The Brandenburg Gate, Stasi and Fish

In June 1988, the Brandenburg Gate on top of the Wall in the centre of Berlin, became the half way line in the “Cold War Battle of the Bands” – a series of concerts with international acts fighting it out on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The West made the first move with Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson performing on the Reichstag lawn. The East countered by putting on James Brown, Fisher-Z, Marillion and Big Country in a three day festival hosted by Katarina Witt. I thought, this time we got the better deal.
The events seemed to have a theme: it was what either side believed they were better at. So while the concerts in West Berlin celebrated freedom, the East focused on nuclear free zones and world peace. We didn’t care – to us it was all about the music.
Looking forward to a big weekend in East Berlin, we were big fans of British rock band Marillion and their lead singer Fish, a very likeable and sincere fellow with a receding hair line who led Scotland’s protest against Peter Gabriel leaving Genesis. And as much as we wanted to see Fish, we also wanted him to see us. We ‘organised’ some bed linen from our government subsidised student residence and painted a large banner showing a fish in a bathtub, intending to hold it up at the concert.
Saturday morning, June 18, 1988. Arriving at Alexanderplatz in East Berlin and needing to kill a few hours, we made our way to the Brandenburg Gate to get a glimpse of the preparations for Michael Jackson on the other side. At the time there was nothing more conspicuous than heading to the Wall with a large banner over your shoulder and soon we had company.
Two less likeable fellows in very recognisable outfits involved us in a conversation that very quickly turned into an accusations of us wanting to protest at the Wall and sending a message to the West. The unintended symbolism of a fish trapped in a bathtub was not thought through and twenty minutes later we found ourselves in a cell with two cops – one good, one bad – trying to take the banner from us.
The cell, a good example of “Form follows Function” was a small and intimate room suitable for intense interaction, yet very tall, giving a sense of feeling lost and lonely. The interrogation was less one sided than one might have expected. It ranged from the ‘Stasi’ (the East German secret police) suggesting to leave the banner at their place and have a drink together to notifying our universities if we didn’t. We in return offered them a good deal if they paid cash.
Somehow the conversation didn’t go anywhere and we were released with our banner intact and enough time to make it to the concert. As small and trivial as this episode might have been, it was not the end of the matter for us and we wrote a carefully worded complaint to Secretary General comrade Erich Honecker with an unexpected outcome.
To be continued…