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Rock and roll vs the Iron Curtain

One of the seat-smashing youngsters who scared American rock ‘n’ roll singer Bill Haley off the stage during his performance in the Hamburg, West Germany, Ernst-Merck-Hall on Oct. 27, 1958. In a wild fist-and-stick battle numerous troublemakers were arrested by police when clearing the sold-out Ernst-Merck-Hall. Several policemen were injured. (AP Photo/Henry Brueggemann)


‘Halbstarke’ – young, aggressive males influenced by American popular culture – clash with police at a Bill Haley concert in Hamburg, 1958

After World War II, Soviet soldiers brought the virus home from the western front. It soon infected large portions of the Soviet population, then spread to other Eastern Bloc countries. Within a few years, the Communist Party leadership feared it would destroy the socialist fatherland from within. But it was not a biological disease that threatened communism.

Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and his commissars called it an “amoral infection” in the minds of Soviet youth. It was “American primitivism”, “capitalist cultural imperialism” and “bourgeois cosmopolitanism”. But it was really American renegade culture.

“Couples caught dancing anything other than the waltz, the polka, or Russian folk dances were subject to

In 1946, soon after Stalin’s chief aide Andrei Zhdanov warned that jazz would “poison the consciousness of the masses’, the Central Committee of the Communist Party ordered all state orchestras to stop playing the music. Also banned were saxophones, wah-wah trumpet mutes, the plucking of bass strings, the deliberate lowering of tones to create “blue notes”, and the playing of drums with too much rhythm. Brigades of music patrols monitored theaters and dance halls to ensure that nothing jazzy was being played. Couples caught dancing anything other than the waltz, the polka or Russian folk dances were subject to arrest. Members of jazz bands were rounded up and sent to Siberian prisons or exiled to remote cities, where they were supposed to undergo “rehabilitation”.

Soviet authorities were right to fear jazz, but they could not stop it. Bootleg recordings were sold by the millions on the black market. Stiliagi, or “style hunters”, appeared on the streets of all the major cities in the Soviet bloc, wearing zoot suits and ducktails if they were male or tight dresses – “stretched tightly over their figures to the point of indecency” according to one state-run Soviet newspaper – and bouffant hairdos if they were female. They refused to work and loved to drink, “hang out” read American comic books, and listen to African-American music. With little access to American-made products, the stiliagi were forced to re-create them on their own. To make flashy, multicolored ties, they literally painted over their drab, state-issued versions, or affixed to them American cigarette packages. Because there were no hairstylists behind the Iron Curtain who could or would give them the look of their American idols, the style hunters used heated metal rods on each other’s hair. Many ended up sporting not only fashionable ducktails but also burns on their necks. Instead of American chewing gum, many chewed paraffin wax. They smuggled in as many of the real sounds of renegade America as they could but were forced to copy them in an ingenious way. A jazz-loving Soviet medical student discovered that he could inscribe sound grooves on the surface of X-ray plates, and invented a machine that allowed him to produce low-quality but sufficient copies of music recordings. From there, the stiliagi used the technique to take over the black market in American music. Swing and boogie-woogie were early favourites, then bebop and rhythm and blues.

Soviet tanks roll into East Berlin on 17th June 1953

Every nation of the Eastern Bloc had its own stiliagi. In Poland, they were the bikiniarze. In Hungary, they were the jampec. And in Czechoslovakia, pásek overran the streets. When the police in these countries didn’t arrest the renegades, they gave them impromptu alfresco haircuts or slashed their clothes. In East Germany, which had been granted to the USSR by the US and Great Britain as part of the Soviets’ sphere of influence at the close of the war, so-called “hot clubs” for jazz sprang up in several cities in 1945 and 1946. Accordinging to the historian Uta Poiger, these clubs were “notorious for jam sessions where musicians improvised and played long solos, while the audience danced and clapped”. The popularity of jazz – especially the styles conducive to dancing – were seen by East German authorities as nothing less than the leading edge of American imperialism. The East German newspaper Neues Deutschland charged the United States with dumping “a mudslide of boogie-woogie” on communist youth. And in 1950 one East German culture official, Kurt Hager, saw the ultimate symbol of American conquest in the bouffant “rockabilly” hairstyle of East German youth who emulated Hollywood movie stars: “The hair is styled in such a manner that it rises from the base of the neck like the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb.” That same year, another East German official declared that by resisting jazz, his countrymen were defending their “national cultural tradition” against both “American imperialist ideologies” and “barbarisation by the boogie-woogie ‘culture’”. Also in 1950 East German authorities disbanded informal jazz bands, barred jazz from East German radio and confiscated jazz records at border crossings. As an alternative, East German youth agencies offered lessons for dancing “in a civilized fashion”, which meant no “excessive movements” of the hips, arms or legs.

In the 1950s, halbstarke – young, aggressive males influenced by American popular culture – were accused of subverting the discipline of the communist state. During the trial of Werner Gladow and his gang, who had conducted a spree of armed robberies across East Germany, communist authorities blamed American cultural influences for creating the criminals. One paper argued that Gladow was shaped by “the sluttish kitchen of American gangster movies, of crime stories, of murder and [other] sensational trials, to whose influence he succumbed”.

Communist authorities accused tangojunglinge (tango-boys) and other young males wearing American-style clothing of waging “provocations” that led to a massive popular uprising against their regime in June 1953. For two days, thousands of people – mostly young – demonstrated across the German Democratic Republic. Demands of the protesters included shorter work hours, free elections, and in some cases the removal of the communist government. Demonstrators in East Berlin tore down the Soviet flag from the Brandenburg Gate, while in other cities prison inmates were freed and members of the secret police were beaten on the streets. The uprising was crushed on 17th June when Soviet tanks rolled into the centre of East Berlin and East German troops opened fire on stone-throwing demonstrators.

The major East German newspapers immediately laid the blame for the demonstrations primarily on American cultural influences. “Saviours of the culture of the Christian West” in striped socks and half-long pants (part of the early rockabilly style), as Junge Welt put it, had filled the East Berlin streets. The Neues Deutschland featured a photograph of one of the rioters wearing a T-shirt with a cowboy printed on it, “a Texas tie with a picture of nude women”, a bouffant hairstyle and “a criminal’s face”, and identified him as one of “the typical representatives of the American way of life”.

The East German prime minister, Otto Grotewohl, concurred with this assessment, alleging: “The Western provocateurs with the colourful plaid striped socks, with cowboy pants [jeans] and Texas shirts, wanted to cause a large-scale political provocation.” Grotewohl’s speech, according to Uta Poiger, “was part of an outright campaign in the East German press that put West German or West German-influenced youths who sported Americanised fashions at the centre of the June events”. Nonetheless, in response to the riots, East German authorities adopted economic polices that steered more resources toward consumer goods and entertainment.

By 1954, when it was apparent that more East German youths than ever were sporting American styles, listening to jazz, and dancing the “boogie woogie”, leaders of the GDR were forced to soften their positions against American popular culture. The major Communist Party youth newspaper began to publish photos of jazz bands, though usually those associated with the “cooI” rather than “hot” styles of the music.

Unfortunately for the communist leadership, the emergence of jazz fans behind the Iron Curtain was only the beginning of a process that ended in 1991. The historian Julia Hessler has written: “In a real sense, the stiliagi heralded the advent of an individualistic, self-expressive approach to consumption characteristic of the consumer societies of the postwar West.” Not only did this “vulgar” and “decadent” culture continue to spread, but as the 1950s ended, it mutated into something even worse: rock ‘n’ roll.

Elvis Presley visits Bill Haley backstage at a German concert in 1958

Rock the bloc

In East Germany, when authorities eased restrictions on jazz, demands for even more renegade Ami-Kultur increased. In 1954, when rock music first made first made its way across the Iron Curtain, halbstarke appeared on streets in virtually every East German town and city, and demonstrations calling for greater cultural freedom and access to consumer goods often resulted in riots. West Berlin theatres showing Hollywood movies and playing jazz and rock lined the border with East Berlin. Alarmed by what appeared to be a great number of East Germans crossing the border daily (this was before the building of the Berlin Wall), officers of the GDR conducted a study in 1956 and 1957 and found that each day, on average, some 26,000 East Berlin youths attended movies and dances at the West Berlin “border theatres”. In some of these venues, East Berlin teenagers made up 90 to 100 per cent of the audience. At govenment-sponsored public forums designed to address the demands of East German citizens, many youth asked why Hollywood movies – especially music films with “hits” – were not allowed, why East German fashions were below Western standards, and why jeans and other tight trousers were not available in the GDR. In 1956 riots broke out in front of several East German movie theatres that showed only patriotic or educational films.

“The defence minister claimed it was Bill Haley’s mission to lead the German youth into a mass grave with rock ‘n’ roll”

In 1957 East German authorities responded to the youth rebellion with justified despair for the future of communism. Alfred Kurella, head of the new Commission for Culture in the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (the ruling, Soviet-controlled party in the GDR), warned of the “danger of growing decadent influences” that were spurring the “animalistic element” in East German youth. Kurella announced that it was time for good communists to “save the cultural and social-life of the… nation from this destruction” and to preserve “the true national culture”. The party’s Culture Conference in October 1957 declared that in recent years “damaging influences of the Western capitalist nonculture” had “penetrated” the GDR.

By the following year, rock ‘n’ roll had replaced jazz as the most dangerous of Western cultural products. In a 1958 announcement on rock, General Secretary Walter Ulbricht condemned “its noise” as an “expression of impetuosity” that characterised the “anarchism of capitalist society”. Defence Minister Willi Stoph distributed a warning, published in East German newspapers, that “rock ‘n’ roll was a means of seduction to make the youth ripe for atomic war”. Stoph singled out Bill Haley and the Comets, who had toured West Germany in 1958. “It was Haley’s mission” Stoph said, “to engender fanatical, hysterical enthusiasm among German youth and lead them into a mass grave with rock ‘n’ roll.” State-run newspapers broadcast these warnings. Neues Deutschland called Elvis Presley a “Cold War weapon” and Junge Welt told its young readers: “Those persons plotting an atomic war are making a fuss about Presley because they know youths dumb enough to become Presley fans are dumb enough to fight in the war.”

Hoping to steer rock fans toward “better” music, officers of the Socialist Unity Party heavily promoted Alo Koll, a Leipzig bandleader who played thoroughly safe music, and commissioned three dance teachers to invent a refined, respectable, civilized, “socialist” dance step, which became known as the “lipsi”.

“Authorities built the Berlin Wall not only to keep East Germans in but also to keep American cultural products out”

East German youth weren’t interested. In 1959 groups of adolescents staged pro-rock, anti-Socialist Unity Party demonstrations in Leipzig and Dresden. They marched through the streets shouting, “We want no lipsi and want no Alo Koll, instead we want Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll.” In Leipzig, one member of the “Elvis Presley Hound Dogs” shouted “Long live Walter Ulbricht and the Eastern Zone [East Germany],” to which the rest of the marchers answered “pfui, pfui, pfui” [the German equivalent of booing] and chanted “Long live Elvis Presley!” That year internal reports on juvenile delinquency listed groups of “Presley admirers” in at least 13 East German municipalities. The rebellion could not be stopped, despite arrests of the pro-rock demonstrators and leaders of the Presley gangs, as well as the formation of a special police force to monitor state-run youth functions so that no improper dancing took place and to “extinguish the remainders of the capitalist way of life among adolescents”. A 1959 report to the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party showed that rock ‘n’ roll protests, illegal trips to West Germany, acts of “outrageous instigation” against the GDR leadership, and youth crime had all increased rapidly. The report concluded that most of the youth in these incidents were “rock ‘n’ roll admirers”. The following year, the Department for Youth Affairs of the Central Committee reported that despite an overall drop in crime, juvenile delinquency was 61.4 per cent higher in 1959 than in 1950. The reason for this, the department asserted, was that Americans and West Germans “had increased their efforts to bring the youth of the GDR under their influence”. Among their “means of seduction” were music, comic books and fashion.

And so when East German authorities built the Berlin Wall in 1961, they did so not only to keep East Germans in but also to keep American cultural products out. They called it the “antifascist protection dam”.

Bill Haley, Berlin 1958

Bill Haley’s concert in Hamburg, 1958

Enthusiastic adolescents at Bill Haley’s concert in Essen, Germany

Despite the corrosive effects of American popular culture on communist regimes, US authorities refused for many years to promote it in the Eastern Bloc. From 1946 to 1955, American cultural centres (Amerikahäuser) set up in West German cities to spread US influence provided libraries with open stacks, lectures, classical music concerts and showings of educational films, but did not show Hollywood movies or sponsor concerts of jazz or rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, as Uta Poiger has pointed out, Eastern Bloc authorities learned to attack jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and Hollywood from others. Of course, the Nazis had condemned jazz too, but neither were they originators of the critique. “The vocabulary of ‘decadence’ and ‘degeneration’ was not the invention of Soviet or East German authorities,” Poiger writes. “Rather… European and American writers from across the political spectrum had levelled such attacks against various forms of art as well as mass culture since the nineteenth century.”

Why, then, did the culture of American renegades get so little praise from the would-be evangelists of democracy? If jazz, rock, comic books and “vulgar” movies helped bring down communism, why were they not promoted by American political leaders as beacons of freedom? The answer might be that, by necessity, leaders of all political varieties – from the American presidents to communist commissars – share a devotion to social order and are therefore natural enemies of renegades.


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