On today’s episode of the Radio GDR podcast – I share with you 38 things I learned about East Germany by reading Burning Down The Haus by Tim Mohr.
I thoroughly Burning Down The Haus and you do not have to be a fan of punk rock to enjoy it. The book reveals the sub culture (and bravery!) of the East German punk scene. By reading Tim Mohr’s book we learn a lot about life in East Germany.
I share with you 38 things I learned about the GDR from Burning Down The Haus, if there is anything I have misunderstood or if there are areas of East German history you disagree with, please do let us know on the Radio GDR listeners Facebook Group where almost 1000 of us discuss the history of East Germany.
We are hoping to interview the author Tim Mohr soon, in the meantime let me tell you Burning Down The Haus is a fascinating read. Also, very refreshing to pick up a book on East German history which is not dry as many of the more academic works on the German Democratic Republic can be.
- Musicians and bands needed an official licence from the GDR authorities.
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.
- GDR Citizens could receive Radio Luxembourg.
Not long afterward, though, Britta was listening to a Western radio station, Radio Luxembourg, and heard something that immediately caught her attention.
- Being unemployed was consider a crime in the GDR and you could go to prison for it.
The importance of work in the DDR was backed by law and enforced with the teeth of the state. People who didn’t work weren’t just lazy, they were criminally antisocial, guilty of asoziales Verhalten. As a policy, condemning lack of work as criminally antisocial was actually inherited from Nazi Germany. Work in an Arbeitskollektiv, or work collective, was also seen as a key means of integration, a way the individual formed a direct connection to socialist society.
- Not just musicians, DJs had to pass an exam and be licenced.
The DJs in official youth clubs were fully integrated into the system. They had to take a course and pass an exam in order to get a license to spin.
- Major and her friends were being political by having fun. It was that easy to be political in the DDR. To think differently, to speak out, or to stand out was to be political. And to stand out the way the punks did—in such an open, ostentatious way—was to be a political radical.
- The band was called Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or AFS for short. Antifaschistischer Schutzwall was the East German government’s official name for the Berlin wall: the anti-fascist protection barrier.
- In another song Kobs mentioned the dead pigeons that fell from the sky—the East sometimes undertook aerial pesticide campaigns and it would literally rain dead birds.
- As Planlos guitarist Kobs liked to say, the problem in East Germany was Too Much Future. Your whole life was planned out for you almost from birth and it felt unbelievably stifling; there was no space, literal or philosophical, to live outside the system or even to express criticism of it. Planlos—No Plan—was the exact opposite of Too Much Future.
- There were lots of snitches in the Church.
And it wasn’t that the Lutheran church as an institution stood in opposition to the government—a full 5 percent of church officials would turn out to have been working as Stasi snitches.
- Honecker mellowed the SED policy on churches in East Germany. (Part of his plan to charm the West and for the GDR to be more respected on the world stage.)
Erich Honecker had met for the first time with a national church delegation and settled on a new status for the Lutheran church, described as Kirche im Sozialismus, or church within socialism.
- Some East German punks used Nazi imagery.
East German punks had already perfected the art of confrontation. A few had even started to play with Nazi imagery—the ultimate taboo in a country explicitly founded on anti-Nazi ideology.
- Dissidents could be banished from GDR cities.
On February 16, 1982, Major was released from prison. Upon release, the terms of her Berlin-Verbot were explained: for the next five years she was forbidden to visit Berlin or any towns bordering the capital. Her compliance would be monitored by the authorities. She would be “rehabilitated” in Turnow—an isolated village about fifty miles southeast of Berlin—where she would be expected to work at an industrial textile cleaning facility. She had to report to the local council every week, and could not leave the town of Turnow without permission. She was barred from trying to change her job or her place of residence without written permission of the authorities. She was taken directly from prison to Turnow. She was not just the stranger in town, but the criminal. The place she was supposed to live was a decrepit cabin with an outhouse instead of a toilet.
- Some GDR citizens protested against nuclear missiles being deployed in East Germany.
Though she (Mita) considered herself basically apolitical, together with her family she had gone to church-sponsored events, traveling as far afield as Dresden to protest the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in East Germany.
- But there was a problem: you couldn’t just move where you wanted in East Germany.
- The punks were often verbally abused on the streets.
People said Adolf must have forgotten to have taken care of them, people got in their faces and threatened them.
- Rosa Extra was a brand of tampons in the GDR…and the name of a punk band.
- Many GDR punks were not capitalist, did not want to live in the West but wanted to change the German Democratic Republic.
Pankow thought he could convert them rather than the other way around. “It’s a great country,” he told them, “but we need to improve some things.”
- Some East German laws were left over from the Nazi era and not changed.
Paragraph 220 of the East German penal code was a legal holdover from the Nazi era. It functioned as one of several catch-all clauses frequently employed against what in the West would be called political crimes; the paragraph made slandering the system illegal—a malleably vague crime that carried up to a three-year jail sentence.
- East Berlin” did not exist in government speak.
The region was officially referred to as “the capital of the DDR,” not merely a sector of a larger city.
- Cash-strapped East Germany used prison labor to earn Western currency, forcing inmates—whether political prisoners like Jana, or common criminals—to work for international firms like Ikea, as well as a range of major West German companies.
- Stasi chief Mielke declared war on the punks.
The concerted action against punk in 1983 and 1984 far exceeded that undertaken against any other opposition group since the installation of dictator Erich Honecker in 1971.
- One of the few ways to be cleared for university was to prove your ideological maturity with an additional stint in the National Volks Army.
- Feeling B’s original name was Feeling Berlin
- Feeling B auditioned for an Einstufung, the government performance license bands—even amateur bands—needed to play in public legally.
- The word Einstufung means evaluation—in this case, a rating given by a cultural commission and there were 5 ratings.
There were five ratings, from the worst—Unterstufe—through Mittelstufe, Oberstufe, Sonderstufe, and the best of all, Sonderstufe mit Konzertberechtigung. A band could also fail to qualify at all. The various levels reflected the commission’s assessment not just of the individual musicians’ talent level and the quality of their songs, but also their political maturity—the extent to which they complied with government notions of music and, especially, lyrics.
All five ratings came with the government seal of approval, and the practical difference between them lay primarily in how much a band got paid.
The concert business in East Germany was unique: a venue could let a band play only if the group was legally sanctioned with an Einstufung and had a corresponding tax ID number—the number was necessary for payment, and the band’s stamp of approval was needed to keep club and bar managers from getting fired or worse. Bands were paid an hourly rate for shows that generally were billed for five hours, providing music from seven to midnight. The rate did not vary based on how many people turned up, but on what level Einstufung the band had. Unterstufe? Four marks fifty an hour per musician. Sonderstufe? Seven marks fifty an hour per musician.
- In the mid 80s, fewer East German citizens were locked up for being unemployed.
And the drop in prosecutions of youth as asozial over the same period was even more dramatic, down in 1985 to less than 5 percent of the number in 1980. With fewer arrests being made, the fear of not having an official job diminished sharply as the decade wore on.
- Because of the Solidarity uprising, it was still illegal for ordinary citizens to travel between the DDR and Poland.
- In the 1980s, rent on an official apartment in Prenzlauer Berg cost about fifty East marks a month. You could get twenty freshly baked bread rolls for one mark. But one blank cassette cost twenty marks.
- Sheet music was very cheap in East Germany.
He used some of the windfall to buy sheet music, which was very cheap in the DDR. He sent the sheet music back across the border, where it would be sold to piano and violin teachers at prices far cheaper than those offered by West German sheet music publishers.
- There was a radio program in West Berlin called Radio Glasnost which broadcast reports of and music from GDR protestors.
Schefke ended up recording interviews with DDR punk bands and arranging to smuggle their music over to West Berlin for broadcast on a show called Radio Glasnost, a program devoted to the voices of protest inside East Germany and intended for Eastern ears.
- He had been kicked out of university for a year because he had signed a petition against the stationing of nuclear missiles in East Germany;
- Neo Nazis made up some of the Dynamo Berlin support.
Despite official denials of the existence of neo-Nazis in the DDR, many high-ranking Stasi apparatchiks—including Stasi chief Erich Mielke himself—had in recent years been directly confronted at BFC matches with skinheads, their fascist and antisemitic chants, and even Nazi salutes.
- Weimar Stasi prison was rougher than Berlin Stasi prisons.
Weimar, for instance, where the punk kids had been sent to Stasi prison in 1983 for spray-painting anarchist slogans on walls around town, was considered a sort of Stasi laboratory—a place where the local Stasi office could try out anything and get draconian on people’s asses. The sleepy town was too small and too isolated for any consequences to hamper Stasi brutality there. And they knew it. East Berlin was generally the most relaxed, in part because of the Western media spotlight there. Berliners on both sides of the Wall were the best informed people in all of Germany because of the confluence of media outlets broadcasting views emanating from Washington, D.C. to Moscow and everywhere in between. Dresden was different. It was tough in Dresden.
- A third of East Germany’s lakes were no longer safe to swim in because of pollution. West Germany was sending its toxic waste to the DDR.
A recent Environmental Library study had concluded that a third of the country’s lakes were no longer safe to swim in—they were too toxic. And in late 1988, when East Germany expanded deals it had in place with West Germany to import toxic waste and dispose of it in the DDR—in exchange for hard currency, naturally—groups saw the need for another public action.
- East Germany’s border did not stop at the Wall but 10 ft west of it.
Not only was the entire Wall itself within the sovereign territory of East Germany, the sovereign territory also extended about ten feet west of the Wall—this allowed for maintenance, for instance. Few West Berliners realized that if they stood at the base of the Wall, they were actually standing in the DDR, despite being on the west side of the divide.
- Spoilt ballots and no shows.
There were really just two ways to express disaffection with the ruling coalition: one was not to vote. The punks at Erlöser held parties on every election day—revelers were admitted only with an unused voter card, and the parties ended in a bonfire of those cards. The other way to express disaffection was to fill out the ballot in a way that wasn’t an affirmation of the listed parties—like crossing them out.
- On June 8, the East German People’s Congress passed a resolution supporting China’s use of force against the demonstrators on Tiananmen Square.
- The day after the fall of the Wall, Stasi officers went to work. The police went to work. Border guards still stood at attention with machine guns at their sides. The East German Communist Party’s annual three-day conference even continued with little mention of the opening of the border.