Obituary: Gerhard Gundermann

David Childs
Tuesday 23 June 1998 23:02

GERHARD GUNDERMANN would have been there in spirit, on Berlin's famous Alexanderplatz last Saturday with the 20,000 Germans from the trade unions, the churches and student bodies who demonstrated against right- wing extremism and unemployment and called for a change of government.

He would have also enjoyed the gathering of 30,000 in Zwickau, in former East Germany, who were celebrating their Trabant cars. Once the symbol of Communist East Germany's failure, they have become a cult vehicle and remarkably there are still 406,000 of these small, "cardboard" cars with their two-stroke engines licensed. Gundermann would perhaps have sung, "Tell the beggar in front of my house that my heart has just got the day off today. Don't give me the newspaper, my heart has got the day off today . . . From tomorrow it will pump my blood through all the world again. From tomorrow it will send an SOS to God again."

Gundermann's friends and admirers would say his heart never did take the day off. He became popular in the early 1990s for his concern, expressed in his music, about the rising unemployment and social dislocation in the former (East) German Democratic Republic (GDR) since reunification in 1990. He also had a certain pride in the achievements of the East German people. This was understandable considering his background.

Gerhard Gundermann was born in Weimar, then in the GDR, in 1955. Weimar is a town which forces you to think. It is steeped in Germany's cultural history, the town of Goethe and Schiller, the town where the Weimar Republic was proclaimed in 1919. When Gundermann was growing up it harboured a secret: Weimar was also the town of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died there in 1900. The Communist rulers of Gundermann's childhood did not want that fact mentioned. Nietzsche's house did not appear in the tourist literature. Nearby was the museum of the notorious Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald. The camp also served the Soviet occupiers after the Second World War, which was another fact not mentioned in Gundermann's youth.

Gundermann grew up with the Soviet armed forces ever present. At school and in the media they were presented as the liberators; many inhabitants of Weimar thought otherwise. Gundermann's parents were respectable working- class, his father was a master watchmaker, his mother worked in a storage depot. As a bright child Gerhard was given the opportunity to gain his Abitur. He was then enrolled, in 1973, at the army officers' college at Lobau, near Gorlitz, on the German-Polish frontier. The college was named after Ernst Thalmann, the Communist leader in pre-war Germany who was murdered by the Nazis. In 1975 he left the college and was sent to work as an unskilled labourer in the brown coal industry.

Gundermann had shown an early interest in music, having joined a glee club in Hoyerswerda in 1972. Although he started to compose his own music and texts in 1973, he remained a member of groups until 1980, when he started to give solo performances. In 1975 Gundermann, aged 20, joined the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). This was a time of some optimism. Erich Honecker had replaced Walter Ulbricht as East German leader, in 1971, and he introduced longer holidays and better social welfare. Relations with West Germany were improved and Honecker signed the Helsinki Final Act, which promised human rights for all. Yet, despite promising a liberal regime in the arts, Honecker moved against dissident intellectuals - singers, painters and writers.

Like so many others, Gundermann could not square the ideals of Marx with the realities of the GDR. He was expelled from the SED in 1982. Yet he was not prevented from performing. His first LP, Manner, Frauen und Maschinen ("Men, Women and Machines"), came on the market in 1988. This was at a time when Honecker was warning that the GDR would not follow Gorbachev's road.

After 1989 Gundermann worked with different pop groups including Silly and G.G. & Seilschaft. In 1990 he was rehabilitated by the post-Honecker SED, which was in the process of transforming itself to become the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). Like the PDS Gundermann sought to articulate the dissatisfaction of a section of the East German population and to proclaim the ideals of the libertarian Left.

He still regarded himself as a worker rather than a professional entertainer, and had recently begun training to become a cabinetmaker.

David Childs

Gerhard Gundermann, folk singer: born Weimar, East Germany 21 May 1955; married (three children); died Spreetal, Germany 21 June 1998.

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