Will Hermes | Longreads | September 2018 | 14 minutes (3,534 words)
Punk rock was revolution-minded from the get-go, at least about aesthetics. Its political consciousness bloomed later –- most vividly in the U.K., then in scenes around the world. Yet for all the anti-Thatcher, anti-Reagan bluster, punk can lay direct claim to just one full regime change. That’s the takeaway from Tim Mohr’s revelatory new book Burning Down The Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall. It chronicles the rise of the scene — essentially seeded, Mohr writes, by a 15-year-old girl whose moniker became Major — in the Soviet Bloc German Democratic Republic in the ’80s. As its numbers swelled, it attracted the attention of the famously ruthless Stasi intelligence and security force (basically the KGB of the GDR), whose mandate included crushing any murmurs of rebelliousness or dissent, and who employed a psychological warfare strategy known as Zersetzung, or decomposition, towards those ends. Kids were picked up and interrogated, for hours and even days, for their haircuts, or clothing, or scraps of paper with song lyrics. For even minor transgressions, they lost college placements, government-controlled apartments, and jobs, their parents and relatives often punished in a similar manner. Kids were arrested and beaten, spent months in prison, threatened with expatriation.
Yet the scene kept growing. Bands like Namenlos and Schleim-Keim formed, playing gigs in church compounds — pretty much the only places alternative culture could exist, since church “open work” spaces were theoretically off-limits to the Stasi, at least initially. There, communities grew; punks connected with environmental activists and others working for change, sharing strategies and collaborating. They staged concerts and festivals, which the Stasi tried to suppress. When street protests began in force, swelling from thousands to hundreds of thousands, and the Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989, it was a culmination of the civil unrest that began in significant part, Mohr suggests, with a handful of strong-willed teenage punks hanging out at a park in Plänterwald.
Mohr encountered this history during his years in East Berlin, where he deejayed in clubs that had sprouted in the free-for-all communities of post-reunification Germany — clubs often created, staffed and attended by the same culture warriors that came up in the ’80s punk scene. Mohr spoke with us from his current home in Brooklyn, NY.
Listen to an audio version of this interview on the Longreads Podcast:
Longreads: So how did you first wind up in Berlin? This was after the wall fell, right?
Tim Mohr: Yeah, it was ‘92, so two years after unification. I was just determined to live abroad for a while, and I didn’t really have much of a clue about Germany. I guess I’d say I was a stupid American at the time. I thought Oktoberfest and Germany were the same thing, and I expected to get off the plane in Berlin and see everyone running around in lederhosen.
Yeah, out of giant mugs. And of course, it wasn’t the case. I ended up in a typical Eastern Bloc high rise, far in the East. This was somewhat disappointing. But pretty quickly I discovered the scene that was happening in crumbling old buildings in the central part of town, where people were squatting and the first generation of clubs and bars were up and running.
Where did you DJ, and what sort of stuff did you play?
What I played is lighter than what most people picture coming out of Berlin. I wasn’t really in the techno scene, I was into the indie scene. And the venues were also transient — they’re basically all gone now.
These were venues that had been set up in squats?
Yeah, sort of. Everything was so cheap. I paid 80 Deutsche Marks for my apartment — about $50 per month. So it didn’t take much to live in Berlin. There was basically no liquor licensing process, or licensing process of any kind. So you could just get a hold of buildings for virtually no money per month, then put in whatever you wanted, whether it was a bar or a club. People would get hold of spaces and open up a club for a few weeks, sometimes longer. There were some that lasted years.
How did the idea for this book come together?
I met people who’d been involved in the punk scene pretty quickly. Basically all the first generation clubs in the East were either set up by former punks, or there were former punks working in them. And there was a guy I became tight with in one of the clubs, a DJ who turned out to have been the guitar player in the band Planlos, one of probably the two most important underground bands of the early Eighties. And eventually he showed me a scrapbook he’d kept hidden under a false bottomed drawer during the dictatorship, with photos and lyric sheets. I just couldn’t believe it. It was something that I never knew anything about. Even though I didn’t know I was going to become a writer, I was determined to someday tell the story in some form. About 10 years ago I finally had the chance to start working on it, and went back and started interviewing people.
This is really a secret history. I knew there was a dissident punk rock scene that came out of East Germany, but I didn’t realize how integral it was to the freedom movement there.
The East German scene was basically invisible, even in West Germany. The Eastern media never mentioned punk, and basically didn’t mention any of the underground political activity happening. And the punks themselves didn’t seek attention in the West, unlike the church leaders, who sought contacts in the West. So they had articles written about them in the ’80s, and then after the Wall fell, they were in the best position to take credit for the political movement, because they had those contacts and were a known commodity. The punks hadn’t done that, and so they remained basically invisible.
I found it fascinating that the punks were working out of the churches — this whole “open work” meeting culture you write about, that came out of the churches, and evolved into bands and political cells.
One of the most important things the punks did, I think, was steel the resolve of other groups. Because the punks lost their fear of the police and the security apparatus. They got hassled and beaten so much. A lot of them spent time in prison, came back out and kept fighting. I think for other groups, to see that, kind of changed the game. And as things shifted onto the streets, the punks were on the front edge, again because they’d lost their fear of the police. They knew they were going to be beaten.
You make the point that they couldn’t hide. You could be a political activist and attend a protest, then blend into the background. But if you were a punk, with your head shaved into a Mohawk, you couldn’t do that as easily.
I think that was one of the things that scared the dictatorship the most —- the fact that they were always representative of protest. Other groups, you could throw in prison overnight, and then they’d melt back into society. But the punks, anytime they walked down the street, they were expressing opposition.
You interviewed a lot of women integral to this scene. Was the scene feminist?
I don’t know whether they would define themselves that way. But just to give you an example, the very first punk in East Berlin was a girl. She was only 15, and the scene basically spread out from her. She influenced people at her school and in her neighborhood.
Her moniker was Major.
That’s right. A lot of the bands were women-fronted, as well.
There was an egalitarian quality to British punk which I guess parallels that. There were a lot of interesting cultural parallels during that era. You write about graffiti as part of the punk and dissident movement. Graffiti tended not to be explicitly political in the U.S. as it developed. But words could and did get people arrested in communist East Berlin.
Yeah. The band Namenlos spent almost two years in Stasi prison because of the lyrics of their songs, and those weren’t even written down. The Stasi had informants inside the churches where the band performed, who then passed on the lyrics, and that was enough.
The extent to which the Stasi investigators targeted the punks was remarkable — the surveillance of the scene, how many snitches there were. It seemed every fourth or fifth person was on the Stasi payroll, or speaking to them to save their own skin.
A lot of them were recruited as minors, and the Stasi was really good at profiling people and convincing them that, by working with them, they were “helping” their friends. You know, keeping their friend out of prison, or keeping their friends from being kicked out of school. Of course, there was the opposite type of pressure – if they didn’t fall for that — where “If you don’t help us, it’d be a shame if your parents lost their jobs, or if your older sister got kicked out of university.”
Which happened in a number of cases.
Yeah. I think from a Western perspective, it’s almost impossible to conceive of making the decisions that these kids did. I mean, they obviously had no idea the Wall would fall, and they were making decisions as teenagers that were costing them basically their entire futures.
They lost internships, they lost university positions, they lost jobs and apartments. They were targeted; they had their passports restricted.
Yeah. They had their IDs taken away, so they couldn’t leave their hometown, much less leave the country to go to Poland or Hungary.
How did you get all the Stasi police reports?
Anyone who’s in the Stasi files can apply to read them, so a lot of material was from individuals who showed me their files. Some of it’s available to the public — just redacted.
When I started out, I thought the Stasi reports would be my most important source. As I dug into them, it turned out they collected a lot of mundane details. So you have page after page of “So-and-So came out the door at 08:05, stopped at the bakery, got three rolls, got on the subway at 08:17.” It turned out not to be the kind of material that I wanted to tell this story in a cinematic way. So I ended up leaning on my interviews more heavily.
You did a lot of interviews.
I guess it was about 50 people I talked to from the scene. Some of them also had diaries they kept at the time.
UK punk peaked in ’77, ’78, maybe ’79. But in East Germany you called 1983 the Summer of Punk.
It was an amazing year. It started out with the band Schleim-Keim. They managed to smuggle some tapes out, and had them come out in the West, and that set off alarm bells within the dictatorship. Then in the spring, a church in a town about an hour and a half from Berlin staged a national punk festival, and people came from all over the country to hear bands from Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden. Basically it was the first time that the scene had become national. And that I think maybe freaked out the security organs more than the music appearing in the West. From that point on, the very top guy in the Stasi was personally involved in figuring out how to [destroy] punk. Throughout the summer there was a series of similar festivals on church grounds, and by August there was a massive waves of arrests. It was actually the harshest crackdown of the entire Honecker era. The penalties imposed on the punk scene exceeded those imposed on any other groups that were targeted during that time.
Because they never mentioned these things in the official media, a lot of kids who were turned on to punk during this summer — having seen bands play live, and seen the adventure of having to sneak around the police, or fight police to get to the concert — a lot of those people who got hooked on the scene were unaware of the extent of the crackdown. They were really impressed with the daring nature of punk, and wanted to become punks, but didn’t know the consequences that they might face.
This book is really the story of a political movement as much as a musical one. You write about Ronald Reagan’s visit in 1987 as being kind of a watershed. This was for the 750th — or ostensible 750th — anniversary of Berlin, yes?
[Laughs] Yeah. I was always skeptical of the mythology and “importance” of Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech. That’s become an article of faith in the U.S., and it isn’t even limited to the political right anymore — people just sort of take it for granted that the speech was somehow important. But I’ve never met anyone involved in the political underground in East Germany who said they were inspired by that speech. And one of the exciting things for me when I started to discover this scene back in the early ’90s, having been skeptical of this mythology, was meeting the people who actually fought the dictatorship, who paid for it beatings, blood and prison time, who actually did the work to bring down the wall. So that was one of the reasons that I found the scene so fascinating at first.
And then, when I came back to it and started working on the book in 2008, 2009, here come the Snowden revelations about mass surveillance here in the US, the militarization of the police, and the treatment of protestors in Occupy and Black Lives Matter. And so I started to see the book becoming more and more relevant, almost frighteningly relevant. You would constantly hear people dismiss out of hand any comparisons between what was happening here and our understanding of dictatorships in East Bloc. “You can’t compare this to what the Stasi did!” Well, of course you can. With the Snowden revelations, [the U.S.] was obviously accomplishing more than the Stasi could ever have dreamt of. And as far as the police, I think it’s important to tell people that East German police could not, and did not, murder people in the streets.
There’s a picture in the book of an East German youth rally, with everyone holding torches, that echoes the images of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville in 2017. You also write about a neo-Nazi skinhead riot at the Zion Church, which also made me think about Charlottesville.
A lot of the punks believed that skinhead attack on the church was coordinated between the government and the skinheads. There isn’t really concrete evidence to show that, but it certainly gave every appearance of that. Certainly, the police didn’t intervene to help. I think because the East didn’t acknowledge skinheads and fascism within its own borders, they ascribed a lot of this youth culture stuff to Western influences. And one of the reasons I think they failed to deal with the punk situation was they continued to believe that it was being steered by some sort of Western puppet masters, and that the punks were all West-oriented, even though they weren’t. It became a very organically Eastern phenomenon really quickly. So even by ’81, ’82, when they started making the first bands, they were all doing something uniquely Eastern. They were no longer faced toward the West. They were no longer interested in what’s happening in the West, or mimicking it.
You point out that many of these East German punks had no interest in escaping to the West — they wanted to make things right where they lived, rather than having to leave their home.
Often when you were put in jail, one of the things the Stasi would say was “Well, why don’t you just go to the West? You don’t like it here anyway.” And many of the punks refused. They said, “I’ll serve out my sentence and stay here.” Which is just incredible. I’m just in awe of these people — the bravery to go through that, come back out, and go right back into the scene, making illegal music again, continuing to go to street protests. It’s incredible.
The narrative builds to a crescendo the night the Wall came down. You have a scene of a couple of bands, Feeling B and Die Anderen, playing this club in West Berlin on the night the Wall came down. And suddenly they saw their East German friends standing in the audience…
…coming into the club and waving their East German passports in the air! And they had no idea what was happening until they finished their set, came offstage, and learned the Wall had fallen.
One of the things that the government tried in the second half of the Eighties, when the stick failed, they tried the carrot, and tried to coopt bands into joining an amateur-license system, which permitted them to perform in official youth clubs. Those bands both had amateur licenses, which is how they could apply for a permit to play in West Berlin. They had each played gigs there earlier in ’89. Their reward for returning, as opposed to fleeing, was another set of passes to play another show. And that was when they were playing the night of November 9, 1989.
I guess this was also similar to the British scene, where some of the bands were less about explicit criticism of the government, and more about just partying. Like Feeling B…
They were pretty much a party band, yeah. Now of course, they would change their sets — a lot of these bands would say what would be considered politically offensive things when they were playing live and not being observed by officials.
I think it was pretty important to go out and take punk to the people, and these bands would play every youth club, in every little village in the East — places where people just weren’t aware of this alternative culture. So even the licensed bands had an important role.
After the Wall came down, there was this sort of vacuum in East Berlin, before West Germany came in and took over. You write about the Eimer building and Tacheles — these kind of art communes that really shaped the culture of modern Berlin. Talk about that a little bit.
The entire first generation of clubs, including the techno clubs, were squatted or co-founded by people involved in Eastern punk scene. Virtually none of the punks would’ve been in favor of unification — everyone in the dissident or the opposition scene were hoping for an opportunity to form a sort of idealistic, independent East Germany. So it was a real disappointment when they lost control of the political process, and it became clear that there would be a reunification. So they basically did what they’d done during the ’80s: They carved out space where they could enact their ideals.
And so that’s what happened in the first years after the Wall fell. They literally took hold of physical spaces and fashioned them in their own image. And you still see that in Berlin now. There’s still a lot of clubs with cooperative ownership structures, where everyone splits profits evenly. Almost all the clubs are politically active.
Going back and forth between New York and Berlin the way I do, you see that there’s still a lot more of what you might call “people power” in Berlin than in New York. Obviously Berlin is very different from the ’90s heydey, but it’s still… different. It still has its unique Berlin ethos. I think a lot of that comes from the Eastern punk ethos.
Which came up as a reaction against a communist dictatorship, but held on to some of the Marxian or socialist ideals that were part of that culture. Would that be correct to say?
They were definitely leftist critics; that stayed alive with them. They were so accustomed to having to create their own sort of society within society from having done that in the ’80s, that it was a natural way to handle the situation after the fall of the Wall, when they lost control.
And while a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily draw a musical or cultural connection between punk and techno, there is a really literal one in Germany, arguably the global center of techno and electronic music —- with all due respect to Detroit, of course.
A lot of Detroit people ended up in Berlin in the ’90s, too. Dmitri Hegemann was a West German, but he was responsible for bringing out an album of Eastern punk rock back in ’83. And later he teamed up with some former punks to start Tresor, which became the most famous of the techno clubs in the ’90s.
Well, it’s an amazing story. Thanks for unpacking it for us.
Thanks for your interest.
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Will Hermes is a New York-based author and journalist. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications, and he’s a frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered. He’s the author of Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever. He’s currently writing a biography of the musician and poet Lou Reed.
Editor: Sari Botton