Originally Published on January 1, 2019
Tim Mohr’s Burning Down The Haus provides an unflinching glimpse into the punk rebellion of 1980s East Germany, and it is glorious.
From the first line, where Mohr documents the first punk as a fifteen year old girl in East Berlin, he details how kids first started recording punk songs heard on West Berlin radio stations, and soon started reading smuggled articles and photos about the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and other first generation bands.
Due to the repressive state of East Germany, where the government breathed down the neck of its citizens in all aspects of life, the punk ethos flourished quickly amongst disaffected youth as a “fuck you!” Within months, East German punks started their own bands, practicing in basements and attics of abandoned buildings, squatting in spaces long unused.
Mohr has interviewed many of the punks and punk sympathizers from this era, giving the reader an inside look at the thoughts and actions of the band members and activists. He documents a punk singer named Chaos:
Now he had the band. This was something Chaos wanted to do, something he had to do. He had always felt hemmed in when he got angry, unable to run, unable to escape the rage and creeping dread. Now he could burn all of that out of his system. Give him a mic and he could channel that incandescent rage into a laser, leaving scorched earth around him, and at least a brief calm inside him. (pg 51)
The state responded harshly, at first harassing kids with mohawks and leather jackets in an effort to stamp down the movement. It didn’t work. The punks found unlikely allies in some of the churches, which offered safe spaces for meetings and shows, despite mounting pressure from the authorities. This is a world where the Stazi worked to flip members of the punk community into informants. Police regularly raided and ransacked band member’s apartments in an effort to find lyrics to songs that could be used to prosecute bands. Several punks were sentenced to prison for singing lyrics that criticized the government.
Despite being harassed, beaten and jailed by police, the punk ethos proved resilient, and Mohr captures the movement beautifully throughout the book, such as with this passage.
Being a punk was completely different. Every fiber of your being was a dissenting opinion, an open affront to the system, a break from the future planned for you and everyone else, you were protest incarnate, twenty-four seven. (pg 98)
While people in the community may have thought the punks were strange, seeing neighborhood kids return from Stazi and police interrogations with bruises on their faces, they sympathized with the kids.
As punk music grew throughout East Germany like flowers in the dustbin, the youth began networking amongst themselves and became activists, often joining with churches and other peace activists.
It wasn’t just a case of punks shouting that the world was fucked. There was something constructive happening, too, with all the events, the squatted spaces, the network of contacts – the punks were finding free space and beginning to create an alternative reality, their own reality, their own world. ( pg 133)
The strength of Mohr’s book are in the detailed lives of the punks themselves. In addition to interviews, Mohr has combed through government files kept on bands and punks who were constantly under surveillance. He also documents funny moments such when a punk, wanted by authorities, dressed in drag to attend his father’s funeral. Mohr’s storytelling is very cinematic, and I could see this story be made into an amazing independent film.
Burning Down The Haus is a fascinating read about resistance in a repressive state run country, and definitely worth your time.