‘Burning Down the Haus’ a Human Depiction of Social Change

4 Stars

Burning Down the Haus Cover
Courtesy of Algonquin Books

“Create your own world, your own reality. DIY. Revolution.” With these words, Tim Mohr ends the preface of “Burning Down the Haus,” his chronicle of the 1980s East German punk movement. This message reverberates throughout the entire story as the true guiding line between the non-fictional characters Mohr details. The East German punk movement owes its success, he argues, to having found enough disaffected youths with a similar outlet for their anger toward the oppressive Erich Honecker regime. “Don’t die in the waiting room of the future,” these punks proclaim. When Mohr focuses on these people, each of whom individually contributes to the success of the movement as a whole, “Haus” excels.

The author’s ability to connect with these punks is not coincidental, however. Mohr, originally a translator, met past members of the movement during his time as a club DJ in Berlin. “In short, this book would never have been conceived without Kobs, and would never have been completed without Pankow,” he claims, referring to past members. This privileged access is what makes “Burning Down the Haus” so fulfilling to read. Mohr could have written a spectator’s account of East German punks, one that largely sits back and paints the scene with broad brush strokes, but his choice to dive deep into the lives of real people, each interesting in their own way, propels the book forward throughout the years of struggle these punks faced.

“Burning Down the Haus," though, does not glamorize their struggle. The punks have many enemies: the Stasi (East Germany’s secret police), neo-Nazi skinheads, a disinterested populace, even fellow punks acting as Stasi informants. Mohr deftly creates an environment of fear and paranoia by interspersing the book with punk lyrics of the era: “Minefields and barbed wire so nobody risks going over / Walls and electric fences, they’re snatching away our freedom / Automatic firing devices and minefields so we like it here / In our beautiful country, in our beautiful country.” In the face of persecution, some punks gave up the movement entirely. “It had always been so fun — the little gang of punks against the idiot overlords. All the difficulties had just brought them closer together,” Mohr describes. “But now [Chaos] felt overwhelmed. Beaten Down. The Stasi’s strategy of degradation had worked.”

Mohr’s account of the period is not all foreboding. The atmosphere of East Germany allows him to include some humor that, while dark, helps lighten the mood. And, in contrast with the Stasi, Mohr’s depiction of outsiders who support the punks is all the more touching. The decentralized church structure allows for individual pastors and deacons, such as Uwe Kulish, to create safe havens for the punks to freely associate. “The deacons who worked directly with the punks took their real-life concerns seriously, and helped them deal with trouble at work and in school and even with the police,” Mohr writes. There is even a low-level Stasi agent who gives a punk friendly advice on how to avoid jail time. These portrayals help humanize the constituents of “Burning Down the Haus” and expand its scope to East German society as a whole.

In one sense, “Burning Down the Haus” is Mohr’s attempt to demonstrate the power of art in an oppressive regime. Any notion of subtly nodding to present-day America is destroyed in his preface. “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,” Mohr writes. Indeed, Mohr’s parallels between 1980s East Germany and modern-day America — mass surveillance, a legal gray-area that facilitates arrests, and the seeming failure of class or race-based protests — are correct and warranted. However, Mohr’s work should not be read as an instructional course, or even as a success story. While the Berlin Wall indeed falls, the punk movement also subsides. East German society as a whole certainly benefited from unification, but punkers themselves do not find widespread acceptance, which eventually necessitates a loose transition into the techno movement. This in itself is a stark warning to would-be revolutionaries: Even if they succeed in reshaping society, there is no guarantee their movement will survive to witness the aftermath.


That said, there is something heroic about this martyr-like approach to social change. And, at its core, lauding a bottom-up approach is what Mohr does best. As a result, even though Mohr arguably underplays the negative ramifications of the East German punk movement, “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.


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