In the early 1980s, hardcore punk offered alienated American teenagers a chance to find each other through its network of scenes, shows and zines. It offered a crucial lifeline for kids who were coming out of abusive homes, suffering bullying at schools or simply resisting Reagan-era conservatism.
But Americans had nothing on the East German punks, as Tim Mohr brilliantly documents in his incendiary Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
As early as 1977, kids throughout East Germany heard the siren call of the Sex Pistols by tuning into banned West German radio stations. By 1981, a nascent punk scene began forming in church basements and town squares. But the consequences of looking like a punk or forming a band were dangerous. Getting hauled in by the Stasi—the East German secret police—for brutal interrogations became a daily or weekly occurrence for punks. Studios and squats were routinely searched, and being surveilled by informers was a fact of life. By 1983—the “Summer of Punk”—many of the original punks were serving prison sentences. But the flame was lit, and the torch was carried on by hundreds of kids who formed bands, squatted buildings and spoke out against the state.
Compulsively readable and beautifully researched, Burning Down the Haus records the critical role that punks played in the German resistance movements of the 1980s, up to and beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As a DJ in Berlin in the early 1990s, Mohr met and became friends with many of the individuals portrayed in this book, thus giving him access to the photos, diaries and oral histories that give the book such rich, cinematic detail.
“We could do things differently here,” East German punks said, and it was a pronouncement they acted on. Their story of resistance to dictatorship is an inspiring lesson for today.