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Burning Down the Haus: how punk changed Berlin

Tim Mohr’s history of East German punk is full of vivid characters and raging teenagers.

When walls are built through a city, strengthened with reinforced concrete and steel, separated by a strip of land where you can be shot and left to die, you don’t expect things to break through. But radio broadcasts don’t stop at borders. Political regimes can’t stop soundwaves. They just travel.

This is revealed powerfully in Tim Mohr’s Burning Down the Haus, an exploration of how punk changed Berlin, and still defines it today, 30 years after the Wall fell. It begins in 1977, the Silver Jubilee year, with the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen; throughout the Wall years, British stations broadcast in the West could still be heard in the East. Angry rallying cries resonated with teenagers living in a repressive state, oddly enough. The context in which they were received, though, was very different.

There was no unemployment, homelessness, or anxiety about basic needs in East Berlin, Mohr explains. “The problem in the DDR wasn’t No Future, the rallying cry of British punk. The problem in East Germany was Too Much Future. Your whole life was planned out for you almost from birth and it felt unbelievably stifling; there was no space, literal or philosophical, to live outside the system or even to express criticism of it.”

Mohr’s narrative is framed through stories of individuals, many of whom he met when he moved to Berlin in 1992 (he was a DJ there, before becoming a translator and a journalist). We first meet Britta Bergmann, 15, whose half-sister has a West Berliner father; he brings them Western teenage magazines. Bergman sees the Sex Pistols in one of them, and hears “Pretty Vacant” on Radio Luxembourg soon after. She feels “a switch has been thrown inside her”.

From then on, she is Major, a safety-pinned, short-haired powerhouse attracting the interest of Stasi informants, moving between flats to avoid surveillance. Then things get darker. She’s taken in by the police, forced to watch her punk spoils being burned. Then she’s imprisoned, beaten and vaccinated; she expects these weren’t conventional injections. Others are subjected to similar, and worse, horrors.

State action ramps up, Mohr explains, when other punks start appearing and, crucially, congregating. In 1981 they are banned from public places, before liberal church leaders invite them in. A bell tower becomes a private space where the movement is allowed to gestate. Deacons Uwe Kulisch and Lorenz Postler accompany their charges to meetings with employers and bureaucratic officers. Pastor Rainer Eppelmann agrees to the punks being involved in a “Blues Mass”; he’s now a politician. To see the Church supporting the oppressed, working against the state, is compelling stuff.

It’s also striking to see how many of the punks detailed are such raging teenagers – you’re put in mind of today’s better-turned-out Greta Thunbergs. You’ll also wish this was an oral history at times, so vivid are the personalities. Take Michael Boehlke, a machine fitter who snaps a Mercedes badge from the car of a senior party member, before trading it for a West German music magazine. He becomes the frontman of one of the first impactful East German punk bands, Planos (No Plan), memorising lyric sheets before burning them, knowing how incriminating they are. One of their best-known songs, “Ich Steh in der Schlange am Currystand” (Waiting in Line at the Currywurst Stand), is now easily found online (most of the punks aren’t). Get past the absurdity of its title, and its lyrics, about being monitored by the Stasi, are powerful. “I don’t turn around – I’ve already seen you,” Pankow screams. “You are my shadow wherever I go.”

Advances in technology helped too. The cassettes on to which they copied their music were easy to distribute, and to hide. When the singularly named Otze (Ooze), frontman of Schleim-Kleim (Dirty Germs), has his family home raided, his mother sends his little sister to the shops. Beneath a cloth at the bottom of her basket, she carries the only copy of DDR Von Unten (DDR From Under), the first East German punk compilation.

Early on, the book feels overly detailed and slow, but as the late 1980s arrive, you sense this approach had a dual purpose: to show the relentless oppression the punks survived, and how gradual changes drive revolution. Mohr also points out events considered significant by outsiders that felt different within the city. After Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, asking Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”, the footage was everywhere in the UK. His visit got little media coverage in West Germany. “No one either side of the Wall gave a fuck,” Mohr writes, bluntly. Other late-1980s East Berlin stories are given more attention, such as neo-fascist violence, which meets little official response: “Law enforcement officers of this officially anti-fascist state stood by as skinheads shouted Nazi slogans and pummelled people on the street.” It was the punks who were being attacked.

As late as January 1989, the East German government identified punks as its top problem because they had “developed a scene independent of DDR officialdom”. Nevertheless, two bands, Feeling B and die Anderen (the Others), were allowed to play West Berlin four months later. In a moving passage, die Anderen’s frontman, Toster, describes seeing the Reichstag for the first time, having a doner kebab, and buying his friends cans of beer. At the checkpoint going home, they’re all asked if they want to stay (you sense the East German guards had planned to be rid of them). They refuse. They want to give friends their beers.

Six months later, die Anderen are playing West Berlin the night that the Wall falls (a 20-year-old PJ Harvey is attending the gig with her mum). Mohr could have made this the book’s jubilant ending, but to his credit, he charts the uncertainty that follows. Otze is visited by the Stasi the day after the Wall comes down, for instance.

But it’s clear that Berlin’s artistic culture in 2019 comes from these roots. It’s there in the residential collectives that still exist, like Köpenicker Strasse 137 in Mitte, and the creative souls of huge clubs such as Berghain. “Punk was revolution from below. It was creating your own reality,” Mohr concludes. It’s a spirit that still faces resistance, but never fails to rage on. 

Burning Down The Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall
Tim Mohr
Dialogue Books, 384pp, £18.99

This article appears in the 06 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong