A special visitor at Karl-Marx-Allee

In my previous blog, I told you about the many visitors I’ve welcomed at my house since I’ve been living here. 55 years ago, on the 4th of October 1960, Karl-Marx-Allee received a visitor who was possibly even more special. His name was Paul Robeson and he was officially invited by the government of the GDR.

There are a few things you need to know about this Paul Robeson:

  1. He came from the United States.
  2. He was African-American.
  3. He was a singer.
  4. He was politically active.

All four of these characteristics were potentially problematic in the GDR. Paul Robeson, however, was welcomed with open arms by both the political leaders and the people of this country. Why? Because he was all these things AND ostracized for his beliefs in the United States. A brief biography: Paul Robeson was born on the 9th of April 1898, as the son of an escaped slave. He was smart and a talented singer, actor and athlete. Even though in those days it wasn’t easy for coloured people to go to university, Robeson was accepted at Rutgers College and Columbia University. He studied law, but at the same time his star was rising: he played Othello in theatres (1930) and performed in both the musical and movie Showboat (1927 and 1932). The song ‘Old Man River’, originally from Showboat, became one of his big hits. People described him as a perfectionist, a charismatic, charming, graceful and generous person. Robeson was a star in the United States.

The love for communism

At the same time, he began to take an interest in politics and human rights. This started with equal rights for people of African origin, but Robeson also became connected to the anti-imperialist and socialist movement. In 1934, the Russian movie director Sergei Eisenstein invited him to the Soviet Union, a visit that left a deep impression on Robeson. He felt that the colour of somebody’s skin wasn’t an issue in the USSR. During World War II, he openly supported both the United States and the USSR, which made him a problem to the FBI. After the war, the United States tried to silence Robeson by banning him from performing and eventually took away his passport. He became the subject of a large-scale investigation by a government commission and was under huge pressure, but refused to say anything about his alleged membership of the American Communist Party (CPUSA). Robeson stated that his love for the African American community was more important than his love for international communism.

A big hero in the GDR

At this point, the people of the GDR already knew all about Paul Robeson. They read articles about him in the daily newspapers as well as in women’s and children’s magazines. TV and radio shows were broadcast in his honour and kids were singing his songs during sing-ins. His music was also available on vinyl. In special expositions and symposia, East Germans learned even more about this extraordinary man from the United States. Clearly, the GDR government liked Paul Robeson. There was a government-controlled special committee that did everything in their power to make him come to Berlin. After years of trying, they finally succeeded in 1960. The East German government probably realised this might very well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and made sure there was no doubt how much the GDR loved Paul Robeson. This was an official state visit.

His arrival in Berlin

His GDR tour (or rather: Berlin tour) started on the 4th of October 1960. Straight after his arrival at Schönefeld Airport, Robeson was driven to the Humboldt University on Unter den Linden. Here, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in philosophy. The professors accompanied Robeson to a balcony facing the street, where a big crowd was waiting for him. Accompanied by the professors and this crowd, he sang his big hits. Directly after that, Robeson had lunch with the German Peace Committee (Deutsche Friedensrat) – another government organ.

After a quick shower in his hotel room, his taxi was already waiting to take him to the Deutsche Sporthalle on Stalinallee (which is today Karl-Marx-Allee). Nine years before, this venue had been the first finished building on the Allee. It was another perfect example of Stalinist architecture, but due to poor construction, it had to be torn down only 20 years after it first opened. On this day in 1960, however, the Sporthalle was still brand new and Robeson would also have seen the major construction work that was going on elsewhere on Stalinallee. In the Sporthalle another crowd was waiting for him, consisting of 5000 FDJ members and Junge Pioniere, the official youth movements of the GDR. GDR leader Walter Ulbricht joined Robeson on stage to award him the Grosse Stern der Völkerfreundschaft, the ‘big star of friendship among peoples’. Robeson spoke, sang and even danced.

Medals, medals, medals

The next morning, Robeson was invited to the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts), where he received an award for his honorary membership. After this festive occasion, he attended an event at the power station in Berlin-Treptow – organised for the workers by the state’s labour union. Robeson had the evening off and the next morning he received another medal, this time from the Komitee der Widerstandskämpfer (committee of resistance fighters) – another government organisation. That afternoon, he performed at Marx-Engels-Platz (now: Schlossplatz) to celebrate the GDR’s 11th anniversary. His visit was concluded with an official festive reception at the Palast der Republik, arranged by the government. Three years later, Robeson paid another visit to Berlin. He was ill and didn’t give any public performances, but he did take a walk along Karl-Marx-Allee. This time he could see how Café Moskau, Kino International and Hotel Berolina were being constructed.

The communist on Spotify

Long after his death in 1976, Paul Robeson remained a hero in the GDR. A street in Berlin was named after him as well as a school in Leipzig – 2 years earlier, a school in Berlin had already been renamed Paul-Robeson-Schule. In 1983, the GDR even issued a commemorative postage stamp with his portrait on it. He may have been (partly deliberately) forgotten in his home country, but the people of the GDR still remembered him. And why not? He was a warm-hearted man with a wonderful voice, who fought his way up and kept fighting his entire life – not for himself, but for the people who needed it. Was he a communist? Probably not to the extent the United States/FBI once believed him to be. But it is a fact that his approach to the USSR changed his life and that there was no way back. Decades later, Robeson’s reputation has been partially rehabilitated in the United States. In fact, you can even find him on Spotify these days.

Once the GDR ceased to exist, however, Robeson’s fame in the eastern part of Germany faded. People in West-Germany had never heard of him or his music or his battle for equal rights. Still, he hasn’t been forgotten completely. If you’re ever at the Schönhauser Allee S-Bahn Station in Prenzlauer Berg (to visit the Sunday market in Mauerpark, for example), just walk north on Schönhauser Allee for about 5 minutes. Then take a left, into a street you normally wouldn’t even notice. Believe it or not: you’re in Paul-Robeson-Straße, one of Berlin’s last remaining tributes to this hero of the people.