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How Punk Rock Helped Topple The Berlin Wall


Perhaps nowhere in the world did punk rock and punk culture fit the mood of the times better than East Germany in the stretch from the late 1970s until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. During this time, the German Democratic Republic (DDR) remained, as it had been since World War II, a land of communist gloom, Stasi oppression, and crumbling war-ruins that had never been patched or demolished, and were never going to be. But it had also become a place where an aging leadership and the changing of the guard in the Kremlin, from Leonid Brezhnev to the late-empire chaos that ensued, allowed the reins of state terror to be loosened enough to allow at least a gesture at rebellion to arise. And then came 1989.

In his book Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Tim Mohr has done yeoman historical service in collecting a slice of that history in anecdotal form from many of the punks and punk rockers who were involved in the cultural eruption during the era—and the regime’s sclerotic efforts to stamp it out.

Yet Mohr’s heartfelt argument for the primacy of punk in bringing down the DDR government is weakened by his political naïveté and heavily undercut by his rote display of strident and thoughtless anti-Americanism, in its way as platitudinous as an “Aktuelle Kamera” DDR-FS newscast, if not quite so sinister. What Mohr does demonstrate is that, starting in the late ’70s and lasting until the totalitarian state’s surrender, punk was a significant musical and cultural presence in the DDR that couldn’t be beaten down and stomped out of existence, although the East German secret police and the state gave it the old college try.

‘Asoziales Verhalten’

Unlike Poland, where a vibrant Catholic church managed to provide an alternative for Marxist-Leninist gaseous emanations and an intellectual foundation for the Solidarity trade union movement, religious revival and rights-based philosophic movements had little chance in the DDR. The worst part of DDR oppression was the restriction of the imagination visited upon kids who grew up in the miserable intellectual funk of pseudo-Marxist cant.

The only way to rebel seemed to be via Marxist heresy—that is, a dissent that contradicted dogma but remained within the socialist fold. Maybe the biggest Marxist heresy of all is anarcho-syndicalism, with its emphasis on individual action to bring on a socialist utopia. This is the thought system, if you can call it that, that intellectually inclined punks usually adopt worldwide.

Of course, punk was not in any way original to the DDR. It came from England and America. It came, first and foremost, over the radio. Its means of promulgation was the cassette tape, usually recorded during forbidden listening to Western shows. As Mohr notes, radio could be heard everywhere in the DDR “except the low area around Dresden, an area known to East Germans as the ‘Tal der Ahnungslosen,’ or Valley of the Clueless.”

On the radio every once in while in the late 1970s, a punk song would play—and be surreptitiously recorded in East Germany. One such illicit listener was Britta Bergmann, 15 years old in 1977, whom everyone in the punk scene would one day refer to by her nom de punk, Major. Her step-sister collected West German teen magazines via her father, who lived in West Germany (BRD) and came over to visit her. In one of these, Major saw a black and white pull-out poster of the Sex Pistols, with their safety-pin-laden, ripped up, semi-militaristic garb, and fighting-cock hair styles, and the sight moved her.

There were many semi-official rock and roll pastiche artists in East Germany, cover bands permitted to exist to blow off steam. There were no punks that Major had ever seen. Soon after, she heard the Sex Pistols’ song “Pretty Vacant” on Radio Luxembourg. Major was blown away at its sheer impudence. Wow, would she ever make a statement in school listening to that and looking like them.

Major decided to become a punk. She may well have been the first in the DDR, although Mohr states it and doesn’t prove it.

She hacked off her hair the next day, affecting the look she knew from the black-and-white photo of the Pistols. . . . . She ripped holes in a shirt and then sewed the holes closed again with big, ugly stitches that were clearly visible. She cut out a swatch of white cloth and wrote ‘destroy’ on it with a black pen, then sewed it onto the chest pocket of her jacket. Then she nicked the chain from a spare toilet plunger and attached it to the same jacket, stringing it from the chest pocket to one of the buttons. . . . . [Finally] she put a row of safety pins on the top of each shoulder of her own jacket—punk-rock epaulets.

This did not go over well with her teachers. She was eventually drummed out of school. Major moved into her own apartment, which became a hub for the punk rock culture being born across the DDR. In the end, the system spat her out of a nowhere job it had allowed her to take, and finally into the DDR version of the gulag as a political prisoner.

Through it all, Major’s only offense was to refuse to change the way she dressed or the music she liked. Steadfastly refuse she did. After getting her fired from every job she managed to land, the state, in typical Kafkaesque manner, charged her with “asoziales Verhalten,” or anti-social behavior, along with the failure to work and “incitement to antisocial lifestyle.”

So while Johnny and Sid were breaking hood ornaments off Mercedes and getting away with it, Major was doing time in the women’s labor prison in Dessau for her punk inclinations. As she was being sentenced, Mohr reports, Major shouted out to the show trial judge, “Before witnesses to the state, I hereby renounce my DDR citizenship!”

That was pretty punk. In fact, an argument can be made that Britta Bergmann was the first punk rocker who ever mattered politically.

Don’t You Dare Rock

Mohr uses his account of Major’s travails as a springboard to histories of other notable DDR punks, particularly those who formed bands. There were three prototype bands from the early days: Wutenfall, Planlos, and Namenlos (which translate as, respectively, Rage Attack, Planless, and Nameless). They weren’t particularly good musicians, but their members form a who’s-who of the early scene. The act of making any non-sanctioned art, even if it sucked, was a pretty amazing moral victory.

There was good music. One of the great services Mohr’s book provides is a nice catalog of DDR punk bands to listen to as you read.

The members of the early bands in particular were hounded by the East German Stasi. They were repeatedly picked up and subject to hours, sometimes days, of interrogation. Eventually many of the members were either jailed on trumped-up nonsense or stationed in military units designed for political troublemakers.

Planlos founder A-Micha (Micha Horschig) was political from the start, and did three years of hard time, in addition to months in pre-trial detention. Others spent years in and out of detention facilities and prison. Informants were recruited or planted in bands to report on the other members. Interrogations could be harsh.

They put a bag over [Wutanfall lyricist and singer] Chaos’s head and drove around for a while before dragging him out of the car and marching him into some woods —Chaos could hear the leaves and twigs crackling underfoot , and feel the soft forest floor. Then, still hooded, Chaos was savagely beaten and kicked. He’d been hit and punched at police stations before, but nothing like this. When it was over, he was covered in hematomas, splattered with blood.

Others received similar treatment or worse. My personal favorite of the DDR punk bands is the unrelenting Schleim-Keim (which means something like “Slimy Germs”). Its founder was Dieter Ehrlich, whose punk name was Otze.

Otze spent months in police cells and prisons throughout the 1980s. He was the songwriter and drummer for the band, and possessed the piercing tenor wail of a demented monomaniac dedicated to living in a horrible, wonderful eternal moment of grotesque filth and depravity taken to such extremes it became funny. As Mohr reports, “Schleim-Keim sounded like a pig being slaughtered.” It’s great stuff.

Wir wollen nicht mehr, wie ihr wollt
Wir wollen unsere Freiheit
Wir sind das Volk, wir sind die Macht

We don’t want it the way you want it anymore
We want our freedom
We are the people, we are the power

Sure, the lyrics and music are pure kitsch. But punk kitsch in the DDR was a different beast than the Western variety. It could get you killed—or, worse it seems for Otze, considering his ultimate fate—terrorized by the state and imprisoned for long stretches.

Otze’s ability to use that wail of his to evoke the punk in everyone was real art. Alas, we learn from Mohr’s account that Otze Ehrlich, who came from a pretty unstable background to start with, died in 2005 in a high-security mental institution after splitting open his butcher father’s head with an ax. It’s not difficult to imagine his multiple persecutions by the Stasi had a lot to do with his mental break.

Mohr chronicles many other bands, such as the iconic Feeling B and L’Attentet. Feeling B was the first punk band to acquire an Einstufung, a professional license, which allowed them to play in public venues. Feeling B keyboardist Flake Lorenz and rhythm-guitarist Paul Landers later became founding members of the band Rammstein.

Punk Rocking…Lutherans?

One unexpected aspect Mohr reveals in his book is the close association of the punk movement in the DDR with the Lutheran Church. Bars and other venues were closed to bands without an Einstufung—which meant most of the punk bands until the late ’80s. So the youth centers and youth meetings of the church became the preferred punk hangout spots.

Mohr, in his kneejerk anti-Western way, impugns the Christian nature of the Lutheran reaction to punk, but the evidence is clear that without Lutheran youth ministers trying to put into practice Jesus’ exhortation to love all God’s children, even perhaps the ones with red mohawks and safety pins through their noses, punk would have died a quiet death in the DDR.

Mohr treats President Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War with unreformed ’80s leftist contempt. I was there, and I recall quite well how strangely disappointed journalists and activists like Mohr were that all their equivocations and apologies for communism had, in the end, furthered the cause of evil, and that they were its pawns.

Then, on November 9, 1989, due to a bureaucratic blunder following a year of building pressure, East German soldiers backed away from their Berlin Wall posts—and let the people through. West German chancellor Helmut Kohl found himself that day at meetings in Warsaw with Lech Wałęsa and new Polish Premier Tadeusz Mazowiecki. He is reputed by historian Victor Sebestyen to have said, “I’m at the wrong party,” and left for Berlin.

The punks were there in the streets, at the Brandenburg Gate (even on the Brandenburg Gate), celebrating with everyone else. Within days, just as Wałęsa had predicted to a disbelieving Kohl, the Berlin Wall was no more.

Mohr ridiculously sums it all up by stating, “[DDR punks] hadn’t looked to the West for inspiration before, and none of them looked to the West for salvation now that the border was open.” His entire book is an argument against this. Punk was the very embodiment of Western freedom, kids doing what they wanted, determined not to be molded into some ad agency’s idea of what was fashionable and cool. Or whatever.

The fact that those rebels then dressed exactly like one another is also one of the ironies of freedom in the West—one that the more astute punks picked up on and found amusing. Punk in the DDR was all about using Western ideas to carve out a life separate from communist conformity. It was totally inspired by the West. Obviously.

After 1989, East German punk became just punk. And punk in the 1990s was passé. Its heyday was over, but the music remained. Despite Mohr’s seemingly endless chapters detailing an attempt by a few punks post 1989 to establish an anarcho-socialist community in a collection of East Berlin squats, that meant DDR punk was finally allowed to become what it always was intended to be: music and fashion that some people liked, some didn’t. For some, it literally rocked the world, and always will.