Thirty years before Greta Thunberg made her United Nations speech and led mass student strikes, another youth movement helped spark a seemingly impossible political revolution, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the little-known aspects of the demise of the East German dictatorship is the role played by teen activists – specifically punk rock activists.
It all began in 1977 with a girl who went by the name of Major. Like Thunberg when she started her protests, East Berlin’s first punk was just 15. A little scene slowly grew up around Major and despite jailing her repeatedly once she turned 18, the East German secret police, the Stasi, proved unable to stamp out the growing phenomenon.
By 1982 the Stasi estimated the number of punk adherents surpassed 10,000, and a draconian crackdown that year only seemed to make the movement bigger – and angrier.
Sceptics of just how significant teen punk activism was need look no further than the Stasi records. A 16 February 1988 Stasi report explained that a group called the Kirche von Unten, or Church from Below, was “the leading force behind activities”. Don’t be fooled by the name: the Church from Below was, according to the Stasi, “a catchment basin for punks”. It was an atheist, anarcho-punk organisation formed in one of the few safe spaces in East Germany: a church basement. This particular basement, in an outbuilding of the Erlöser church in East Berlin, had also been used to stage illegal punk shows since 1983.
Another report, from 12 January 1989, identified punk as the top youth problem in the country. The report highlighted the punks’ national communications network and the way ties between punks and other activist groups had strengthened, increasing the potential scale of activities. Less than a year before the dictatorship was toppled, the Stasi – a secret police service feared the world over – was worried about a bunch of foul-mouthed teenagers with bad haircuts.
The great unknown in a society like East Germany was: what happens if you run afoul of the secret police? The punks ran that experiment. They endured everything the security forces dealt out, and in many cases paid a dear price. Surveillance, harassment, detainment, interrogation, blacklisting from schools and jobs, physical brutality, psychological torture, conscription into army units specialising in political re-education, even jail time. In fact, punks served longer jail terms than any other activists during dictator Erich Honecker’s rule. In 1983, for instance, members of the East Berlin band Namenlos were arrested by the Stasi’s Abteilung XX, the division tasked with subverting underground political activity, and served nearly two years in Stasi prison for performing defamatory lyrics. But what happened to Namenlos shows why the movement was so important – and so frightening to the regime. The band’s songwriters, Jana Schlosser and Micha Horschig, were asked while in prison if they wouldn’t rather just leave the country and go to West Germany. They refused. They were determined to stay and fight. And this was true of many other punks who encountered problems: they kept fighting.
This was a game-changing revelation to other opposition-minded people: the punks showed that it was possible to resist and survive. This in turn helped push protests out into the streets during the second half of the 1980s; only once protests moved into the public eye were they able to snowball into the mass demonstrations of 1989 that brought down the dictatorship.
Eastern punks used to spray-paint a phrase on walls in East Berlin that translated as “Don’t die in the waiting room of the future”. It was a rallying cry against complacency, urging kids not to sit around waiting for change but to go out and make it happen. When that challenge is taken up, it may not matter whether we listen or not. Walls will fall; change will happen.
Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr is out now in hardback, published by Dialogue Books