I wore a lavender sweater to a smoky rock concert. I stood out against the black wearing, tattoo-covered crowd of diverse ages lingering around the lounge before the basement doors opened for “Plastic People of the Universe.”
The psychedelic rock band formed in 1968 a few weeks after the abruptly halted Prague Spring, a time of progressive “communism with a human face” under Alexander Dubček, that allowed for creatives to be less censored. On an unsuspecting August night, the Kremlin ordered Warsaw Pact tanks to invade Prague, removed Dubček from office, and eliminated the freedoms of artists while reinstating their ideal Communist regime. Poets, musicians, authors, and intellects, seemingly overnight resided under watch from an official ‘ministry of culture.’
Under the reinforced and suppressive regime, secret police, officials in drab-grey suits, and citizen informants would oust those with counterculture resistance to the Party.
Many lived in suspicion of their homes being bugged with clever listening devices, like pea-sized microphones wired within the walls. Consequently, secret meetings were held around the city.
For the band, however, music wasn’t a political agenda it was self-expression critiquing a culture steaming in consumerism.
Ivan Jirous, whose role of artistic director for the Plastics closely resembled Andy Warhol with the Velvet Underground, defines Bohemia underground in a 1977 letter, “The underground is a mental attitude of intellectuals and artists who consciously and critically determine their own stance towards the world.”
Jirous continues, “The aim of the underground here in Bohemia is to create a second culture: a culture that does not depend on channels of communication, social recognition, and the hierarchy of values laid down by the establishment.…this is why one of the highest aims of art has always been the creation of unrest.”
Set against the regime’s countrywide instituted ‘official culture,’ the Plastics refused to conform. Long hair, hippy clothing, and their musical sound alarmed officials.
Interestingly, the band didn’t feature any political stance in their lyrics. Nothing to verbally threaten or critique the state. Simply, their self-expression was illegal.
“Our identity as a band was to do with poetry, not politics. The politicians made us political, by being offended by what we did and the music we played,” said Vratislav Brabenec, a prominent leader of the band.
The Plastics needed to go underground after being banned to perform for the public. Instead, they played in homes, including Vaclav Havel, literary dissident and future president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, and ‘weddings’ that gathered people by the hundreds all concealed from a government that propagated them as drug-using, violent delinquents.
That December night, 2017 in Old Town’s “Rock Cafe” there were only two original members of the band performing; lead saxophonist, Brabenec, and Josef Janíček who played the keyboard. They slumped on leather chairs in the “chill-out zone” drinking beers from red plastic cups before the show. Brabenec’s forehead wrinkles were deep-set like he had taken a nap on guitar strings. Janíček was reminiscent of oval-faced documentarian Michael Moore, completely nonthreatening.
I shuffled into the venue early enough to still hear greetings of kisses on thawing cheeks. The sober audience left elbow room while the drunk crowd bled like ink through the open spaces. We stood intermingled cheering for forty-nine years of once rebellious playing.
In 1969 across the Atlantic, The Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, and absurdity were welcomed with only a few eyebrow raises and some major hippy movements. But in the Eastern bloc countries, selling Western cassettes was a punishable offense.
These bands, who snuck their way to the Plastics, influenced them to write lyrics in the international rock language, English- also a ban from the Party. Lyrics were written by members of the band and often featured the poetry of American poet Allen Ginsberg and Czech outlawed poet Egon Bundy.
While dodging spilled beer, I heard Brabenec’s first saxophone solos which began with smooth blues and funk. Eventually, the sounds were like miniature schnauzers facing the guillotine, high pitched and bloody awful. As Brabenec’s fingers moved sporadically along his instrument, I was reminded that forty-one years ago I could have been detained for listening.
In 1976 two members of the band, including Brabenec, along with 18 others were arrested for “disturbing the peace” after playing at Ivan Jrious’s wedding reception. It began with cutting their long hair, as long as 2 years in prison for some, and Brabenec being deported to Canada.
Remembering these events about ‘The Plastics’ something about the purple lights oscillating to the sound of murdered schnauzers was glorious.
In the heat of the trials, Vaclav Havel, a banned playwright and who was often placed on house arrest, took notice of the media reports. The official media morphed the Plastic People of the Universe trial and attempted to make the arrested appear as “magors” or “madmen” in Czech.
Havel didn’t see it as such. He and other prominent academic figures gathered a list of 242 signatories for ‘Charter 77’ a declaration that called for the government to end human rights abuses and political oppression. This in itself was illegal to produce and circulate hand to hand, known as samizdat literature, resulting in Havel facing jail time.
In his 1978 book, The Power of the Powerless Havel writes; “that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on the most elementary and important thing, something that bound everyone together…The freedom to play rock music was understood as human freedom and thus as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, to express and defend the social and political interests of society.”
‘Charter 77’ was a foundation brick for the Velvet Revolution that would take place years later in 1989. The phrase “Velvet” refers to either the peaceful separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia or arguably the musically mystified Velvet Underground that enraptured the Bohemian underground.
Havel may be the first head of state to inquire about the whereabouts of a broken rock band to play at the city’s center gem, Prague Castle in 1997 for the twenty-year anniversary of the Charter. Under his influence, the band reemerged to play, not in hiding, but right in front of government officials.
I could start to feel the heavy resistance my boots had leaving the beer glazed floor. The front row was occupied by fans who knew the words and people who relaxed their necks enough to drop back their heads. I saw a man popping in between the crowd, vocalizing his drunken happiness. I couldn’t tell if long white beards and Einstein hair were staples in Czech elderly men or if I had seen him before. He lifted his arms praising the drum solo and I remembered he used the same motion to feed peacocks in my university’s rose garden. After unmemorable verbal exchanges, he let me take his photo. He eventually broke through the crowd to dance near another woman. I pulled up the photo and he swayed his hand away, scoffing as if he was used to the celebrity sighting. I enjoyed him more than ever.
The Plastic People of the Universe performed their last song without Brabenec, unfortunately, it sounded much better without him. The crowd flooded out in small bursts to not overload the coatroom attendant. I left with ringing ears and nobody to detain me.
During a Pennsylvania June, I began a book about German ‘secret police’ in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). By September, I was finishing the last pages in a Berlin bagel shop before visiting the bleak Ministry for State Security or ‘Stasi’ headquarters on the outside of the city.
“Stasiland” by Anna Funder is a personal investigation that preserves the lives of those involved with the Stasi and the ordinary citizens affected by the socialist regime.
Within the first minutes of hopping off the Flixbus, it was easy to note the stark differences of a modern north German city like Hamburg to its 2-hour south-central counterpart, Berlin; a purple mohawker with a chain-link wallet resting on graffitied walls, a dog that barked more aggressively on a leash (never saw a dog leash in Hamburg), and an entire city that seemed stuck in the ’90s with passport photo booths and T.V. guide magazine adverts on street corners. The punk scene aged gracefully in a world that could look post-apocalyptic 3000.
Kai, my travel partner/German translator, and I wanted to theme our Berlin trip around the ghost country, GDR, when parts of Berlin and Germany were physically split between West and East from 1961 to November 1989 in an attempt to keep those in the socialist ideology away from capitalism. Funder interviews an ex Stasi agent, Hauptmann Koch, one of the few who look back in regret at their time with the State;
“Because of subsidization, prices were lower in the East, but so were wages. Before there was a wall people thought: “Why should I work in the East when I can make more money in the West?” So they went across and offered them their labor we so badly needed here to rebuild.”
The “Stasiland” author points out that by 1961 over 2,000 East German citizens were crossing into the West each day. Including Eastern Germany’s highest educated which they properly named the “brain drain.”
Panicked, Walter Ulbricht, general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), initiated an “anti-fascist protective measure” that would “protect Easterners from the shallow western disease of materialism” Funder summarizes the regime by “It obeys all the logic of locking up free people to keep them safe from criminals.”
East Germans awoke on August 13th, 1961 to a city lined in barbed wire with inflexible checkpoints to leave. Those willing to jump from windows along the border, hide inside the lining of car seats crossing checkpoints, or burrow through underground tunnels potentially faced a lengthy sentence or death by automated border guns.
The Party cracked down. A concrete wall was erected and eventually, the inner walls were guarded with vicious dogs, armed guards, and trip-wire machine guns to prevent escapes.
To suppress many of the planned escapes and to keep an eye on those who wanted to speak out against the State, a classified intelligence for state security was headquartered near Magdalenenstraße, a street I often read about in my book.
On the U-Bahn eastward towards the HQ, Kai and I watched a young girl learn “Schnick, Schnack, Schnuck” the German version of rock, paper, scissors with her mother. I caught her attention by speaking English and trying a round with Kai in her language. I lost.
From the dull underground, we climbed towards the sky, bright and clear blue, and were boxed in with grey buildings that hadn’t been repainted since the wall came down. We passed one of the women’s prisons that was commemorated with a neck-bending, high plaque to honor those affected during the reign. Back then, it wasn’t clear where the prisons were located so families couldn’t find them.
This side of Berlin was quiet, I couldn’t find a single person walking the narrow streets. Locked bikes and cared for terraces with ferns were the only evidence of life.
Turning the corner, the headquarters opened up into a wide courtyard that could park several tour busses. Winding walls of photographs and written history of the GDR, included the environmental protests, churches in opposition, David Hasselhoff on top of the crumbling Berlin Wall, and a profile on Erich Mielke who served as the head of the Stasi.
I was distracted by the burly, white-haired German man echoing his voice between the courtyard walls and bulletins. “Eins, Zwei, Drei…” until he reached “Zehn” the total amount of people he traveled with. I can’t say if they were tourists interested in their county’s history or if they were there for a personal agenda. The museum also serves as an archive where citizens can uncover their own Stasi file, discover which Stasi agent was assigned to them, find answers like why they might not have been accepted into university, or why they didn’t get promoted or got fired from their job. “Germany was the only Eastern Bloc country in the end that so bravely, so conscientiously opened files on its people to its people.” Funder writes.
Kai’s parents, who spent their youth and some adulthood in the GDR before it fell decided to never check their files, in the event it could ruin a relationship with an old neighbor or family member. Kai, born in 1990, missed life in the GDR by just a few months.
1ST FLOOR: BRIEF HISTORY
We entered the atrium where the sunlit the central display case carrying a model of the entire property. To the right, the ticket holder, an older gentleman with a hat only an older gentleman would wear spoke little English. I asked where he was when the wall fell. I waited for the few seconds it took Kai to translate. The gentleman looked at me “Westen” and threw his hands in the air, clicking his wrists, and finally opened his mouth into a wide grin. He had joined the wave of people partying near the crumbling wall.
The museum has three floors, naturally, we started our self-guided tour on the first floor. We uncovered the gritty politics leading into the powerhouse of the GDR and Stasi. Much to Mielke’s work ethic, he burrowed through the mess of killing a Gestapo agent as a young man, took exile in the Soviet Union, came back with Communist training to Germany, and favored his way to the top of a new regime.
2ND FLOOR: MIELKE’S OFFICE
Understanding Mielke is best learned by the hints he left behind on the 2nd-floor offices practically left undisturbed even after Die Wende (“turning point”) protestors stormed the headquarters in January 1990 demanding their freedoms and files.
His office wraps around in wooden cabinets with three large windows that still have a stale smell locked into the curtains. Three rotary phones are the only items left on his white oak desk that sits on red carpet. There was once a bust of Lenin, his face in a soft slumber, that is now in the archives. The royal blue fabric for the chairs must have been carefully chosen. They came in batches, circling the large table in the grand meeting room a few steps away.
Mielke’s commitment to methodical thinking bled into his daily rituals. In the morning he’d have breakfast at his desk with clear, drawn-out instructions to his secretary with how his eggs, toast, salt, and coffee should be placed on the tray. This sustenance led him to personally sign regular citizen’s files and grant permission for further Stasi action.
3RD FLOOR: TACTICS & TOURIST DRESSED AGENTS
Modern stealth technology was dedicated to the third floor. Flower pots with listening devices, infrared lights secretly assembled into Trabant head-beams, tins of putty to quickly copy house keys, and recorders with plastic brown bark facades to be glued on park trees.
I concentrated on the photograph of a Stasi agent disguised as a tourist. His silky white button-up tucked into high red khakis, bug-eyed sunglasses that hid partially under a tan cap, and his cameras didn’t need to be hidden in a briefcase, two dangled on his neck as he pointed with a smirk at the man taking his photo. I imagined the dreadful, proud laughs of those circled around him before they were missioned out into the city.
The hardest to conceptualize was the merriment these agents took to psychologically damage their own neighbors, known as Zersetzung, German for “decomposition.” The idea was to unnerve dissidents so they’d be encompassed in their personal lives becoming far too busy to engage in political activity. Tactics ranged from sending pornography to the family home in the victim’s name, moving or stealing arbitrary items like socks, hand-towels, etc. from an apartment, or spreading rumors in work and social circles. The slow plundering of confidence led many to become socially isolated, burnt-out, fearful, or even mentally ill. German author Jürgen Fuchs wrote about the “assault on the human soul” before he died of leukemia, a likely deliberate encounter with radioactive contamination from the Stasi. The destruction of essence does not heal easily.
In a pursuit to find the rows of archived files, some more dusted than others, that appeared on my cover of Stasiland, Kai and I ventured next door where civil rights activists ensure records are cared for. The files we had access to were behind glass cabinets.
The archive leaves certain, profiled files out for the public to view. Kai happened to reach for the bottom right corner profile, Gilbert Radulovic. As it turned out, Radulovic was watched before he took any interest in the underground. His grade school teachers produced testaments that Radulovic’s performance was not ideal to Communist teachings. Losing some energy, Kai and I crept towards the second floor where, surprisingly, Radulovic’s mugshots were blown up on the wall. Inside the second-floor exhibit was a video and photographic timeline of Gilbert Radulovic’s twisted incarceration.
There were reports of his activity on the “Thursday Circle” that was eventually dismembered by Stasi agents internally. However, it was Radulovic’s interest in the punks that ultimately led to his arrest.
The underground punk scene met Radulovic from connections through the church. When Radulovic decided to interview and bring a friend to photograph them, he created a booklet meant to circulate only to friends. He gave his mother a few copies for friends in “non-socialist countries” when she traveled to West Germany. Border Patrol found the copies stitched inside the leather car seats and pressured the mother to name the author, her son. She was able to warn her son of the confiscated material. Part of the psychological torment the Stasi implemented meant not arresting Radulovic immediately. They waited a few days before finding him on a street corner and carrying him off in an undisclosed van.
Once Radulovic was arrested, the photographer Nikolaus Becker found the original copies and scratched over the faces of the punks to protect their identity.
During the trial, the judge convicted Radulovic, who was unaware that his booklet could be criminally punishable, to two years and two months for “illegal establishment of contact” In many written testimonies, Radulovic made clear he didn’t intend to “harm the interests of the GDR.” After serving under a year, Radulovic was released early in April. When Radulovic arrived at his hometown station, his oldest friend welcomed him, rightfully so with “Welcome to the big prison.” In interviews he mentions the trauma that made him perform as the best-behaved citizen; not crossing the street on red and never taking the underground without paying. When he accesses his files in the reading room, sometimes the arbitrary information that was written about him makes him laugh out loud. Radulovic is most relieved to not see in his files that a close friend could have been an unofficial collaborator of the Stasi.
HOHENSCHÖNHAUSEN / LOTHAR’S STORY:
We never managed to visit the early morning hours of Berlin. After all, the best way is to stay out all night and greet the club scene hitting their third wave by 7 a.m. We rushed out of the hotel courtyard by 11 a.m when we found out the only English tour of Hohenschönhausen, the Stasi prison morphed museum, was starting at 12:30. We fit in a café breakfast; boiled eggs, grapes, cheeses, buttered rolls, and a shared croissant. I fit well into coffee buzzes and rushed plans. I couldn’t hide my excitement at the concept of driving ourselves in a two-seater car Kai obtained from an app. It felt like we had to hot-wire it, Bond-style in order to get there on time.
We sped towards the outskirts of Berlin, barely fitting in-between cars as we switched lanes, although Berlin drivers seem used to this. I hopped out at 12:26, minutes before our scheduled English tour. The lengthy scripted German words I had once become comfortable with felt miles long as if they were overstretching the signs. The pressure of time didn’t let me translate (or decipher the obvious blocky illustrations of a man outstretching his arm with a blocky ticket) where the ticket booth was. I felt relieved when Kai came running, banana in hand, looking slightly distressed. It meant I wasn’t alone in turbulent thought. The car-sharing app I had once appreciated came with one specification we hadn’t noticed, we were outside the city parking limit and had to park within the mapped boundary, 2 kilometers away and a 25-minute walk back to Hohenschönhausen. We missed the English tour.
Kai is bilingual, maybe even trilingual if we’re ever in a French dilemma. Taking the German language tour wasn’t lost. We made it back to the dispiriting jail in time for Lothar Schulz, an ex-prisoner, to guide us through with his exceptional story all in his native language, German. Our group began in a sunny space between the two buildings. Kai and I moved as a single being, attached at the hip while he whispered the bulk of English translation in my ear. Portions of the time I used nonverbal gestures and the elementary German I could figure for myself to piece together Lothar’s time as a ‘Staatsfeind’ or ‘enemy of the State.’
Lothar is in his mid 60’s, I assumed. He is athletic, biking two hours to the jail to give tours in his self-motivated cause for the youth to personalize history and remember it. He is quick-witted and before answering questions he took time to think, making his forehead wrinkles squeeze into a shape of a menorah. I could tell he was German (aside from him speaking) he was strong in his movements, holding up his palm and fingers as numbers sent the totality of his energy to the ends of his nails, yet he strode with a grace that emphasized his friendliness.
His crimes, protesting against The Party grew out of personal frustration. The Hohenschönhausen museum website summarizes his story; Schulz studied thermal engineering in Dresden, then worked installing a Soviet nuclear reactor, and with his vast knowledge of Russian was considered for a postgraduate program in Moscow. However, his refusal to join the SED left him stagnant. Not getting further in his career aspirations, his only resolution was to lead protests in the center of East Berlin.
Explaining the poster he pinned that led to his arrest, Lothar showed us the encrypted message that required local context. The flyer condemned the abuse and discrimination his wife received for simply studying with Russians. Kai couldn’t grasp the connection of why Russian studies would harbor resentment in the community and through Kai’s diluted translation, I couldn’t either. Nevertheless, Lothar was arrested and interrogated for forty hours without sleep by Stasi agents.
Descending the stairs into the isolation prison, Lothar guided us toward dissipating light. It was here, Stasi agents first took him. The eery wide hallways were lined with grey-submarine colored doors. Behind them, identical windowless rooms had two essential items; a wooden plank bed and a bucket to shit in. The guards enforced strict rules for when to sleep and when to eat. Sleeping was never allowed during the day and at night prisoners were required to sleep on their backs with their hands firmly at their sides.
Lothar spent seven months in the isolation jail. The hardest part, he said, was the lack of movement. Exercise like simple arms movements was forbidden. Lothar’s words were able to warp our perception of time. Walking the length of the hallway felt stretched as we appreciated our ability to move; knee rises, one foot up, leg extends, momentum pushes, land evenly with spread toes, repeat. He was adamant to tell the group that the key to surviving a place like Hohenschönhausen was to eat slowly at each meal, see the time spent there as a training camp- not wasted time, and recognize the ridiculousness of the circus.
The Stasi agents used the worn-out mental stability of the prisoners in an attempt to groom them as GDR informants, Lothar mentioned as another tour group led by a fellow ex-prisoner passed by. This guide’s face seemed determined and still resentful in a wrinkled furrow.
Kai translated my question, “Did the agents ever try to groom Lothar?” He smiled and explained the psychologist wrote in his one-thousand-page file that he would be an unsuccessful informant to persuade. He was too stubborn.
Above us, the sun was gently warming the city. After twenty minutes of shaded penitentiary exploration, I felt relief climbing back into daylight. In the next brick building, Lothar showed us vans camouflaged as laundry services or fish market vehicles. They preyed on political activists as they snuck through the city. Eventually and without warning a suspect would be apprehended and shuttled to Hohenschönhausen.
The building we were now in is where most prisoners spent the majority of their sentences. Even the air seemed to be stained vintage yellow. The rows of cells were upgraded slightly; with sinks, a desk, and frosted windows that let light in.
Lothar showed us the growing red light in the hallway. This was used when guards were passing with a prisoner. If turned on, the prisoner was to look down, close their eyes, and wait in the event that the other guard passing was escorting someone they knew like their wife or friend.
Using an almost empty orange juice bottle to point with, Lothar gathered us around a desk with two chairs on either side in the interrogation room. I was beginning to recognize the elements of Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others)(2006) a film profiling a Stasi agent who, with the help of literature, forms a connection with the couple he surveilled. I recognized the yellow cloth tucked under the cushions of one of the seats. The beginning scenes of the film show a 40-hour interrogation with constant reminders for the suspect to sit on his hands. That scene ends with the stone-cold agent carefully collecting the odor sample and pickling it in a jar for dogs to sniff out if needed.
Lothar’s story of one year and a few months only took two hours. Until we were thanked by the bookshop for joining him. In the end, I did inform him I was American, his surprise turned into a wide grin, and admitted he loved Americans. Perhaps because his work as an engineer was appreciated in the West.
Weirdly enough, as we left Hohenschönhausen, I didn’t think about the prisoner’s first steps walking the streets of Berlin alone, maybe noticing a dog’s bark or the thick smell of currywurst sold at fast-food stands. I only thought about what food I’d eat next, Sudanese, Indian, or a veggie burger.
Further Reading and Resources:
Plastic People of the Universe:
MY FAVORITE READ ^^^^
Stasi and Punks: