East German punk scene pushed resistance in an authoritarian state

Singer Jana Schlosser and guitarist A-Micha of East German punk band Namenlos playing on the grounds of St. Michaelis Church in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) in 1983. (Photo courtesy SUBstitut Archiv (Berlin))

Lyric sheets hidden in false-bottom drawers. Facing crackdowns by the secret police. Paying a steep price for taking on a dictatorship.

That was the punk rock scene in the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) — known in the West as East Germany.

Tim Mohr’s book “Burning Down The Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall,” traces East German punk and its persecution by the Stasi (East Germany’s secret police agency) from 1977, to the reunification of Germany and beyond.

Mohr was a DJ, a German-English translator and a collaborator on rock star biographies, before he found the fascinating story of East German punk rock and its fight against the authoritarian establishment. He reads from his book at the Elliott Bay Book Company at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26.

How did you first hear about East German punk rock, and who were the first members of that scene you met?

I first learned about the scene by coincidence, when I started DJing in clubs in Eastern Berlin in the early 1990s. It turned out that almost all the early clubs and bars had either been founded by former DDR punks or had former punks working in them.

I became friends with a guy named Micha Kobs, who had been the guitarist in [the band] Planlos. Eventually he showed me some lyric sheets and photos he’d kept hidden in a false-bottom drawer during the dictatorship. Though at the time I didn’t realize just how important his band had been to the early scene, I was immediately captivated by the story.

We’re fed a sort of Western triumphalist narrative about the fall of the Berlin Wall — you know, how Eastern kids just wanted Levis and hamburgers, and when Ronald Reagan said “Tear down this wall,” it was magically torn down.

It takes a lot more than pretty words from a foreign dignitary to bring down a security apparatus like the one in East Germany, and now I was meeting people who had actually fought the dictatorship in a very direct, practical way — and in many cases paid a steep price, like spending time in Stasi prison. I was just blown away by the stories of these kids who had dared to take on the police state.

Of those first people you met, what were your impressions of them, and how did your impressions grow and change over time?

Well, I was impressed from the start, but the depth of their bravery became clearer the deeper I got into the research. I think the biggest surprise as I started to go back and dive into the archival material was the level of paranoia directed at the scene by the Stasi. It was then that I saw how seriously the dictatorship took the threat of punk activism, and I saw that the stories I’d heard weren’t isolated incidents, but rather part of a systematic crackdown on a scene officially viewed as the biggest problem among East German youth.

What definitively led you to write a book about the scene?

I’d always been fascinated on a personal level by the scene and all the stories surrounding it, but my conviction in the importance of a book on the topic was solidified by things happening here in the U.S. as I did the research. Here I was reviewing Stasi files and along comes [Edward] Snowden, with revelations of the scale of our own mass surveillance programs.

I’m examining a battle between peaceful protesters and police at the same time our police forces are being increasingly militarized and violently suppressing Black Lives Matter and #NoDAPL protestors. It became a disturbingly relevant story — and offered a heartening and important example of a grassroots youth movement that caused significant change.

You traced East Berlin punk to a “patient zero,” the woman called “Major.” Was Major certifiably the first punk in all East Germany?

She is pretty much universally recognized within the scene as the first. Major was 15 when she discovered the Sex Pistols on Western radio in 1977, and the Stasi opened a file on her in 1978. A lot of what happened early on revolved around her, and Major became one of the first punks made an example of in early 1981, when she was arrested, tried and sentenced to a year in Stasi prison, plus five years of Berlin-verbot, meaning she couldn’t return to see her friends and family for five years after her release from prison. Instead she was sent off to a tiny village where she was expected to work in a factory. She ran away and went back to Berlin, was re-arrested, put in jail for another year and then expatriated–meaning they shipped her off to West Germany to take care of the problem.

East Berliners were able to pick up on TV and radio signals coming from West Berlin?

Yes, Western radio was available in almost every part of East Germany, with the exception of the low areas around Dresden, which the rest of the country referred to as the “valley of the clueless” as a result.

Aside from West Berlin signals, what TV and radio could East German punks receive and take inspiration from, all across the DDR? Were certain magazines and books from the West important, too?

The most important development in the punk scene was that it quickly became something uniquely and organically Eastern. They began to address conditions in their own lives, and in their own language. As the decade went on, the only important influences from abroad came from farther east. Polish punks, for instance, were further along in many ways, and they offered significant inspiration to East German punks. DDR punks really had no interest in the West after the initial musical spark, and they even shunned attention from Western media, something that shocked Stasi observers.

Illegal recording by the band Re-Aktion copied over an official release on the state-controlled record label Amiga. (Photo by Mathias Schwarz)

Who were the most important punks and punk bands in the DDR, both before the initial Stasi crackdown and after?

I think the key was that all the bands — and punks in general — solved one of the great unknowns: what would happen to you if you ran afoul of the Stasi? There was a power in the mystery surrounding that question. But punks — including bands like Namenlos, who went to prison for 18 months because of their anti-state lyrics — ran the experiment. The game-changer was that they endured the arrests, beatings, and jailings, and still came out fighting.

Bands like Namenlos showed it was possible to resist and survive. That steeled the resolve of other opposition-minded people, I believe, and made it easier for protests to spill out onto the streets and into the public eye during the second half of the 1980s, which in turn allowed opposition to snowball into the mass demonstrations that brought down the Wall in late 1989.

The Stasi had a chance to crush punk, on its first counterattack at least, but of course, they ultimately failed. What were their most crucial misunderstandings and mistakes?

One mistake they kept making was to insist the scene was being instigated or manipulated by the West. This was simply not the case, which their own observations could have told them if they hadn’t been so opposed to acknowledging this point. I also think the violence of the crackdown — both initially, and later, as the protests moved onto the streets–made ordinary people, who were otherwise inclined to go along with the system, cringe. It helped confirm any misgivings people had about the illegitimacy of the regime.

This music was largely passed around on recorded-over cassettes, or if folks were lucky, new cassettes. How much of it has survived?

Yeah, to the extent they could record at all, it was on homemade cassette players. They were obviously barred from the state media monopoly, meaning they couldn’t get into studios, or press records, or get on the radio. Everything they did had to be hidden, and DIY. Especially by the second half of the 1980s, huge numbers of home recordings circulated.

Despite the rudimentary production quality, you can hear the spirit of revolution in those recordings, for sure. As for what has survived, in recent years some of the bands have finally managed to press their basement tapes on vinyl for limited edition reissues. But if you want to hear bands in the book, you’ll be most successful searching for uploads of tapes on Youtube, since most have still never been released in any official way.

How did the strange relationship between religious groups and the punks, grow and change over time?

It was under the roof of the (Lutheran) church that various groups began to find common cause, and more traditional political activists — like peace and environmental activists — were forced to take the punks more seriously.

But the relationship between punks and the Lutheran churches that in some instances took in outsider groups, was always awkward. Church leaders were generally not supportive of ministers and deacons who fostered oppositional groups, and it emerged after the fall of the Wall that 5 percent of church leaders had been Stasi informants. The heavy-drinking, loud, profane, atheist punks were particularly problematic —and their music and graffiti particularly incendiary — and ministers like Siggi Neher, who hosted the first national punk music festival at his church in Halle, was openly branded an enemy of the state by local officials.

The punks suspected collusion between the Stasi and racist skinheads. Was anything ever proven?

Not really, though high-ranking officials did get involved in the sentencing of skinheads who were tried for attacking people at a church concert in 1987. The neo-Nazi elements of the attack had been swept under the rug during the trial, and the resultant light sentence for simple hooliganism caused an outcry. Out of embarrassment, officials later intervened to increase the sentences.

It is also well documented that neo-Nazis regularly appeared at matches of a certain East Berlin soccer team where the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, was also a regular — so the security apparatus definitely knew about the rise of right-wing skinheads and chose to largely ignore it — and, of course, to blame it on the West.

I was fascinated by the photographs included with the book. What kinds of risks did photographers run documenting the scene?

One guy named Gilbert Furian ended up in jail for two years when he made a tiny number of copies of a sort of zine he put together featuring interviews with and photographs of punks in 1982. But generally the greater risk was with the people in the photos, not the photographers. The Stasi also had a trove of photos of the scene, whether through amateur photographers who were informers or professional surveillance footage.

What eventually became of the leaders of the first wave of DDR punk? Have they settled into normal lives, kept raging, some of both?

It’s a mix. Some are still involved in music and nightlife. Micha Kobs scores films, for instance. Others lead relatively conventional lives. But there is also a subset who suffered intensely at the hands of the Stasi — who were really good at psychological torture — and have had trouble dealing with everyday life even after the fall of the Wall. Some fared worse. Otze of Schleim Keim died in a high-security mental institution after killing his father with an axe.

The concept of squatting as the opportunity to construct a commune isn’t widely understood in America. How did it fuel the punk DDR movement and how did the commune urge continue after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

During the dictatorship, punks became really good at carving out space, both literal and philosophical. They would find abandoned apartments in the dilapidated sections of central East German cities and sort of disappear from officialdom. Concerts took place in churches, at parties thrown in artists’ ateliers, or in these illegal, off-the-grid spaces.

By the second half of the decade punks had also figured out ways to make money outside the official economy — making jewelry and clothing, for instance — which again allowed them to exist within the boundaries of East Germany but largely outside society. When the activists who had caused the revolution realized they had lost control of the political situation shortly after the Wall fell, they reverted back to the mode they knew from the 1980s — they found space where they could enact the world they wanted to live in, according to their ideals.

You’ve mentioned that the DDR government did not, even at its most iron-fisted, hold certain powers which our American government holds. What are some prime examples of those?

The most obvious one is that even under the dictatorship, the police couldn’t just kill people in the street the way our police can and often do. In fact, I think people would be surprised by how legalistic the system was in East Germany. Certain things were criminalized that we would not regard as criminal — such as defaming the regime — but many politically motivated arrests were made using almost word-for-word analogues of things U.S. cops use all the time, like “failure to comply with a lawful order.” And, of course, our own mass surveillance programs, as revealed by Snowden, far exceed the Stasi’s capabilities.

What are the fundamental lessons of this scene that American punks — or just plain Americans — living in remarkably trying times, can take to heart and use?

I think one of the key lessons is summed up by a piece of graffiti sprayed by East Berlin punks: it translates as “Don’t die in the waiting room of the future.” It was a rallying cry against complacency. I think they were saying that we can’t sit around and hope for change; we have to go out and make it happen.

Stasi surveillance photo. The German phrases written on the head of the person sitting on the right say: “Nazis out!” and “Together we can break chains.” (Photo credit SUBstitut Archiv (Berlin))