Back in the DDR

In which The Author uses his time machine again

On Saturday afternoon I was lucky enough to catch most of Radio 4’s Afternoon Play. Born in the DDR was a fictionalised account of the build-up to Bruce Springsteen’s landmark concert in East Berlin on 19 July 1988, and the adventures of a group of young friends trying to get tickets for the gig. Humorous, poignant and oddly nostalgic, it painted an intriguing picture of how Erich Honecker’s ailing communist regime tried to step on any pro-US propaganda which might have crept into the set.
The clash of ideologies lay in the background, of course. I still laughed at the organisers’ attempts to read anti-American content into each and every one of Mr Springsteen’s songs, just to make sure nothing subversive was coming over the PA.
Needless to say, things didn’t go entirely to plan. The concert was one of the catalysts which sparked the revolution, inspiring the young people of the German Democratic Republic to join forces, reject their authoritarian government, and – just sixteen months later – tear down the Berlin Wall.
The play might have been fiction, but it reminded me that in March 1984 (just before my eighteenth birthday, in fact), the UK music paper ZigZag ran a fascinating feature about the Punk scene in East Germany.
I mentioned it briefly in ZigZagging Down Memory Lane, a couple of years ago. I said then that it was one of the factors which turned me into an anarchist, rather than a communist (which was another option at the time).
I’ve never got round to digging it out again until now. A reporter named Steve Zucker had gone into the beleaguered totalitarian enclave with a photographer named Armin Hasse. They met some of East Berlin’s counterculture – the squatters, musicians and music lovers – and shed some intriguing light on the officially-sanctioned ‘youth culture’ of the times.
Most young people might not know very much about that secretive state – after all, the nearest equivalent we have today is North Korea. It’s difficult to believe that, just over a quarter of a century ago, a police state beyond the wildest imaginings of George Orwell lay in the heart of Europe, within spitting distance of the free and prosperous West.
With that in mind, it’s probably a good idea to put the ZigZag article into its broader context. In the afterword to his Cold War thriller Brandenburg (Orion Books, 2004), former Observer correspondent Henry Porter provides that context.
As you read on, it’s a good time to reflect on the measures which successive governments in the UK and elsewhere have introduced to limit our human rights, monitor our communications, and clamp down on any form of dissent. We may have left the Cold War behind, but we’re collectively sleepwalking into a totalitarian state with all the hi-tech accoutrements Mr Porter speculates about in this piece. Don’t have nightmares…
East Germany was the only member of the communist bloc to disappear as a state. A decade and a half after the Wall came down and the process of German unification began, most people would be hard pressed to trace the border between East and West Germany on a map. The very idea of two Germanies, of an Iron Curtain slicing across Europe, seems astonishing today, especially to those after 1975. And nothing was more bizarre during that era of division than the arrangements in West Berlin, a free enclave 100 miles inside communist territory, unswervingly guaranteed by the Western allies but surrounded by the watchtowers, barbed wire and concrete of the Berlin Wall.
We have forgotten East Germany’s baleful presence at the centre of Europe, the tragic power of the wall and also perhaps what it meant when on Thursday 9 November 1989 East Germans massed at the border crossings and West Germans climbed onto the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate to demand its destruction. Few who were there will ever again experience the surge of joy and optimism of those hours. Or the incredulity. For even after one million East Germans demonstrated against their government in Alexanderplatz, no one would have dared to predict that within a week those same people would be shopping in West Berlin.
It seemed a miracle then but it’s easy today to see how events combined to destroy the GDR and spark the fall of communism across Eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of the policies of Glasnost (freedom of expression) and Perestroika (restructuring) came with a new realism about the failure of the Marxist economies. Put simply, they were broke. East Germany, which unlike West Germany had little coal or steel of its own, survived into the eighties on cheap oil from the USSR and by exporting agricultural and industrial machinery at bargain-basement prices to the West. But Russia could no longer afford to subsidize the GDR, and the emerging Tigers of south-east Asia were producing far better machinery at even lower prices. Erich Honecker’s East German government seemed incapable of responding to the mounting crisis other than by resisting the reforms of the Soviet Union. To the old men in Berlin the unthinkable had happened: the mother ship of Marxism had veered wildly off course, leaving them to continue the socialist struggle.
There were other straws in the wind. In Hungary a new regime had removed the barbed wire border with Austria in May of that year and in September the Hungarian foreign minister announced that East German tourists would not be prevented from crossing to the West. At the same time the communist government of Czechoslovakia seemed powerless to halt the flood of East Germans coming over the border and claiming asylum at the West German Embassy in Prague. Much the same was happening in Poland. Those not intent on fleeing the country were bent on change. ‘Wir sind hier,’ they shouted through September and October – we’re staying here. Diverse groups – punks and skinheads, greens, peace campaigners and those who simply desired political reform, free expression and unrestricted travel – came together around the thriving evangelical churches of the East, particularly the Nikolai Church in Leipzig. As the Monday evening demonstrations swelled with crowds chanting the simple but unprecedented self-assertion, Wir sind das Volk – we are the people – Honecker seemed incapable of acting. It’s interesting to speculate what might have been if a younger generation of hardliners had succeeded at the beginning of the decade. Honecker was seventy-four and had undergone an operation that summer, Willi Stoph, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, was seventy-five, Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi, was eighty-one. The other members of the Politburo were mostly over sixty-five. In the face of such orderly and disciplined defiance of the state they simply froze.
Yet it is also true that China and Russia had been ruled for long periods by ruthless old men and in China that summer between 800 and 1,200 demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. So it is important to understand that while the conditions seem favourable to us today, the German uprising was not bound to succeed. The reality was that the protestors who met outside the Nikolai Church in Leipzig every Monday evening might have been crushed by the Stasi at any step along the way, just like the students in Beijing. It’s still largely a mystery why the orders to suppress the demonstrations with all necessary force on 9 October were never carried out, though of course former leaders and members of the security forces have since tried to take credit for defying the high command in Berlin.
We have also forgotten the curious nature of the East German state. Besides its fanatical pursuit of sporting glory, the obsessive militarism and religious belief in science and technology, the GDR possessed the most formidable intelligence services the world has ever seen. A population of just over 17,000,000 was served – if that’s the right word – by 81,000 intelligence officers belonging to the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit – or Stasi for short. There was very little in a person’s life that the Stasi could not reach. Some estimates put the number of informers at 1,500,000, which meant that every sixth or seventh adult was working for the Stasi by making regular reports on colleagues, friends and sometimes even lovers and relations.
Run from a vast complex in Normannenstrasse, Berlin, the Stasi was a state within a state. It had its own football team, prisons, special shops selling foreign luxuries, holiday resorts, hospitals, sports centres and every sort of surveillance facility. Large and well-equipped regional offices were in every city. In Leipzig [where much of Brandenburg is set] … thousands of pieces of mail were opened every day, over 1,000 telephones were tapped, and 2,000 officers were charged with penetrating and monitoring every possible group and organization. Their efforts were augmented by as many as 5,000 IMs – Inoffizielle Mitarbeiters, or unofficial collaborators – who were debriefed by Stasi controllers in some seventy safe houses around the city. In numbers this effort in Leipzig far exceeded the joint operations of Britain’s Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).
The dismal paranoia of Erich Mielke’s organization is hard to imagine today. Suffice to say that even school children’s essays were examined for signs of political dissent at home, and in museums in Leipzig and Berlin you can still view the sealed preserving jars containing cloth impregnated with the personal smells of targeted dissidents. It has never been clear what use this archive was put to, but there is no better symbol of the Stasi’s powers of intrusion and absurdist obsession. The special equipment they made for themselves has a comic ingenuity about it: the cameras hidden in briefcases, petrol cans or the headlight of a Trabant car; a bugged watering can, which lay unregarded in one of the garden allotments outside Leipzig to catch anyone being disloyal as they tended their vegetables. The Stasi officers took delight in these gadgets and were in love with the shoddy business of spying on ordinary human beings who represented no threat to the state whatsoever. The breaking of spirits in Hohenschönhausen interrogation centre and at Brautzen prison, the persecution by rumour and lie, the destruction of relationships and careers, the crushing of individual creativity and talent, the tireless search for ‘hostile negative elements’ were all done in the name of security. East Germany was a truly dreadful place to live if you objected to the regime, or showed anything but craven loyalty to the state. Looking at the relatively crude surveillance apparatus sixteen years on, one wonders what the Stasi would have done with today’s technology – our tiny radio tracking devices, biometric identification, number recognition systems and the rapid processing power of surveillance computers. One thing’s for certain: the reformers in Leipzig would have had a much harder time of it.
The GDR may have disappeared along with the Berlin Wall, the institutionalized vindictiveness and the slogans calling for ever greater sacrifice, yet East Germany is still very much in evidence today. You can walk around the soulless housing complexes in Dresden and Leipzig, visit Hohenschönhausen and Erich Mielke’s office in Berlin – now both museums – or in the forests of the south happen upon the huge secret installations of the Cold War, long ago abandoned by the Soviet army. The fabric of East Germany is still pretty much intact and, naturally, the people are there with their memories of one of the most efficient dictatorships of modern times.

Since it’s such an interesting historical artefact, I thought I’d transcribe the whole ZigZag article (with a little judicious proofreading here and there) and share it with you.


Berlin punks 1

‘What does it mean?’ demanded the cop, staring hard at the punk’s ‘No Fun’ badge.
‘Means there’s nothing to laugh about … just like him,’ mocked the second policeman.

Berlin punks 5

Tom is tall and gangly. His hair is cut to the bone with a tail of dyed blond hair down the nape of his neck. In his left ear, which he pierced himself, he sports four tiny earrings. His pride and joy is an old motorbike jacket, swapped for his grandfather’s military uniform.
As he stands there between the two policemen, the raucous strains of the Au Pairs come swirling over on the wind. The group are playing the huge circus tent of the Tempodrom. It’s a five minute walk away. It might as well be over the rainbow.
The demarcation between right and wrong is often small. Here it is 100 yards. The arbitrary line followed by the military planner’s pen 37 years ago has forced Tom and thousands like him to walk close to the edge.
Visitors from London or Paris, grown blasé to most street excesses, do a double take when they see Punks on these streets. For this is East Berlin.

Berlin punks 3

Stray off the straight and narrow of the tourist traps, the goose-stepping guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier on prestigious Unden den Linden, the massive concrete tanks of the war monument at Treptow, and you enter a different world.
Alexanderplatz, the modern showpiece city centre development, stops abruptly as you go under the main railway station. Concrete and bronzed glass give way to the war-damaged slums of Prenzlauer Berg, unchanged since the Thirties.
This is the city’s punk territory.

Berlin punks 4

Berlin punks 7

Tom is living in a squat with five friends. The furniture looks as if it has been thrown out of a Liverpool doss house. Graffiti covers the walls.
Fast asleep in a corner is Gerd, his spiky green hair wilting slightly. He has been held overnight by the police. His T-shirt and peace buttons were confiscated. His trousers, formerly covered in ‘Anarchy’ and ‘UK Subs’ slogans, have received a quick paint job courtesy of the state.
There have been a few punks in East Berlin since soon after the Sex Pistols hit the headlines in England in England in 1977. The difference now is that the clandestine quirk of a few has blossomed into a full-blown craze. Teenagers as young as 14 are involved in the movement and I heard reports of an increase in truancy from schools. The punks of East Berlin have come out. Much to the astonishment of neighbours and displeasure of the authorities, they are no longer afraid to be seen on the streets.
The punks are a phenomenon which neither the police nor the SED (the ruling Communist party) really know how to deal with. Harassment is the most favoured method.
Alexanderplatz, indeed most of the city centre, is a no-go area. Any who stray here face instant arrest. Things are marginally better in Prenzlauer, but still most shops and cafés offer only closed doors. The punks’ music is still effectively forced underground, to the cellars of the old tenements and church crypts.
Gerd’s experience with the police is commonplace. It is nothing special when someone is taken into custody for a time. Most punks are, of necessity, quick-change artists and with the aid of a trusty toothbrush and home-made dye can restore their hair to something approaching normality.

Berlin punks 2

But seen now, Gerd wouldn’t attract a second look in West Berlin’s freaky SO 36. The music club, frequented by David Bowie in the mid-Seventies, holds a childish fascination for him. ‘What’s the place really like?’ Gerd kept wanting to know.
As the evening drew on, Tom’s squat settled down to celebrate the return of the newest member, Will, from prison. Hard-to-get canned beer, a punk status symbol, had to be obtained from a foreign currency Inter shop near Checkpoint Charlie.
Will was caught spraying a slogan on the Berlin Wall: ’20 Jahre Mauer, wir werden langsam sauer’ – less poetically in English: ’20 years of the Wall, we are slowly getting sick of it.’
Will is 19 now. He was held for four months in custody for the offending wall painting. Subsequently he was put on probation for 14 months.
He stayed silent for most of the evening with Nadja, the only girl in the squat, dominating the conversation. She has only been before the authorities once. That was last year, after she had applied for a travel permit to England. Her parents, who are party members, have disassociated themselves from her.
Many of the city’s punks come from good homes, many from academic families. Tom’s parents are well-known doctors.
Spiked hair and a tramp’s wardrobe test family bonds to the limit and it’s especially hard when parents are SED members. What often serves to keep the young in the family home against all the odds is Berlin’s acute housing shortage. Flats are extremely difficult to find, hence the inner city squats – another eye-opener for Western visitors.
Apart from these squats, East Berlin also mirrors its Western twin in exerting a powerful pull on the Bohemian element in the rest of the country. The city is a mine of information on the current international scene. One thing can leap-frog the Wall unhindered is news. All of West Germany’s broadcasting output can be picked up. So too can the American (AFN) and British forces (BFBS) radio and TV stations.
The authorities may be striving to enforce a cultural straitjacket, but East Berlin has a selection of Western television greater than that available in Britain.
With so much information at their disposal, people can afford to be discriminating. When it comes to the punks it means that they are choosy in their musical tastes. They much prefer the Dead Kennedys or UK Subs to the imitative ‘Deutsche Neue Welle’ – German New Wave – sweeping the city’s Western sector.
The West German television Rocknight spectaculars broadcast live by ZDF throughout the Summer were one big bore for them. Much more to their liking is John Peel’s late night programme, which they pick up on BFBS radio.
When it comes to fashion, Levis are no longer highly prized rarities. Much more punk kudos attaches to hard-to-come-by Adidas training shoes. When I first went to East Berlin I couldn’t understand why people kept looking at my feet … it turned out to be nothing more fascinating than those three stripes on my running shoes. Indeed any streetwise East Berliner most easily identifies a Westerner by his footwear – a useful facility if you’re trying to get foreign currency on the black market.
The churches play an important practical role in the lives of the punks. Church halls provide virtually the only forum for bands to appear in a sort of semi-public capacity. News of any gigs spreads quickly through the grapevine.
In the cellar of one of the Prenzlauer Berg tenements Tom’s punk band have a secret practice room. It’s sparsely furnished with two speakers (home made) and a microphone. ‘Equipment is unbelievably expensive and hard to get,’ said Tom. ‘If you are in the know and have the ready cash you can grab the stuff when it appears on the black market. Otherwise you just grow old waiting,’ he explained.

Berlin punks 6

Ironically many families in East Germany do have substantial savings. 60,000 Marks (about £15,000 at the official rate of exchange) was one figure quoted me as being quite common. That is really not so surprising. The country has a Gross National Product which, per capita, is higher than Britain’s. But when it comes to consumer durables there is very little to spend one’s earnings on.
Barred from performing publicly, Berlin’s punk bands get hardly any money from their appearances. The so-called state grading committee, who play a vital role in the politics of culture, choose which groups will get state blessings and which are destined to a lifetime of playing private parties. For the punks it’s all a foregone conclusion.
Prospects of actually producing a record are nil. I heard of only two recording studios, one concentrating on classical music, the other on the country’s legitimate pop music. Groups such as the politically innocuous soft rock ‘Karat’ – a sort of cross between Jean Michel Jarre and the Moody Blues – get state backing and full red carpet treatment, including tours to the West. Without such state blessing there is not only no recording contract, but also no gigs, no proper practice room and, most important, no decent instruments.
The Amiga pop recording label issues at most two new releases a month. It’s a record censor’s dream. Back in Alexanderplatz the friendly salesgirl at the record shop proudly showed me the rock section. I counted no more than ten different albums, including the latest import from Italy by Macchina Maccarone.
To be different is to be a direct threat to the state. For the musical and the sartorial dissident it’s a hard life. But then the most amazing thing, really, is that they exist at all.

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