Burning Down the Haus, a new book by journalist Tim Mohr, details how a small group of East German teens kick-started a movement that contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 1970s were oppressive years in the German Democratic Republic; there was no space, literal or philosophical, to live outside the system, let alone criticize it. Upon hearing The Clash and the Sex Pistols via forbidden British military-radio broadcasts, a handful of young people began to embrace the punk mentality, dressing differently, and shaking the foundations upon which authority had been built. And despite the best efforts of the East German secret police, aka the Stasi, the movement grew throughout the 1980s, as punks developed their own little world, disconnected from society. Punk was the soundtrack to the million-person demonstration on November 4, 1989. A few days later, the Wall came down.
Mohr, who arrived in Berlin in 1992 and now lives in Brooklyn, learned about this history and has spent 10 years documenting it in as much detail as possible, recognizing too the parallels with modern society.
William Ralston: You write that your initial belief in this story was reinforced after you returned to the USA and “recognized an ominous echo in developments in your own country.” Can you elaborate on these parallels?
Tim Mohr: The book went from a story that was just fascinating to something that was actually disturbingly relevant because of the parallels I began to see in our own society—the revelations from Snowden about the scale of mass surveillance here in the US, the militarization of our police forces, and the treatment of peaceful protesters here. I think we can’t dismiss comparisons between what’s happening in the West to what happened in the Eastern bloc; when our own mass surveillance was revealed, people were quick to say, “but you can’t compare this to the Stasi”—but you can!
I’m not suggesting our situation is completely analogous, and I don’t think the solution to whatever needs to be remedied in today’s society is the same as what’s described in the book—it won’t be solved by passing out a bunch of guitars to teenage rebels and telling them to make anti-government music—but I think this story shows what is possible. It offers a concrete historical example of a grassroots youth movement that made significant changes in its society. Maybe the lesson to be learned is something they used to spray as graffiti: “Don’t die in the waiting room of the future.” Meaning, you can’t sit around hoping for change to happen; you have to make change happen.
WR: The GDR in the late 1970s was not a stable state. It was struggling with a generational transition and the economy was ceasing to function. Why was it vulnerable?
TM: One of the reasons the hard-liners of the GDR were able to stay in power for so long was because the GDR didn’t have the type of conditions that we associated with the Soviet Union. There were no food shortages; everybody had modern conveniences, televisions, refrigerators; jobs; booze. I think this created a level of complacency that allowed the regime to stay in power longer. Given halfway-decent conditions, the majority of people seem to just go along with the system, regardless of what the system is. The punks were among the first to challenge it in a direct way. They did so by addressing the regime’s failure to practically implement its ideology, an ideology, incidentally, that most of them shared—they were critics of the dictatorship from the left. Punks were among the loudest in making these points, and I think one of the most important roles they played was steeling the resolve of other opposition groups.