• Berlin
  • Red Woodstock 1973: When the world came to party in East Berlin

Under the cobblestones

Red Woodstock 1973: When the world came to party in East Berlin

Despite its reputation for grey uniformity, in 1973 East Berlin hosted the World Festival of Youth and Students - a festival whose colour and music heralded a new era of relative freedom in the DDR.

In 1972, young people from across the world joined met in East Berlin in the name of “peace, friendship, and anti-imperialist solidarity” Photo: IMAGO / Ulrich Hässler

People who visited East Berlin back in the good old, bad old days recall the grey façades, the domineering border guards and the gloomy feeling of being constantly surveilled. But exactly half a century ago, visitors to the capital of the German Democratic Republic experienced a totally different city, full of music and rainbow colours.

From July 28 to August 5, 1973, the 10th Weltfestspiele der Jugend und Studenten (World Festival of Youth and Students) attracted 25,000 delegates from around the world, as well as hundreds of thousands of DDR youth.

For young people from the DDR, the festival was a window to another world.

To celebrate “peace, friendship, and anti-imperialist solidarity”, as the official metal pins put it, streets in East Berlin were closed to traffic. Mobile stages, each individually painted by art students, hosted concerts by 100 different bands from 45 countries. At Alexanderplatz, packed with tens of thousands of young people, soldiers in the uniforms of the DDR’s National People’s Army (NVA) sang folk songs alongside hippies.

Michael Mittelhaus, speaking to Exberliner almost 50 years later, recalls being a 23-year-old from West Berlin who experienced those days in the East as “a state of exception”. He had lived with his grandmother in East Berlin for a few months of 1957, and remembered half of the city as a landscape of ruins. At the festival, with its youthful energy and the shiny new towers around Alexanderplatz, he thought: “socialism can win”.

Angela Gütermann*, then a 25-year-old student at the Free University, remembers taking the S-Bahn to Friedrichstraße and going through customs at the Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears). She had been to East Berlin to go to the theatre or to buy cheap blue volumes of the Marx-Engels Collected Works. But this time was different: instead of smog, there was music and dancing in the streets.

Free Angela!

Delegations came to the Weltfestspiele from Vietnam, Palestine and different parts of Africa. African liberation movements like the ANC of South Africa and the SWAPO of Namibia sent over 1000 young people. While the Federal Republic of Germany was supporting the Apartheid regime and denouncing Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, the DDR was offering material support to anti-colonial struggles.

The star of the show was the African-American political activist and then-Communist Party member Angela Davis. When she was in jail in New York and California facing trumped-up murder charges, East Germans sent her one million postcards (literally!) in support. As soon as she was acquitted in 1972, she flew to East Berlin, where 50,000 people stormed the tarmac at Schönefeld Airport in pure socialist ecstasy. At the festival, she stood on the stage next to the Free Germany Youth (FDJ) boss Günther Jahn, beloved in East Germany.

“The youth of the DDR greet the youth of the world” Photo: Bundesarchiv

Ten Days of State Exception

For young people from the DDR, the festival was a window to another world. Andreas Mahlmann*, 23, had just started working as a teacher in Kleinmachnow, southwest of Berlin. Getting to Berlin was like a trip around the world – the train line was nicknamed ‘Sputnik’ because it made such a big orbit around the Western enclave. Andreas chaperoned a group of high school students for two days – and lost all of them as soon as they immersed themselves in the crowds at Alexanderplatz. Finally able to use the English he had learned in school, he was thrown into conversations with people from around the world. Everyone met back at their accommodation, and the next day, they stood on Karl-Marx-Allee to cheer as the official parade went by.

He made a handmade poster that read “Revolutionary Homosexuals Support Socialism!”

Klaus Kirschner, then 15, was picked to represent the FDJ at his Köpenick school. As the son of a NVA officer, he was normally instructed to avoid contact with anyone from “non-socialist economic territories” – not that there were usually many visitors anyway. At Alexanderplatz, everyone was suddenly allowed to talk to everyone. Even lying down in the park in front of the TV tower was a rare privilege.

Those days in the East [were] “a state of exception” Photo: IMAGO / Sven Simon

“Normally, a police officer would have come immediately and told us to get off the grass,” Klaus remembers. Stasi agents were visible, as always, but they didn’t intervene. After more than two decades in power, the prude, paranoid, septuagenarian and uber-Stalinist Walter Ulbricht had finally been pushed aside in 1971. Under his successor Erich Honecker, East German culture became more flexible. The authorities had long tried to suppress rock music and capitalist decay – now they were encouraging DDR youth to start their own bands.

On August 1, just as the festival was under way, Ulbricht died. Michael from the West found it refreshing that in the “otherwise so stuffy and dogmatic DDR” the death of the former leader was marked with just a brief moment of silence. Klaus from the East, on the other hand, remembers growing up with stories of the “wise and beneficent father of the country”. He bawled and bawled when he learned that “Uncle Walter” was gone – but instructors from the Central Committee told him it was the old man’s final wish for the games to continue. Two hours after the games closed, the funeral procession to Friedrichsfelde cemetery took place.

The East Is Gay

For many other East German youths, the festival gave a taste of the outside world Photo: IMAGO / Gueffroy

A rock band from the West, Floh de Cologne, made fun of the stereotype that only people in the West were free. “In the DDR, almost everything is prohibited!” they called out from the stage. “Deutsche Bank, Dr. Oetker… Jackie Onassis, and many other things that the workers need for everyday life.” They added that the DDR prohibited “hospital charges, rent increases, teacher shortages” and more.

At the festival, with its youthful energy and the shiny new towers around Alexanderplatz, he thought: “socialism can win”.

As free as that week felt, this was still East Germany. Before the festival, the Ministry of State Security had rounded up several thousand people they termed “asocials” and “hooligans”, while several hundred more people were banned from Berlin for the week. They also made sure that hundreds of so-called “left-wing extremists” from West Berlin, members of Trotskyist and Maoist groups, were turned away at the border.

One subversive who was able to enter was an Australian living in London named Peter Tatchell. He was a member of the Gay Liberation Front and, as part of the British delegation, brought thousands of flyers in English and German. He managed to speak at a workshop at the Humboldt University, with queers from both East and West Berlin in the audience. For the final rally at Marx Engels Square, where the Humboldt Forum stands today, he made a handmade poster that read “Revolutionary Homosexuals Support Socialism!”

This was the first public protest for gay liberation in the DDR. East Germany had reformed its laws against homosexuality – there was notably less persecution than in the West – but the Socialist Unity Party was still scared of gay activism. The festival was intended to celebrate state-approved internationalism, but it created space for prohibited solidarity as well.

“With its youthful energy and the shiny new towers around Alexanderplatz, he thought: ‘socialism can win'” Photo: IMAGO / Sven Simon

Ultimately, the festival left its mark in different ways. Klaus brought the Chilean delegation to Schönefeld Airport on August 7. One month later, on September 11, the CIA-backed coup took place. Thousands of people were arrested and killed. Klaus still remembers thinking that the peaceful, constitutional road to revolution, which the Chilean comrades had talked about, was never going to work. “The revolution has to be armed,” he told himself. So he became an officer in the DDR’s National People’s Army, eventually becoming an artillery captain.

For many other East German youths, the festival gave a taste of the outside world that would only become accessible after 1989. The Weltfestspiele opened up the most liberal decade in the DDR’s 40-year existence, with a wave of great films, architecture, and music. Though the bureaucratic structures and the ever-present Stasi remained in place, and eventually dragged down the entire state, many still think back to the Red Woodstock just as fondly as Americans of the same age remember the original outdoor music free-for-all.

*Name changed