Paul Hockenos, author of the book “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin,” spoke at Brandeis in a conversation with Prof. Sabine Von Mering (GER) on Tuesday. Hockenos spoke about Berlin’s punk music scene and how it changed the city before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Punk rock arrived in Berlin around 1978 to 1979, brought back by travelers who had visited punk music venues in London. The city’s nightlife scene exploded, with dozens of cafes and nightclubs opening all over Berlin, said Hockenos. With the rejuvenated nightlife and punk rock came a sexual revolution. Gay tourism became incredibly popular in Berlin, and the new nightlife included many gay clubs.

Hockenos said there was a great angst about the Cold War in West Berlin, which created “a nihilistic culture … as some people had never left West Berlin.” One musical product of the Cold War angst was the industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. The band made its music by recording its members destroying various objects while using some instrumentals. Hockenos said that the idea behind Einstürzende Neubauten was the “destruction of the materials with which West Germany was built. …They were ripping down postwar West Germany because they thought it was flawed. In order to start over again, you had to annihilate.”

Other contributors to the punk scene were the highly inexpensive housing and many abandoned buildings around West Berlin, said Hockenos. The government provided high subsidies for people to live and work in West Berlin, as the city was in decline at the time. It was so inexpensive to live in West Berlin that people could work a bit and still have enough money for rent, giving them plenty of freizeit, or free time. In their free time, artists took advantage of the great freiraum, or free space, and the many abandoned buildings provided for work and leisure. West Berliners were caught up in this environment, and, Hockenos said, were depressed. “They didn’t want the wall to fall, and they knew that the moment it did, their little enclave of worry-free counterculture would come to an end.”

Berlin’s punk music scene was also present in East Berlin and was a symbol of defiance against the Communist regime. East German youths found punk music on the radio and from those who went to the West. The Regime discouraged, but could not stop, people from listening to Western radio stations and watching Western television.

After the Berlin Wall fell, the city was very poor and in shambles, and people were leaving in droves, said Hockenos. Frankfurt was a city of commerce and was seen as a better option for investment. However, in 2003, then-Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit called the city “poor but sexy,” with its thriving arts and music scenes. This led to the opening of museums and art galleries and an influx of intellectuals and music producers who thought the city was “intellectual and cool.” 

The creative atmosphere brought back the city, but it also led to gentrification. Berlin uses its artistic reputation to draw people to creative jobs and portray itself as a “hot commodity,” explained Hockenos. It is making rents skyrocket so the artists who revived Berlin can no longer afford to live there. Hockenos stated that “the arts scene is preserved as an amusement park for those who can afford the rising rents.”

The effects of the East-West divide are still felt today. Former East Germany is still plagued by high unemployment and is under duress from the influx of refugees, said Hockenos. Many people in former East Germany voted for extremist parties on both the left and right. This stems from the flawed unification execution by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who promised “unification within a year.” Under the Communist regime, East Germany’s industrial progress was suppressed, and ever since, the region is still trying to catch up to the West.