Beethoven and East German National Identity

The History department at Kingston University recently welcomed back former MA student David Zell, who is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham’s Department of Modern Languages. He gave a fascinating paper at our department’s research seminar, based on his study of culture and society in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR, or DDR).

Beethoven Commemorative 20-Pfennig Stamp 1970The paper focused on memory and society, and more specifically on commemoration: the 1970 bicentenary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. Historians acknowledge that the state-sponsored commemoration of major German figures was an important cultural activity in the communist GDR. David is researching how such commemorations were designed, executed and received, and whether or not they had a lasting legacy.

His study of the Beethoven bicentenary provides new insights into the German past. It reveals strong official interest in the promotion of East German national identity, together with gaps between official rhetoric and reality, between cultural theory and practice in the GDR. It also stimulates questions about the relationship between the East German state and its citizens.

Alongside its West German counterpart, the Federal Republic (FRG), the GDR existed for more than 40 years, its lifespan three times as long as that of the Nazi Third Reich. The period 1961-1979, in particular, was one of relative stability and (especially in the early 1970s) there was notable confidence in the state’s future prospects.

GDR emblemFor all that, however, the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) continually worked to emphasise the ‘superiority’ of German socialist identity to its Western equivalent in the FRG. To that end, the SED appropriated and contemporized key aspects of German heritage, including – during 1970 – Beethoven and his music. The GDR’s Minister of Culture proclaimed ‘Beethoven gehort uns!’ (‘Beethoven belongs to us!’). According to the Minister, only in socialist East Germany could the composer’s legacy be properly honoured, and due tribute paid. West Germany would also celebrate the bicentenary, but East Germans derided the FRG as a capitalist, commercialised and corrupt society, and unfitted for such an important task.

BeethovenThe SED authorised and directed the forms that commemoration should take. There would be a year-long nationwide programme comprising live concerts, radio and television broadcasts, lectures and exhibitions, all culminating in an academic conference and a state commemorative ceremony.

GDR cultural authorities even set out ideological guidelines. Ludwig van Beethoven was to be presented as an artist, dedicated to humanism and to progress in human society. His ‘revolutionary’ music was evidence of his genius and of that dedication. Beethoven’s artistry embodied the spirit of the French Revolution and, in the eyes of the East German state, anticipated the ideas of Karl Marx. Beethoven’s humanist, socialist values were also those of the GDR. In commemorating the composer’s life and work, its government and citizens would also acknowledge and proclaim the state as heir to Beethoven’s ideals.

However, the commemorative task proved more difficult than the authorities expected, for both organizational and artistic reasons. The scale of the bicentenary programme (ultimately comprising 855 events) necessitated the involvement of a number of political, cultural and other organisations, the most important of which was the 200,000-strong Kulturbund, or ‘League of Culture’. Historical sources reveal differences of interpretation and opinion among the organisation’s members.

SED and Ministry of Culture officials were critical of perceived lack of enthusiasm and commitment on the part of musicians, composers, conductors and musicologists. Interpretations and performances failed to conform sufficiently to ideological guidelines and political orthodoxy. Attendance at concerts, notably in factories and agricultural plants, was patchy.

According to one former musical director David interviewed, however, there were few official restrictions on artistic freedom – at least where music was concerned. An avowedly ‘socialist’ composer might even draw on Beethoven’s less ‘heroic’ work for inspiration. Futhermore, League of Culture autonomy at local level precluded direct SED and Ministry influence on many cultural events.

The most tangible and important cultural legacy of the bicentenary was probably the recording of Beethoven’s entire oeuvre in a single project, the first time that had ever been attempted. The project took several years to complete. Undertaken almost entirely by GDR musicians, conductors and technicians, it was a major interpretative, cultural and organisational achievement, in which those involved – and many others in East Germany – took understandable pride.

Beethoven in BonnDavid’s research reveals that, success of the recording project notwithstanding, plans for and execution of the Beethoven bicentenary were characterised to a not inconsiderable extent by inconsistency and even contradiction. The difficulties experienced by the authorities help to show (as one historian has noted in respect of the 1950s) that state penetration of East German society was ‘precarious, tentative and often unreliable’.

That interpretation raises further questions, especially about the extent to which the GDR was a totalitarian state or one-party dictatorship – and, if so, what kind of dictatorship? David argued that the commemorative events of 1970 show the GDR to have been a ‘participatory dictatorship’: a system arguably reliant more on cooperation from below than on repression from above.

Discussion of David’s paper ranged widely, encompassing classical music education, performance and recording in East Germany, contestation of Beethoven’s memory and legacy (the composer had been born in Bonn, capital of the Federal Republic!), and the wider cultural and political history of the GDR.

David gave us a great deal to think about. We wish him well with his research. As well as the Beethoven bicentenary, he is studying commemoration of Martin Luther, Friedrich Schiller and Kathe Kollwitz.


Further Reading

Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR, 1949-1989 (1995)

Elaine Kelly, Composing the Canon in the German Democratic Republic (2014)

Jon Berndt Olsen, Tailoring Truth. Politicizing the Past and Negotiating Memory in East Germany, 1945-1990 (2015)

Chloe Paver, Memorialization in Germany since 1945 (2010)


John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University

John Stuart


This entry was posted in Events, German History, Media history, Public History, Teaching, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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