Into the grey, authoritarian East Germany of the 1980s the punk movement exploded, challenging the regime and ultimately helping to end it. Tim Mohr’s Burning Down the Haus is a history of the GDR’s punk revolution told by the people at its heart and was shortlisted for the 2020 Non-fiction Crown Award. He tells Historia what drove him to write it.
The HWA Non-fiction Crown celebrates the best in historical non-fiction writing. What first made you interested in history?
Well, I grew up in a household of teachers, one of whom was a historian. We talked a lot about history around the dinner table, and regularly visited museums and historical sites. Then, at university, one book in particular really grabbed my attention: EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. I have kept a copy of it with me ever since.
Where did the idea for Burning Down the Haus come from?
I moved to former East Berlin shortly after unification, and ended up living there for a long time, working as a DJ. Up to then I’d been a pretty typical ‘stupid American’ – I thought Germany and Oktoberfest were the same thing, for instance. I thought when I got off the plane in Berlin, everyone would be wearing Lederhosen and drinking beer out of those giant mugs.
Instead I ended up in a communist-era high-rise block in what felt like the greyest place I’d ever seen. It seemed to fit the East Bloc stereotypes I’d grown up with in suburban America. Back then we were force-fed claims that Eastern kids just wanted hamburgers and jeans and Western pop music, and that Ronald Reagan said tear-down-this-wall and it magically fell.
I was always sceptical about that version of events, but it wasn’t until I met former Eastern punks – in the clubs where I worked – that I had hard evidence it was false. Here were people who actually fought and sacrificed to bring down the dictatorship, and who were definitely not pro-Western.
As soon as I was clued into the existence of East German punk, I wanted to document the punks’ role in the revolution, and offer a corrective to the Western triumphal view of the fall of the wall. My belief in the importance of the story was reinforced after I returned to the US and recognised a spooky echo in developments in my own country: mass surveillance on a scale that even the Stasi could only have dreamed about, militarisation of the police, protest movements like Black Lives Matter fighting against a complacent or even hostile society. The story just became more relevant with every passing year.
What was it about the punk scene in East Germany that intrigued you?
One of the great unknowns in a system like that was: what would happen if you ran foul of the secret police? The punks ran that experiment. They suffered through beatings and detainments, blacklisting from schools and jobs, and in many cases spent time in Stasi prison – the band Namenlos, for instance, went to jail for nearly two years for their oppositional lyrics.
And for the most part, punks came right back out and kept fighting. They showed it was possible to resist and survive. Once other opposition-minded people saw that, protests began to move out into the streets during the second half of the 1980s – which is the only way they could snowball into the mass demonstrations of 1989. So the East German punk scene offers a concrete historical example of a grassroots youth movement that catalysed huge changes in its society.
How do you approach research – and how do you know when you’ve done enough?
Originally I thought the Stasi archives would be the most important source for the book – because of their paranoia about the punk scene, there are voluminous records on the scene and the Stasi’s attempts to crush it. But I found much of the material collected by the secret police unhelpful in creating the lively, narrative history I was determined to create.
It is definitely a serious history that took years to research, but I wanted to write it in a way that a general reader would love, and I wanted it to have some punk rock flair. So I ended up leaning more heavily on interviews with dozens of the protagonists, many of whom were willing to talk at length, sometimes over the course of several sessions
I knew I was done when I got a sort of Holy Grail interview with a key member of the scene who had spent long stretches of time off the grid after the fall of the wall. That was the final piece of the puzzle, one I had nearly given up on, and at that point, after researching for nearly a decade, I was able to write the entire book in just a few months.
What myths are we were telling ourselves about the former GDR these days?
I guess one of the core myths has to do with the motivation of the activists who brought down the Berlin Wall. They were critics from the left, and not only were they not seeking ‘reunification’, they were very much opposed to it.
There are other misperceptions, as well, having to do with the nature of dictatorship: we usually think of it as a government imposed against the will of the people. But it isn’t nearly that simple. In any society, the vast majority of people go along with the system; regardless of what it is, people reflexively support it. And of course, for Americans at least, it should certainly cause soul-searching to learn that in East Germany – a so-called ‘police state’ – the police couldn’t just kill people, the way US police do every day.
Which books would you recommend to Historia readers who want to know more about this period?
For readers of German, there is quite a lot of material – lots of first person accounts, interviews, and essays by original participants in the scene. There’s even terrific novel called Düsterbusch City Lights, a fictionalised account of an actual small-town disco that hosted underground shows during the late 1980s. But there’s really nothing in English – which is one of the reasons I was so obsessed with writing this book.
Have you ever thought about writing historical fiction?
No. When I look out at the world, I see an infinite number of fascinating stories that deserve to be told; perhaps it reflects a failure of imagination on my part, but I really can’t conceive of making one up.
If there were one thing you hope readers will take away from your book, what would it be?
Maybe the simplest takeaway is a phrase punks used to spray on walls in East Berlin: Stirb nicht im Warteraum der Zukunft. Translation: Don’t die in the waiting room of the future, which I always took as a rallying cry against complacency. You can’t sit around hoping for change to happen; you have to make it happen. While this book is about a specific resistance movement, that’s a lesson that can be applied to other situations and other places, including here and now.
What are you planning to write next?
This is always a tough question. The problem for me is finding something with the same sense of urgency and importance. I remember being immersed in Stasi files about surveillance operations directed at the punk scene, and then emerging to read about Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning mass surveillance by my own government – the stories in Burning Down the Haus became almost frighteningly relevant over the course of those years of research. The protagonists in the book essentially created a blueprint for resisting authoritarianism, which, unfortunately, is something we desperately need once again. Fingers crossed that I can find something that will instill a similar sense of missionary fervour.
Earlier in our series of conversations with authors shortlisted for HWA Crown Awards in 2020:
Andrew Taylor (The King’s Evil)
Anita Frank (The Lost Ones)
Elizabeth Macneal (The Doll Factory)
Jung Chang (Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China)
John Larison (Whiskey When We’re Dry)
Tim Mohr: via Wikimedia
Prenlauer Berg, 1983, still from the film Ostberlin IX – Punks: via YouTube
Photo of a young punk arrested and photographed by the Stasi (Stasi Museum, Berlin): via Wikimedia
Chaos days in Hanover, 1984 by Axel Hindemith: via Wikimedia
Lichtenberg, 1988, still from the film Ostberlin IX – Punks: via YouTube