In his incendiary new book Burning Down the Haus, Tim Mohr documents the “secret history of punk rock under the dictator” and inspires hope in the hearts of all the rest of us
“Don’t Die In The Waiting Room of the Future.” – Graffiti that began appearing on walls in Leipzig, East Germany in 1982
Three years after the Berlin Wall fell—on November 9, 1989—an American music fan and writer named Tim Mohr visited what was formerly called East Berlin. He had at first intended his trip to be a fun, six-month visit. It ended up lasting seven years. During his time there, Mohr took a job as a DJ at a number of underground clubs throughout the battered ex-dictatorship, met, talked, drank and lived with “Ostpunks”. A portrait of something more than a localized DIY punk scene emerged. What that was is revealed in Mohr’s remarkable book, Burning Down The Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Algonquin Books).
What emerged for Mohr and what he exuberantly shares with readers of Burning Down the Haus is a portrait of what revolution looks like. Indeed, though they don’t get the credit from tenured historians or the mainstream press, Ostpunks were a large part of why the wall fell—they had been shaking its foundations for the previous decade, you might say. Reagan may have had the photo opps and the one liners (“tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev”) but the Ostpunks were the ones who loosened the bricks so that a few whacks with a sledgehammer was all it took to topple the house of cards of the Soviet bloc.
What separates this book from other attempts to capture a particular punk scene is that Mohr didn’t just do a few interviews and comb through punk zines and other secondary sources. He lived with the participants in the former East Berlin, sussing out “the secret history of punk rock under the dictator.” It was, and had to be, a “secret history.” Orwell showed us what could happen to you when you openly yearn for freedom in the midst of Big Brother’s Oceania.
Mohr unfolds this tale through the words, stories and deeds of the participants who, to avoid the police and the DDR’s Stasi agents, took names like Major, Colonel, A-Micha (an anarchist), Pankow, Kobs, Chaos, Otse. They squatted illegally in legal apartments or illegally in vacant buildings or openly in blighted structures, throughout East Germany (besides East Berlin, Halle and Leipzig were particularly fertile punk territory).
Mohr’s story begins with Major who, at 15, began taping music off West Berlin radio stations. She saw a photograph of the Sex Pistols in a smuggled magazine and cut her hair to look like theirs. That was enough to render her a suspicious person. For her crime of looking different, she was tailed constantly by Stasi (East German secret police), sometimes arrested and interrogated for up to 48 hours at a time (after 48 hours, they were required to either charge suspects or set them free). They burned Major’s poems, notebooks, posters, articles, sketches, and once held her in jail three months, never telling her the charges against her. She was given a one-year prison term, and ultimately renounced her DDR citizenship.
But Major was just one of the first to experience the level of paranoia against punk culture in the DDR. Nearly every figure of any consequence, whether in a band or simply a fan, experienced the same treatment, sometimes even worse. All of it was intended to humiliate, terrorize and mentally break down the subjects. Even today in Trump’s America, it’s shocking to learn of the extent that the Stasi went to quell the punk movement.
Had they left the punks alone, of course, the scene would have bubbled but likely never exploded like it did. But instead they used Gestapo tactics on them, tailed them, randomly arrested them, broke into their apartments and squats, destroyed musical instruments and stole things. Interrogations often went on for hours. Few of the punks broke. They’d rather be in isolation cells for months than turn fink.
In the course of their ill-conceived attempt at Big Brother-ism, the leaders and secret police of the DDR turned radicals into revolutionaries. US take heed: Any state that engages in practices like this—and sanctions torture and separates children from parents—will fall in time.
But it wasn’t just the music that got the Ostpunks going. They argued and discussed politics, history, anarchism, literature. Their DIY revolution began with that graffiti in Leipzig: “Don’t Die In the Waiting Room of the Future.” It was in Leipzig that the legendary singer-songwriter Chaos founded Wutanfall, which became the leading punk band in DDR. (Typhus on guitar, Zappa on bass, Rotz on drums).
Mohr writes, “Despite the expulsions from schools and apprenticeships, and despite the constant detainments, hassles, and beatings, the punk movement was not only hanging on but growing, all over the country.”
At first the police tried to eliminate the punks from public view, by banning them from pubs, bars, cafes, and youth clubs. They rescinded licenses from places that allowed punks on the premises. Thus, churches became their havens, providing the space they were denied elsewhere. Indeed, among the surprising heroes of this story are a few young ministers and church officials who gave the punks a place to perform, to vent and to take haven. But even within the churches, the snitches were as plentiful as cockroaches.
One curiosity about the punk subculture Mohr describes is that the conditions were not the same as in Thatcher-era UK or Carter/Reagan’s USA. There was no unemployment in the DDR. Housing was taken care of and basic needs were met. You were, however, forced to work, pretty much forever. It was the exact opposite of the Sex Pistols’ rallying cry of “NO FUTURE.” Instead, it was “TOO MUCH FUTURE.” Everything was laid out in front of you and all you had to do was plug yourself into your assigned cog.
But the cracks in the planned society were plentiful. As one punk put it, “We may live in a dictatorship, but it’s a dumb one. There are holes in it and we can operate in those holes.”
PKM spoke with Tim Mohr by phone at his home in Brooklyn.
PKM: How is the book tour going?
Tim Mohr: The thing at Rough Trade in New York was great. Legs [McNeil] was there to talk. And Chaos, from the band Wutanfall, and singer Pankow and Kobs from Planlos, were also there. They all came over from Germany just to be at that event. They were over the moon to have their story recognized by someone like Legs. It really meant the world to them. I did a thing at the Black Cat, an old punk club in DC, too. But the big tour starts in October when I do the East Coast and West Coast.
PKM: You arrived in Berlin some time after the wall fell. Was the punk anger, the punk presence, still in evidence then?
Tim Mohr: I arrived in Berlin in 1992 and left in 1999. And yes, the punk presence was still evident, not so much in the music but in the ethos and energy. It was very much the impetus for what happened there. The punks were hoping for a new country, not for reunification with the West. Only the skinheads wanted reunification. The punks were more connected with and to the East, like with Poland and other former Eastern bloc nations. There was a sense of lost opportunities in that period of time between when the wall fell in Nov. 1989 and when reunification was passed by the voters. At the polls, the pro-West activists passed out bananas to people waiting in line because the joke was that they could never get tropical fruit in East Germany. The fantasy that was held out was that everyone would get bananas and BMWs after reunification.
But the punks lost control of the political process, so that punk spirit and ethos was turned toward the night life, rather than politics—in clubs, galleries, creative spaces.
Berlin was still functioning as two different cities for years after that. In many ways they were two different cities. One was modern and clean, the other had empty, decrepit buildings everywhere. The two parts were not interested in, or interesting to, each other. The punks took over empty spaces and made them into something great. That’s what I found when I arrived in Berlin. There was about one year in “East” Berlin, and Germany, when there was literally no power. The wall had fallen but reunification had not happened. It was a total anarchist paradise filled with limitless possibilities that extended far beyond reunification.
Re-Aktion (complete demo tape from 1985):
PKM: Legs and I have been talking a lot about the book and were both in awe of these Ostpunks, but also shocked that we didn’t know this was going on at the time. Did this come as a complete surprise to you, too?
Tim Mohr: Yes, and it was coincidental that I heard about the punk legacy because the scene was almost completely invisible. Even back before the collapse of the DDR, with those big trials, the punk scene was not covered in the state-controlled media. And the punks, for the most part, didn’t seek attention in the West. They didn’t want their stories told. They were worried that people would misinterpret cries for help as desiring some sort of reunification. They wanted to create their own separate country after the dictatorship was gone. They didn’t want to be swallowed up by the West. They were also worried that they would be used for commercial or propaganda purposes, and misrepresented as hating socialism or communism.
To be clear, a lot of people in East Germany had sought contacts with the West, but not the punks. The clergy, especially, was seeking contacts all along. And, because they already had established ties with Western journalists and organizations before the Wall fell, the clergy became the story after reunification, as if they did everything to help bring about the demise of communism. The clergy could take credit but the punks were the ones who were fighting against the dictatorship in a practical way, putting their bodies on the line. It would take a lot more than the promise of hamburgers and bananas to ever sway their views.
Consequently, the punk scene was almost invisible. I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t connected with some of the participants as a DJ at clubs in East Berlin. One of the guys took me into his confidence, and he began showing me artifacts, posters and lyrics that he’d kept hidden in a false-bottomed drawer.
PKM: You mentioned this, but the role of church leaders in this struggle did surprise me. One of the justified accusations leveled against Germans during the Third Reich was that the church turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and excesses of the Nazis—both the Protestant and Catholic clergy. Do you think there was an element of not wanting to stand aside during another, different form of totalitarian regime?
Tim Mohr: I don’t know. My sense is that the churches became havens simply because of their unique status in the planned society dating back to the 1970s. That’s when it was mandated that uniformed personnel from the DDR (cops and Stasi) were not allowed on their premises. Thus, they became safe havens to talk about controversial topics. This arrangement was formalized in 1978, and the youth programs expanded exponentially as a result. Punks were almost, to a person, atheists. The punks gravitated to the churches because they were free thought zones. But it wasn’t just punks who found haven there. Outcasts of all kinds. And anyone who openly expressed oppositional culture and views. This included troubled youths, eco-activists and alcoholics. But the church in general was not supportive of the punks. It was only the individual ministers who took up their cause. Siggi Neher, minister of Christus Church in Halle, was one of the first. He saw the connection between the Psalms and the punk songs. The anguish, the desire for the truth and the light, etc.
PKM: What were the peak events of the punk revolt in East Germany? And at what point did punk become too big for Stasi or the state apparatus to control?
Tim Mohr: In 1983, the scene was large. Stasi documents show that they had determined, by then, that there were 1,000 punk adherents and 10,000 punk sympathizers. That’s a lot of troublemakers in a country of 15 million. The events in Halle really triggered the movement. That’s when a new batch of 15 year olds saw people just a few years older than they were with leather jackets, mohawks, etc. and it made them want to be punks too.
Stasi began their serious crackdown after that but by then it was too late to really control the scene. Whatever they were doing it was not effective. And since the trials and detainments of the punks were not covered in the controlled state media, the consequences of being a punk, the negative consequences, were hidden too.
The other game changer was the fact that these punks coming out of prison after 18 months demonstrated that it was possible to resist and survive. The ones who got the biggest jail sentences would come out and put their leather jackets back on and join the fight again. They knew the worst that could happen firsthand and yet they survived. That was very empowering.
PKM: You make it clear in the book how graffiti also played a role in the revolt.
Tim Mohr: They used simple slogans that were so powerful and effective. But combine the message with the music, two powerful and empowering things, and it was not uncommon for people to leave a punk concert and go right out and begin spraying graffiti on the sides of buildings. Thousands of people saw that graffiti every day and even if they weren’t outright punks they realized, by seeing that, that they were not alone, that there were people out there who thought the way they did. Some of those slogans were brilliant. I used one of them as the title of the German edition of my book: Don’t die in the waiting room of the future.
PKM: One thing I’ve always wanted to know was what do victims of repression and torture do when, after a government is overthrown, they see their former torturers or interrogators walking down the street?
Tim Mohr: A few punks have confronted their interrogators from Stasi, but the people they really wanted to deal with first, and foremost, were the people within the punk community itself who, it turned out, had been Stasi informers. That was a whole different thing. They expected no less from Stasi, but from within their own scene, that hurt. And there were splits within families, too. It tore people apart. It wasn’t all so simple either. Many of the informers were recruited as minors and were convinced by Stasi that they were actually helping their friends by informing on them, or that they were helping their families and themselves. They didn’t inform out of evil motives, at least most of them. They did it for what they thought were the right reasons.
PKM: Is the music of Planlos, Namenlos, Schleim-Keim and the others available now in reissues somewhere?
Mohr: In recent years, some of the old bands have converted their tapes to vinyl. But it’s pretty sporadic. The best place to find the material is on YouTube.
PKM: Do young people in the former East Germany even know about these heroes? Do they appreciate their sacrifices, their legacy?
Tim Mohr: A number of books have been published in Germany that document individual punk scenes. [A bibliography is included in Burning Down the Haus]. My book was first published in German in 2017, and some of the book events in Germany were like class reunions for the old punks. There was some sense of vindication, too, that an outsider was interested, that what they sacrificed had value. But I was in awe of them. It was incomprehensible to me what they brought upon themselves at age 16, 17 and 18. I always found that so inspiring, from the first time I heard about it in 1990s, and I kept in my head all these years with the idea of writing about it somehow.
Tim Mohr will be at Little City Books in Hoboken, N.J., on Wed. Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. He will be in conversation with Legs McNeil. 100 Bloomfield Street, Hoboken NJ 07030
For more information about the book, visit burningdownthehausbook.com