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Revisiting East German Punk

Jane Paulick, DW-WORLD.DEAugust 30, 2005

Not even the former East Germany was spared the punk explosion of the late 1970s. But as a new exhibition shows, GDR punks had a very different agenda than that of their western counterparts.

GDR punk reloadedImage: presse

When Michael Böhlke, otherwise known as "Pankow," took to the stage at the opening of Germany's first-ever exhibition on punk in the GDR last Friday, it was as if the last 25 years had never happened. Reunited with his former fellow renegades, he brought down the house.

"It felt so right -- I realized that I was born to perform," he said later. But while members of many former punk bands in West Germany went on to become household names -- die Toten Hosen, die Ärtzte, Einstürzende Neubauten, to name but a few -- Pankow never managed to carve out a successful musical career for himself.

Like many of the GDR's punks, his flirtation with counterculture had lasting repercussions. In the late 1980s, he was refused permission to study theater directing and forced to train as a mechanic. His former girlfriend Jana -- whose photo features in the exhibition -- was sent to jail for her punk activities and is psychologically traumatized to this day.

"I was probably more of a hippy"

Disgusted by the "Ostalgie" trend -- nostalgia for life behind the Berlin wall -- Pankow recently decided to put together an exhibition documenting the history of punk under East Germany's communist dictatorship. And it's not quite what you'd expect. Broadly dismissed in the west as nihilistic, punk in the GDR was fuelled by optimism and a desire to change society.

Ausstellung Ostpunk to much future
Image: presse

"In retrospect, I was probably more of a hippy," shrugged Pankow. "I had a vision; I was full of hope that things could improve. We didn't do drugs and we didn't drink -- we thought we were better than everyone else, and every last loser in the GDR drank beer like it was going out of fashion, so being a teetotaller was a form of rebellion."

It was also very bonding.

"Punk was a cross-cultural phenomenon in the east," explained Pankow. "The 'tristesse' of the GDR unleashed a huge creative potential, and the minute you were on the margins of society you tapped into a network of other artistic activity."

The cultural depth of GDR punk is reflected in the exhibition. Housed in a former industrial warehouse in Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, the show features paintings, drawings, print graphics, photography, super 8 film, collages, rare audio footage and miscellaneous pop culture ephemera such as record covers, buttons, flyers and posters.

From youthful rebel to political pariah

Galerie Berliner Mauer: Ostseite
Image: AP

In 1979, Pankow was just another frustrated teenager.

"I was angry with my parents, angry with my school, angry with the state," he said. "But one day I saw a picture of Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols in 'Bravo' magazine, and he seemed like the exact embodiment of how I felt. I went off and ripped up my jeans right then and there."

To begin with, he was the only punk he knew, but the movement soon gathered momentum -- largely inspired by events happening in England.

"Every Thursday, my friends and I would listen to the DJ John Peel at two o' clock in the morning on our transistor radios," he remembered. "We used to hang out at Alexanderplatz (a landmark square in the former East Berlin), because we knew that's where the tourists were, and we wanted as many people to see us as possible."

A conscious risk

But the tourists weren't the only ones photographing the punks. While the likes of the Sex Pistols might have been frowned upon by the British establishment, to be a punk in the former East Germany was to be spied on by the secret police and to risk a jail sentence.

"Punk inevitably became political very fast," said Pankow. "If you were in a band, you had to apply for permission to perform in public and audition before a committee that would assess your musical competence, the way you looked -- and above all, whether you were politically acceptable. The punks refused to go along with this -- it was considered a compromise."

As the youthful rebellion began to spiral out of state control, punks in the GDR were no longer seen as disaffected teenagers -- they were denounced as enemies of the state. By 1983 the secret police had sunk its talons into the movement and the scene was slowly but surely infiltrated with informants, forced under pressure from the State to choose between cooperation, a jail sentence, expulsion or military service.

"It was shocking how many Stasi collaborators there were in the punk scene," said Pankow, referring to the East German secret police. But even though the scene had splintered amid acrimony and disappointment for good by 1989, the exhibition opening on Friday was a jubilant affair.

"It was like a class reunion," he smiled.

The exhibition "Ostpunk – Too much future" runs though Sept. 25 at the Salon Ost, Saarbrückerstr. 20, Berlin.