Few music scenes truly changed the world the way punk rock did in East Germany during the 1980s: These young musicians who found that their love of loud music and nonconformity not only put them at odds with the Communist dictatorship, but ultimately helped topple the government. Tim Mohr’s gripping new book, Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (just out from Algonquin), tells their extraordinary story.
Many punk scenes exist on the fringes of privilege, but in East Germany, there were real stakes.
MOHR: The sacrifices these people were prepared to make as teenagers are almost incomprehensible: They were giving up their entire future. They were going to be locked out of schools and jobs, have problems with the police and spend time in jail. And they didn’t have any idea that they would be successful, that the [Berlin] Wall would fall within 10 years! It’s absolutely awe-inspiring, what they did.
It was fascinating to learn that their intense desire to bring down the government didn’t mean they were valorizing the West.
Yeah, they were not pro-Western at all. They were leftist critics of the government, and they were worried that people would see them more like skinheads, as right-wing critics. I love how in Britain the punks said “no future” because of their socioeconomic situation, and in the East, the situation is exactly the opposite. Your whole life is planned out for you, so they talked about “too much future.”
I wouldn’t have expected there to be such a deep connection between the punk scene and the church.
It wasn’t the intention of the East German government to make churches places of dissent, but because these spaces were more or less shielded, that was one of the upshots. A church was a place where you could assemble and talk about taboo subjects and do things that you couldn’t do otherwise in public. Churches were pretty much the only place where punk concerts could take place, because you needed a license to play the youth clubs, even if you were an amateur band. If you had oppositional lyrics and were in trouble with the police, you couldn’t possibly play any of these clubs.
The church was a more or less safe space — which only meant you were protected from uniformed security forces. There were informants at the concerts. One of the bands, Namenlos, ended up spending significant time in a Stasi prison. The lyrics that sent them to jail were surveilled at a church concert; the Stasi had people inside during the show and they wrote down the lyrics.
Is any of this music readily available to listen to?
Not really. These bands were barred from the state media concerns, so they couldn’t make any decent quality recordings. You know the cassette players we had as a kid that would accompany filmstrips? That was what they recorded on. And when the Wall came down, basically the whole scene disappeared as a musical entity. Less than a year after the fall of the Wall, the punks realized that they’d lost control of the political process, so at that stage they needed not just new music but a new message. The techno scene absorbed a lot of the punk people and the punk energy.
What’s your favorite punk slogan?
The German edition of the book uses one of the slogans as the title: “Strib nicht im Warteraum der Zukunft,” which means “Don’t Die in the Waiting Room of the Future.” It’s a great rallying cry against complacency.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of Billboard.