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Exploring the importance of the East German punk scene

Western-style democracies are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and of course, a lot of things need changing. However, what we do take for granted in this certain sect of countries is the fact that to all intents and purposes, we are free. Free to move, free to love and free to dress how we want. Of course, there are limits to each of these facets, but you get the point. Our freedom-o-meter is a lot fuller than, say, the residents of North Korea, Syria, Tibet, Saudi Arabia and countless others.

Whilst, we could spend hours discussing the differences in ruling style between North Korea and Syria, our end is apparent, the citizens of all the aforementioned countries have their freedoms restricted. This is a stark fact when you hold your own freedom up to the mirror. Both communism and fascism curtail the freedoms and inalienable human rights of their citizens in favour of a political ideal, an arbitrary Utopia if you will, and 90% of the time, this has proven, albeit ironically, to be the thing that culminates in the demise of a country’s political hegemon. 

Nowhere was this more true than East Germany (GDR). Created from the ashes of Nazi Germany, this Eastern Bloc country was a Soviet client state and the closest that communism ever got to the rest of western Europe. Some people have long called for its return since neoliberal capitalism has proven its many faults over the past 30 years. However, one demographic who grew up in the old GDR have committed themselves to ensuring it never returns, and that any nostalgia is quickly put to bed.

This would be the East German punks. Those who dared to be different were chastised and imprisoned for countering the Soviet-style dream that the regime had laid out. Starting in the early ’80s, small groups of punks would form in East Berlin, Leipzig and then across the rest of the country, as the Western punk movement galvanised them to cure their own societal ills. Although Western punk inspired the East German punks, their message would be different. Western punks rebelled against having no future, and Eastern punks rebelled against the Socialist Unity Party setting their future out for them. 

Journalist Tim Mohr, in his chronicle Burning Down the Haus, said: “When they started putting these bands together, they were doing it all in German and it was all about their own lives. British punks were singing about their futures and socio-economic conditions, while the problem in East Germany was almost the direct opposite; they had too much future. There was no unemployment in East Germany, and their lives were scripted by the party”.

To be a punk back then in East Germany was to be an enemy of the state. Donning a Mohican was akin to political subterfuge or selling secrets to the West. People shouted that the punks “should be gassed”, and as their numbers grew, so did the ire of the wider community and the regime. The head of East Germany’s secret police, Erich Mielke, even went as far as to call these “decadent” upstarts “filth from the West”. 

As everything that wasn’t the norm was hard to get in East Germany, so was punk clothing. What they could get their hands on was pricey. Although the older generation had a particular disdain for the punks, it would be the grandmothers who actually helped the punk scene flourish. 

East Germans, who were retired, were able to go shopping in West Berlin and travel to the West. There are numerous stories of grandparents being sent to Western record shops with shopping lists for records and safety pins. Bernd Stracke, ex-frontman of the punk band Wutanfall, told DW: “If grandma had a B52’s record in her hand when she entered the country, there wasn’t much the border guards could do. They thought it was okay if grandma brought something like this with her”. If grandma was unwilling or unable to bring records back, others would travel to Bulgaria and smuggle them into the country on the sliding doors of trains.

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Another ironic aspect of the East German punk scene would be that it was the Protestant Church that helped it to develop. Churches were a safe space, free from the reach of state bodies, so many punk shows would be held in churches, safe from harm. The police would watch the show from outside but could not enter, as this was not in their remit. This comes as little surprise, as we know how big of a deal the Catholic Church played in undoing communism in other Eastern European countries, such as Poland. You can criticise religion, but sometimes it has its uses. 

At some point during the ’80s, Mielke and the government decided to take extreme measures against the punks. The secret police would attack punks and shave their hair, and often they would blackmail them into becoming informants. Showing just how insidious they were, they wanted to “corrode” the scene from within. Aside from the beatings and imprisonments, they spread rumours that the scene had already been infiltrated, creating an air of paranoia that threatened to undo the scene. 

The punks were right to be paranoid, though. Informants were so widespread that they even managed to infiltrate the bands. By the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, two members of Stracke’s band, Wutanfall, turned out to be informants, a wound that still hasn’t healed to this day. Showing just how awful the pressure got, the tales of punks committing suicide were a shockingly regular occurrence. 

The true tragedy of the violence and intimidation that the Eastern German punks felt was that the majority of them were pacifists, idealists wanting a better future. Many would be granted permission to leave the country, but their families would not, creating a huge rupture in their lives. For the state, this was the best form of comeuppance for the punks, and even after the regime’s demise, they would live on through these irreparable wounds.

To the punks, East Germany was the “most boring country in the world”, and they wanted to alleviate The Prisoner-style isolation they felt. Stracke said: “We stood up for our cause with our faces and our names — and paid for it”.

Dresden-based journalist, Torsten Preuss, described his experiences, later telling DW: “You grew up completely stupid unless you tried to get your hands on something like we did; you had to fight for every book that contained different thoughts” 

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Preuss is now committed to making sure the GDR is fully exposed and that it is never romanticised. By the final days of the regime, in 1988, the Stasi had even marked an anarcho-punk collective, ‘The Church from Below’, as the most threatening group in the country. Well, unfortunately for the Stasi, it would be the punks who had a massive hand in the demise of the regime. Mohr explained: “The biggest mystery in a society like that is what happens to you if you do run afoul of the secret police, and the punks carried out that experiment. For someone from West Germany, it was almost impossible to understand what they were bringing upon themselves, but these kids came back out of jail and went right back out there to fight. So basically, that showed to other opposition-led people that it was possible to resist and survive. And that was a game-changing revelation.”

Photographer Christiane Eisler, who helped popularise and perpetuate the struggle of the East German punks, said to Dazed: “With their uncompromising and disrespectful behaviour, the punks showed me that it is important to stand up against the state and that it is possible to live outside the norm”.

Of their ethos, Eisler explained that “the idea was to live your life the way you want it, dress the way you like, listen to the music you like, and not to be patronised or locked-in behind walls and barbed wire”.

Once the GDR was no more, many East German punk bands would split up, as they had accomplished their goal of destroying their oppressors. This again marks them out to have been completely different to Western punk. The scene still lives on today, though. It helped to set the scene for the pioneering and boundary-pushing creative scene of contemporary Berlin and helped to popularise the squatting movement.

Oh, and Rammstein would certainly not have come to fruition if not for the East German punk scene. If you travel to the old GDR, the punk scene lives fresh in common memory. The East German punk scene showed the true power of music and makes all Western music seem very hollow. Maybe it’s time we reassessed the value of music.  

Watch a short clip on the East German punk scene below.