Punks, anarchists, and troublemakers. It can be all too easy to dismiss the rabble-rousing youth of an era, but there are times that the loudest voices make the difference—even if they’re seemingly just making noise. In Burning Down the Haus, journalist and former DJ Tim Mohr shows how a chance encounter with a band can lead to the downfall of a repressive society.
In East Germany, any deviation from the crowd meant suspicion and misunderstanding. Although that certain feeling of exclusion is felt by teenagers and young adults across the world, in the communist regime of East Germany, notable difference could mean scrutiny not just from your peers, but also from the Stasi, your teachers, your parents, and even spies recruited by the government.
But for some, like Britta “Major” Bergmann and Micha Horschig, a chance encounter with The Sex Pistols meant a shock of recognition so deep that they restructured their whole lives to live as punks—down to the praise and support of anarchy over the current German Democratic Republic.
Throughout the 1970s, the East German punk underground became a major source of political conversation and dissidence. The two intertwined so deeply that they were often inseparable, as young people tried to make the world around them a better, more welcoming place.
As bands like The Sex Pistols dismantled, burned out, or sold out, East German punks began their own bands, turning their particular political disenfranchisement into music and a movement. Descendants of this movement can still be seen in Russia today, with bands like Pussy Riot. Discover how the punk movement and the end of the Berlin Wall were inextricably linked in Mohr’s fascinating narrative.
Read on for an excerpt of Burning Down the Haus.
Throughout 1978 and 1979, while working at an apprenticeship as a clock maker, Micha had spent all his free time discussing politics. He had found a willing partner in a fellow apprentice named Frank Masch. Frank identified himself as a social democrat, but Micha quickly realized that regardless of the label, most leftists—including a self-styled anarchist and a social democrat—could agree on basic philosophical principles like freedom, egalitarianism, solidarity, and the right of the people to participate in the political process.
Together with Frank, Micha began to go to bars and cafés and obsessively engage people in political debates. It wasn’t hard to engage in some sense—people always wanted to know why he ran around looking so fucking strange. And what the hell was all this bullshit about anarchism he was spouting? Conversation started. The problem was that some people very quickly took issue with the sort of talk Micha wanted to have. The Stasi and their unofficial snitches were everywhere, and people squirmed. Sometimes a potential conversation partner would whisper to Micha, “Hey, keep it down, the guy back there is listening.” Sometimes a kind bartender or fellow guest would whisper, “You better get out of here, that guy over there just made a call.” Off he and Frank would run, getting out of sight before the police arrived.
But Micha did not want to whisper.
On paper, East German law enshrined free speech as a right. The right to freedom of expression was also trumpeted in state propaganda. Micha had decided to take it literally: I will say what I want to say.
Micha never started fights. There were just so many helpful defenders of the status quo, and when faced with Micha’s maniacal drive to engage people on taboo subjects, they often answered with fists. After it happened a few times, something changed in Micha. He learned to go into beastmode when attacked. If people wanted to fuck with him, they’d better be ready.
In 1979, Micha started a countdown to the end of the DDR: ten years, he thought, that’s how long it will take.
He was sure of it.
Even though Micha had already considered himself a punk for two years by the time he turned up at PW that fall of 1980, none of the punks in Major’s gang had seen him before, and they wondered whether he was a “real punk” or just dressed like one as a fashion statement. But when they started to talk to him, it quickly became clear that he was for real: Micha immediately took up the topic of politics, leading, of course, to anarchism.
This guy knows his shit.
The group immediately started to call him A-Micha—the “A” was for anarchy. Listening to A-Micha talk, Major realized he could articulate anarchist ideology with a clarity she had never heard before. Around his new friends, A-Micha was calm, level-headed, and responsible, and he came across like some kind of intellectual. He seemed more grown-up than Major’s other buddies, even though he was the same age as the rest of them. Major was fascinated by A-Micha and the two of them started to hang out together, sometimes talking through entire nights. A-Micha began to crash at her place regularly.
A-Micha also dressed in a very creative way. He liked to sew zippers into the rips he made in his pants. And instead of painting buttons or bottle caps and then decorating them with band names or whatever, A-Micha just cut out scraps of paper, wrote on them with pen, and stuck them on his clothes with safety pins. The phrases he wore sometimes seemed crazy even to fellow punks—this was a police state after all and here was A-Micha plastered with the phrase Haut die Bullen platt wie Stullen, which was basically “Beat the pigs to a pulp.” A-Micha was also among the first punks to wear the logo of Solidarity, the Polish trade union that came to international prominence in August of 1980 after staging a dramatic strike that spread from the port city of Gdansk to the whole country—among Solidarity’s demands of the Polish dictatorship were the restoration of constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of speech and of the press.
Some people dismissed Eastern punks as teenage rebels in thrall to the latest Western pop cultural trend, no-good kids who wanted to wind people up—this was their idea of fun, of teenage kicks. But Major had always seen it differently. She realized that her idea of fun—and the idea of fun she shared with her new friends—deviated from the path the government demanded everyone stay on together. Major and her friends were being political by having fun. It was that easy to be political in the DDR. To think differently, to speak out, or to stand out was to be political. And to stand out the way the punks did—in such an open, ostentatious way—was to be a political radical.
Keeping people on a preordained path, keeping them moving along together as one glacial entity—marching them through the Young Pioneers, the Thälmann Pioneers, the Free German Youth, and military service; steering them into apprenticeships, factory jobs, and creating productive members of society—wasn’t as difficult as it might seem. In the DDR, as in most societies, conformity and complacency ruled the day. Everyone had a job and a roof over their head; everyone had refrigerators and 90 percent of households had TVs and washing machines; there was cheap booze and enough to eat. So people went about their daily lives and stayed within accepted sociopolitical boundaries without constant government coercion. Most people, anyway.
By the dawn of the 1980s, the physical brutality of the Stalin era was no longer necessary—or at least not as necessary—because once there was a “real existing socialism,” that is, a norm, people tended to stick to the norm. Membership in communist youth organizations was not mandatory, and yet membership rates hovered around 85 percent. There was a lot of selfcensorship, a kind of inherent sense of where the boundaries were and, Hey, I don’t want to go anywhere near them anyway, I’m happy just to fit in.
As for those few souls who weren’t inclined to fit in, people tended to encourage them to stick to the norm—nobody likes a person who makes things difficult for everyone else.
Still, it’s important to realize that conformity and complacency didn’t distinguish the DDR from other countries. For an entire century, most Americans went about their daily lives despite the gross injustice of Jim Crow laws: Not my problem. The total indifference with which most Americans reacted to Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass warrantless surveillance is another example: I’ve got nothing to hide. Or white America’s collective shrug at the militarization of its police forces and the ongoing flood of evidence of horrific police brutality: They’re not coming for me. People look away. It’s natural. People defend the norm without having to be prodded to do so. That’s just the way people are. Until they really do come for you. Until you have to defend yourself. Until you bear the brunt of injustice. Or in the case of the DDR, until you were arrested and interrogated on a daily basis and your parents lost their jobs and your brother or sister was booted out of school and you were banned from your hometown or imprisoned and and and, and all because you spoke your mind, you objected, you failed to conform—you listened to the wrong music.
But that was still in the future as the leaves dropped from the trees in the woods around the PW club in the fall of 1980.
Want to keep reading? Purchase Burning Down the Haus today.
The state of East Germany or the German Democratic Republic was in existence from 1949 to 1990. The Berlin Wall, a symbol of the country, was built in 1961 and taken down in 1989. A part of the Soviet Union bloc, East Germany was ruled by a communist party. The party exerted great influence over East German culture, from the bands allowed to play in official venues to the cinema being created–although the Osterns produced by GDR became famous worldwide. GDR also supported a strong organized sport culture, especially in areas like swimming, gymnastics, and track and field. Many East Germans were excited to see the end of their state, but reunification with West Germany led to resentment and unemployment. Much of this feeling eventually weaned, although some East Germans still feel Ostalgie–nostalgia for the East, or Ost.
This post is sponsored by Algonquin Books. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Archive to continue publishing the history stories you love.
Featured still from Dronemf S. / YouTube