Burning Down the Haus by Tim Mohr, published by Algonquin Books, is subtitled “Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall” for a very good reason. For it tells the story of how punk rockers, along with other internal dissidents, in East Germany brought down the hardline government repressing them.
For some in the West this might be seen as heresy. Especially those who buy into the myth it was President Ronald Regan’s speech in Berlin in which he commanded then Soviet Premier Gorbachev to “tear down the wall” which brought about the beginning of the end. In actual fact the people responsible wanted nothing to do with the West or capitalism, they just wanted an end to the repressive regime they lived under.
Mohr’s incredibly detailed and well researched book gives readers both a fascinating look inside East Germany during its last decade and how a revolution ferments from the bottom up. It goes a long towards explaining why repressive governments attempt to stamp out even the smallest expressions of resistance, no matter how innocuous they might seem. It also shows how the punk ethos of Do It Yourself (DIY) is so dangerous to the establishment and how it creates the environment required for change.
It all started, of course, with the Sex Pistols. In the late 1970s British Armed Forces radio stations could be heard in East Berlin, and Johnny Rotten and company snuck over the Berlin Wall. While only a couple of people may have heard them, punk was now officially alive in the East.
Now if the establishment in the West didn’t like punks, they had nothing on the East Germans. Any type of what was considered socially abhorrent behaviour could result in severe punishments. In a country where not having a job was illegal and could see you sent to jail, the definition of what was considered socially unacceptable was open ended.
So when young men and women started showing up in school or on the streets wearing ripped clothing and their hair spiked up into Mohawks, you can imagine how well that over. At first it was only a few kids in East Berlin, but then the “infection” started to spread to cities and towns through-out East Germany. Bands were formed and illegal rehearsals and then concerts were staged.
At first only the regular police were involved in keeping the punks in check. But, in their paranoia, as the government began to see them as a threat, the East German secret police, The Stasi, put their wide network of informers to work to infiltrate the “punk” movement. While that worked to an extent, and some people were arrested because their own parents informed on them, the attention only succeeded inmaking those involved more determined to do what they wanted.
While the punk movement in East Germany was made up of a variety of people, some of who weren’t necessarily political but just wanted the freedom to dress and live differently, Mohr is careful to point out how they were only one part of a larger movement working for freedom in East Germany. One of the punks’ first and strongest allies was the Lutheran church.
While the official hierarchy of the church toed the government line in exchange for a certain amount of autonomy, individual churches and ministers were more open to change. It was through church sponsorship that the first punk concerts were held and that punks were given a safe place to gather. While the state and the church establishment tried to prevent these events, they had a hard time circumventing their own laws allowing individual ministers and parishes to conduct business as they liked.
Like in medieval times when people would claim sanctuary from the law by residing on church grounds, punks were given temporary reprieve from Stasis and police in various Lutheran sites. This of course led to the Stasis attempting to prevent punks from gaining access to these sites – going as far as literally barricading a whole town to prevent people from attending an event.
Trains were stopped and all obvious punks were taken off and either arrested or put on trains going the other way and roadblocks were established to stop those travelling by road. Of course people would then just cut across country to attend.
What makes this book such a fascinating read is that Mohr has recreated the period almost as an oral history. For aside from combing through Stasis files for transcripts of interrogations and trials, he interviewed those who were involved in the punk movement in East Berlin.
We hear them telling their stories and relating their fears, their hopes and their ambitions. Not only does this make for an incredibly intimate story, it also brings the era and the reality of the times to life beautifully. Mohr has done a wonderful job of letting these people speak for themselves, and it’s through their words we see and live history in a way that’s not usually possible.
Burning Down the Haus not only dispels the myth that the West and capitalism were responsible for bringing down the Berlin Wall it also provides the example of how the oppressed can effect change from the bottom up – something as pertinent today as it was in East Germany in the 80s. This is a beautifully written and important book about the power of ordinary people to make a difference and how punk is more than just a type of music.