The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Berlin became a magnet for intellectuals and artists and mates of mine. A city divided with one half in communist East Germany and the other in capitalist West Germany. This split happened at the end of World War Two when Berlin was carved up into Soviet, American, British and French controlled zones. The 1972 movie Cabaret reminded people of the decadent Berlin of the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic. In the late 1970s, David Bowie went into self-imposed exile in the city creating some of his best work. And then in the early 1980s, British indie pop fans embraced German post-punk combos. Groups like Xmal Deutschland and Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF).

When I first went to Berlin, you could still see the East German parliament building – a brown glass, modernist, 1970s brutalist masterpiece. An enormous communist party logo fixed to the front. But demolished after the collapse of East Germany and found to be riddled with asbestos. Bomb damage from World War Two was still very much in evidence. The city’s incredible museums pock-marked with bullet holes.

It was impossible to enter East Berlin but you could get close to the Brandenburg Gate – just not through it. Dividing East and West Berlin was the notorious yet iconic Berlin Wall. An uncompromising statement by the East German communist authorities and the Soviet Union that their half of the city was closing down to all western influence.

The punk sound of East Berlin

None of us really appreciated that the 1980s would be the final decade of communism in central and eastern Europe. We couldn’t have foreseen that in November 1989, the Berlin Wall would be torn down. What looks obvious in hindsight was not at the time. In the early 80s, Berlin had a romantic allure for western indie kids while local youth developed a German post-punk sound with heavy political messaging. And it should be noted that this rebellious musical movement extended to both communist-controlled East Berlin and West Berlin.

Indeed in East Berlin, the secret police – known as the Stasi – regarded punk as a dangerous subculture. An import from the west that could undermine loyalty to the one-party system. Bands like the Sex Pistols and X-Ray Spex spoke to many East German youth who formed their own punk outfits and soon came under Stasi surveillance. Bands in East Berlin included Wutanfall (Tantrum), Planlos (Aimless) and Namenlos (Nameless). Their issues weren’t so much youth unemployment – as in Britain at the time – because they had guaranteed jobs under the communist command economy. It was the lack of control over their lives that made them kick against the system.

When suppression didn’t work – the Stasi changed tactics and instead applied brutal pressure to the punk bands of East Berlin even forcing some musicians to become informers. There are some horrific accounts of arrests and beatings of punk band members. It’s been estimated, by the way, that up to 20% of East Germany’s population informed on their neighbours, family and friends to the Stasi for a variety of reasons.

Berlin – decadent and ahead of its time

So you think gay rights were invented in London or New York? Or that Paris was the global centre of naughtiness a hundred years ago? Well – think again. You’ve ignored Berlin.

Berlin had been Europe’s decadent fleshpot before Hitler and the Nazis took power in 1933. Ahead of its time in terms of gender equality and acceptance of LGBT people. Not that most Berliners were spectacularly enlightened. But there was at least a ‘scene’ in its clubs, bars and on the streets that was decades ahead of the rest of the world. If you were gay or lesbian in the 1920s and had a healthy bank account, you probably spent some time in Berlin. As early as the 1880s, the Berlin police commissioner gave up prosecuting gay bars and instead organised night-time tours! While in 1896, the first gay magazine began publication in Berlin. In the 1920s, Germany’s very experimental movie industry wasted no time depicting gay, lesbian and cross-dressing characters.

All that of course came to an end when the Nazis took power in 1933 and Germany was transformed from a parliamentary democracy – the Weimar Republic – to a one-party, fascist, totalitarian state. Not that an underground didn’t continue and that some Nazis didn’t participate on the sly. But the open and permissive liberality of Weimar was over.

Berlin pop speaks to 1980s youth

Something about Berlin spoke to radical young people in Britain at the end of the 1970s. Let me state boldly from personal experience what I think it was. Rightly or wrongly, we felt that the coming to power of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom was the onset of a repressive era. The forward march of women’s, LGBT, black and Asian rights was halted. Trade Unions were under attack. The tabloid press became especially poisonous – emboldened by the political move to the Right. Of course, Reagan and Thatcher were not fascists or Nazis – but we felt like an oppressed underground movement of rebels!

Hence the whole ‘alternative’ scene of the early 1980s. In what was an increasingly polarised atmosphere – you were either part of the Tory mainstream or the ‘alternative’ resistance. You get my drift. We wanted our minds to live in the Weimar Republic while all around us the Third Reich was taking control.

Meanwhile, in real life Berlin – and wider Germany – bands were combining a dark post-punk sound with heavily political lyrics. In Britain, since the 1981 riots, record companies had run screaming from political bands and were pushing bubblegum pop down our throats. There were British pop acts like Paul Weller and Jerry Dammers still sticking it to Thatcher but the Germans took disenchantment with the status quo to a whole new level. Or so it seemed.

And not only was the sound and lyrics appealing but the Weimar-esque gender bending of acts like Klaus Nomi reminded us of Germany’s proud pre-Nazi record on LGBT rights. Although Nomi spent the last decade of his life in New York before succumbing to AIDS, his whole look and sound was incredibly unique and a huge influence on acts from David Bowie to Lady Gaga. You owe it to yourself to check him out. Don’t let Klaus Nomi be forgotten!!

DISCOVER: Grim times for LGBT people in the 1980s

Neue Deutsche Welle – the German New Wave

As punk faltered after 1978 – New Wave was the art college response. In Germany, that movement became known as the Neue Deutsche Welle. A term apparently coined by a journalist on Sounds magazine. One glossy product of this genre was Nena with her hit song 99 Luftballons – but please believe me there was more to Neue Deutsche Welle than this. Kill me now if you wish but think of Nena to NDW as Toyah was to British punk. You know what I’m saying – and if you don’t, I’m not going to explain. That said – I love 99 Luftballons but it’s strictly a guilty pleasure.

The bands I associate with NDW and that I loved at the time were DAF and Einst├╝rzende Neubauten. So, let me give you a flavour of Berlin and German 1980s indie pop below to convince you why this was in my tape deck circa 1983.

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