An East German Passport – Wolf Biermann – Singer-Songwriter-Dissident
Karl Wolf Biermann (born 15 November 1936) is a German singer-songwriter and former East German dissident. He is perhaps best known for the 1968 song “Ermutigung” and his expatriation from East Germany in 1976.
Biermann was born in Hamburg, Germany. His mother, Emma (née Dietrich), was a Communist Party activist, and his father, Dagobert Biermann, worked on the Hamburg docks. Biermann’s father, a Jewish member of the German Resistance, was sentenced to six years in prison for sabotaging Nazi ships. In 1942, the Nazis decided to “eliminate” their Jewish political prisoners, and Biermann’s father was deported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was murdered on 22 February 1943.
Biermann was one of the few children of workers who attended the Heinrich-Hertz-Gymnasium (high school) in Hamburg. After the Second World War, he became a member of the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend, FDJ). In 1950, he represented the Federal Republic of Germany at the FDJ’s first national meeting.
On finishing school at the age of 17, Biermann decided to emigrate from West to East Germany, where he believed he could live out his Communist ideals. He lived at a boarding school near Schwerin until 1955 and then began studying political economics at the Humboldt University of Berlin. From 1957 to 1959, he was an assistant director at the Berliner Ensemble. At university, he changed courses to study philosophy and mathematics under Wolfgang Heise until 1963, when he completed his thesis. Despite his argument’s successful defense, he did not receive his diploma until 2008, when he was also awarded an honorary doctorate.
In 1960, Biermann met composer Hanns Eisler, who adopted the young artist as a protégé. Biermann began writing poetry and songs. Eisler used his influence with the East German cultural elite to promote the songwriter’s career, but his death in 1962 deprived Biermann of his mentor and protector. In 1961 Biermann formed the Berliner Arbeiter-Theater (“Berlin Workers’ Theater”), which was closed in 1963 before the production of Biermann’s show Berliner Brautgang, which documented the building of the Berlin wall. The play was officially banned, and Biermann was forbidden to perform for six months. Although a committed communist, Biermann’s nonconformist views soon alarmed the East German establishment. In 1963, he was refused membership in the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), although no reason was given at the time for his rejection. After the Wende, documents available from Biermann’s file at the Stasi Records Agency revealed that the reviewers were under the impression that he was a regular user of stimulants, leading to his application’s rejection.
In 1964, Biermann performed for the first time in West Germany. Performance in April 1965 in Frankfurt am Main on Wolfgang Neuss‘ cabaret program was recorded and released as an LP titled Wolf Biermann (Ost) zu Gast bei Wolfgang Neuss (West). Later that year, Biermann published a book of poetry, Die Drahtharfe, through the West German publisher Klaus Wagenbach. In December 1965, the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany denounced him as a ‘class traitor‘ and placed him onto the performance and publication blacklist. At this time, the Stasi developed a 20-point plan to “degrade” or discredit his person.
While blacklisted, Biermann continued to write and compose, culminating in his 1968 album Chausseestraße 131, recorded on equipment smuggled from the west in his apartment at Chausseestraße 131 in Mitte, the central borough of Berlin.
To break this isolation, artists like Joan Baez and many others visited him at his home during the World Youth Festival in 1973. Karsten Voigt, chairman of the West German Socialdemocratic Youth (Jusos), protested against the suppression of the freedom of opinion and information by the state security.
In 1976, the SED Politbüro decided to strip Biermann of his citizenship while on an officially authorized tour in West Germany. It turned out that the Politbüro had agreed to do so before the first concert in Cologne, even though this concert was used as the official justification afterward. Biermann’s exile provoked protests by leading East German intellectuals, including actor Armin Mueller-Stahl and novelist Christa Wolf. In 1977, he was joined in West Germany by his wife, actress Eva-Maria Hagen and her daughter Catharina (Nina Hagen).
Now living in the West, Biermann continued his musical career, criticizing East Germany’s Stalinist policies. He was able to publicly perform in East Germany on 1/2 December 1989 during the Wende that eventually toppled the Communist government. In 1998, he received the German national prize. He supported the 1999 NATO Kosovo War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the Arab–Israeli conflict, he supports Israel and criticizes that, affected by antisemitic views, most Germans lack understanding and empathy for the Israeli side. He lives in Hamburg and France. He is the father of ten children, three of them with his wife, Pamela Biermann.
This passport was on display at the museum “Palace of Tears” in Berlin.
The Tränenpalast (English: “Palace of Tears”) is the Berlin colloquialism for the former border crossing at Berlin Friedrichstraße station, where East Germans said goodbye to visitors going back to West Germany. From 1962 to 1989, it was the border crossing for travelers by S-Bahn, U-Bahn, and train between East and West Germany. It was used only for westbound border crossings, with separate checkpoints for West Berliners, West Germans, foreigners, diplomats, transit travelers, and East Germans.
Tränenpalast derives from the tearful goodbyes that took place in front of the building, where western visitors had to say farewell to East Germans that were not permitted to travel to West Berlin. If you were ever going to Berlin, I recommend going there to get a glimpse of this part of German history.
An East German Passport – Wolf Biermann – Singer-Songwriter-Dissident
FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?
The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...
2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?
Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...
3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?
"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...
4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?
Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...
5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?
Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.
6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?
7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?
During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...
8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?
Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.
9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?
Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.
10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?
A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉
11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?
First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...
Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.
Question? Contact me...