In 1988, it was clear to both East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and its official youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), that the country’s youth were being lost to the “real existing socialist project”. Searching for a means to address this, the FDJ reached for a solution which would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier and started booking major western pop stars for concerts in East Berlin in the hope that the organization might burnish its image by basking in some reflected glory. Many of the bookings made as part of this project including Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Joe Cocker made sense on one level as the acts’ blue-collar, working class images dovetailed somewhat with the GDR’s official ideology.
But Depeche Mode? How did the FDJ justify having the British synth-pop stars headline the organization’s birthday concert at East Berlin’s Werner Seelenbinder Hall on March 7, 1988?
It’s not hard to see why the FDJ jumped at the chance to associate itself with the band as they were at the zenith of their “cool” at a time when the GDR’s official youth organization was anything but. Even so, I can’t help but wonder whether the booking of a clutch of vaguely androgynous, pale-faced young men clad in leather outfits echoing S&M or biker gear performing a repertoire that included songs exploring unorthodox sexual practices didn’t cause some hand-wringing at FDJ HQ as functionaries wracked their brains trying to come up an ideological justification for this show. Strangelove indeed.
Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not hard to see this show as one in a series of events in the last years of the GDR which underlined just how intellectually bankrupt “the first socialist state on German soil” had become.
One place to look for clues as to how the FDJ might have justified their booking is in the essay which accompanied the East German pressing of Depeche Mode’s Greatest Hits album, released by the GDR’s state-run Amiga label in 1987. These essays were commonplace on Amiga’s re-releases of Western pop acts and typically provided an ideologically-approved reading of the artist’s work, essentially explaining why it was safe for consumption by the East German populace. Tellingly perhaps, the essay on this album largely avoided a discussion of the band’s political stance, choosing instead to ponder the contrast the music presents between the synthetic, mechanistic backing tracks and the very human voice of the group’s singer. The only attempt to place the band into line with the official state ideology is done indirectly when the writer praises the band’s lyrics for their “direct social engagement”. (essay by Lothar Dungs)
To consider things from the other side, I wonder too what on earth the appeal was to Depeche Mode? It most certainly wasn’t the money as the band were reportedly paid 5,000 West German Marks for their performance, a pittance by any standard and apparently 1/20th of the actual costs of putting on the show. Was it the chance to do something out of the ordinary? Perhaps a way to frame the band in a unique way in the western media? Or had they read the geopolitical tea leaves and saw this as an opportunity to lay the foundations of a new fan base (one that remains amongst the band’s most loyal, even today)? Was it perhaps the group’s affinity for socialist realist imagery (see the album covers for band’s early to mid-80s albums “A Broken Frame”, “Construction Time Again” and “Some Great Reward”) that made them open to the offer to perform at the FDJ’s birthday celebration?
Just Can’t Get Enough: Depeche Mode and East German Youth
Whatever the motivation, Depeche Mode’s decision to perform in East Berlin brought it face to face with some of its most dedicated fans. Tickets were initially distributed to East Berlin schools with instructions given that these were to go to the best FDJ members, but a black market quickly emerged with the tickets going for prices of 800 East German Marks (about 2/3 of an average monthly salary) or in trade for highly coveted Simson mopeds or even Trabant automobiles (http://www.spiegel.de/einestages/west-bands-in-der-ddr-bryan-adams-und-depeche-mode-in-ost-berlin-a-1007630.html). Those who made it into the hall report an amazing atmosphere, as 6,000 GDR youth enjoyed a concert few could’ve imagined they would ever see. You can almost imagine FDJ functionaries on hand, overwhelmed by the scene, imagining that their gambit might pay off and that East German youth might willingly enter into a long-term game of “Master and Servant” with the socialist regime.
But why this enthusiasm for Depeche Mode in particular among East German youth? Dr. Sascha Lange, an historian who grew up in the GDR and a teenage fan of the band in the city of Leipzig, offers one reason in his book DJ Westradio (Aufbau Verlag, 2007). He argues that the yearning quality to the band’s music coupled with its unusual image resonated deeply with young East Germans growing up in a system in which the pressure to conform was unrelenting. Another plausible explanation is found in Depeche Mode: Monument (Akashic Books, 2017), a book by Lange written with Dennis Burmeister which examines the band’s influence on popular culture, especially in the East Bloc. In this work, the authors contend that another aspect of the band’s appeal was its industrial chic image, an aesthetic which was ‘a daily reality for the average apprentice in an East German state-owned Kombinat… The lucky ones who owned a rare, expensive Walkman could practically daydream that they were in a Depeche Mode video all day long.’
It’s important to emphasize that openly aligning oneself with the English pop stars in the late stage GDR was not necessarily a benign free time activity and this is something that Lange and Burmeister also demonstrate in their book. Referencing Stasi reports on fan clubs of the band in Dresden, Zwickau, Leipzig and Karl-Marx-Stadt, they show how seemingly unpolitical activities such as creating a fanzine or holding fan parties brought participants into the cross hairs of state authorities and resulted in observation and, in some cases, prosecutions for “illegal publications” and “unlawful assembly”.
After unification, Depeche Mode recognized the appetite for their music and European tours inevitably included stops in the former-GDR.