Did punk rock bring down the Eastern Bloc? In Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall translator and music writer Tim Mohr makes the case that when punk snuck beneath the Iron Curtain in the late ’70s, it brought with it the revolutionary energy that would eventually help topple communism in Europe.
A German translator and longtime Germanophile, Mohr sets out to chronicle the entire history of the East Berlin punk scene from that scene’s inception until the fall of the Berlin Wall. His passion for both punk music and the city of Berlin comes through in each of Burning Down the Haus‘s many episodes, some of which have been researched down to the minute. Mohr interviewed more than 50 people, and at times, the book reads like a writer trying to whip together hours of transcribed interviews into a narrative, stuffing in everything he could get. Indeed, if in the first 50 pages it feels like Mohr is introducing you to every single punk kid who lived in East Berlin in 1980, that’s because he is.
Punk gained in popularity more slowly in East Berlin than it did in the cities of the West (and in that other Berlin just over the Wall). The regime of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) was notoriously repressive, enforcing restrictions on Western media and acts of self-expression with its infamous secret police force, the Staatssicherheitsdienst (Stasi for short). The early punks were teenagers who got their hands on contraband Sex Pistols records and bummed around the city sporting leather jackets and colored hair and keeping clear of spies. It was the Lutheran Church, which provided a meeting place for punks through its youth work programs, that first formalized the punk movement. Like the punks, the Church was marginalized in the radically secular DDR, where church attendance was virtually nonexistent. Having opened its doors to hippies in the ’70s, the church was willing to take a chance on the next generation of outcasts, and soon, punks were putting on shows in church buildings across East Berlin.
At first, the Stasi detained punks for minor infractions like loitering and under-employment. But when the intelligence ministers eventually listened to some of the cassette tapes that had been circulating, they grew concerned. East Berlin punk bands like Planlos, Namenlos, and Schleim-Keim freely criticized the government in their music and wrote songs comparing the Stasi with Hitler’s SS and the DDR with the Third Reich, which was a crime at the time. The Stasi’s violent crackdown on a punk festival organized at Christus Church in 1983 was the biggest action against any single political group since the despot Erich Honecker took power in 1971. Agents dispersed the crowds and detained the more outspoken musicians, who were interrogated for months. When they were finally released, they were forced to leave the country. But the ethos they embodied had taken root across the city, and a second wave of punk kids was already banding together.
With its reverence for order and bureaucracy, the DDR was unable to make sense of a zeitgeist-y youth movement founded on politics, fashion, and music. As Mohr points out, the shocking punk style was a red herring that distracted the authorities from the more diffuse punk ethic, which he characterizes as revolution from below. As the ’80s went on, punks exploited legal loopholes to set up squatters’ networks, and in the hectic last months of the DDR, they helped expose the ways the regime falsified election results, a revelation that led to massive demonstrations. Indeed, Mohr gives punk a good deal of credit for the protests that immediately preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall, writing that, by October of 1989, “the groundwork laid by punks and other activists influenced by the punk mentality was becoming a magical, spontaneous, mass uprising, being joined by people from all walks of life […]” (325).
This neoliberal vision of revolution—as a “magical” and integrated happening free of bloodshed—is a fitting (and telling) kind of hindsight for events that accelerated the liberalization of the East by the West and points to a problem underlying Burning Down the Haus; that is, punk’s relation to capitalism. When it leapt over the Wall, punk brought resistance to autocracy, but it also brought global capitalism and its illusions of liberty. Indeed, in communist Europe, punk was a doctrine of liberation via liberalism. Under the communist regime, life was planned and provided for from birth to death. There was a place for you in society, whether you wanted one or not. What was missing was the freedom of choice that appeared to exist in the West, as demonstrated by the radical self-expression of punk.
Even in the West, punk was commodified from its very beginnings, a way to reabsorb anger at the system into a new youth market. The Sex Pistols, after all, were a concept hatched by edgy entrepreneur Malcom McLaren and signed to a major label. Their song “God Save the Queen” spawned the rallying cry “no future”, which was as much an expression of nihilism as it was of bourgeois grievance. At the end of the ’70s, democracies around the world were facing unemployment, inflation, and austerity. This was not the future that the postwar generation had been brought up to expect. But Thatcherism moved swiftly, and before anybody could realize it, it was already selling the people’s outrage back to them, getting them to buy back into the socioeconomic order and asking the rest of the world to buy into it, too.
Mohr doesn’t delve into punk’s complicated role in the victory of capitalism over communism in the DDR because, throughout Burning Down the Haus, punk is always righteous, and the central conflict is clear cut: kids vs. cops. In fact, there’s almost a nostalgia in Mohr’s book for simpler times, when tyranny was orderly and bureaucratic and when antagonists (the Stasi) and their tools of oppression (stifling free expression to preserve a socialist dictatorship) were clearly defined. A time when it felt like a few contraband tapes passed between friends had the power to overthrow governments.
But engaging in contemporary conversations about state sanctioned violence and police brutality—as Mohr hopes this book will do—requires engaging with authority in all its complexity. Reaffirming that oppressors are on the wrong side of history does not help us navigate our present situation, in which the extrajudicial killing of black people by police often inspires indifference or even enthusiasm in some among the American public. A portrayal of authority as faceless and grey is entirely out of step with the fact that the identities of murderous cops are well known, and that it is everyday citizens who happily volunteer to carry out the racist violence of the state.
Fortunately, punk has a long history of collective experiments we might learn from—experiments in rejecting patriarchy and racism and in building working class power. These are the variegated punk practices that are buffed out in this book. We need that history more than ever, since it seems unlikely that we will be joining together in a “magical, spontaneous, mass uprising” anytime soon.