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The Elvis of East Germany

How a young man from Colorado became the Eastern Bloc’s biggest pop star.

If you asked an East German back in the 1970s who the most famous American in the world was, they wouldn’t have said Elvis or JFK. They would have said Dean Reed.

It was a strange journey for Reed. He had an idyllic childhood, riding horses on a Colorado farm and playing guitar in local restaurants to pay his way through meteorology school. But before he could become Denver’s next weatherman, he went to Hollywood to study acting.

There, less for his musical talent than his good looks, Reed caught Capitol Records’ interest. He didn’t quite catch on as the teen pop idol he was groomed to become in the United States, but his 1961 single “Our Summer Romance” became a hit in South America. After touring and living in Chile, Reed encountered poverty and inequity that made him sympathetic to socialist ideas emerging in the region at the time.

This conversion took him all over the world, rallying support for left-wing struggles from Vietnam to Palestine. While other peace activists were burning the US flag in opposition to the Vietnam War, Reed made headlines by standing in front of the American embassy in Chile trying to scrub one clean. He decried American imperialism and vocally supported Chilean socialist Salvador Allende’s presidential campaign, but when he traveled across Eastern Europe, he would often describe his vision for a better Americanism, trying to show his adoring fans that the empire had produced its fair share of progressives too.

The novelty of being “the American” quickly propelled him to a stable career, but limited his artistic freedom. He regularly portrayed archetypal cowboy characters in East German films, and in concert his renditions of American folk songs “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” endured as crowd favorites, rather than his original work.

In 1973, after marrying an East German woman, Reed moved to Berlin. A famous artist choosing to live and work in the Eastern Bloc was unusual, and great PR for Communists. Even better: this American was keen to profess his deeply held socialist ideals. East German politician Egon Krenz, who arranged for Reed to play at the Communist Free German Youth movement’s summer festival in 1979, described the singer-songwriter’s relationship with state officials as a “fruitful and reciprocal.” Unsurprisingly, others accused him of being a puppet.

Reed recognized the gap between his socialist politics and the reality of everyday life in the German Democratic Republic (DDR). He hoped that his music and public presence would inspire people to improve the system. Faced with the more concrete questions of opposition to the politics of the East German state, Reed showed himself unwilling to challenge authority. In 1976, some influential residents launched a petition against the expulsion of actor Wolf Biermann — an outspoken critic of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). Reed refused to add his name.

Indeed, he preferred to stay on good terms with government officials, focusing his criticism vaguely on the state bureaucracy as a whole. Any reservations he may have had didn’t stop him from acting as a Stasi informant.

By the mid-eighties, Reed’s audiences were shrinking. Front rows once packed with screaming young women now held polite party functionaries. The East German and Soviet cinema boards were throwing up obstacles to his latest film project. He considered returning to the United States.

Reed hoped that a May 1986 interview with 60 Minutes would help relaunch his career back home. Instead, he proved himself to be out of touch with most Americans’ political sentiments. Reed tried to compel left-liberals to take up the cause of revolution, insisting “we were very proud of it one time, to call ourselves American revolutionaries.” He suggested that he could bring change himself: “I would love to go back to Colorado and be a senator.” His wistful idealism didn’t stand up to Mike Wallace’s harsh interview style.

Reed sounded naive or, at worst, foolish, but the public reacted bitterly to his more brazen statements. He defended the Berlin Wall, compared Reagan and Stalin, and, with some merit, said Gorbachev was “absolutely, without a doubt” a more just, moral, and peaceful man than the US president.

A few weeks after his 60 Minutes appearance, Reed’s body was found floating in a lake near his East Berlin home. He was just forty-seven years old. A suicide note, addressed to Reed’s friend and long-time DDR propaganda minister Eberhard Fensch, was found scrawled on the back of a screenplay in his car. The Stasi hid the letter. Fensch explained the decision was meant to protect the feelings of Reed’s wife Renate Blume, whom Reed blamed for his suicide.

Reed didn’t live to see the fall of the Berlin Wall, and his belief in a socialist future remained with him until the end. In his suicide note’s final postscript, addressed to SED general secretary Erich Honecker, Reed wrote, “I have not agreed with everything, but socialism is still developing. It is the only solution to the main problems facing humanity and the world.”

With the note concealed, official statements ruled his death a “tragic accident.” And though the circumstantial evidence made available to his friends and family pointed to suicide, a series of inconsistent reports produced countless conspiracy theories. Some suspected the Stasi or KGB of murder; others blamed the CIA. But most paid no notice at all.