© Christiane Eisler / transit
When punk music began to flourish in East Germany in the early 1980s, it represented an energetic rebuttal of everything the staid, oppressive state represented. And there was no way the secret police were going to tolerate it.
Between 1981 and 1985, punk music behind the Iron Curtain was spearheaded by the band Wutanfall (“Tantrum”), a Leipzig six-piece who represented a loose but dedicated opposition to the state. Punks would illicitly listen to John Peel under their blankets at night, and wear homemade outfits crusted with painted slogans and held together with safety pins. Small, DIY acts of rebellion, but also the seeds of the dissent that would eventually bring down the Berlin Wall.
But of Wutanfall’s members, two were informants, and gradually the Stasi began to apply more and more pressure to frontman Chaos. In an extract from his new book Burning Down The Haus, Tim Mohr details how while punk in the UK may have embodied opposition to Margaret Thatcher, teenage nihilism and swearing live on the BBC, the stakes were somewhat higher in the East German police state.
They came for Wutanfall first.
The Stasi’s Department XX had been tracking singer Chaos intensively. A July 1982 report described a trip to Leipzig by a group of Berlin punks – including Colonel, Keule, Special and Herne – to meet Chaos and other Leipzig punks. Reports in November 1982 detailed a trip Chaos took to Berlin with Wutanfall bassist Zappa, during which time he told Colonel and other Berliner punks about an upcoming gig in Jena, in the southern state of Thüringen. The reports also listed two other shows the band had played in Leipzig in the third week of November, and alerted authorities to the fact that Wutanfall had made cassette recordings of their rehearsals, which were then copied and handed around, facilitating the dissemination of their music throughout the country.
Another set of Stasi reports in early 1983 placed Chaos in Berlin for three days in February along with Wutanfall drummer Rotz and Ratte, who played bass in HAU, the other band Wutanfall guitarist Imad had started. In Berlin, the Stasi learned, the Leipzig punks had been setting up a Wutanfall gig for May 1983 – not the sort of thing you could do over the phone in the DDR. They had also gone to Planlos’s rehearsal space on Metzer Strasse, though the Stasi had been unable to establish what was discussed there.
Pressure had been steadily ramping up on Chaos. According to internal Stasi memos from late 1982, they considered Wutanfall the “favourite and best known” punk group: “Punks travel to their shows from across the entire country.” As the band’s singer, Chaos was viewed by authorities as public enemy number one – even though he never saw himself as the leader of the band, and music and lyrics were written by the whole band. Authorities paid attention to Chaos over and above other members of Wutanfall for another reason, too. But at the time Chaos would not have dreamed that anyone in his gang would be informing on him.
Still, he was often surprised at the details the Stasi interrogators revealed when he was hauled in. There would often be moments when he thought, How could they possibly know that? But then again, he reasoned, they probably had every place bugged.
Since finishing school in 1981, Chaos had been doing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and his bosses there were also informing on him. Stasi officers regularly picked him up during work and hauled him down to the station zur Klärung eines Sachverhaltes, that is, to clear up some facts surrounding a case.
With Chaos, the initial approach involved physical violence and intimidation. But that just made him even more sure of his convictions – what kind of government wielded state-sanctioned violence against a kid who just wanted to dress weird and talk shit over loud music? An illegitimate one.
What kind of government wielded state-sanctioned violence against a kid who just wanted to dress weird and talk shit over loud music?
As time had gone on, the security forces had started to mess with his head in addition to the corporal punishment. They sought to demoralize him, to make him slip up and give them some piece of evidence they could use to throw him jail. Sometimes they would take him to the window during an interrogation and point out at another window across the way, in the pretrial detention centre, and say, “Hey, look over there, that cell is reserved for you!”
By early 1983, he was receiving two summonses a week to report to police stations for questioning. If he didn’t turn up for an appointment, they came for him. Usually at work.
During another trip to Berlin, he’d been picked up on Alexanderplatz, thrown in a car and driven all the way back to Leipzig, then thrown into detention. They interrogated him for seventeen hours straight that time, without breaks and without meals. Then they brought in a twenty-page summary of the talks and told him to sign each page to attest that it was accurate. He didn’t care, he just signed them – it was all bullshit anyway.
After he’d signed, they picked up the stack of papers and ripped them up in front of his face.
“Let’s start again from the beginning.”
And they did.
After the second marathon interrogation, he couldn’t even sign his name.
He was trembling too much from fatigue and lack of food, water, and sleep. They confiscated his ID papers and replaced them with a PM 12, a second-class ID that barred the bearer from traveling beyond his or her hometown. And while a PM 12 holder might be able to slip the police inside the country, it was impossible to cross any border. This was a serious blow for Chaos, who had already established connections to punks in Hungary. He’d found a lot of inspiration in his visits to Budapest, where the punks were further along than in East Germany – Hungarian punks were tolerated on the streets and even had clubs where their bands could play openly. Budapest was a place of refuge for Chaos, a place where he could get out from under the pressure of East German security forces.
Chaos was at the end of his rope. He finally snapped one afternoon in the back of an unmarked police car, lashing out as the officers in the front seat continued blathering at him.
“Shut your trap, you fucking pig,” snarled Chaos from the backseat.
The atmosphere in the car suddenly changed.
They put a bag over Chaos’s head and drove around for a while before dragging him out of the car and marching him into some woods – Chaos could hear the leaves and twigs crackling underfoot, and feel the soft forest floor.
Then, still hooded, Chaos was savagely beaten and kicked. He’d been hit and punched at police stations before, but nothing like this. When it was over, he was covered in hematomas, splattered with blood.
They took him, trembling and battered, into the Stasi stationhouse and made him sign a statement attesting that he had been well treated during his detainment. They had to move his hand for him as he signed.
The next day, Chaos turned up for work in a shocking state, scabs and swelling and deep bruises all over his body. Everyone could connect the dots: he’d been taken away by security forces, practically paraded through the workshop; he returned a bloody mess. There was no mystery as to what had happened.
The next day, Chaos turned up for work in a shocking state, scabs and swelling and deep bruises all over his body.
After that particularly harsh beating, Chaos’s parents became a bit more accepting of him and his side of the story – it seemed to them that maybe he wasn’t the problem after all, maybe he wasn’t some kind of hooligan. Still, they continued to think Chaos wouldn’t have all these problems if he would just cut the crap – drop this silly punk thing.
“I’m not doing anything!” he told them, “I just play music and spike my hair up with shaving cream, OK? I just want to have my own brand of fun, that’s all. That’s no reason for them to beat me half to death!”
Other non-punks noticed, too. Chaos didn’t have to say anything; the marks on his body said it all. For some people, that was the first time they’d come face to face with the ugly reality of what could happen if you strayed from the official path. With many punks, the brutality they encountered had served to harden their resolve and radicalize their thinking – now that same brutality made others wince, people at Chaos’s workplace, for instance. It was impossible to ignore. Though most did their best. They’re not coming for me. Chaos was struck by the silence at work. Not my problem. Ah, but not everyone looked away. The government’s violence always had a boomerang effect.
None of that mattered for Chaos, though. Chaos was beaten down. Physically. Beaten down. Mentally. Beaten down. By the end it was an all-out terror campaign. They would kick in his door at three in the morning three or four nights a week, screaming at him as they stormed in. If anyone was crashing at his place, he’d be accused of harbouring criminals. Grounds to take Chaos in for a night of interrogation.
And they started to come for him before every gig Wutanfall had lined up. They always knew. Sometimes HAU singer Stracke stepped in for him – Stracke had been practically a member of the band anyway, ever since the first rehearsals.
Things no longer felt the same to Chaos.
It had always been so fun – the little gang of punks against the idiot overlords. All the difficulties had just brought them closer together. But now he felt overwhelmed. Beaten down. The Stasi’s strategy of degradation had worked.
As Chaos started to unravel, he felt he needed peace and quiet. His apartment had become a beacon for punks from all over the country, with people showing up and crashing there all the time; his apartment had begun to feel like an almost daily target of middle-of-the-night raids, his apartment… he needed peace and quiet. It was all too much.
He created a bulletin board for his front door, listing the apartment’s hours of operation. He limited the opening hours and built in days off. Wednesday, for instance, was a day off. He didn’t let anyone in.
“Sorry, but I’m off today.”
The first time the cops turned up after that, he told them, “Sorry, but as you can see today is a day off.” They just got more pissed off, more brutal.
He was done.
Chaos was done.
The best frontman in East Germany was done.
Burning Down The Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr is available now
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