Guitar riffs at breakneck speed, mohicans and safety pins, sneering angry youths screaming ‘Anarchy’ – so began punk rock, the exciting, unsettling, in-your-face music and youth culture that crashed onto the world stage in 1976.
Just a few years later, the punk revolution had moved on in the West – the main protagonists were signed to major record labels, UK punks became tourist attractions and Sid Vicious was dead.
But not so in East Germany (the DDR), where, it is argued, punk became a central part of the 1989 ‘revolution from below’ when citizens rejected their state’s repressive and failing communist regime. Where British punks had proclaimed ‘No Future’ in response to economic stagnation in the late 1970’s, their counterparts in the DDR spurned ‘Too much future’ in a nation where the government controlled their entire lives with stifling officialdom. Together with pacifists, environmental protestors and other dissidents, punks brought down the infamous Berlin Wall. Before that, in a running battle for its survival, the East German secret police – the notorious Stasi – had been desperate to crush them.
One of the first punks in East Germany was Britta Bergmann. A 15-year-old schoolgirl, Britta had a half-sister whose father was a West-Berliner. Through this half-sister Britta got hold of teenage magazines from the West and in them she read about Abba, Boney M and Saturday Night Fever. But amongst these guilty pleasures, she came across a black and white photo of the Sex Pistols and was fascinated by their look. Soon after, secretly listening to Radio Luxembourg – even the Stasi were unable to stop radio waves from crossing the Wall – she heard a jangling guitar intro followed by drums kicking in and then someone singing – no, shrieking – ‘There’s no point in asking, you’ll get no reply…… COZ I DON’T CARE!’. The DJ announced the song as ‘Pretty Vacant’ by the Sex Pistols, and Britta was hooked.
Next day she hacked off her hair, strategically ripped her clothes and stuck a row of safety pins to her epaulettes. At school, her classmates were shocked, but not as much as her teachers, who over the forthcoming weeks and months, often sent her home, and, as she later found out from her secret Stasi file, debated whether or not to have her committed to an institution for her “difficulties”.
The East German regime’s official position was that there were no punks in the DDR – there would be no need for this in the utopia of a socialist state. Despite this, the Stasi produced their own aide memoir in order to identify this subset of decadent youth as distinct from ‘skin’s’, ‘trampers’, ‘new romantiks’ and other subversives.
And even though punks didn’t officially exist, by January 1989, just a few months before the Berlin Wall fell, a report by the Stasi identified punk as the biggest youth problem in the DDR. This was despite an operation aggressively targeting the subculture – the so called Härte gegen Punk (Moving Hard against Punk) – sanctioned at the very highest level. Erich Mielke, the all-powerful Minister for State Security and head of the Stasi was later found to have personally signed the order to proceed in August 1983. By then, it was becoming harder to hide punks both from wider East German society but also from tourists, journalists and other visitors from the West, making a mockery of the state’s official position.
During the year-long crackdown, the Stasi cranked up pressure on punks and sometimes also their families. As a matter of official policy, they were refused service in cafes and bars, excluded from social occasions, sometimes thrown off public transport. Punks were harassed constantly with ID checks whilst out and about, but worse for the older contingent, blacklisted from decent jobs, beaten, arrested, imprisoned or conscripted into the National People’s Army. Many were manipulated or bribed into becoming one of the tens of thousands of ‘unofficial collaborators’ for the Stasi themselves, although it turned out that punks weren’t very reliable in this role, whether by default or design.
In the short term, Härte gegen Punk seemed to have been a success. The punk scene throughout the DDR became disorganised and directionless and the Stasi turned its attention to skinheads.
Whilst the Stasi’s back was turned, the punk movement found sanctuary in the many Protestant churches in the DDR, which was somewhat ironic since most punks were atheists. The DDR authorities frowned upon religious activity generally, but they had not gone so far as to dismantle the church. Pastors saw a Ministry opportunity with these disaffected youth and offered physical spaces in which to socialise, practise and perform their music, sometimes even as part of an official ‘modern’ service. It was an offer the punks couldn’t refuse, despite some sneering that the do-gooders were only trying to smooth their paths to God. It was also a controversial move – there were sometimes complaints by the congregation as punks trashed the spaces, drank alcohol and played their music loudly.
Yet it was in these refuges that punks encountered other disaffected citizens groups and over time they found that they had much in common. Here the hardcore punks who survived the crackdown learned from other opposition groups to become politicised and to organise and to collaborate in protest movements against the regime. This collaboration came full circle as Stasi records from 1988 reveal that a punk band called ‘Church from Below’ was identified as the most threatening activist group in the country. By 1989, punk rock in the DDR had morphed from a group of disillusioned youths making a fashion statement to being front and centre of the citizens Peaceful Revolution.
The story of punk rock and the Church in the DDR is the story of an unlikely alliance but one which evolved in the face of a common enemy – the Stasi – and which in turn helped destroy that enemy and all that it stood for.
Mary Elise Sarotte – The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall
Tim Mohr – Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall