On the Paul Robeson Strasse

Eiliyas Mixtape Menage investigates the relationship between U.S. entertainer and activist Paul Robeson and the GDR…

“You may well ask why Paul Robeson means so much to our people. Why do we have a Paul Robeson committee or a Paul Robeson Archive? Why do our school children learn about him and why is he an inspiration to us on our road to communism? I am not sure that I have the whole answer to these questions. But surely one reason is what we learned from the terrible experiences under fascism. “

Frank Loeser, President of East Germany’s Paul Robeson Committee, Ansprache zur Veranstaltung “What Is America To Me,” August 2, 1973, 19:30, Kosmos Theater

I can distinctly remember the two times that I encountered Pankow’s Paul Robeson Strasse. The first time was on my third day in Berlin, when I had found a potential artist studio. Determined to make Berlin my own I ventured out somewhere I didn’t know in the city (it might have been the Kreativstadt Weissensee, ECC, but I don’t remember exactly). The studio turned out to be too far away from where I lived in Mitte at the time, but on my way back, bearing in mind I was very new to the city, I got lost.

Image by Eiliyas Mixtape Menage

In the midst of my wandering around, I stumbled across Paul Robeson Strasse. I had to double take, of course. Why was there a street named after Paul Robeson here in Berlin? I wondered if it maybe commemorated a different Paul Robeson to the one I thinking of, the singer, dancer and activist from back home in the USA.

Then it clicked. I remembered a documentary I had watched on Paul Robeson, which mentioned him being revered in East Berlin, and how he had said that it was in Russia he felt appreciated as a human being for the first time. Obviously I was in the eastern part of Berlin, and the street must therefore be a nod to Robeson’s communist sympathies.

The second time I found myself on the same street was more than a year later and also accidentally. I had signed my young son up for piano lessons in this particular part of Pankow, and remember sticking around for the first lesson to make sure he was comfortable with the new teacher. Partway through though, I ventured out for a coffee to give him some space, more focus and perhaps a sense of independence. I picked up a coffee and a snack, and wandered about the neighbourhood; before I knew it, I was back on Paul Robeson Strasse again.

Who was Paul Robeson?

Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9th 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, to Reverend William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill. His father was a runaway slave who escaped to become minister of Princeton’s Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. His mother came from a prominent family of Quaker origin. He was the youngest of five children, and grew up to be a lot of things; athlete, lawyer, singer, thespian, left-wing activist. It was that last one that got him into trouble and turned him into a target of the U.S. government. 

A part of his enthusiasm for communism stemmed from the case of the Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama, in which nine Black teenagers were accused, tried and convicted of raping two white women. With the help of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the case was appealed. They were defended by CPUSA’s International Labor Defense (ILD), was was led by Robeson’s good friend William L. Patterson, and launched a global campaign, catching the attention of Moscow in particular, and catapulted Jim Crow into an international concern.

Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell. Image by Britton & Patterson. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

At the time, Robeson was performing the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello in London, which was breaking box office records, and was fully aware of the hostility that he would be facing if it were to be performed back home in the States. Speaking of the ‘tempestuous’ scenes (kissing and embracing) with Desdemona, Robeson said, “I wouldn’t care to play those scenes in some parts of the United States. The audience would get rough; in fact, might become very dangerous, with outraged audience members charging the stage with mayhem in mind, possible if not likely…”

Just before Christmas in 1934, Robeson and his wife Eslanda, along with Marie Seton, were on their way to Moscow to meet with Russian Film Director Sergei Eisenstein; the plan was to collaborate on a film about the hero of the Haitian Revolution Toussaint L’Ouverture, whom Sergei deeply admired. During their layover in Berlin, they were stopped by storm troopers at a train station.

It was a “nightmare” according to Eslanda; “Paul said he felt the atmosphere and the uniforms” reminded him of a “pack of wolves, waiting and hoping to be unleashed and released…” Later, she confided to her diary: “I suddenly understand for the first time what the feeling must be of a black in Mississippi…terror, fear, horror, tension, nerves strained to breaking point.”

“I encountered trouble that might have well have meant my life,” Robeson added later of his tense time in Berlin. But he made it to the Soviet Union and returned to London afterwards feeling politically invigorated. “I saw the suffering about me with different eyes,” he declared. “I realised that the suffering of my own people was related to the sufferings of equally oppressed minorities. Later I saw Austria in the dark days, Norway and Denmark on the edge of destruction”.

These enervating experiences led to the political thrust that would define him to his dying days: opposition to fascism at all costs.

Robeson & The GDR

Arbeits kräfte wurden gerufen

Unsere deutsche freunde

Aber menschen sind gekommen

Unsere deutsche freunde

Nicht maschinen sonder menschen

Aber menschen sind gekommen

Unsere deutsche freunde

Freunde, freunde sie haben am leben freude

Deutsche Freunde – Ozon Ata Canini

Although there were obvious anti-fascist parallels between Robeson’s humanitarian activism and his communist sympathies and the GDR, conditions in East Germany were not always favourable for non-Germans. In fact, they could be outright racist. Despite importing contract workers from other communist countries such as Vietnam, Mozambique and Angola, these imported workers were often given jobs that no one else in Germany wanted to do, and were kept separate from German society, often in marginalised housing areas.

The worker contract made with Mozambique was perhaps the most sketchy, since the government received part of the wages from their ‘loaned’ workers, with workers accepting reduced pay based on the promise that the remainder of their salary would be paid upon their return; they are still waiting 25 years later.

Right up until 1988, if a female migrant worker woman was pregnant, she could be deported due to her inability to work, with abortion the only other alternative. Fathers were deported too most of the time, or else contact was forbidden since some mothers cut off contact personally, meaning children grew up not knowing their fathers.

In 1989, migrant workers were sent back to their home countries en masse as they were no longer needed for cheap labour. Those who stayed often experienced attacks and riots by anti-immigrant groups throughout the East. As Vietnamese contract worker Huong Trute has said: One person asked me: “What are you still doing here?” I said “I live here.” He replied: “But we don’t need you, there’s no GDR anymore”

Robeson visited the GDR again in 1960, having been invited to perform from the balcony of the Humboldt University—from which he had received an Honorary Doctorate from the Philosophy Department of Humboldt University—during a two-day press event sponsored by Neues Deutschland, the official newspaper of the Communist Party. One of the songs Robeson sang was “John Brown’s Body”—Brown being an abolitionist whose activism, many believe, lit the touch-paper for the Civil War that ultimately ended slavery.

Robeson returned once more to Berlin in 1963, this time to check into the Berlin-Buch Klinik in East Berlin. Years of being scrutinised and put under constant surveillance by the U.S. government—his son Paul Robeson Jr. has claimed he was a victim of the CIA’s MK Ultra brainwashing program, which targeted ‚perceived threats’ to national security—took their toll, as did his strenuous schedule of worldwide touring and speaking engagements.

Believing his treatment in Britain was being deliberately neglected, Robeson took up an offer to visit East Germany to get better care, where he was ultimately told to take more rest. In any case, he was no longer physically capable of being as active as in previous years.

Robeson’s Legacy & the Berlin Archive

The delegation of the Communist Party USA, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for the 10th Party Congress of the Socialist Unity Party, visited the Paul Robeson Archive of the Academy of the Arts of the GDR. The chairman of the Paul Robeson Archive of the GDR, Prof. Franz Loeser (2nd from right), informed David Silberstein (2nd from left), a member of the delegation, about the archive’s work. Image: Press Agency ADN-ZB Photographer Rehfeld, 14 April 1981 Berlin

The 1950s were a stressful time for Robeson. He had his U.S. passport revoked in response to his public disapproval of American policies. Internal memos within the East German government reported that ”reactionary imperialist forces” were threatening Robeson’s legacy, which resulted in the development of an archive, established in 1965 in East Berlin’s Academy of the Arts (ADK).

Despite the fact his ties to the socialist German state were nowhere near as strong as his ties to Britain or the Soviet Union, his celebrity and political stance proved a supportive image for the burgeoning state, leading to a curious fandom which was no doubt assisted by his German friends and associates.

The archive—one several around the world, the most notable being in Philadelphia where he died—was headed up by The Paul Robeson Committee, which included a few exiled Germans in London, as well as Eslanda, a renowned anthropologist, photographer, actress, author and civil rights activist in her own right.

Paul Robeson as Othello with Uta Hagen as Desdemona, Theatre Guild Production, Broadway, 1943-44

Indeed, without Eslanda, Paul Robeson would have never become an actor, and technically the Berlin archive is considered the Paul and Eslanda Robeson archive as it also contains her work. Its director between 1965-1968, Victor Grossman—who co-founded the city’s Babylon Kino and whose son, Timothy, still runs it—later recounted it was meant as a rejoinder to Robeson being targeted by cold war hatred and racism in the United States.

It’s a somewhat unique archive given it was created mostly as a propaganda tool, but is regardless an impressive and important collection of cultural artefacts, featuring approximately 1,000 photos, newspaper articles, correspondences, manuscripts, theatre costumes for Othello, and more. The propagandistic aspect of the archive died with the GDR, and in 1993, when the Akademie Der Kunst was unified, it was moved to the new Music Archives.

The re-naming of Stolpische Strasse as Paul Robeson Strasse in East Berlin in 1978 was a direct consequence of the archive, as one of several ways—including naming a high school and the production of various events—to promote Robeson and his communist leanings throughout the GDR. As such it’s also distinctive in the area: the neighbouring streets, Seelower Strasse and Schönflieser Strasse, are named after towns in Brandenburg, while nearby Arminplatz is named after German poet Achim von Armin.

Nowadays, it’s just another street in Prenzlauer Berg, with a few nondescript small shops and a pleasant playground around the corner at Arminplatz. I was told by a friend that a Kiezmarkt on or near the square still smells the way markets did in the GDR, but otherwise there’s not much to remind of former East Germany. I now know, of course, that the street is less connected with Robeson’s broader interest in basic human and civil rights than his support of communism per se—but I’m still somewhat appreciative of it.

Links & References






Special thanks to the Music Archive at ADK

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