German Protest Song
“I’m Going to Do Something”

Protest has always been an element of German-language songs.
Protest has always been an element of German-language songs. | Photo (detail): © Jumpingsack –

For quite some time now social criticism has been an integral part of pop culture. German bands like Wir Sind Helden or artists like Peter Fox are famous for using words and music to combat social injustice. Might this, however, also have led to protest losing some of its political clout? Find out more from this look at the German protest song.

March 2011 – a big demonstration against nuclear power in Berlin with Wir Sind Helden playing to 120,000 people. October 2013 – three evening concerts in Düsseldorf with Die Toten Hosen reminiscing about the vilification of what the Nazis called degenerate music. May 2014 – the singer Peter Fox performs at a demonstration against the stonewalling of the reformed Renewable Energies Act.

In contrast to the widespread prejudice that German pop culture is equally as apolitical as the people who consume it, today many commercially successful pop musicians and music consumers are focusing more and more on the aspect of political commitment. What, however, does the protest song of today stem from? What is its history?

Workers’ songs and folksongs

Protest has been an element of German-language songs for as long as they have been around: Mockery and criticism of the powers that be, of fossilised social mores and morals were already being aired in the battle songs of the peasant uprisings in the 18th century. The roots of the present-day German protest song can be traced back to the traditions of the politically motivated songs of the German labour movement of the 20th century. Furthermore the folksong movement in 1950s USA also had an important function as a source of inspiration, for example, the songs of singer-songwriter, Pete Seeger, who died in January 2014, and who, above all, made a name for himself with his anti-war song Where have all the Flowers Gone (1955).

It was singer-songwriters like Hannes Wader and above all Franz Josef Degenhardt who carried on the tradition of the American protest song in Germany. Both singers became famous in the middle of the 1960s after appearing at the Burg Waldeck Folk Music Festival. In his song Spiel nicht mit den Schmuddelkindern (Don’t Play with the Grubby Children / 1965) Franz Josef Degenhardt, who died in 2011, describes how a young boy is broken by an authoritarian upbringing – “Sie trieben ihn in eine Schule in der Oberstadt, kämmten ihm die Haare und die krause Sprache glatt. Er lernte Rumpf und Wörter beugen.” (They made him go to an uptown school, his ruffled hair and his rough language combed straight. He learned how to bend his body and his words.) Irgendwas mach ich mal (One Day I’m Going To Do Something / 1968) portrays an apolitical worker who is afraid to break out of his small, limited world.

Protest as a way of life

While in the socialist East Germany of the 1970s rock music was treading a path between control, adaptation and careful criticism and the critical singer-songwriter, Wolf Biermann, was expelled from the country, the songs of the new social movements were starting their triumphant advance in the West. Nina Hagen came out with an in-your-face plea for a woman’s right to self-determination concerning the subject of abortion (Unbeschreiblich weiblich / Ineffably Female 1978); a group called Gänsehaut sang a song against the death of the forests (Karl der Käfer / Karl the Beetle, 1983); Wolf Maahn wrote a song protesting against nuclear power (Chernobyl, 1986).

It was not very long, however, before musicians were no longer expressing their criticism in the form of critical lyrics. Punk and hip-hop were heralded in by youth cultures all over the world, who adopted protest as a way of life, in Germany, too. It was not just the lyrics of the songs, but also the coarse, uninhibited music along with a provocative appearance and non-conformist behaviour.

Punk originated in New York in the 1970s and a little later in England it developed into a real movement. “No Future”, a refrain from one of the songs by the Sex Pistols, became the slogan for what was more a vague, apolitical rage that many young people were feeling due to the frustration of having hardly any job prospects in the much hated English class system. In Germany various bands came into being like the Toten Hosen, along with Die Ärzte in Berlin and Die Goldenen Zitronen in Hamburg. A group called Slime wrote a particularly provocative protest song entitled Deutschland muss sterben (… damit wir leben können) (Germany Must Die (… So That We Can Live / 1979): “Wo Faschisten und Multis das Land regieren, wo Leben und Umwelt keinen interessieren.” (Where fascists and multis rule the land, where life and the environment are of no interest.) The title is an allusion to a line from a soldiers’ song inscribed on a war memorial in Hamburg – “Germany must live, even if we have to die”. The band played at school parties, left-wing demonstrations and in occupied buildings.

Between criticism and commerce

The German-speaking hip-hop scene, on the other hand, developed a little later in a way that was not quite so pithy. Hip-hop is a youth culture that is seen above all in the USA by both its creators and recipients alike as the self-empowerment of the Afro-American community. In Germany, when it first kicked off, it was also mostly young people from an immigrant background who identified with this new form of music. In his song Ahmed Gündüz (1991) rapper Tachi tells the story of his father in the broken German of the first generation of migrant workers that came to Germany. In the same year came the now famous song Fremd im eigenen Land (Stranger in my own Country), released by the group Advanced Chemistry from Heidelberg.The more popular and commercialised successful youth cultures like hip-hop and punk became, the louder the criticism became that commerce and protest are basically incompatible. Can a protest song be taken seriously when it appears in the guise of highly marketable popular culture?

An anecdote about American megastar, Lady Gaga, may provide us with an answer to the question. In September 2010 Lady Gaga recorded a video message that was seven and a half minutes long. Standing in front of the stars and stripes, she declared that the American army discriminated against gays and lesbians and was thus violating the principles of freedom and equality for which America stood. So far the video has been viewed on the Internet millions of times. Lady Gaga’s fans really do not care whether she is upset about the treatment of gays and lesbians in the army – or whether she is more concerned with selling records. Protest has become an integral part of pop culture. That is why it has not lost an iota of its political clout.