While the spirit of punk rock is certainly not limited by geography, there is a big difference between sporting a mohawk and railing against the powers that be when you live in the U.S. suburbs versus, say, a drastically suppressive Communist country in the ’70s and ’80s. While a punk rock attitude could lead to detention or a grounding from your parents in Anytown, USA, wearing homemade safety-pinned clothes and penning “fight the power” poetry in East Germany could lead to visits from government Stasi agents and, potentially, months in a jail cell.
Tim Mohr, an American who lived in Berlin throughout the 1990s, heard plenty of these stories while living overseas. Enough, in fact, that he compiled many of them into his remarkably compelling book “Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall,” released on Sept. 11 by Algonquin Books.
“I spent most of the 1990s as a club DJ in Berlin, and it turned out that former Eastern punks were involved in almost all the first-generation bars and clubs in the Eastern part of the city. Either they’d started them or worked in them or they were housed in buildings they’d squatted,” Mohr says. “As I got to know some of them, people began to show me photos, lyric sheets, scrapbooks—all kept hidden during the dictatorship, of course, because being a punk was so dangerous—and I realized this was an important story, and one that outsiders really didn’t know anything about. I didn’t yet know I’d be a writer at that point, but the story always stayed with me, and I always hoped to be able to tell it in some form one day.”
While he never identified as punk himself, Mohr admits to listening to a mix of Black Flag, Sex Pistols, and T.S.O.L. growing up. “But early-’90s Berlin was totally suffused with punk philosophy, and that had a big influence on me for sure,” he adds.
“Burning Down the Haus” is crammed with stories of teens and early-20-somethings discovering punk music, usually through smuggled-in magazines or hard-to-find, crudely-made mixtapes. This snapshot of Western culture, so unlike the repressive government they lived in, inspired rebellion as simple as cutting their hair or, even more drastic, forming underground bands who rallied against their government.
“A lot of former Eastern punks can definitely be suspicious of outsiders, and I guess they might be especially suspicious of an American,” Mohr says, explaining the difficulty in getting people to share their stories. “Luckily, I’d met some of the key figures many years before I started the book, back in the DJ days. So, I had personal introductions in many cases as I tried to track people down. Also, because of my own Berlin connections, they knew that I wasn’t coming from a typical Western perspective, that I saw the book as a corrective to the typical Western triumphalist view of the end of the Cold War—I wanted to concentrate on the forces inside East Germany.”
Mohr says he never bought the “bullshit about Reagan’s tear-down-this-wall speech or the idea that East German kids just wanted hamburgers and Levi’s,” but when he first met punks and others involved in the resistance, it was a revelation. These were the people who had actually fought and sacrificed to bring down the dictatorship. “In the end, I think being an outsider had advantages too—particularly in the interview process,” he says. “I think it might have been easier for some people to talk to me because I was an outsider, because we had no personal history and I had no particular loyalties within the scene or whatever.”
Surprisingly, of all the people Mohr approached, only one flat-out refused to be interviewed. “He was outed as a Stasi informant after the wall fell and records became available. After that, he retreated to a life of religious asceticism,” Mohr says. “Many others have struggled to some degree as a result of their treatment at the hands of the Stasi. The Stasi, for the most part, used psychological means of torture as opposed to physical ones—most of the physical brutality was left to the police—and they were really good at their jobs.”
Through activism and music, the punks, alongside other revolutionaries, helped create the environment that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, literally and figurately uniting an open West Germany with the overtly repressed East Germany. “For the most part, the scene disappeared overnight when the wall fell—at least, as a musical phenomenon,” Mohr says. “Eastern punks were absolutely instrumental in establishing the uniquely politically-active DIY character of the Berlin nightlife scene as we know it today, and quite a number are still involved in various aspects of music and nightlife, but the music and the message changed once the dictatorship was overthrown.”