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Walls of the World: Berlin, front line of the Cold War between East and West (7)

Vocalist and guitarist of the East German rock band "Die Puhdys," Dieter "Machine" Birr, looks back on the influence of the band's music before and after the unification of West and East Germany, in Berlin, on Sept. 24, 2018. (Mainichi/Merlin Sugue)

BERLIN -- "There were only few people who resisted against the dictatorship. Most people did nothing even to the very end," recalled East Germany's most famous singer Wolf Biermann, now 82, of the socialist state's strict system.

East German rock band "Die Puhdys" performs outdoors, with vocalist and guitarist Dieter "Machine" Birr in the center, in 1973. (Photo courtesy of Dieter Birr's management company)

Ignoring threats from government intelligence, Biermann continued to release music until the East German government was left with no other option but to exile him to West Germany in 1976.

Meanwhile, other musicians conformed to the system and continued their activities. The most representative of these is the legendary East German rock band "Die Puhdys." Formed in 1969, there were times when they first started when the government would prohibit their concerts. The reason? They sung in English.

"In East Germany, you first have to get used to that," Die Puhdys vocalist and guitarist Dieter "Machine" Birr, 74, recalled of the difficulty the band faced. While staying away from topics that criticized the system, the group came to be evaluated highly both internationally and domestically as offering music that provided young people with hope. The band was even chosen as the most popular band in an East German youth magazine 12 times.

While young people fantasized about the brave lifestyle of Biermann and held his prohibited songs in their heart of hearts, they received the strength to live through each day from music that played along with the rules of the dictatorship like Die Puhdys. Each year the band would release a new album or song, the melody would come to represent the life events of East Germans, like weddings or the birth of children.

But the fate of the band changed dramatically when West and East Germany unified. Things that East Germans had only seen by secretly tuning into West German television like Coca Cola and Levis Jeans were suddenly within reach. "No one would give East German things a second glance," Birr recalled of the change that occurred within the people in the East. They were desperate to become like their counterparts across the 'wall,' but even as the values and trends of West Germany saturated the country, cracks began to appear in the rose-colored vision of capitalist life.

The steel factory in Oranienburg, in the state of Brandenburg, is seen in operation during East German times in this photo provided by exhibition management company Oranienwerk.

One example lies roughly an hour by train north of Berlin, in Oranienburg, in the state of Brandenburg. In an old brick building that is today used to house art exhibitions, there used to be a steel factory that employed 4,000 workers.

"This place was sold in the early days of the Treuhand. There were an extreme amount of mistakes that happened here," said Marco Bartsch, who now manages the exhibition space. "Treuhand" refers to a government institution that sold and privatized East German companies. It was the only East German government body to continue to exist post-unification.

"There is no doubt that it was decided under my administration to establish Treuhand," said Hans Modrow, 90, who became prime minister of East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and inherited a tumultuous political situation. "However, what we planned was for it to protect the capital assets of the East German people and make sure companies were able to compete in the market."

In the socialist country, all of the major infrastructure and factories were owned by the government. When the government's sovereignty dissolved with the meaning of the Berlin Wall, problems cropped up all over East Germany of employees selling machinery and equipment without authorization. A government body was needed to project and manage the country's property.

At first, the Treuhand law promulgated in June 1990 called for providing as many companies as possible with the ability to compete in the open market, guarantee employment and create new job positions. At first, the institution tried to carve up the assets of the government-owned companies as shares to private citizens, but after the unification, Treuhand's role was changed to swiftly selling off state-run companies' assets to reduce debts.

In November 1990, the steel factory in Oranienburg was sold to a West German steel firm. The West German company promised 40 million marks to modernize the facility and promised to maintain a workforce of 600 employees. However, laborers were laid off one after the other, and the factory closed in 1993.

"They were already producing enough steel in West Germany. They didn't need another factory," explained Matthias Platzeck, 64. He served as the minister president of Brandenburg and also as the leader of the major East German Social Democratic Party. It is his understanding that West German companies at the time simply wanted to prevent their rivals from buying East German firms.

One factor was also that amid rapid globalization, West German businesses were faced with difficult operational decisions. However, there were many other incidents involving corporate buyouts. One company bought for only 1 mark on the condition of keeping its workers simply fraudulently took subsidy funds and shut its doors, while criminal cases occurred such as that of a man who bought a viable heating appliance company for the purpose of reselling the assets, but ended up running the company into bankruptcy instead. One after another, operations with low manufacturing capability were liquidated.

"There was a period when the unemployment rate was 50 percent, and losing one's job was an issue faced by every household," said Platzeck. His own daughter left for China to look for a job.

East Germans who traveled into the former West to look for work were greeted by whispers of "people from the East are lazy." West Germans did not understand the pain of the people who had lost their homeland and were anxious at being unable to imagine the future. People originally from the East came to carry a strong anger toward former West Germans.

Birr still receives letters today saying that the rock band's music saved a fellow East German during the most difficult and painful times of their lives. The band halted their activities around the time of the unification as their fans flocked to all things "West." But slowly, they began to return, little by little.

From when Die Puhdys resumed activities in 1992 up until disbanding in 2016, their concerts were filled with former East Germans and their children.

"Truth can be found in music that reflects back on your own life," Birr said. "There isn't one person who would lie to themselves."

(Japanese original by Keisuke Nakanishi, Berlin Bureau)

This is Part 7 in a series.

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