Tag Archives: preussischer Ikarus

Die Ballade vom preussischen Ikarus

Far away from the celebrations in Germany, I try to remember the fall of 1989 and I came across Wolf Biermann’s “Ballade vom preussischen Ikarus” (Ballad of the Prussian Icarus). In Germany, Wolf Biermann is a poet and songwriter of almost iconic status. The son of a Jewish communist murdered in Auschwitz in 1943, Biermann’s voice was never comfortable and still defies facile categorization, ein Querdenker (roughly: square peg). His clear-eyed analysis of the realities of life in the DDR, coupled with fierce loyalty to the ideals of Communism–he emigrated to East Germany from Hamburg at age 17–soon brought him into conflict with the authorities and he was banned from perfoming in public in 1965. Eleven years later, in 1976, he was allowed to go on a concert tour in the West.

The following clip is from a concert he gave during this tour in Cologne, a moving reminder of complicated times and the absurdity of the wall:

Here is the German text :

Da, wo die Friedrichstraße sacht
den Schritt über das Wasser macht
da hängt über der Spree
die Weidendammer Brücke. Schön
kannst du da Preußens Adler sehn
wenn ich am Geländer steh
dann steht da der preußische Ikarus
mit grauen Flügeln aus Eisenguß
dem tun seine Arme so weh
er fliegt nicht weg – er stürzt nicht ab
macht keinen Wind – und macht nicht schlapp
am Geländer über der Spree.

Der Stacheldraht wächst langsam ein
tief in die Haut, in Brust und Bein
ins Hirn, in graue Zelln
Umgürtet mit dem Drahtverband
ist unser Land ein Inselland
umbrandet von bleiernen Welln
da steht der preußische Ikarus
mit grauen Flügeln aus Eisenguß
dem tun seine Arme so weh
er fliegt nicht hoch und er stürzt nicht ab
macht keinen Wind und macht nicht schlapp
am Geländer über der Spree.

Und wenn du weg willst, mußt du gehen
ich hab schon viele abhaun sehn
aus unserem halben Land.
Ich halt mich fest hier, bis mich kalt
dieser verhaßte Vogel krallt
und zerrt mich übern Rand
dann bin ich der preußische Ikarus
mit grauen Flügeln aus Eisenguß
dann tun mir die Arme so weh
dann flieg ich hoch, und dann stürz ich ab
mach bißchen Wind – dann mach ich schlapp
am Geländer über der Spree.

and in English:

Where Friedrichsstrasse softly
Crosses the water
Across the river Spree is suspended
The Weidendammer Bridge. Well
You can see the Prussian eagle
When I stand by the handrail
That’s where the Prussian Icarus is standing
With grey wings of cast iron
His arms ache
He cannot fly away—he cannot crash
He does not stir up any motion—and he does not tire
At the handrail across the river Spree

Barbed wire grows in
Deeply into the skin, into chest and leg
Into the brain, grey matter
Girded by a band of wire
Our land is an island
Waves of lead surging around him
With grey wings of cast iron
That’s where the Prussian Icarus is standing

His arms ache
He cannot fly away—he cannot crash
He does not stir up any motion—and he does not tire
At the handrail across the river Spree

And if you need to leave, you must go
I have seen many split
From our half land
I hang on, until, out of the blue
This detested bird will grasp me
And pull me across the abyss
Then, I shall be the Prussian Icarus
With grey wings of cast iron
My arms will ache
I will fly high above, and then I will crash
I will stir up some motion—and I will tire
At the handrail across the river Spree

Der Spiegel has a wonderful article on Biermann and this song. His calls for national unity were not exactly popular with the left. Having performed “So oder so, die Erde wird rot” (loosely translated as Whatever happens, the earth/ground will turn red) he demanded:

“”Die deutsche Einheit, wir dulden nicht, dass nur das schwarze Pack davon spricht! Wir wollen die Einheit, die wir meinen, so soll es sein, so wird es sein.”

We cannot accept that only the conservatives (derogatory term) can speak of German unity! We want unity (a play on a popular 19th century revolutionary song by Max von Schenkendorf, Freiheit, die ich meines), it should come, and it shall become reality.

Two days after these words, spoken at the same concert in Köln, the DDR stripped Wolf Biermann of his citizenship.

Biermann went on to have a distinguished career “im Westen,” in West Germany. He  never stopped to challenge his listeners. Remembering that he–ein halbes Judenkind, as he called himself in an interview–survived only because of the allied victory,  he has supported the Iraq war and called for support of Israel–both deeply unpopular issues within the German left.

On another timely note, here is a clip of another of his many important songs, Ermutigung: Du lass Dich nicht verhärten (Don’t get hardened in these tough times). Anyone who like me grew up during the peacenik 80s, protesting the arrival of the cruise missiles, knows this song by heart.

This recording is from the very first concert Biermann gave in the East, in Leipzig, on December 1, 1989:

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