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Black Sky Thinking

How Punks In Churches Changed Germany & What Still Needs To Be Done
Beate Peter , November 14th, 2019 13:05

Thirty years on from the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Beate Peter remembers a childhood where music was an escape from the strictures of Communism and punk gigs in churches were subversive acts and asks, what needs to happen to complete the process of reunification? Photo of Di Toten Hosen at a church gig by Mark Reeder

The Berlin Wall came down six weeks before I turned 13. My life had been very quiet up to this point, although you could feel change - what kind of life-altering change that would be could not be anticipated. In my village in North East Germany, two things had happened in the spring of 1989. First, a friend of my brother had been given an old twin cassette player. To us, it felt like the moon landing. Self-recorded tapes were treated like diamonds, and you were often only given them for a day or two before having to return them to their owner. But having (or borrowing) a double deck tape recorder suddenly meant that you could make your own copy! The 60 minute ORWO cassettes were 22 East German marks, in other words all the money I had, but became the proud owner of Depeche Mode's Music For The Masses – how fitting a title! You could barely hear the songs because the cassette had been copied by every kid in the village. 

Second, the village post office started selling two copies of the teen magazine Bravo every week. We had had our East German version of such a magazine, but Bravos' posters were shiny, you also got stickers, but most importantly, English lyrics of songs would be printed. We were finally able to understand what was sung. In order to get hold of one of the copies, I would run as fast as I could straight from school to the post office. There were three of us who competed every week, but I was a good runner. Back to the Berlin wall. The night it happened, we were all glued to the TV, and my parents insisted that the wall would be up again within 24 hours. After all, the massacre of Tianmen square had ended the pro-democratic movement in China months earlier. But the wall did not come back up again. It stayed open, and the journey began.

Nobody knew what they were doing and nobody knew what would happen the next day. In all of this, churches played an important role. They were allowed to exist in communist Germany, although to be associated with the church also meant to have internalised and exhibiting an alternative set of values and beliefs. They are known for having provided spaces for discussions between the GDR government and its political opposition in the lead up to German unification. What they are less known for is their provision of space for young people to play popular music. 

In the GDR, Individuals needed official permission to own an electric guitar or to play in front of an audience. Lyrics and music could be censored through the state-owned record label Amiga or via radio policies. In this climate of repression, churches started to offer services with music, specifically aimed at young people. These were called Bluesmessen (Blues Mass) and didn't need permission for the musical performance because they were not official concerts, but 'services' aimed at the German youth. This meant that censorship was mainly avoided and instead, young people were encouraged to voice their opinions. Originally, it was blues that was played, but punks discovered churches as opportunities to play gigs as well. The churches filled with an unlikely congregation, and  I was one of those visitors, albeit not in Berlin. My parents believed in communism, and we always had a massive argument at Christmas Eve, when I would go to Mass to meet up with all my friends. Religion was not what  connected or divided us. It was the knowledge that we did something different. In those days, there was a clear distinction between showing opposition and showing difference. Bluesmessen were to show an alternative lifestyle, which, strictly speaking, did not fit the church's idea of a mass either. We danced wherever there was space, and it showed me for the first time what dance can do.   As early as 1983, punk band Die Toten Hosen from West Germany played an illegal gig at a church in East Berlin, and they repeated that on the grounds of another church in 1988. Equipment was borrowed from East German bands, as state surveillance would have taken note of the transportation of music equipment and most likely confiscated it. Mark Reeder, who in 1978 moved from Manchester to Berlin, organised these gigs and risked be extradited if his efforts had been discovered. Punks did not exist in the GDR (at least officially), but knowing that there was a gig by a punk band meant to see opposition, dissidence, even freedom. It would be hard to prove, but I have wondered whether those church services with music kept people from throwing stones, from expressing their frustration and dissatisfaction through violence.

When the Berlin Wall fell, nobody knew what would happen. The opening of the wall on 9th November had been a mistake. At a press conference that was to announce changes to travel arrangements of East Germans, government minister Günter Schabowski announced that, as far as he was concerned, those changes came into effect immediately. When people raced to the wall, border patrol, police and army were not informed. It could have all kicked off then, or at any other day of the total chaos that unfolded in the coming weeks and months. 

During that time, West Germany had introduced the “welcome money" - every East German who would come over to West Germany would be welcomed with 100 D-Mark. I had to barter with my parents, as the long desired twin cassette player with recording function cost 104 D-Mark. As they were completely overwhelmed by all the shiny new products, I got what I wanted. From that day on, I was glued to the radio in the hope that the West German radio would play my favourite songs from beginning to end so that I could record proper versions on my tapes.  

In the meantime, the political chaos continued. For a teenager, this chaos flt like heaven. There were so many new things to explore: new foods, new music, new spaces, new people. I ate my first kiwi with the skin on (I remember us discussing the options of how to eat it), and I also found my music - the heavy 4/4 rhythms coming out of North America. Today, I'd say that acid house was to the UK what Detroit techno was to Germany. People discovered the old buildings and spaces near or on the old death strip that ran through the divided as ideal venues for parties. Not all of them were illegal, as the senate even allowed party organisers to "rent" spaces for almost no money. Some might say that the local government had other issues to tackle - German unification, for example - but my point is that this exploration of new spaces meant that Ossis (people from the East of Germany) and Wessis (people from the West of Germany) would meet on “unclaimed" territory. It was not ideologically loaded, it belonged to neither East Berlin nor West Berlin. It was not associated with a particular type of music, a certain style of dancing or other specific body politics. This territory could be defined by those people who came to the parties and danced. Again, my point is that people could focus on  what connected them rather than what divided them. They jointly created a space that ignored the East/West dichotomy, something that facilitated the development of a specific Berlin sound. Many people might think of Berlin techno, but there were other developments at the time that also shaped the German music landscape. 

David Hasselhoff, for example, has to be mentioned when discussing the fall of the Berlin Wall. People sang along and cried and hugged each other when he performed 'Looking for Freedom', a cover version of a German song produced by Jack White (a German). Hasselhoff's version as released in 1988, and it has been argued that it provided as much a soundtrack for German unification as techno did. Hasselhoff's feels almost like Schlager, and my parents definitely approved. There is also what came to be known as trance (and is perhaps what we call EDM today). Paul van Dyk was one of its biggest names, came from East Germany, was neither subversive nor edgy, and didn't challenge our modes of listening or our sound aesthetics. But he put euphoria into his music, something that many Germans could relate to, and his 1993 album 45RPM is testament to it. And the Germans continue to relate to van Dyk. In 2004, he released a track with Peter Heppner called 'Wir Sind Wir (Ein Deutschlandlied', which discusses the continued search for a German identity. 

German unification is not completed, which is obvious in the rise of the far right in East Germany. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is overwhelmingly popular in the former Communist country. This vote for a party that is against immigration, against the Greens, and against the current “establishment" is a sign of panic and desperation. Those East German voters are trying to cling onto the last bit of identity they have - being Germans and part of a strong, powerful and rich nation state. 

Berlin's techno (about which a lot has been written) is more of a brand with which to attract tourists than a sound of a unified Germany. The clubbing spaces of Berlin tell a global story by now – one where people from all walks of way dance to unite. But perhaps Berlin should not be taken as an example, as you hear more English than German on the streets. Instead, we need music and dancefloors in the former East Germany to provide an antidote to fascist bands and ideologically-loaded lyrics. We can shape such dance floors of resistance outside of cosmopolitan cities who tend to vote for the Greens (at least in Germany) - by investing in DJ equipment and workshops in youth clubs, by connecting local towns through public transport systems, by DJs also touring the East of Germany outside the Berlin bubble, by starting to be inclusive to all Germans. Dancefloors are not the government, and it we want to complete unification: everybody has to be able to feel at home, regardless of their political vote. 

Dr Beate Peter is a sociologist and Senior Lecturer in German at Manchester Metropolitan University