Reviews

Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall Tim Mohr

Tim Mohr’s deep dive into the punk movement of East Germany from the twilight of the ’70s, through the penultimate fall of the devilish wall dividing the nation, is a heavy and captivating read. Mohr follows the travails of punks of all ages feeling their way through this new vehicle of opposition via the music, fashion, and a nascent vision of a self-made utopia.

We all know the story and history of punk rock in the States unless you’ve opened this rag unceremoniously in the john of a friend’s house or a trip to the local tattoo shop. Our cozy coalition of like-minded souls obsessed with flash bolt guitar riffs and a thunderous rhythm of low-end bass and trap slapping with an enormous crash cymbal to keep our ever-wavering attention. While some like to skate and surf, some like drugs others stay obsessively clean, some come to fight the power, still, others dig the clothes and other outward tokens of non- conformity—the underlying theme is actually inclusivity.

That’s not an attempt to place punk in a box. I’ve always fancied itmorealifestylethanamusicgenremyself.It’sfarmorethanafew chords at breakneck speed with spitfire lyrics. When used correctly the power is astounding. Whether it’s a crowd moving in a wave of inexplicable beauty from the pit to the back of the house, chaotically poetic and unnerving, or a political gathering, either in favor or against the grain, the message is unity. Individuality is encouraged but only to ultimately come together to form the larger mosaic, the true masterpiece.

In the United States, we’re able to carry on in this fashion. Sure, there may be some parental push back or that tightwad principal who incessantly finds a reason to detain you post-school hours based on your hairstyle or t-shirt choice but other than a few fights here and there, that’s a pretty accurate summation of a punker’s opposition in the States. Mohr’s various protagonists risked whatever version of “freedom” or lack thereof that was possible in East Germany during those divided days. Pirate radio stations and those powerful enough from the West to be tuned into by impressionable East German youth, if only long enough to hear a few measures of this voracious form of music that was like audible beacons of light. Light that could be taped and traded and more importantly emulated.

Soon these kids found ways to keep up with all things punk. Sham 69 and the Sex Pistols were just what the doctor ordered—guitars were sought, defiant poetry was ecstatically labored over, a search of things to bang on percussively was often quenched with pots, buckets, and empty suitcases. Whatever it took to make it happen for themselves until proper gear was found.

The DIY aesthetic was underway just like it was in the U.S. with drastically more dangerous repercussions. The government’s secret police force was known as the Stasi, short for Ministry for State Security. The only thing they ministered was socialism; people leading a normal life of daily employment, going home after work, and conforming to the rules of the State. Hell-bent on psychological control and herding the sheep, the Stasi was immediately intimidated by the punk movement. Who would dare dress such a way and skip work to hang out at safe spaces, mostly churches with sympathetic caretakers who would provide spaces to cultivate this new and exciting form of protest?

These churches served as party spots and live music venues, basically as a church of punk in the off hours. Punks could congregate, listen to music, wax poetic on books and political misgivings, and create their own art. Safety was in numbers. It’s when events dispersed that the punks were subject to Stasi harassment. Daily beatings and interrogations were the norm. Punks were risking life and limb for the movement quite literally. Mohr provides tireless details and stories that are equal parts inspiring as heartbreaking. This wasn’t a movement of just music and protest, this was an attempt at breaking the socialistic norms, standing ground with guttural beliefs while being imprisoned and tortured, beaten down and (almost) silenced. Mohr’s subjects were true heroes and revolutionaries, their unwavering gusto seemingly mythological but these are true tales.

As things grew with the DIY movement and more bands came along so did the classic ruse of Stasi informants. Embedded punks, fellow squatters, employers, and even family members were suspect. No one could be trusted and resistance was futile—all of this fuel for the fire of resistance. The movement became more than the music and a way to speak their truest thoughts, most of these kids became political prisoners and then ultimate resistance warriors steering the course and never wilting against the state until the wall was destroyed as were the diabolic ideologies of the East German government.

There is so much more to the story that is best told through the prose of Tim Mohr who was able to gain an inside look by working with East German punks who were there to write this book. A book that is steadfast and true, authentic and addicting, a true punk telling the actual “greatest story ever told.” The powers that be are not always right, systems were made to be bucked and this is the blueprint as to take heed Americans young and old, we may need this sooner than later…

“We are the people, we are the power; don’t die in the waiting room of the future.”