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.
One of the great unknowns in opposition circles was what would happen if you ran afoul of the security apparatus, and the punks learned exactly what happened. They showed other opposition-minded people that it was possible to resist and survive the Stasi. They were subject to the harshest crackdown of any opposition group, including serving the longest jail terms. To then come out and keep fighting encouraged everyone else.
WR: They conquered their fears.
TM: Yes, and as a result they were a big component of the early street protests, and these protests created a boomerang effect. In the GDR, as in most societies, conformity ruled the day. But when the protests started to spill out onto the street and into the public eye, ordinary people—who might otherwise be inclined to go along—were confronted with state-sanctioned violence that made many of them cringe. It just snowballed from there. You have the early activists who take things out on the street and they have to convince other opposition groups, and then it’s a matter of converting a significant enough part of the population to your cause. It took the 1989 mass demonstrations for the Wall to fall—but the seeds were planted several years prior in street protests in which punks were indeed central.
WR: And it was in the Protestant churches—which opened their doors to offer shelter—that punks began to rub elbows with other opposition groups.
TM: Yes, the churches were important. Though as an institution, the church didn’t necessarily wish to nurture these groups; many leaders were actually opposed. But individual clergymen took in these so-called enemies of the state. Once they were under the roof of the church, the punks began interacting with different activist groups, who began to take the punks more seriously.
WR: You write in the book that the Stasi were “paranoid” about the punk scene from early on. What made punks such a threat?
TM: From a Western perspective, it’s not easy to see why a bunch of kids with bad haircuts could be so threatening. The deeper I dug into this, it became clear to me that the Stasi were correct in their fear. They were trying to keep people on a preordained path and people, like the punks, who were influencing youths to stray off that path, were threatening. It’s also important to remember that punks expressed their opposition whenever they were in public. Other forms of protest were often done behind closed doors, whereas the punks were so in your face; their music was loud and even just their appearance on the street was a form of opposition. That’s how the movement grew so quickly: teenagers saw punks and they seemed cool because it was so daring and exciting that many people joined them. Many of these kids, as with the first generation of punks, originally joined for nonpolitical reasons; it was just cool.
WR: You write in the book that the state’s paranoid behavior “backfired.” Can you explain this?
TM: I think this is true all through this battle. To begin with, the punks just wanted to wear these clothes and cut their hair this way, and then suddenly they were being hassled by the police on a daily basis, being kicked out of schools or apprenticeships, having their IDs confiscated. This turned the movement political. And even the smallest signs of rebellion were so impactful; every time people stepped off the path, it was a political act, even if, like the early punks, they themselves didn’t conceive of it to be so. Then, later on, ordinary citizens began to recoil at the level of violence against protesters, significant parts of whom were punks. The security forces kept making the same mistake.
WR: It feels that there was absolutely nothing that the Stasi could have done to stop this. They tried threats, locking up, even removing people.
TM: I think part of this is that the punks had such a fundamental criticism. A lot of the other groups were nitpicking over this or that policy, focusing on specific issues like military training in schools, and they fancied themselves negotiating with the government. They wanted to try to change the government whereas punks wanted to cast off the system, to destroy it. During the fight itself, this was certainly a strength.
I think it’s also important to note that while the Stasi saw the punks as a significant threat, they also tried to blame it on the West. As late as 1989, they listed punk as the top youth problem and yet, in the same report, they say that the scene is being manipulated from the West by punks who had been expatriated, which was completely false. They seemed to overlook that it had become an organic Eastern phenomenon.
WR: Do you perceive punk music to have inspired punk’s dissidence, or was it just a vehicle for it?
TM: I think it’s a bit of both. Almost everyone spoke of feeling as if a switch had been thrown inside them when they first heard punk. For the majority of them, I think the thrill was musical: The bassist in Planlos told me that he loved the Ramones because it was the only record he’d ever heard with no slow songs. Only a few of them immediately connected it with anarchist philosophy. But the music also offered an avenue of self-expression that they had never really thought of before and became a soundtrack to rebellion.
WR: The mass protests grew in the late ’80s. Why do you think law-abiding citizens, who violently opposed the punks to begin with, went on to join the movement?
TM: If we knew the mechanism then we could recreate it elsewhere. Conformity is natural and most people abide by the system and don’t like people who make trouble. I think a lot of people had the feeling that there were things wrong with society but once the protests began to reach a certain mass, when they were in open view on the street in the second half of the ’80s, then more of the general public joined because the state-sanctioned violence gave credence to their own misgivings about how things were run.
WR: What started off as a resistance eventually cast off the dictatorship. Do you think this the movement exceeded punk’s ambitions?
TM: Even though the Stasi were paranoid about the punk scene, I don’t think anyone felt it was the start of a type of opposition that would bring down the dictatorship. One of the things that the punks were brilliant at was carving out space, both physical and philosophical. They took over all these empty buildings and by the late 1980s untethered themselves from the economy, when some were able to operate in the gray areas by selling homemade jewelry and clothing. At that point they were no longer dependent on being part of society. As opposed to British punks, who railed against “No future,” the East German punks had seen their problem as “Too much future.”
Their whole lives were planned out for them almost from birth, and it felt stifling. Once they were able to at least partially wrestle control of their futures, they had probably already gotten farther than many of them realistically expected. Though of course there were some who were always quite convinced they’d succeed in toppling the regime.