Did Punk Rock Tear Down the Wall?

The untold story of East Germany's anarchic underground punk scene and the critical role it played bringing down the Berlin Wall.

On November 9, 1989, the East German underground guitar band Die Anderen—the Others—had a gig on the other side of the Berlin Wall. They were playing the Pike Club, in the West Berlin borough of Kreuzberg, home to the legendarily decadent and anarchic scene that inspired David Bowie and Iggy Pop and Nick Cave.

It was actually to be their second concert on the other side of the anti-fascist protection barrier, as it was officially known in the East. The GDR had in recent months started granting travel permission to some bands—even bands from the conspicuously non-conformist punk scene. Die Anderen played West Berlin for the first time on May 26, 1989, crossing the death strip at the Invalidenstrasse checkpoint in an official-looking van being driven by a government apparatchik who was accompanying them. It was the type of van used by the police and traveling sports teams.

“It was more about teenage rebellion—it was fun and cool. For me personally, I only began to think about that sort of thing once the harassment started. Politicization was something the Stasi did.”

“A border guard came onto the bus and asked whether we had anyone hidden in the van or anything,” says Die Anderen frontman Toster, an East Berliner who had never before been to the West. “We said no, no. I was practically shitting myself with anticipation. Then we drove on through. And just a few yards beyond was a completely different world. It was unbelievable. I thought of all my friends who had left the country in various waves over the past years. And now I was seeing what it was they put themselves through all that trouble to get.”

The Pike Club was in a back courtyard a few hundred feet into West Berlin from the checkpoint at Heinrich-Heine-Strasse. This time the band took public transport to the gig. As they ripped through their set, they started to see familiar faces coming into the club. But this wasn’t unusual—the same thing happened the first time they played in the West. Tens of thousands of East Germans—including friends of theirs from East Berlin—had been fleeing the country via Hungary and Czechoslovakia since the summer and making their way back to West Berlin.

More Daily Beast takes on the Berlin Wall anniversaryPeople in the audience were holding up East German IDs and waving them in the air to the music. “We were drunk, and figured they were drunk, too, making fun of us or whatever.”

Then they spotted the singer of another Eastern band whom they’d seen back in East Berlin earlier that day. “We knew he hadn’t fled,” says guitar player Dafty. And suddenly Dafty understood why people were waving their IDs.

It’s no coincidence that a band like Die Anderen was at the forefront of the sweeping changes in East Germany right up to the night of November 9, 1989. The underground music scene—a scene that grew out of East Berlin’s punk movement—played a key role in fomenting and steeling opposition in the country throughout the 1980s.

In the late 1970s, there were only about two dozen punks in all of East Germany. A handful of teenagers in East Berlin picked up on the sound via John Peel’s show, broadcast on British forces' radio in West Berlin. The first self-styled punks ripped their clothes and crafted homemade patches with slogans on them—often just band names like Sex Pistols or the Clash, but also critiques such as “destroy what’s destroying you” and the logo of Poland’s Solidarity movement. Though punks ran into constant trouble with the police, they initially had few aspirations beyond drinking heavily and wishing they were in London.

The first-ever East German punk concert took place in March 1981, inside the Yugoslavian embassy—something of a liberal oasis within the police state. (Two sons of Yugoslavian diplomats were in the band.) One hundred punks attended. A wave of bands sprung up in East Berlin later that year, including Planlos and Namenlos (Planless and Nameless, respectively), and in the coming year they began to play illegal shows in artist studios, attics, and basements, and in their makeshift rehearsal spaces.

An East German government report from 1981 pegged the number of punks nationwide at 1,000 with 10,000 more “sympathizers”—this in a country of 15 million. Authorities began to worry and the state bore down hard: Punks experienced arbitrary detainment, brutal police beatings, and invasive searches of apartments and other spaces where they congregated. The police also began to recruit informants—often by extreme coercion. Finally, before the end of 1981, the “punk problem” was eventually passed over to the dreaded Stasi, taken up by the division charged with fighting political opposition.

“1981 and 1982 were like 1976 in England,” says Henryk Gericke, who sang in punk bands back then and in recent years curated a museum exhibition on Eastern punk. “You would go to these illegal parties in tiny spaces with 20 or 30 people pogoing around—your heart was in your throat when you got ready to go into one of those parties. It wasn’t intellectuals who would go on to join the literary scene or whatever. These were really hard kids, a lot of whom ended up in prison and were then ‘bought’ out of jail by West Germany.”

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Reacting to the violence and harassment inflicted on local punks, a few protestant churches in Berlin stepped in to offer shelter, legal aid—and free beer. The church’s umbrella soon opened over punks in other cites as well. But the state’s paranoid behavior backfired in two ways.

“When I got into the punk scene,” says Dafty, the guitarist from Die Anderen, “the idea of being part of political opposition didn’t interest me at all. I wasn’t interested in politics. At 16 I just didn’t think about that kind of stuff very much. It was more about teenage rebellion—it was fun and cool. For me personally, I only began to think about that sort of thing once the harassment started. Politicization was something the Stasi did.”

Once they were forced into the churches, punks began to rub elbows with groups that were intentionally political: activists and organizations devoted to environmental issues, peace and demilitarization, and human rights all operated out of the churches as well.

Backed into a corner by the authorities, punk bands responded by lashing out, becoming more genuinely subversive: Suddenly, bands began singing shockingly explicit criticisms of the state. The movement became a nationwide outsider cult. In April 1983, Planlos, Namenlos, and others played a punk festival on the grounds of a church in Halle, bringing together bands from various cities and drawing audiences from the entire GDR—all by word of mouth. The first festival-like gig in Berlin was set up in July, also on the grounds of a church.

The GDR government declared all-out war on punk. After a string of arrests, the members of Namenlos were picked up again in August 1983, jailed and interrogated for six months, and then sentenced to 18 months in Stasi prison after the domestic spying agency assembled hard evidence of the band’s politically charged lyrics. When members of the Leipzig punk community were caught spray-painting “Freedom for Jana, Mita and A-Micha”—the imprisoned members of Namenlos—on a wall, they, too, were tried and sentenced to seven to 10 months. Other bands, like Planlos, found themselves shipped off to the army, serving in a special regiment for citizens in need of ideological rehabilitation.

Before the first-generation bands in the cities were eliminated, they had already inspired bands all over the country. And by 1985, the scene had rebuilt—and evolved musically to include a kaleidoscopic range of sounds you could call the GDR version of post-punk. The first-generation punks began to trickle back into urban centers, too. Namenlos reformed when released from prison in September 1984; members of Namenlos also started a church-based Monday meeting series and an underground newsletter. A first generation band from Erfurt returned with a song featuring as the chorus the phrase “We are the people,” the same term that would become the rallying cry of the street protests in 1989.

In 1986, the state showed signs of relenting. East Germany’s youth radio station, DT64, allowed a new show to cover the non-state-sanctioned music scene. The cultural authorities began to allow post-punk bands to get accreditation for legal concerts, though lyrics remained an issue. At the same time, the state record label decided to let a few of the less politically strident underground bands use their facilities and eventually issued two compilations of East German post-punk.

As a result, the scene began to stretch out along a broader ideological spectrum: Hardcore punks remained steadfastly rejectionist, but others kept one foot in the punk scene while putting the other into the gray areas created by new state-sanctioned attempts to co-opt them.

For the later bands like Die Anderen, the appeal of gray areas was clear. “I wanted to play clubs, not church basements,” says Toster. “Getting that piece of paper also allowed you to play to people who had no idea this kind of music even existed. That was important as far as I was concerned.”

The punk scene could see the end in sight. Take these lyrics from the Karl-Marx-Stadt band AG Geige: “All the doors are open/a hundred thousand stand ready/and yesterday will be forgotten/though tomorrow’s still distant…All the borders are open/but only a few realize it/we’ve forgotten yesterday/and tomorrow’s not far away.”

In the Soviet Union and Hungary and Poland, change came from the top down and represented the triumph of a reform-from-within-the-system mentality. Only in hard-line East Germany did change come from outside and below, catalyzed by grassroots protests. At the end of the day, East German intellectuals sought incremental change designed to create a society that, at base, shared a utopian vision with the dictatorship. Perfect the system, reform the system. Punk ideology, such as it was, rejected utopianism and maintained the simple, practical goal of casting off the shackles imposed by dictatorial institutions: Destroy what’s destroying you.

And that’s what happened, as the scale of street protests ramped up through the fall of 1989, forcing first the ouster of longtime head of state Erich Honecker and then the lifting of travel restrictions on citizens of the GDR. The importance of the youth-oriented church-based underground in causing these changes was emphasized by recent evidence showing the East German government planned to open the wall even before the massive, million-person demonstration on Alexanderplatz on November 4, 1989.

When at the end of an evening press conference on November 9, East German official Guenter Schabowski casually announced that travel directly from East Germany to the West would be permitted immediately, East Berliners swarmed to the city’s checkpoints. By 11:30 p.m. that cold Thursday night, the gates have been opened at Bornholmer Strasse and Checkpoint Charlie. Other checkpoints follow.

As November 9 turned to November 10, the streets began to fill with revelers.

“We partied all night there,” says Toster. “The club was right near the checkpoint at Heinrich-Heine-Strasse, and we stood there—Easterners greeting other Easterners entering the West.”

“We drank with friends and wandered the streets,” says Dafty. “I went back home to bed in the morning, green in the face after what seemed like 20 joints and 700 beers.”

Toster and Dafty also made a decision there and then. Die Anderen was breaking up. The wall wass done and so wass the band.

For the punk scene of East Germany, it was simple: mission accomplished.

Tim Mohr spent most of the 1990s as a club DJ in Berlin and much of the current decade as a staff editor at Playboy magazine. He is the translator of the German novels Guantanamo , by Dorothea Dieckmann, which won the Three Percent award for best translation of 2007, and the international bestseller Wetlands , by Charlotte Roche. His translation of Broken Glass Park , by Alina Bronsky, will be published in April 2010. He is at work on a book on the punk music scene in East Germany.