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Snitches With Edge: The 'Stasi Punks' Of East Berlin

27/04/2016 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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In this photo Oct. 26, 2014 photo a woman touches the wall as she walks alongside the remains of the Berlin Wall at the remembrance site Bernauer Strasse in Berlin. On Nov. 9, 2014, Germany celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall on Nov. 9, 1989. After 25 years only a few remains of the wall remind of the about 160 kilometers (about 100 miles) long border which surrounded the west part of Berlin. At the remembrance site Bernauer Strasse some hundred meters of original wall parts still exist. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

"They offered me the office, offered me the shop

They said I'd better take anything they'd got" -- 'Career Opportunities', The Clash

Berlin is a city steeped in deep historical movements that have not just shaped Europe, but the global order as well. World War I, the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, the formation of the Third Reich, World War II and the subsequent division of Germany into two ideological blocs did not just create political anomalies, but societal and cultural ones as well.

'Reunification' is a word that is still used often in discussing Germany--after all, the fall of the wall dividing the German Democratic Republic (East Germany; GDR) and West Germany in Berlin in 1989 is a relatively recent event as far as history is concerned.

The Stasi over the decades developed into a large 'Big Brother' conglomerate, keeping an eye and suppressing dissenters, political opponents and cultural rebels.

East Germany was part of the Eastern Bloc, a Marxist, pro-Soviet Union state that was influenced and honed in the political landscape during the post-WWII slicing of Germany. Its existence worked well for India during those times as GDR was possibly the only state in the European Eastern Bloc that recognized India's 1971 intervention in the then East Pakistan, and the formation of Bangladesh while most other countries hesitated. As author Srinath Raghavan notes in his book 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, East Germany also had a mission--it looked to "dangle the prospect of diplomatic recognition for Bangladesh" in order to "coax India into formally recognizing East Germany as a quid pro quo."

One of the products of the anti-West East German state, was the formation of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit ( which translated into the Ministry of State Security), more commonly known as the Stasi. The secret police, formed in the early 1950s, was developed to keep an eye on the country's own population, and worked closely with the KGB, the Soviet spy agency. The Stasi over the decades developed into a large 'Big Brother' conglomerate, keeping an eye and suppressing dissenters, political opponents and cultural rebels.

Developing informants and insiders was a big part of how the Stasi strategized, and for this they employed whatever means were available to their disposal ...

The Stasi had developed their operations in the then East Berlin, mainly to counter West Germany and its influences such as the US and the UK. The Stasi developed large buildings over the years as its ranks increased-- imposing structures in typical Soviet style, drab and bland, aesthetically grey monstrosities. The chief of the Stasi who governed over the organization for 32 of the GDR's 40-year-long existence, Erich Mielke, sat in the complex's 'Building 1'; interestingly, this office was on the second floor but since this would not do for the boss, the first floor was called something else so that, by name at least, Mielke's office could be said to be on the first floor.

In the 1970s, the Stasi--whose job included cultural purification, which meant repelling Western music, films, art and literature--met with a new challenge in the GDR: the growth of a new underground movement called punk. As the popularity of punk music and bands grew, the culture that blossomed around this started to sweep across Europe. The GDR's regime by the late 1970s and early 1980s had started to crack down against alternative culture, specifically in eastern Berlin, heavy-handedly. The Stasi started to jail youths found listening to punk, rock, metal etc. They also worked to turn these musicians and 'scene' members into informants for the Stasi.

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While on the West side of the Berlin wall, beautiful graffiti and murals on politics, art and culture were depicted, it was not so on the Eastern front. In fact, drawing a single white line along the East German side of the wall was seen as a big mark of protest against the state at that time.

[Punk musician] Frank Tröger became a "reliable" informant who successfully spread rumours that the Stasi wanted to plant within the punk community.

The first-ever punk concert in East Germany had taken place in 1981 at the Yugoslavian embassy, where two kids of a Yugoslav diplomat were also in the band. This was also perhaps the first and only time that a couple of punks had diplomatic immunity. But the Stasi had programs and strategies on how to break these cultural and sub-cultural threats, as they saw them. Developing informants and insiders was a big part of how the Stasi strategized, and for this they employed whatever means were available to their disposal to break into these small, closely knit cliques.

One example popular in Berlin, and which now also adorns the walls of the Stasi Museum in the city, is of an East German punk legend called Frank Tröger who was involved in the punk scene's opposition movement against the Marxist regime. Tröger belonged to a band known as The Company, formed in 1983 in East Berlin. During his period as a musician in the city, he also went to jail to serve a 10-month sentence for "asocial conduct" where a Stasi agent approached him with an offer for him to turn into an informal Stasi informant. Tröger's initial reactions to this offer are not clear, but it is believed he broke under the Stasi's interrogation "techniques", and agreed. Some information on him that is available shows that he was told if he refused, the word would be spread within the punk community that he had been a Stasi informant for a long time, which would completely discredit him (they of course made him write all this on paper). The Stasi also threatened to deprive him of medication that he needed for an illness. Tröger became a "reliable" informant who wrote many denunciatory reports and successfully spread rumours that the Stasi wanted to plant within the punk community. In fact, even Tröger's band mate Tatjana Besson later turned out to be a Stasi informant. It is not known whether they both knew each other's secret.

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The handwritten note by Tröger in which he agrees to help the Stasi now hangs at the Stasi Museum in Berlin

There were others as well, such as East German guitar band Die Anderen, which had played in West Berlin as well in May 1989, smuggling themselves across the Invalidenstrasse checkpoint in an "official looking van". Others such as members of the band Namenlos in 1983 were arrested, tried and sentenced to 18 months in prison for their politically charged lyrics. While their arrest caused a furore within the punk community, those who were caught protesting against Namenlos's arrests, such as a bunch of graffiti artists in the city of Leipzig were also tried and sentenced. This was perhaps the peak time of the ideological and political clash between the GDR punks and the state, specifically the Stasi.

Whether the punks would approve of today's aspirational, rich Berlin is perhaps another story.

The punk scene of the erstwhile East Germany still has many tales to be told on the streets of Berlin, both political and societal. It is perhaps easy to forget that the Berlin Wall only came down 25 years ago, and that East Germany and the Stasi were demolished only after that. The 1980s were also peak for the Stasi, with numbers suggesting that more than 91,000 Stasi officers worked for/against a country with a population of just 15 million.

But perhaps, in the long term, the punk scene did win against the East German Marxist bloc. Today, at the former Stasi compound in Berlin, two of their biggest and tallest buildings are used to house refugees. The famous Checkpoint Charlie (yes, the one from the Tom Hanks film Bridge of Spies) is also a reminder of how the Eastern Bloc fell after the Cold War, with McDonald's and Starbucks being only a few feet away from the now highly commercialized historical zones of Berlin. Capitalism did finally defeat Communism in East Berlin, and Germany's current wealth, which is being used to help millions of refugees today and which places it as the economic engine of Europe, is perhaps a good indicator of where history itself stands from a German context. But whether the punks would approve of today's aspirational, rich Berlin is perhaps another story.

Tröger died in 2015 and not much of his legacy remains, except an obscure tribute addressed to one of his family members by a local writer which says "though God was a cartoon he (Tröger) would never kill or die for, God rest him, socialism, punk and all else who are doomed".

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