Rory MacLean meets Stephan Krawczyk
Krawczyk was born in Thuringia in 1955. His father died when Stephan was a child, after working in East Germany’s Wismut uranium mines. As a result his mother distanced herself from state authorities. She refused to kowtow to the Stasi, telling them that she wouldn’t intercept letters for them, saying that she was a postwoman not a seaport prostitute ('Hafennutte'), and thereby giving her son an early lesson in integrity.
In 1981, after graduating with a degree in classical guitar from the Franz Liszt Academy in Weimar, Krawczyk won East Germany’s top national song award for his ‘outstanding artistic contribution’. With his folk group Liedehrlich – meaning ‘true to the song’ – he began to sing about how things were in East Germany, speaking truths that others couldn’t or wouldn’t voice. He sang for example about the hypocrisy of Politbüro members holidaying in Paris while the rest of the country was forbidden to go further than the Baltic island of Rügen.
Anxious colleagues and cultural functionaries advised him ‘to be more restrained’ and ‘not to speak of power in a negative context’. He was counselled to sing about ‘real living socialism’ rather than of real life under Communism.
‘The authorities wanted to stifle individual expression, which of course is the essence of being an artist,’ he told me when we met near his home in Berlin. ‘I asked myself, “But why shouldn’t I sing as I want?” If I agreed to their constraints, I would no longer be an artist.’
Krawczyk rejected the official calls to conform. As a result of his candidness ‘they declared me bereft of “moral or artistic talent” only three years after I’d received the country’s highest musical accolade,’ he said shaking his head in disbelief at the irony. ‘Such things are possible only in a dictatorship.’
He was banned from performing in public and - as his songs began to inspire the opposition movement - he was arrested, held in isolation in the Stasi’s notorious Hohenschönhausen prison. In 1988 he was deported to West Germany.
‘For my whole first year in the West I had nightmares every night, waking up screaming the second before being shot. I knew I had to be rational about that time, not to become trapped by it, to figure out who I was and to move forward.’ He added, ‘At the same time it was only on coming here that I first confronted my mortality, my humanity. In East Germany all my actions had been seen as political. I’ve come to believe that the most important thing is for us to learn to love ourselves.’
In due course Krawczyk discovered that over 80 former friends and associates (as well as his lawyer) had spied on him for the Stasi. Yet the horrific experience served only to further ingrain in him the importance of honesty, of resistance without blame. Over the next twenty years Krawczyk produced a rich and diverse body of work: a dozen books, ten albums plus a play and an opera. In his work he often still speaks for victims, for people who have no voice.
For example in response to the school shooting in the town of Winnenden in 2009, he felt compelled to write his deeply-felt ‘Winnenden Song’ (Winnenden-Lied)
‘The need to write that song struck me one midnight,’ he recalled, himself a father of three. ‘Each one of us has been a child, and each one of us has wondered what it will be like to die. I identified with the young victims. I decided to write the lyrics from their point-of-view, not from that of a detached outsider or the perpetrator.’ Krawczyk paused and shook his head again. ‘Of course many people don’t want to hear that sort of song, and to be confronted by such a Hell. They want to be entertained.’
The ‘Winnenden Song’ so moved the parents of the victims that, eighteen months later, they invited Krawczyk into their homes to give a private concert. In a heartfelt private ritual some of the families were able to talk for the first time about the loss of their children, helping them to move forward from the terrible tragedy.
Recent works encapsulate the essence of Krawczyk’s moral outlook. First is his novel Mensch, Nazi in which he interweaves a fictional, all-too-believable story of a young man’s conversion to neo-nazism with a true conversation between Krawczyk and his seven-year-old son, emphasising that parents have a duty to teach their children about right and wrong.
In his latest album Erdverbunden, luftvermählt, which translates as being rooted to the earth and married to the sky, he ‘collaborates’ with Martin Luther, exploring questions of faith, celebrity and personal responsibility in the modern age.
‘Martin Luther was an artist and a rebel,’ said Krawczyk. ‘But he’s been elevated to the status of a hero, put on a podium, which is typical of our time.’ In songs like Ich, Martin Luther, Krawczyk imagines himself as Luther. ‘I want to learn from him, but you can’t learn from anyone who is stuck up on a podium.’
Krawczyk is a man who appears to hold no bitterness, just concerns and compassion for others, for society, for children who grow up without guidance and become easy prey for malicious individuals or ideologies. Dressed in a black shirt and leather jacket, with a lean, worn face, his calm and thoughtful eyes twinkled with remarkable light and sensitivity.
As well as his creative work, Krawczyk continues to speak out about moral compromise in politics, for example in the way that East German Communists renamed themselves Die Linke ('The Left'). As he told Stern magazine, ‘It was a clever manoeuvre of the PDS to rebrand themselves ‘die Linke’. The name enables people to quickly forget that this party was the successor to the SED. Stasi-informers betrayed and sold fellow human beings who had to endure repression, prison or even murder. There is nothing to discuss or excuse here. Anyone who has betrayed certain principles is capable of doing the same again under different circumstances. In every public office there is the potential for abuse of power and making life difficult for others.’
Goethe once wrote, ‘Germany is nothing but every individual German is much, and yet the Germans imagine the reverse to be true.’ In his work, as in his life, Krawczyk proves the potential of the individual, and inspires others through his integrity and his deep compassion. In his neighbourhood of Berlin-Neukölln, his new Heimat, this empathetic, feeling artist breathes into words and music his heartfelt understanding of what it feels like, and what it means, to be human.
‘Wo ich wohne, stehen die Birken / wie ein Zeichen ihrer selbst, / zwei mit fremden Eigennamen: erdverbunden, luftvermählt.’
'In the place where I live the birches grow side-by-side, like symbols of themselves, grounded in the earth, reaching for the sky.'