The old cultural centre smells like sweat and bratwurst. Middle- aged dancers in Western wear arrange themselves into neat lines around me. A bouncy girl with pigtails and a hat announces the next song. “Get ready for a golden oldie, yeehaw!” She leads us through the steps to Countrymusicfieber, a song by Larry Schuba & Western Union.
“Line dancing is for everyone who can count ‘till four,” Andreas had told me several weeks earlier when I visited him and his wife Anita at their home in the northeastern German state of Brandenburg. Yet I’m struggling to turn as smoothly as the girl on stage. A woman wearing high-heeled boots and a wide pink leather belt smiles at me conspiratorially.
I have been researching the East German country scene for several months, but I still can’t get used to the sight of wide-brimmed hats and wrinkly Johnny Cash tattoos—even after meeting Anita and Andreas, two self-proclaimed cowboys who live on a small organic farm and are active members of their local country music scene. Since their children moved out, the couple have been going line dancing every week.
Line dancing was born in the United Stated in the 1970s, as country music merged with the disco scene. Today, it’s practised worldwide, and is associated with the mythology of the American West.
For the Brandenburg couple, country is more than a hobby. “A lifestyle,” Anita repeatedly calls it. Every summer, they visit several festivals and once a year, they pay a visit to Pullman City, a holiday park and “living western town” in Bavaria. Here, they get to wear their cowboy outfits all day long, line dance at night and watch the occasional horse show. On the walls of the staircase of their Brandenburg home, a photo gallery shows the couple throughout the years, beaming in front of the doors of the Pullman City Saloon.
Many East Germans share Anita and Andreas’ fascination with 19th century America. In the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), countless line dancing clubs celebrate the Wild West and the Siedlergeschichte, or “settlers history.” For many visitors, it’s just light-hearted fun. But others, like Andreas and Anita, see the local country scene as a response to their everyday lives. It’s an expression of resistance against their post-socialist realities.
Anita offers me a cup of tea. I’m sitting on a musty piece of sheepskin on their couch. The living room walls are panelled with wood and in the middle of the space stands a huge Canadian log-burner. Wiping his glasses, Andreas explains that the country scene fits into a long German tradition.
The Wilder Westen craze started in the 19th century with German author Karl May. Though he had never travelled to the
88 United States, May wrote more than 30 books about the adventures of Winnetou, “the great chief of the Apache” and his blood brother, Old Shatterhand. The books were a huge hit and have gone on to shape the games of German children for over a century.
The attraction of the Wild West is often linked to the contrast between the bleak realities of an industrialising Germany and the freedom of the fierce, defiant “cowboys and Indians” in May’s stories. Though the history of the American frontier was real, in this fictionalised version the promises of the New World were nothing but fantasy.
The power of these narratives, however, didn’t go unnoticed by Germany’s political regimes. After the Second World War, the Western film genre reflected the ideological split between East and West. Following Hollywood’s lead, West Germany depicted the cowboy as a hero, fighting the savage “Indian.” In the GDR, this logic was inverted. East Germans reinvented the “Indian” as a socialist blood brother. In their films, Native Americans—much like the East Germans themselves—remained strong and resilient against a Western imperial threat.
Why, then, did some East Germans decide to become cowboys? Andreas finds the answer self-evident. He loves the music of country bands like Truck Stop and feels a historical connection with the legendary herdsmen. “When I was young, we used to catch the cows with motorbikes instead of lassos, but we were catching them nonetheless.” He and Anita were also attracted to the subversive element of the subculture. “What do people like to do? Whatever is forbidden.”
Country became a sign of resistance, first against East German mainstream culture in the GDR. Then, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, against the power of the West. According to Andreas and Anita, the reunification of Germany paved the way to economic imperialism: “The companies that survived were suddenly taken over by the West. The laws, money, healthcare, education, banking, traffic—everything changed. Had we wanted the Western system, we would have left. Sure, we didn’t love the GDR, with its oppression and the Stasi, but we never wanted this.”
East Germans’ disappointment with reunification added a new layer to the Wilder Westen mythology. They once again turned to Karl May’s fictionalised America and its rural fantasy of the frontier. Yet this time it wasn’t a form of defence from the hardships of industrialisation. It was an alternative to the unfamiliarity of their post-socialist world, in which Anita lost her job as a teacher of Russian and the couple struggled financially.
“I feel connected to the authenticity,” Andreas emphasises. “I can understand why people get into the Middle Ages. That’s about craftsmanship, a world that is not so commercial. In line dancing too, it is about authenticity and community.” The country scene helps him make sense of the kind of life he wants to live, the person he wants to be. However, much like any historical period that is romanticised and decontextualised, the myth of 19th century America is not without controversy.
The East German country scene tends to gloss over the violence of the much-admired “settlers’ history.” Not only does it ignore the genocide of the Native Americans—it appropriates narratives of the American South, stripping them of their racist implications.
In 1861, the American Confederacy, a maverick group of states, broke away from the United States to rebel against the recent election of anti-slavery president Abraham Lincoln. This led to the American Civil War (1861-1865), in which they were defeated and eventually re-annexed. Andreas is convinced that this is the perfect historical metaphor for Germany’s reunification.
But what this myth fails to acknowledge, is that the secessionist states sought to preserve the institution of slavery upon which their economies were founded. In a negationist ideology that has come to be known as the Lost Cause, the Confederates’ defeat has been turned into a moral victory. It claims that the American Civil War was never about the abolition of slavery, but about economic subjugation of the South.
During the workshop, I look around me at the dancing crowd. One man is wearing a shirt with the Confederate flag—a symbol unmistakably associated with white supremacy in both the United States and Germany. Yet, the cowboys feel these implications are irrelevant. “It’s role-play,” Anita winks. To her, the dancing and dressing up are playful ways to subvert East German narratives. The practices and symbols may have American roots, but their meaning is different here in Brandenburg.
I look up at the crowd as I recognise the tune to Achy Breaky Heart, one of Andreas’ favourites. The woman with the pink belt is mouthing the lyrics, stepping sideways and turning as she clicks her heels. I do my best to keep up.