By Tim Mohr
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Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence
“[A] riveting and inspiring history of punk’s hard-fought struggle in East Germany.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A thrilling and essential social history that details the rebellious youth movement that helped change the world.” —Rolling Stone
“Original and inspiring . . . Mr. Mohr has written an important work of Cold War cultural history.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Wildly entertaining . . . A thrilling tale . . . A joy in the way it brings back punk’s fury and high stakes.”—Vogue
It began with a handful of East Berlin teens who heard the Sex Pistols on a British military radio broadcast to troops in West Berlin, and it ended with the collapse of the East German dictatorship. Punk rock was a life-changing discovery. The buzz-saw guitars, the messed-up clothing and hair, the rejection of society and the DIY approach to building a new one: in their gray surroundings, where everyone’s future was preordained by some communist apparatchik, punk represented a revolutionary philosophy—quite literally, as it turned out.
But as these young kids tried to form bands and became more visible, security forces—including the dreaded secret police, the Stasi—targeted them. They were spied on by friends and even members of their own families; they were expelled from schools and fired from jobs; they were beaten by police and imprisoned. Instead of conforming, the punks fought back, playing an indispensable role in the underground movements that helped bring down the Berlin Wall.
This secret history of East German punk rock is not just about the music; it is a story of extraordinary bravery in the face of one of the most oppressive regimes in history. Rollicking, cinematic, deeply researched, highly readable, and thrillingly topical, Burning Down the Haus brings to life the young men and women who successfully fought authoritarianism three chords at a time—and is a fiery testament to the irrepressible spirit of revolution.
When I arrived in the eastern section of Berlin in 1992, I'd never seen any place like it. I'd never been to Germany or Eastern Europe before, and here I was in a high-rise student housing complex out near East Berlin's zoo, Tierpark. At first the city seemed to fit the East Bloc stereotypes I'd grown up with in suburban America: it was the grayest place I'd ever seen, cloudy and cold, shrouded in coal smoke. Add to that the eerie sound of zoo animals howling in the distance and the constant fear sown by rumors of roving gangs of skinheads, and my initial impression of East Berlin was grim.
But I quickly discovered a scene exploding with color and creativity behind the dilapidated, shrapnel-pocked façades of the central East Berlin boroughs of Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, and Friedrichshain. Hidden behind unmarked doors, down ladders in empty lots, nestled among the crumbling bricks of a candlelit basement or a disused cistern, in the attics of half-destroyed buildings, even in abandoned bunkers and bank vaults, a kaleidoscopic new city was taking shape. The bars and clubs that made up this netherworld were dark and dirty, with extension cords meandering down from some distant outlet to power their sound system and a couple of buckets of water behind the bar providing the only means to wash glasses. They were radically egalitarian. They were open and welcoming to an outsider like me. And they were so much fun I sometimes awoke the next day wondering if it had all been a dream. Once in a while I'd wake up and find I was still in a club, only on a different day. Some nights the bar staff would leave and tell us stragglers just to lock the door when we left. In warm months, sometimes we—it quickly became we in Berlin in those days—we, the people, together, the DJs and dancers and partyers, we would leave the club and go scale the wall of a municipal pool complex and swim naked together as the sun came up. Some of the venues existed for only a night or a few weeks. Others lurked around for decades. The people who congregated in them refused to sit passively aside while the city tried to find an identity and slowly determine where it was going. These people set their own agenda, created their own style, controlled their own environment. They came up with the blueprint not just for a new Berlin, but for a new way of life—a Berlin way of life.
I soon started DJing in some of those clubs and bars, and continued to spend long nights in many more. I moved away from the zoo, first to Friedrichshain, then to Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, and a stay that was supposed to last six months stretched out for a year and then another and another and another. That Berlin—the shadow city being built largely out of sight and with utter disregard for the other one being thrown up in places like Potsdamer Platz and, later, along the banks of the river Spree—fundamentally changed my life and the way I think.
And it was in those clubs, during those years, that I first met East German punks and learned about the secret history of punk rock under the dictatorship. Ostpunks, or Eastern punks, ran or worked at most of the places I hung out; they had set up nearly all the first bars and clubs in the East and established in the process the ethos of the fledgling new society being built almost from scratch after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This kaleidoscopic world I had fallen in love with was their world, their creation.
At the time I had no idea I would eventually become a writer. But to an American reflexively skeptical toward the Reagan mythology surrounding the end of the Cold War, the story of East German punk seemed unbelievably important—perhaps more important than even the participants themselves realized. Here were the people who had actually fought and sacrificed to bring down the Berlin Wall.
My initial belief in the importance of this story was reinforced after I returned to the U.S. and recognized an ominous echo in developments in my own country: mass surveillance on a scale the Stasi could only have dreamed about, the widespread use of insidiously pliable charges like "failure to comply with a lawful order" to make arbitrary arrests, the struggle of protest movements such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and #NoDAPL in the face of a complacent or even hostile society.
In the West, we tend to harbor smug, simplistic views of the old Soviet Bloc and to dismiss out of hand comparisons of our system to authoritarian regimes like the one in East Germany. It's worth noting, however, that East German police—unlike our own—could not murder people in the street with impunity. Even today, we trot out images of foreign police brutalizing protesters in other countries to intimate the illegitimacy of governments in places like Egypt, Turkey, or Ukraine. But we rarely look in the mirror.
Our current inability to control state-sanctioned violence could not be more clear—even if white America goes to great pains not to acknowledge it. But perhaps even in an era when local American police departments deploy military equipment against protesters, use surveillance aircraft and lethal drones, and maintain CIA-style "black sites," there is still hope. Perhaps this story—about a bunch of unarmed, unruly teens and the cracks they managed to kick in the seemingly unbreakable system of repression in East Germany—is even more important now than when it first captured my attention. Back then I was fascinated to get to know people who had helped resist and eventually cast off the dictatorship. But I never imagined their stories might be of personal use to me and my fellow citizens in the "Land of the Free."
East German punks used to spray-paint the phrase Stirb nicht im Warteraum der Zukunft—Don't die in the waiting room of the future—on walls in Berlin. It wasn't about self-preservation. It was an indictment of complacency.
It was a battle cry: Create your own world, your own reality.
Harald Hauswald / Ostkreuz Agency
By the late 1970s the Berlin Wall—actually two walls with a notorious death strip between them—had been up for little more than fifteen years, but it had already become a fact of life. A generation had grown up with it; its history and the details of its construction barely mattered anymore—it was a booby-trapped concrete reality, the physical embodiment of a division of the world that felt as if it could go on forever. The young on either side accepted the Berlin Wall as permanent—it had always been there and probably always would be.
Every aspect of life on the east side of the Wall was hyper-politicized, and nothing more so than popular culture. Already in 1945, several years before the official founding of East and West Germany as countries, American military observers were struck by the speed with which the Soviet Union fostered a renewed cultural life in the East after World War II. The Soviets did this not only because of its potential pacifying effects on the populace but, as American officials remarked, because they seemed to believe in the inherently edifying qualities of cultural institutions. A dozen theaters, two opera companies, five major orchestras, and countless cabarets and smaller music ensembles were established in the Soviet zone within two months of war's end. Of course, at the same time, Soviet secret police jailed 150,000 political enemies, a third of whom died from the harsh conditions in the prison camps. Between 1945 and 1947 the Soviets helped the German communist party found national organizations—like the Free German Youth, Freie Deutsche Jugend in German, or FDJ for short—meant to indoctrinate citizens and to monopolize social life and group activities from childhood on. On October 7, 1949, a few months after the founding of West Germany, East Germany—the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR—was officially founded. Four nights later, on October 11, 1949, 200,000 torch-bearing young members of the FDJ marched past a reviewing stand in front of the new nation's leaders. Erich Honecker, the thirty-seven-year-old head of the FDJ that night, would eventually rise to become the head of state in 1971. Clearly, integrating youth into the system was regarded as key to the continued success of the DDR. Which is one of the reasons youth culture in particular was so politically fraught in the East.
During Stalin's rule in the Soviet Union, East Germany witnessed similarly brutal policies, with a huge rise in the prison population in the early 1950s as well as the founding of organizations like the paramilitary Kampfgruppen der Arbeiterklasse—Combat Groups of the Working Class—as the infant DDR regime sought to consolidate power. One of the most momentous decisions in the history of the DDR was made in a matter of minutes on February 8, 1950, during a meeting of the as yet provisional People's Council: the founding of a Ministry of State Security, or Ministerium für Staatssicherheit. The first few letters of the two constituent parts of the final word—Staat and Sicherheit—lent the ministry the name the world would come to know and dread: the Stasi. By the mid-1950s the Stasi already had 16,000 employees, more than Hitler's Gestapo had employed in a unified Germany with five times as many inhabitants as East Germany; by 1952 the Stasi had also recruited 30,000 informants. Both of those numbers would continue to rise steeply.
As living conditions in the new DDR worsened during the early 1950s, hundreds of thousands of East Germans fled the country, and a heavily fortified border was erected between East Germany and West Germany—though not between East and West Berlin, leaving an island inside East Germany that was outside East German control. Continued economic woes led to the introduction of increased work quotas and longer hours at state-run enterprises. Dissatisfaction peaked in 1953, as 120,000 people fled the DDR during the first four months of the year. Then, on June 17, workers in hundreds of cities and towns across the DDR went on strike to protest the new quotas, leading to wider demonstrations against government repression. At one point protestors across the country took over twelve prisons, thirteen police offices, and five Stasi command centers. The government was paralyzed, unwilling to take up arms against the populace. Soviet occupation forces had no such scruples: dozens of demonstrators were killed and perhaps 10,000 more sent off to prison camps after Russian troops retook the streets.
Throughout the late 1950s, hundreds of thousands of East Germans continued to flee, with the vast majority crossing from East to West Berlin. Some kind of barrier began to look inevitable. So inevitable, in fact, that in July 1961 alone—the month before the Berlin Wall finally went up—30,000 East Germans fled. Another 45,000 left during the first two weeks of August before the Wall appeared on the morning of August 13, 1961. It took just eleven days after the erection of the Wall for the first person to be killed trying to cross it. Over a hundred more would be killed in coming decades, most of them in their teens and twenties.
Still, even after the Wall was fortified in subsequent years—despite the broken glass shards and nails and razor wire, despite the mines and automated firing devices, despite the watchtowers and the border troops with orders to shoot—it was not entirely impermeable: Western radio wafted easily over it, allowing Western pop music to reach almost all parts of East Germany, with the exception of the low area around Dresden, an area known to East Germans as the Tal der Ahnungslosen, or Valley of the Clueless. East German officialdom had considered early rock "American cultural barbarism" and said Elvis's "so-called" singing "was just like his face: stupid, dull, and brutish." And yet, after the Wall went up, DDR authorities restated their stance on the politics of dance parties in a way that opened things up: a politburo statement dismissed the debate over whether certain types of dancing were influenced by Western "non-culture," adding that the politburo considered dancing "a legitimate expression of the joy of life" and did not intend to stipulate that kids were permitted to express this joy only in the form of a tango or waltz.
Bring on the twist.
Bring on the mashed potato.
But then, in 1964, Soviet hardliner Leonid Brezhnev deposed the more liberal-minded Nikita Khrushchev as the head of the USSR and declared an end to Khrushchev's de-Stalinization. Suddenly the East Germans needed to retreat from the more conciliatory approach they had taken after the construction of the Wall. The craze surrounding the Beatles—as well as demonstrations and a near-riot by hundreds of kids in Leipzig in October 1965 after authorities there banned almost all the local Beat bands—elicited commentary directly from head of state Walter Ulbricht during a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party:
I am of the opinion, comrades, that we should put an end to the monotony of the Yeah Yeah Yeah and whatever else it's called. Must we really copy every piece of garbage that comes from the West?
To lock things down on the youth culture front, the Party established new rules for licensing bands. It had always been the case that to work as a professional musician in the planned economy you needed credentials—you needed to study music and secure a license from cultural authorities. But from November 1965 on, even amateur bands needed to audition for and be certified by a licensing commission in order to play anywhere in public. And the certification process was not based on musicianship alone—political and aesthetic approval was just as important to securing an Einstufung. The days of teenage garage bands covering the latest British Invasion hits at school dances and FDJ youth clubs were over.
In 1971, the former head of the Free German Youth, Erich Honecker, now 59, took over the East German dictatorship—officially he replaced Ulbricht as General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, or SED. Honecker eased back the repression of things like Beatles haircuts and risqué clothing, yet during his rule the Stasi would also double in size to 91,000 employees, as well as nearly doubling the number of informants it ran, to 180,000—one for every eighty-three people in the nation of fifteen million. Honecker also believed in the overarching importance of homeland security, and in 1978, in a country that already had countless paramilitary organizations, he extended mandatory military training into primary schools.
A hardliner by nature, Honecker was nonetheless more open to rock music. But rather than import music by decadent capitalist puppets like the Doors or the Stones, he determined the DDR should foster its own rock culture. This led to a string of officially sanctioned East German rock bands dominating Free German Youth concerts and DDR youth radio during the 1970s. Bands with names like the Puhdys, Renft, Electra-Combo, Karussell, and Stern-Combo Meissen aped Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, King Crimson, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Jethro Tull—and landed deals with the government record label, Amiga, the sole music manufacturer and distributor in the tightly-controlled East German media system.
It was against this backdrop that punk music drifted over the Wall . . .
Ilse Ruppert / Intertopics Agency
Too Much Future
The very first punk in East Berlin went by the name "Major." She was fifteen years old and lived in a neighborhood called Köpenick, about a twenty-minute ride southeast from the center of town on one of the city's elevated S-Bahn trains.
It was September 1977.
Major's proper name was Britta Bergmann, and she had learned lessons about the Berlin Wall early. Britta had never known her own father, but she had an older sister whose father was a West Berliner who occasionally came to see the family in East Berlin. When Britta was five years old, her sister's father was over for a visit, and in the evening, when he said he had to be going, had to get back over to West Berlin, Britta had an idea.
"We'll come along," said little Britta enthusiastically.
She didn't understand why his face clouded.
"No," he said, confused. "You can't just come with me—you live in the East!"
That realization of what the Wall meant stuck with Britta.
Growing up, Britta was aware that her family had a history of opposition politics. Her maternal grandfather had been in the German communist party in the 1920s and spent time in prison after Hitler's rise; her maternal grandmother was officially branded an anti-fascist and placed on Heinrich Himmler's black list for, among other things, maintaining friendships with Jews and refusing to perform the Nazi salute. Despite their communist beliefs, life in Stalinist East Germany hadn't been easy for them, either, with her grandparents detained for weeks and accused of spying as a result of a friendship with a Swiss national. Britta grew up in her grandmother's apartment. Her grandmother was openly critical of the dictatorship and had a strong influence on her granddaughter's worldview—Britta learned not only to view government propaganda with a large dose of skepticism but to see the entire system as unjust and illegitimate.
All through school Britta suffered from the feeling that her choices were being usurped by the state, that—in more adult terms—she was being disenfranchised from casting a vote in the most crucial decisions in her own life and destiny, decisions about who she was and who she would or could be. She knew, she just knew, it was wrong that you weren't permitted to read whatever you wanted, that you couldn't openly express your opinions. Wrong that creativity, curiosity, and independent thinking were verboten.
I just want to be allowed to be an individual, to be who I am, to make my own choices.
In the summer of 1977, one of Britta's friends had a visit from a cousin from West Germany. The cousin told the girls about someone who had escaped to West Berlin by crossing one of the lakes that formed the border down in the southwest corner of the city, near Potsdam. Fifteen-year-old Britta felt inspired: she wanted to escape, too.
The future laid out for me in the DDR is NOT acceptable.
It's time for me to get out of here.
She and her friend secretly discussed the idea and soon both of them began to make plans—Britta even wanted to go scout out the lakeshore. In the end, though, the escape attempt did not go beyond teenage daydreams.
At the beginning of the school year in September 1977, Britta's sister gave her a stack of photos and pullout posters she'd amassed from the precious West German teen magazines her father brought her—images of ABBA, Boney M, Smokie, the cheesy chart toppers and heartthrobs of the day. As Britta leafed through the images, she suddenly stopped at one. It was a black-and-white shot of a band called the Sex Pistols.
What the fuck is this, she wondered, fascinated by their ripped clothes and sneering faces.
At school she asked around in class to try to figure out if anyone had heard of this mysterious band with the crazy name, the Sex Pistols. One kid in school knew everything about music, and sure enough he knew the Pistols: they were "punk," he told her. Punk? But wait, she thought, she'd heard that AC/DC was supposed to be punk, and she couldn't stand AC/DC. She hated hard rock. Not long afterward, though, Britta was listening to a Western radio station, Radio Luxembourg, and heard something that immediately caught her attention. The song started with a ragged, chiming guitar line and then the drums kicked in and then it got seriously loud, chugging along like some kind of overheated locomotive, a runaway train, and then the singer started—well, it wasn't exactly singing, the guy couldn't carry a tune, he was sort of howling in a tortured monotone, sneering and shrieking and growling . . . There's no point in asking, you'll get no reply . . . the song was like a punch in the gut and the singer sounded committed in a way she'd never heard before, almost possessed . . . I don't pretend 'cause I DON'T CARE . . . stuff your cheap comment 'cause we know what we feel!
It was as if the band was speaking directly to her. She felt like a switch had been thrown inside her, as if the song had activated something that had been buried inside her, something she hadn't known was there until this moment.
She waited for the DJ to identify the band.
"That was the Sex Pistols, with 'Pretty Vacant,'" said the DJ.
The Sex Pistols!
Now that was what she had expected from the picture of the band, with their fucked-up hair and fucked-up skin and fucked-up clothing.
She hacked off her hair the next day, affecting the look she knew from the black-and-white photo of the Pistols. Then she started rummaging through her sister's stack of West German magazines for more shots of the band. Once she had a few, she began to modify her clothes to mimic the Pistols' look as best she could. She ripped holes in a shirt and then sewed the holes closed again with big, ugly stitches that were clearly visible. She cut out a swatch of white cloth and wrote destroy on it with a black pen, then sewed it onto the chest pocket of her jacket. Then she nicked the chain from a spare toilet plunger and attached it to the same jacket, stringing it from the chest pocket to one of the buttons. In one of the pictures Britta found, Johnny Rotten—the Sex Pistols' singer—had safety pins on the shoulders of his jacket. Britta could do that, too. She put a row of safety pins on the top of each shoulder of her own jacket—punk-rock epaulets.
You could hear the gasps at school when she showed up with short hair and her clothes ripped and stuck with pins.
One kid came up to her and greeted her based on her shiny metal epaulets: "Hello, Major!"
From that moment on, that was her name.
School authorities did not take her stunt so lightly. Any deviation from the officially ordained path was seen as threatening to the social cohesion the dictatorship nurtured with its system of youth organizations and propaganda, all designed to feed properly indoctrinated workers into the planned economy. The school quickly sprang into action, and the principal and Major's teachers—in consultation with the local youth services office—secretly deliberated on how to deal with her. As Major learned years later when she gained access to her Stasi file, the teachers felt they were incapable of molding an acceptable socialist identity out of Major, and they debated whether to have her committed to an institution where she could be treated for her "difficulties."
Major had problems in the classroom, too. Her grades fell as teachers began to look dimly on her work; they also gave her additional assignments, projects like preparing a poster about the good relations East Germany enjoyed with the Soviet army and writing a speech on the advantages of a planned economy. This was how the teachers hoped to reintegrate her into socialist society. Teachers also sent her home a lot, telling her she shouldn't return to class until she changed her clothes. She never changed her clothes. In fact, she continued to assemble more and more outfits, modifying more shirts and pants with paint and pins and pen markings, and adding homemade buttons with band names and phrases like i'm an enemy of the state.
She had found the perfect vent. Punk sounded and looked and felt like liberation. Major had never doubted she lived in an illegitimate system, but she hadn't wanted to throw rocks or build bombs or murder anyone. She just wanted to be herself, and doing, saying, reading, and writing the things that would have made her feel like herself were all verboten. Becoming a punk imbued Major with a sense of power on two levels. First, the music seemed to give voice to the rage she felt inside and gave her the strength to survive in a system she hated. Second, the look provided an explicit way for her to show her opposition every time she stepped out in public.
Meanwhile Major's friend—the one she had talked about escaping with—had been corresponding with her cousin in West Berlin, and the two of them had naïvely mentioned the previous summer's teenage dream of swimming across the lake to the West; Major was mentioned by name. The girl's father came across one of the letters and he ratted out his own daughter, as well as Major, to the police.
On May 16, 1978, Major was ordered to report to a police station for questioning.
Led by a Lieutenant Müller of the Volkspolizei, the cops interrogated the sixteen-year-old all day and straight through the night. They also executed a search of her family's apartment while she was in police custody.
During the interrogation Major made a strategic error: she answered some of Lieutenant Müller's questions about punk, questions brought on by her outlandish look and then by things they'd found when they searched her apartment—song lyrics she'd jotted down while listening to the radio, poems she'd written that were deemed "politically negative." Major had discovered a bunch of bands she liked from Western radio: X-Ray Spex, Sham 69, Slaughter and the Dogs, Chelsea, the Clash, Cock Sparrer, the Buzzcocks, the Vibrators, the Stranglers, Stiff Little Fingers, Wire . . . She could rattle off a lot of names of bands she considered favorites by now. Unfortunately, most anything she knew about punk had to have come from Western media. This compounded the suspicions about Major stemming from her being mentioned in her friend's letter alongside chatter about something considered a very serious crime: Republikflucht. In essence, defection.
Major was finally released the next day, but the authorities anticipated more trouble from her. Anyone who self-identified with a youth culture that wasn't officially sanctioned was problematic enough. But in Major's case, not only was she a punk—or "pank," as the authorities sometimes wrote in reports—she had also written antisocial poems and broached the topic of defection with others. Any instance of attempted Republikflucht also triggered an automatic process: the Stasi had to be informed.
The Stasi started an official file on Major on August 27, 1978.
She was now on the radar of one of the world's most feared domestic spy agencies.
“[A] riveting and inspiring history of punk’s hard-fought struggle in East Germany. The book chronicles, with cinematic detail, the commitment and defiance required of East German punks as they were forced to navigate constant police harassment and repression.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A thrilling and essential social history that details the rebellious youth movement that helped change the world.”
“Burning Down the Haus deftly chronicles the formation of East Germany’s punk scene within a fragmented country under constant monitoring by a secret police agency, the Stasi. This is a work that encapsulates a particular musical world but, more crucially, shows how the society around it shaped the scene in idiosyncratic ways.”
“Wildly entertaining . . . A thrilling tale . . . A joy in the way it brings back punk’s fury and high stakes.”
“The new book Burning Down the Haus fastidiously traces the self-discovery of punks in the socialist dictatorship of East Germany, and the violence and repression they endured on the way to freedom.”
“Burning Down the Haus is a gripping, powerful story of self-expression in the face of adversity . . . We can see echoes of the time it describes in groups like Pussy Riot, who risk imprisonment and possible assassination in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The story of East German punk is one of rock and roll’s greatest unheard tales of courage. Or it was until Tim Mohr came along.”
—The Houston Chronicle
“Remarkable . . . revelatory . . . amazing.”
“Original and inspiring . . . Mr. Mohr has written an important work of Cold War cultural history.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Mohr takes readers on a fascinating trip through the 1980s, focusing on East German teenagers that embraced the punk lifestyle and ultimately would play a role in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mohr is a great storyteller and manages to make history read like you are there directly witnessing it.”
—The Hype Magazine
“What makes this book such a fascinating read is that Mohr has recreated the period almost as an oral history . . . it also brings the era and the reality of the times to life beautifully. Burning Down the Haus not only dispels the myth that the West and capitalism were responsible for bringing down the Berlin Wall, it also provides the example of how the oppressed can effect change from the bottom up – something as pertinent today as it was in East Germany in the 80s. This is a beautifully written and important book about the power of ordinary people to make a difference and how punk is more than just a type of music.”
“Mohr pens an inspiring history of a punk scene that literally tore down a symbol of division and oppression.”
“Lively . . . Compelling . . . A front-row seat to the events of the ’80s. This take on punk evolution is engaging, enlightening, and well worth checking out.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Translator, editor, and former Berlin DJ Mohr energetically details the origins of East German punks . . . Mohr tells a frantic and exciting true story of music versus dictatorship, and the infamous wall it helped bring down.”
—Booklist, starred review
“An appealing, lively cultural history worth reading in an era of corporate punk nostalgia.”
“Incendiary . . . Compulsively readable and beautifully researched, Burning Down the Hausrecords 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 . . . inspiring.”
“Mohr takes readers on a fascinating trip through the 1980s, focusing on East German teenagers that embraced the punk lifestyle and ultimately would play a role in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mohr is a great storyteller and manages to make history read like you are there directly witnessing it.”
—The Hype Magazine
“Burning Down the Haus stands as a testament to the DIY ethos as a response to oppression, which, in this day and age, may be exactly what American society needs.”
“Burning Down the Haus is not just an immersion into the punk rock scene of East Berlin, it’s the story of the cultural and political battles that have shaped the world we live in today. Tim Mohr delivers the soundtrack for the revolution that we’ve all been waiting for.”
—DW Gibson, author of The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century
“In East Germany, where non-conformity meant jail time, punks’ ripped clothes and spiked hair were a show of courage and defiance. Squatting in derelict apartments and burning their lyrics before the secret police could get ahold of them, these teenagers wrote the soundtrack for a rebellion that helped bring down the Berlin Wall. Tim Mohr tells the story of their DIY revolution with the thoroughness of a historian and the panache of a cultural insider. Burning Down the Haus is a riveting cultural history that also serves as a rallying call against authoritarianism everywhere.”
—Ruth Franklin, author of the NBCC Award-winning Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
“Equal parts terrifying and exhilarating, Burning Down the Haus is a fabulously alive history of punk rock behind the Iron Curtain, where simply dressing like a punk could get you hauled in by Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police. Mohr ties the fearless music-driven resistance to authoritarianism and mass surveillance in the 1980s to our current fraught times, showing how even the most formidable forms of oppression can be shaken by highly motivated, creative kids with riotous rage and a driving beat. A thrilling, inspiring read.”
—Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House and author of All Tomorrow’s Parties
“You say you want a revolution? Tim Mohr’s spellbinding Burning Down the Haus reveals how a bunch of young East German punks in the 1980s made their wild music into a clarion loud enough to topple the Berlin Wall. With a sharp eye for the prosaic brutality of the repressive state and an ear locked on the furies in the music, Mohr has crafted an unforgettable story that is part cultural history, part political thriller and entirely true.”
—Peter Ames Carlin, author of Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon
“Berlin has always been a crazy city, and a dramatic stage for the epic struggle between powerful ideological forces and the individual desire to be free. In case you weren’t sure just how political music, fashion, and a certain attitude can be: read this book. Burning Down the Haus is wonderful.”
—Norman Ohler, author of Blitzed
“This is a crazily inspiring, strange, beautiful story that deserves to be remembered, and Mohr is a wonderfully compassionate writer. What a combination!”
—Johann Hari, New York Times bestselling author of Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections
“The best punk book since Please Kill Me.”
—Legs McNeil, author of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
“Tim Mohr’s book details a fascinating period of time in the history of punk music. I am so glad he documented that moment in history for punk rock and for the world.”
—Greg Graffin, singer/songwriter for Bad Religion and author of Population Wars and Anarchy Evolution
“The true story of how teenage kicks turned into political opposition. With meticulous research and impassioned prose, Tim Mohr brings to life the saga of a bunch of East German punk rock kids who broke the state that wanted to break them. A book to warm an old punk’s heart.”
—Claire Dederer, author of Love and Trouble
PRAISE FOR THE GERMAN EDITION OF BURNING DOWN THE HAUS
“A wonderful book.”
“A historical drama that takes your breath away.”
“Mohr digs into the subject of East German punk like nobody before.”
—Rolling Stone Germany
“Cinematic...Makes the reader feel a witness to the events . . . A lively, enthralling adventure story; the tone combines a dramatic Hollywood epic with a meticulous documentary.”
“You get taken in quickly, and just as quickly you have a lively image of the situation . . . The storytelling style is like having a movie in your head.”
—Lutz Schramm (German radio personality)
“A wonderful, atmospheric look at a hidden world.”
- On Sale
- Sep 11, 2018
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Algonquin Books