My communist family

John Riceburg talked with Jakob Grotewohl on what it means to be the great-grandson of the GDR’s first prime minister and why he still gets invitations to have dinner at the North Korean Embassy.

Image for My communist family
Photo by Michal Andrysiak

Jakob Grotewohl on what it means to be the great-grandson of the GDR’s first prime minister. 

I still get invited to banquets at the North Korean Embassy.

“I’m basically a cousin of Kim Jong-un.” Not many people, not even Dennis Rodman, can claim such a close relationship to the young dictator of North Korea. But Jakob Grotewohl, a 30-year-old rapper, actor and self-described “eternal student” from Berlin, is almost family.

Jakob met Jong-un’s forebear, Kim Il-Sung, at a state dinner in Pyongyang in 1992. “Your grandfather is dead,” the octogenarian leader said to the then eight-year-old boy, “so now I am your grandfather.” He remembers the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic as a “very friendly man”.

Jakob is the great-grandson of Otto Grotewohl, the man who served as prime minister of the GDR from 1949 until his death in 1964. “It’s not clear why he joined the SED (the East German ruling socialist party),” says Jakob, who’s read up on his greatgrandfather via biographies and official documents. After the War, Otto Grotewohl, an SPD politician, led a small minority of his party into a forced union with the Communists to form the SED.

“He was originally opposed to uniting with the Communists but a few months later carried it out.” Grotewohl’s enemies say he was blackmailed by the Soviets, but there has never been any evidence for the accusation. He was known as a rather lustreless functionary, previously an insurer. From what Jakob can gather, Grotewohl was uncomfortable with the hard line but complied with General Secretary Walter Ulbricht and the SED’s real leaders as a “diplomatic scaredy cat”.

Long before Otto, the Grotewohls were a socialist family: even Jakob’s great-great-grandmother wasn’t baptised by her atheist parents. “I’m a fifth-generation socialist,” explains the broad-shouldered, charismatic Berliner. His grandfather, Hans Grotewohl, was sent by the East German government to rebuild the wartorn town of Hamhūng, North Korea, so his father was born in Pyongyang. After the Wall came down, Jakob’s father was invited by the Kims to get medical treatment – that’s how he met the ‘Eternal President’. He still gets invited to banquets at the North Korean Embassy.

Jakob has put some distance between himself and his family history. He uses English in his rap duo Da Flexiblez, whose video for “Hektik” has gotten some play on MTV; while living in Michigan for a year, he was obsessed with getting rid of his German accent. But like it or not, his last name makes him East German royalty, and he concedes it can occasionally be of use.

Once, he and his friends were returning from a performance in Poland, in a van vibrating with rap music and reeking of marijuana. Shortly before they reached the border, they realised they might have a problem. But the border agent, probably a former East German soldier, looked at his passport and asked: “Related to the Grotewohl?” When Jakob nodded, they were waved past with no further questions.

Originally published in issue #126, April 2014.