Iron Curtain Punk

Zwitschermaschine (1979-1983)

In Walla Walla, Washington during the early 1980s I could count the punks on the fingers of one hand. We felt like we had it pretty tough. There was the ever-present possibility that some random person would decide they wanted a piece of you.

I had bottles thrown at me from passing cars and occasionally the cops would just roll up and hassle you for no particular reason other than that you stood out. I, at least, was a habitual reader of Maximum Rock n Roll, and especially the scene reports. That did a lot to overcome feelings of isolation.

From its pages, I was familiar with most of the major bands in the post-Discharge UK hardcore scene. I learned about some of the major bands from Scandinavia. I owned the first Crude SS 7” and the first Kaaos LP, although at this point I can’t remember how I came by either one of them. Everyone knew Raw Power after they toured the US in the summer of 1985, and recorded the classic Screams from the Gutter LP in Indianapolis along the way. I could name four or five of the major Italian bands, although I wouldn’t actually hear any other ones until I got Negazione’s Lo Spirito Continua after I moved to Portland in 1986.

More exotically, I’d heard that there were punk bands in Eastern Europe, and that really put the zap on my head. I’d heard of (but never heard) Karcer and Dezerter from Poland. I knew about bands from Yugoslavia like Patareni, and I knew there was a big festival at Lubljana every year at which punk bands played. I, and pretty much everyone else I knew, sort of assumed that life under communism pretty closely approximated George Orwell’s 1984, so the idea that there were actually punk bands in communist countries was a mindblowing.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I started hearing rumours that there were actually bands in East Germany. I knew some West German bands, especially Upright Citizens (whose album Open Eyes, Open Ears, Brains to Think & A Mouth to Speak was released by BYO in the United States) and Inferno, an incredibly intense band that hailed from Augsburg. But I can recall reading something in a fanzine probably around 1987 that mentioned a number of the East German bands: Planlos, Schleim Keim, Paranoia, and Wutanfall. I didn’t have access to much information and, in any case, two years later the DDR spiralled the bowl and I didn’t think much about it after that.

I was reminded of this as I read Tim Mohr’s brilliant Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, published last year by Algonquin Books. Mohr’s book is a history of the punk scene in the DDR written exactly the way that the punks want it written. It takes the subject matter seriously, never talking down to either the reader or the subjects. This is a story of kids fighting a battle for freedom and self-expression against a system with absolutely no compunction about harassing them, tossing them in jail, or beating the living shit out of them on a regular basis. And it’s a story of how that struggle played an important role in bringing that system to its knees.

Being a punk in small-town eastern Washington in the early 1980s seemed tough at the time. There was the ever-present possibility that some random person would kick your ass. But our problems revolved more around where to have a cigarette since the only place that you could legitimately smoke at my high school was the parking lot next to the Future Farmers of America barn, which was not the safest place to hang if you were weird.

Reading Burning Down the Haus made that all seem rather paltry. Here were kids living in the most repressive police state that Europe ever produced. By the very early 1980s, scraps of the British scene of the late 1970s started to filter across the border, carried on the airwaves by West German radio. It was illegal to listen to it in the DDR, but lots of people did anyway (except in Dresden where geography made the signals much harder to receive). Mohr traces the story from one girl in Berlin, through its growth in that city and its spread to Leipzig, Karl-Marx-Stadt, Dresden, and beyond.

The story of punk in the DDR is one of the strength of individuals to find niches in the structures of state power. As is well known, the surveillance apparatus of the Ministerium für Staatsicherheit (the notorious Stasi) was incredibly extensive, dwarfing the size and reach of the Nazi Gestapo and, at its height, involving some 5% of the population in spying in one capacity or another on their colleagues, friends, and family. The paranoia of the populace, in general, was matched by that within the Stasi, where even very minor expressions of dissent were viewed as threats to the system. While, by and large, punks in western Europe and North America were treated with a sort of benign neglect by the authorities, a few kids with mohawks hanging out on the Alexanderplatz galvanized the Stasi to take remedial action.

The punks in East Germany, to a greater extent than most, were compelled by circumstance to figure out for themselves what punk was using occasional magazine articles smuggled in from the west or tapes of songs by the Pistols, the Clash, and others taped from West German radio. From these fragments, and under heavy disciplinary pressure from the state, punks in the DDR created a vibrant scene. Working with the churches, whose precincts were mostly immune to official state interference, the kids built up spaces in which an oppositional culture could flourish.

One of the most impressive aspects of this history is the way that the kids managed to hold their own against state oppression. For the main figures in the scene, encounters with the police and the Stasi were a daily occurrence. From marathon questioning sessions to beatings, to detention and prison sentences, the security forces unleashed the full range of their powers to destroy the threat. But the beatings only strengthened the scene. The Stasi suffered from a common failing of top-down, bureaucratic organizations: they assumed that their opponents must be just like them. They spent a lot of time and energy surveilling, arresting, and interrogating people that they viewed as the leaders of the scene. This only served to make the subjects of their attention less fearful about the consequences. After you’ve had your ass kicked by the cops a couple of times, you realize that you can take it, and that goes a long way toward neutralizing the threat.

More importantly, the punk scene wasn’t an organization that could be crushed by taking down people in leadership positions. The Stasi managed to effectively destroy the first wave of bands after 1983, through intimidation, violence, and infiltration. But within two years a new crop of bands had arisen, and a mix of older, more experienced figures and newcomers used their experiences to forge connections with the Open Work and (subsequently) Church from Below networks in the churches to create new niches in which punk culture could thrive.

One of the most surprising elements of Mohr’s story is the degree to which the punk scene was instrumental in the fall of the DDR. In part, this was due to a sort of propaganda of the deed. Merely by building the scene, the punks showed that another life and another politics were possible. While some of them were forcibly expatriated to West Germany, those that remained were mostly determined to stay in the DDR and to build a new, more just society rather than fleeing to the west. As the DDR spiralled toward its demise, with the rise of perestroika and the economic collapse of communism, the spaces and scenes created by the punk became loci for ever-broadening patterns of resistance. The fact that most of the main faces in the scene had long before lost their fear of the Stasi didn’t hurt either.

Mohr tells his tale in short, punchy chapters that stay right on point and carry the narrative forward. He focuses on a relatively small group of figures, tracing their activities in bands and putting on events in ways that show how their work was often alloyed with a kind of street-level anarchist consciousness. This was a key in the horizontal organization of the scene, making it both inclusive and resilient under pressure. But Mohr also tells a compelling human story of young people determined to build the lives they wanted to life and courageous enough to make it happen. No more moving story has yet been told about this history of the punk scene in all its facets.

Photograph courtesy of Wolfgang Grossmann. Published under a Creative Commons license.