Winding Road to Suhl: Aubrey Pankey

By 1968, Aubrey Pankey had performed in 47 countries, released recordings, published music collections, and written a children’s book.  While his African-American contemporaries struggled in the United States to advance the cause of civil rights, Pankey had reacted against the racism pervading his native land.  Since 1956, he and his American wife had been residents of the German Democratic Republic, a country known to his compatriots as East Germany and at that time to the U.S. government as the Soviet Zone of Germany.

Now it was the last week of January 1968, and in the cold shadows of the Thuringian mountains, he was meeting a provincial journalist for Freies Wort, the Suhl newspaper, for an interview.  With three decades of experience at handling interviews, he was quiet and friendly, according to the small town reporter.  It was not his first visit as a guest performer, he said, and he commented on the progress since his last visit.

Suhl was a town of about 50,000 population – it had lost residents to the nearby Federal Republic of Germany until the construction of border obstacles, so some lists show it as having fewer people.  A winding road led alongside the rail line and the Hassel River up to Meiningen, then on to old Highway 19 over the “GDR Frontier” toward Schweinfurt and Würzburg.  If that road had been open for Pankey, it would have been a scenic drive of a couple of hours to a little place called Wildflecken, noted or notorious for its role as a U.S. Army field training area.

Perhaps the American concert artist’s hosts took him on a quick tour of the city, or filled him in on its history.  In the 16th century, it became a center of gunsmithing, and that evolved into twin roles as both a focal point of sport shooting and handcrafted rifles on the one hand, and as a mass production center for military weapons.  In 1952, it was named a district seat of government by the new (1949) GDR government.  This gave it a development boost, with new international-style buildings joining the picturesque half-timbered houses of the glorious past.  Pankey commented on the new hotel.

The government seat was also a focal point for military and paramilitary activities.  The Rosa Luxemburg school for officers of the border guards was located in the Suhl Garrison (Standort Suhl).  The discreet employees of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) shuttled in and out of their regional office.  Aside from monitoring the domestic population, they even held the responsibility for one project directed against an enemy state — the Federal Republic of Germany — under Section XX.  While Section XX had a major responsibility for inner GDR control, it also tracked the activities of West German opponents of the GDR regime, including Christian groups and mental health workers against the use of mental hospitals for political oppression.  Radio monitoring stations taking advantage of high points in the hills near Suhl eavesdropped on communications, including mobile telephones, into the Frankfurt-Wiesbaden-Mainz area through Station Blitz.  Messages from Soviet agents in West Germany also came into these radio centers.  Radio monitors analyzed traffic through Station Blitz with the assistance of “unofficial workers” — West Germans who tipped them to information on whose messages would be running on which frequencies for political or personal reasons.  Important information was forwarded on to Berlin headquarters.

When Pankey visited Suhl, this radio monitoring activity was expanding exponentially, as new technology was introduced for telecommunications customers in West Germany.  Operations were beginning on the new Bundespost directional radio links between  Munich–Hamburg and Munich-Hannover, and technicians in the Suhl district were developing new means to intercept the multiplexed telephone, Teletype and data communications.  As a visitor, Pankey would have noted the bustling activity, perhaps as a sign of innocent progress.

According to the reporter, Pankey was pleased to see the soldiers in his audience in Sonneberg, a small city east of Suhl, hard up against the border.  After the concert, he enjoyed talking with these and other members of the public, who stayed late to hear answers to their many questions.  Why had he left America?  He replied that here [the GDR] he had many possibilities to develop his art, while in America he had faced racial discrimination and exploitation.  Many people, he was paraphrased as saying, thought that the streets in America were paved with gold.  “To them, I give my answer.  That is a part of my duty as an artist.”

The journalist did not report how Pankey was traveling.  With a car, the cross country trip from border town to border town would have been a slow, but picturesque, excursion.  Suhl was off the beaten path, but it did have an express train service to Berlin.  Even that was bent to the needs of military and official travel.  Train D1161 ran weekdays only to Berlin’s suburban Schöneweide station, departing Suhl at 3:38 a.m.  Sleepy officers and bleary-eyed civilians snoozed as the Deutsche Reichsbahn’s coal-fired steam engines strained up the grade to the Oberhof Tunnel, at 639 meters above sea level.  Then the train coasted down into Erfurt, where it began its fast run through Halle to the outskirts of Berlin.  Its counterpart, Train D1164, returned from more centrally situated Berlin-Ostbahnhof at 5:47 p.m., for a four-and-a-quarter hour dash back to Suhl.

The premier train for Suhl, then, was scheduled to take people to Berlin for a full day of business, regardless of how tiring an experience it would have been.  It was timed for a captive market that had to get to that staff meeting in the capital city.  This workday-only combination had an additional day of service noted in the timetable:  May Day, when the German Democratic Republic displayed its might before the party leaders on Berlin’s reviewing stand.  Personnel free to travel from Suhl had no excuse for missing the big event.

Whether or not the East German journalist put words into Aubrey Pankey’s mouth, his career had taken him from the premiere concert stages of the world to a town that lived and died as the center of German rural gun culture and as a focal point for military and State Security activities that faced off against the U.S. forces “over the next hill.”


Read more: Winding Road to Suhl: Aubrey Pankey


Information about the radio monitoring activities is from:

Knabe, Hubertus; West-Arbeit des MfS; Christoph Links Verlag; Berlin; 1999.  It is Volume 18 (Band 18) in a research series prepared for the Bundesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (BStU).

Note: Suhl still votes for Socialism, according to election results from the 1990’s.  About a third of the voters supported the Party of Democratic Socialism, stemming from former Communist roots.  Another third supported the Social Democratic Party.  There is much more to offer in the Thuringian city than retro politics, however. For example, in 2002-2003 the leading museum featured an exhibit titled “Mystique of the Kalaschnikov.”