Seen by many as a rump state and proxy of the Soviet Union, East German leaders took great pains to assert their legitimacy whenever and however they could. These efforts increased in 1971 with the ascension of Erich Honecker to the positions of First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and Chair of State Council. Under Honecker, East Germany pursued international recognition through a variety of means including diplomacy (e.g. supplying aid to Third World countries, applying for and receiving member status at the United Nations (1973), signing the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe at Helsinki (1975)) and sport (by pouring huge amounts of money (and anabolic steroids) into the country’s Olympic programs to support the country’s “diplomats in training suits”). Another way the GDR attempted to massage its international image was by hosting the 10th iteration of the World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin in the summer of 1973, an event that has come to be known by some as the “Red Woodstock”.

Commemorative beer stein given to a family which hosted a billet in their apartment on Berlin's Leninplatz during the festival.

Commemorative beer stein given to a family which hosted a billet in their apartment on Berlin’s Leninplatz during the festival.

A Brief History of the Festival

The World Festival of Youth and Students was called into existence  in the aftermath of World War II by the World Federation of Democratic Youth and was initially inspired by a spirit of peace and anti-fascist activism. It offered one of the few platforms for exchange between young people from East and West (and the Global South) during the Cold War and was intended to be held at sites around the world on a regular basis. However, the festival quickly came to be controlled by supporters of the Soviet Union and its political agenda with the result that it tended to be hosted by East Bloc countries or their allies. The festival participants were typically left-leaning youth and usually convened under a motto exhorting the participants to “peace”, “friendship” and, in later years (including 1973) “anti-imperialist solidarity”.

"Berlin Alexanderplatz: Meeting Place for Youth of the World" - cover from an East German mail order catalogue at time of the festival.

“Berlin Alexanderplatz: Meeting Place for Youth of the World” – cover from an East German mail order catalogue at time of the festival.

“We Say Yes”: East Germany and the World Festival of Youth and Students

East Germany hosted the third festival in East Berlin 1951, an event that was in many ways its international “coming out”, but country really pulled out all the stops twenty-two years later seeing in the festival a chance to buff its international image after the PR debacle that was the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. By 1973, much of the East Berlin city centre had received its “socialist facelift” and was ready to act as the stage for an event which would attract some eight million visitors between July 28 and August 5, 1973. Of these participants, over 25,000 were international guests from more than 140 countries.

The festival program included 1,500 seminars conferences, lectures and discussions on a wide variety of themes plus a cultural program with more than 5,000 events taking place on 95 stages across the city. At the time, the festival seemed to come at a moment when some observers were beginning to wonder whether East German might be getting it right: wages were up, shelves were filling with consumer goods and relations with West Germany were moving in the direction of normalcy thanks to the signing of the Basic Treaty by Honecker and his West German counterpart, Chancellor Willy Brandt.

For many former-East Germans who were teenagers or young adults at the time of the festival, the event is recalled as a time of real openness in which the stringent social controls normally in place were suspended, if only briefly. Participants’ reminiscences are filed with stories of partial nakedness in public fountains, camping at the foot of the Berlin TV tower and trysts with exotic visitors in city parks. These sorts of behaviours would normally not have garnered just a wink and a nod from the People’s Police, but the accounts of the event suggest that authorities, eager to leave a good impression, largely left participants to themselves.

Identify the non-East German in this picture: Angela Davis at 10th World Festival of Youth and Students (East Berlin, 1973)

Identify the non-East German in this picture: Angela Davis at 10th World Festival of Youth and Students (East Berlin, 1973)

The festival program was heavy on the anti-imperialist ideology and reflected the Cold War debates of the time. Amongst the notable foreign guests present was Angela Davis, the American political activist famous for her membership in the Communist Party USA and for her links to the Black Panther Party (see above).

Dean Reed, an American pop singer who emigrated to the GDR in the 1970s and known in some quarters as the “Red Elvis”, appeared at the festival. (Extensive information on Reed and his multifaceted career is available at very thorough fan site: http://www.deanreed.de/deutsch/index.html) The singer contributed the festival anthem,“We Say Yes”, a multilingual, platitude-filled stomper which sacrificed subtlety for clarity with such lyrics as:

“And when all the oppressors
raise their voices high
and call for police and murder
with their temptations and their lies
Then we’ll laugh and raise our fists
Raise them up right to the sky
And tell them, ‘Here it’s about people
People like you and I'”

In the aftermath of the event, the East German film studio DEFA produced “If You Love The Earth”,  a documentary film which goes some way to capturing the atmosphere and official content of the festival. I’d recommend fast-forwarding to about 45:00 for some excerpts of “debates” between West and East German youth on Alexanderplatz. These sandwich an excerpt of a song from West German band Floh de Cologne (Floh = flea) featuring the following lyrics:

“In the GDR, on the other hand, almost everything is forbidden.
For example, prices increases, rent increases, hospital fees,
Teacher shortages and the accumulation of employers’ wealth.
Other things outlawed in the GDR include recessions,
‘periods of measured growth’, downturns on the labour market,
Layoffs, bonuses for closing production facilities, dividend increases and inflation.
All those things which make capitalism so attractive for an employee.”

To work the Woodstock analogy, from what I’ve seen online of both Woodstock and the Festival, I’d say that the latter could’ve used the presence of the Sha Na Na crew (see below; “Got a Job” would’ve been a more appropriate message for an East German audience).

And I can imagine Pete Townshend might’ve gone and revised his “Abbie Hoffman routine” on the Floh boys had he been sharing the stage with them . . .

Security at the Festival

GDR authorities were understandably uptight about the smooth running of such an important, high-profile event. To ensure that things went off without a hitch, the Ministry for State Security was charged with overseeing the security arrangements. This entailed a mobilization of uniformed and non-uniformed security personnel from across the republic for extra duty during the festival. Entry to the country was barred to several thousand “foreign undesirables” while approximately 800 East Berlin residents were expelled from the city for the duration of the festival to ensure that they caused no problems and were denied contact with the foreign guests.

Certificate of thanks from the head of the Free German youth presented to a People's Police officer from Leipzig who worked the festival.

Certificate of thanks from the head of the Free German youth presented to a People’s Police officer from Leipzig assigned to work the festival. It reads: “In recognition and thanks to Comrade Michael ***** for exceptional performance during the preparations and carrying out of the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students. This award is accompanied with best wishes for good health, personal well-being and continued success in contributing to the strengthening of our socialist fatherland, the German Democratic Republic.”

Party officials were particularly concerned about the possible ideological contamination which close contact with the 800-strong West German’s delegation (which included representatives of both the Social Democratic and Christian Democratic Parties) might cause. To help avoid this, the Party’s Youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), spent the year leading up to the event educating its members on the Party line and how to interact with their West German guests. In these sessions, particular attention was paid to exposing the shortcomings in the policies of the Social Democrats, the left-leaning governing party of day which the SED feared might be attractive to “susceptible” East German youth.

Those FDJers chosen to be part of the GDR’s official delegation (of 333,000!) were vetted by both the organization’s leadership and the Stasi to ensure their reliability, but the size and public nature of the event meant that authorities were hard-pressed to ensure that discussions stayed within normally proscribed limits. To try and ensure that the GDR’s positions were properly represented in the spontaneous encounters that took place amongst participants, the Stasi planted employees dressed in the FDJ’s distinctive blue shirts amongst the crowds with instructions to intervene actively as necessary.

Souvenir glass produced by Free German Youth (FDJ) in Cottbus, the GDR's "Coal and Energy District".

Souvenir glass produced by Free German Youth (FDJ) in Cottbus, the GDR’s “Coal and Energy District”.

In the end, the festival went off as East German authorities had hoped. While it didn’t garner much attention in the West, coverage in the “fraternal media” was high and raised the GDR’s standing in these countries. For GDR citizens, the period of openness that came with the festival proved to be short-lived with the regime quickly reverting to standard practices and attitudes once the event concluded.

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4 comments
  1. Doug Shearer said:

    “Identify the non-East German in this picture.” Love it. Great read, and awesome collection of festival souvenirs!

  2. Muna darwish said:

    I attended the Berlin 1973 festival. I came with the Lebanese delegation. I befriended two East German young men. I remember the names of Hans and Brandt. Would love to get in touch with any of them.

    • Thanks for commenting! A lot of what is written about the Festival at present focuses on the way it was instrumentalized by the GDR regime to present the state as something it wasn’t. While I think that’s an important angle, for many of the participants I’ve spoken with, what remains are memories of a stimulating, enjoyable event where there was a lot of spontaneous and open exchange between young people. Would be good to see more of that. Do you have any specific memories of the festival? I’d be interested in hearing about any you have to share. John Paul

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