When people, who are old enough to remember, are asked to name the one individual who contributed the most to the downfall of communism, many will answer “Ronald Reagan”. While President Reagan certainly deserves much credit, I would like to submit four other candidates for the top spot: John, Paul George and Ringo.
In the manuscript for my book “Deep Undercover” I had a section that deals with the influence of music, particularly rock-and-roll, on me growing up. That section was mercilessly cut by my editor, but it has nevertheless some historic significance. Our entire generation was subject to massive communist indoctrination, yet we could not resist the siren song of western music. That music was not commercially available to us, but it easily tunneled under the Iron Curtain via AM radio.
As much as we believed in the communist ideal, we also wanted to have some fun. And what trickled over to us on the air waves from the West was A LOT of fun! And when the Beatles hit the scene in 1964, a whole generation was hooked. Regardless how much we bought into the propaganda that depicted the West as a corrupt and evil society, we knew there was something very, very good originating from there. And so the seeds for doubt and eventually rebellion were sown and watered.
Quite ironically, as I was preparing for my final launch to the United States as an undercover KGB agent, one of the things I was looking forward to was an opportunity to listen to my favorite music fully unencumbered and in high quality. As soon as I had made enough money in my first job, I bought a record player and acquired over 50 LPs (for the younger readers, those were the Long Playing vinyl records of our time) of my favorite rock bands. Oddly, I never grasped the obvious conflict inherent in my mission which was to help destroy the very society that was giving me so much joy.
From here on you are reading the book – that is unpublished sections of it:
In Hight School I shared the classroom with nineteen boys and two girls.
If one were to venture a guess what our favorite subject was, music would not likely to come to mind as a contender. Yet it was indeed the most popular class session of the week. The reason: Herr Sonntag.
Daddy Sonntag, as we called him, was a retired conductor of a regional symphony orchestra with an unbridled passion for everything musical. He was already in his early sixties, but his high energy made him appear ageless. His entire persona was round – sparkling round blue eyes lit up a round balding head which sat on a short neck that was attached to a round body.
Every music lesson was a joy. Daddy Sonntag would enter the classroom, sit down at the piano, turn around and say, “Today I am pretending to be Franz Liszt.” He would then proceed with a hilariously pretentious ritual, stroking back his nonexistent hair and taking a bow, prior to hammering out a few bars of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody.
Daddy Sonntag’s enthusiasm was so contagious that, under his direction, the entire class of boys joyfully belted out folk songs we did not even like. Occasionally a teacher from a class next door would stick his head in the door and plead, “Could you turn it down a bit, please? My students cannot think.”
Everybody got an ‘A’ in music, and such was Daddy Sontag’s charisma that none of the other teachers took issues with that Santa Claus approach to grading.
What made Herr Sonntag especially cool in our eyes was that he listened to the same forbidden radio stations we did, and that he openly acknowledged the Beatles as legitimate and talented musicians, an opinion that was diametrically opposed to the official party line and potentially dangerous to his career.
In the mid-60s the beat craze conquered the world and easily rode the radio waves across all borders. The first time I heard the Beatles play “She Loves You,” I was hooked and inspired to learn how to play the guitar. So, my roommate Wolfgang and I each bought an electric guitar via mail order. When those shiny instruments arrived, mine colored red and his silver grey, we were in heaven. They looked just like the real deal, and in fact they were, whammy bar and all. We practiced until our fingertips were bloody.
Practice paid off. By the end of 11th grade we had pulled a four-man band together and played at a few small school parties. It was Wolfgang on rhythm, Hans-Peter on (borrowed) bass, I on lead, and Gerhard on (also borrowed) drums. Three guitars and a microphone were far too much to handle for a 10 Watt (!) cathode ray amplifier, which, when turned all the way up, released some sort of a labored squeal that bore little resemblance to music.
Gerhard, the drummer, had rhythm but did not know any songs. Just prior to each piece he leaned over in my direction and whispered, “Slow or fast?” Depending on the answer he went into one of the two modes of percussion he was able to handle.
The year-end party of our junior year was going to be the highlight of our season. Our band was fired up, and the amp was howling. So were the students on the dance floor. But at the height of the crazed ecstasy, the room went suddenly dead silent. It was as if somebody had just halted a great movie at a very suspenseful moment, everybody froze in their tracks. The assigned chaperone for this party, a stiff humorless math teacher, had enough of our shenanigans, so he used the only weapon at his disposal, the electric plug. Not only did the abrupt silence have the effect of dousing the excited crowed with cold water, it also conveyed a symbolic meaning, indicating that the generation before us would not tolerate our youthful exuberance and would do everything they could to keep it in check
Fast forward four years, I am now a junior in college: I had just received the coveted Karl Marx Scholarship, which required both excellent grades and ideological purity. One night, I listened again to one of my favorite (western and expressly forbidden) radio stations on a shortwave frequency. Apparently, I had the volume up too loud, and one fellow student on the other side of a very thin wall became a witness to my transgression. Two days later, I was called into the office of the party secretary of our local chapter. I had no idea what this was all about, but I would find out very quickly. As soon as I entered the room, comrade Dr. Mikkeleit closed the door behind us and said with a somber expression on his face: “Comrade Dittrich, I am very disappointed in you”. He paused long enough for my brain to go into overdrive to figure out what sort of crime I might have committed. Then he continued: “You must exercise more discretion – keep that darn volume down – I do want to see another report like this”, waving hand written note with his right hand in front of me. Nothing more had to be said. He wished me good-bye with a touch of a wicked grin that I will never forget.
Two years later Dr. Mikkeleit and his colleague Dr. Hauke, also a party member, attended a scientific conference in London, England. Being able to travel to the West was a rare privilege, so it was no wonder that at the party group meeting that followed their return, Hauke and Mikkeleit had to report in detail on their experience. To both of them this was a trip of a lifetime, and the highlight: A LIVE ROLLINGS STONES CONCERT!!!
And so the seedlings kept on growing until they became finally strong enough to erode the concrete wall that had encased East Germany.
Epilog: As I was doing some fact checking on the web, I found out that I am not alone with my theory. Watch this CBS Interview of Leslie Woodhead, who made a video of the Fab Four before they became famous and eventually wrote a book “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin”