BERLIN (Reuters) - A punk rock pioneer of former communist East Germany (GDR) has opened the world’s first archive about the underground GDR youth culture which survived oppression and infiltration by the state’s repressive regime.
Michael Boehlke, who fronted a band called Planlos (‘Aimless’) told Reuters that choosing to be a punk rocker in affected every aspect of your life.
To be a punk in the communist state meant an end to job prospects or further education. Interrogations, jail time, and pressure from the secret police to become an informant on the local punk scene characterized day-to-day life.
“The police interrogated me every day,” said Boehlke, adding that prison time was an ever-present possibility for everyone.
After he wore a home-made t-shirt sporting the battle cry “When justice becomes injustice, resistance becomes duty,” he was threatened with three years in jail, until his girlfriend agreed to act as an informant. He says she did not tell them anything material about the scene.
And while the feared Stasi secret police never managed to infiltrate Boehlke’s band Planlos, two members of another major East German punk band — Wutanfall (‘Tantrum’) — turned out to be government informants.
To bring this history to a broader audience, Boehlke has collected 5,000 photographs, hours of 8 mm video material and original tapes of almost the entirety of the East German punk music in an archive in Berlin’s northeast district of Pankow.
“I don’t want some West German to tell me how the punk scene was in East Germany,” Boehlke said, now sporting short grey hair and business attire, rather than the ripped clothes and black leathers of a punk.
“We were a part of that scene, have explored its history and have something to say about it,” he said, adding that East German reality is often misrepresented in various media.
Punk reached the GDR in the late 1970s and early 1980s where it developed in urban centers like Berlin or Leipzig, following the trends in Britain, the United States and western Europe.
“We all listened to Western radio stations in Berlin and the weekly BBC radio show of John Peel played a major role in my discovery of punk music,” Boehlke told Reuters.
“There was no public space for us, and we would hang around in the streets all day long.”
After a time, East Germany’s protestant church provided rooms where punks could meet and play music, feeling it was its duty to shelter youths discriminated against.
“The church was soon totally overwhelmed by the mess we caused,” Boehlke said, adding that “big concerts took place there, with hundreds or even a thousand coming.”
These gatherings soon attracted the attention of East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi.
“Outside pressure was enormous,” he told Reuters, adding that the Stasi especially targeted punk bands, believing it provided them with a way to get at leaders of a subversive youth culture.
“But the movement had no leaders, and was organized more along anarchic lines,” he said, adding that the Stasi never succeeded in breaking up the scene. Many informants fed them wrong information.
But then there were also many who did spy on their friends for years and gave them away to the state’s security apparatus.
Boehlke learnt many of these stories only when he prepared an exhibition about the GDR’s punk scene back in 2005 which toured Berlin and other East German cities and forced him to revisit his own history and that of former companions.
Following the fall of the wall, Boehlke and many others turned to all the things they had not been able to do as punks in the GDR. They went back to school or got jobs and adapted to the new realities of a unified democratic Germany.
But it is hard to get the punk out of the system, even years later. “Punk is foremost an attitude,” Boehlke said, adding that he will never really lose his sense of skepticism when it comes to the authorities and state power.
Editing by Paul Casciato