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.
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.