Ostpunk Never Dies
Henryk Gericke on what it meant to be a punk in East Germany
“They put out rat poison in the backyard,” Henryk tells us, as we enter his book- and record-filled studio apartment in Prenzlauer Berg. “There are dead rats everywhere. But that’s pretty punk rock, isn’t it?”
Henryk Gericke was a punk in his teens and sang in a band, The Leistungsleichen. What sounds like a normal phase of teenage rebellion was in fact an exceedingly dangerous path for him and the other punks in the GDR. It was, as he tells us, the most persecuted youth culture in East Germany.
Henryk was born in 1964 in East Berlin, just three years after the Wall was built. His father, Gerd Gericke, was a successful dramaturge at East Germany’s ‘Hollywood studios’ – Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, better known as DEFA – and worked on the Oscar-nominated book adaption, Jakob der Lügner. His father was in the Socialist Unity Party (SED), Henryk explains, but he grew up in a household of critical thinkers. Being critical of the GDR was perilous, it could mean being excluded from job offers, for example, or state persecution, even jail. Not working, drinking too much and other ‘antisocial behaviours’ could be punished with forced labour in jail. The punk movement, which was a more or less harmless subculture in the West, became the East’s public enemy, and was persecuted with force.
In 2005, Henryk initiated an exhibition in Berlin on the East German punk scene with the title Ostpunk: Too Much Future. An exhibition catalogue and a documentary with the same title followed, opening Westerners’ minds to the idea of punk in the former East. As a gallerist, publisher and writer, Henryk is currently working on semi-autobiographical book, as well as a record collection of unpublished music from East Germany and Eastern Europe. In his home, we meet him to talk about what it meant to be an Ostpunk.
Do you remember the first time you realised you were basically trapped in the GDR? The first time I realised that I wasn’t able to leave the country was when I was just ten years old. The asphalt on the street cracked and it looked like they were mountains. In my infantile superstition I thought: “The more often you step on those mountains, the more of the world you’ll see.” I was a huge fan of the legend of Tristan and Isolde, and therefore Ireland, too. I thought stepping on those mountains would increase my chances of getting there. I knew already back then that I wouldn’t be able to leave the country before I turned 65 – pensioners were able to go to the West. I remember feeling for the first time how hopeless everything was.
Was that the first time you felt frustrated with the system? It was more a deep sadness than frustration. I didn’t understand the system as a whole yet. There were things that annoyed me in kindergarten or at school, and of course I connected them to ‘the system’ but that did not make me a critic. I was a child. It lead to me build some sort of inner wall that I tried to tear down in the following years.
The first time I realised that I wasn’t able to leave the country was when I was just ten years old.
What’s your first memory of punk? The Pioniere was the youth organisation in the GDR that almost everyone attended before graduating to the Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ) at 14. There was a magazine for Pioniere called Die Trommel (The Drum) that you had to subscribe to. In this magazine there was a tiny black and white picture of two punks on King’s Road in London. They looked quite unusual; one had his hair combed back, a safety pin in his cheek and wore thick black makeup around his eyes while walking a punk girl on a leash. It hit me with full force how beautiful those people were to me.
The article said that punks were young people in London who killed each other at concerts and would throw the bodies into the sewers. That it was a protest against capitalism that couldn’t be successful since it was not based on Marxist–Leninist theory [laughs]. This made me question if it would be okay to kill someone if it was! Back then I already knew that it was something outrageous, strange and something that could interest me.
How did you become a punk in the end? When I was 13 or 14 years old I started being interested in pop and glam rock, like Gary Glitter or my big hero, Suzie Quatro. And then I started listening to AC/DC, who were considered punk rock alongside Kiss and David Bowie. I saw Siouxsie and the Banshees the first time on western TV with their hit ‘Hong Kong Garden’. Then came the Sex Pistols; most people started with the Pistols but they were the second step for me, by that point I was already into it.
And of course I also wanted to look like them. I started styling myself in the same way, which was quite amusing for my classmates but shocking for my parents and teachers. Before long I met other like-minded people and discovered the meeting spots. Trouble quickly followed.
This process of not waiting for anyone’s approval and coming to terms with it with other likeminded people is a moment of power.
What kind of trouble? It was mostly with other people on the street. In the beginning they were happy to see us because they thought we were from West Berlin. It was like aliens landing on GDR territory. They liked that we brought colours to the East, which was mostly dressed in different shades of grey. Once they realised that these youngsters were more courageous and were taking liberties, they couldn’t handle it anymore. Then we started to have fights with older teenagers, who really beat us up. Once I could hardly eat for a week, because they almost broke my jaw. We started to have trouble with the teachers, and eventually also the police.
We had altercations with other youth cultures like the Blueser, blues music was really popular in the GDR. It was mostly about territory. We also had big fights with football fans – we didn’t call them hooligans back then – and in 1984 the first skins evolved from our scene, who created some trouble too.
What did being punk mean to you? Basically it’s the same in every country. Whether it’s East Germany, West Germany, England, America or modern-day Borneo, it’s empowering. I don’t know if you can compare it to anything else. You’re breaking the chains and you’re taking yourself off the leash. This process of not waiting for anyone’s approval and coming to terms with it with other likeminded people is a moment of power. That is hard to convey today.
No one wants to go to jail when they're 17 or 18. You want to party, you want to have sex, you want to get drunk.
What kind of encounters did you have with the Staatssicherheit (Stasi)? At first it was the cops, then the Kripo (criminal police) then the Stasi. Friends of mine, who sang highly critical songs, were arrested as a band. A drummer in one of those bands was underage at the time, but still spent six weeks in Stasi jail. She’s 50 now and is still traumatised, she never got over it. It was a huge shock and humiliation every time it happened. Of course I was arrested too, and spent nights in police stations. They kicked me and forced me to sign protocols saying I was treated well. When I refused to do it, they threatened me but I knew I could always rely on my parents. My father, a somewhat famous artist, had prestige and he loved me deeply. We had a lot of fights about punk, he didn’t understand it at all. Despite this I always knew he was on my side and when I was arrested and spent a night at a police station he did everything in his power to get me out, he even made Stasi officers apologise to me. So I was scared, sure, but I shrugged it of smiling because I knew, even if they get me, my father would get me out of there. But some of my friends didn’t have that security.
You said in a previous interview that most bands were infiltrated by the Stasi. Was there a lot of mistrust within scene? In my opinion, yes, there was Stasi paranoia in the punk scene. It’s quite an interesting question because we were scared of our own people. I can remember discussing with my friends time and again who could be in the Stasi. And we falsely accused some people, who suffered a lot from that. We were children! We spread rumours, we were a clique, we were unjust, as kids are sometimes. And of course we were right with some people. And some other people who did it, didn’t even come into our minds. There’s one example, a friend of mine smacked a policeman in the face and he got out after four weeks already. That was really unusual. I don’t know what happened but it’s a fact he wasn’t in the Stasi. But still he was cut off from the scene for at least half a year because everyone thought he was involved. It was unfair. It’s horrible, but of course that was part of their strategy. There was a Stasi term: Zersetzung [a destabilising psychological manipulation, including that of personal relationships of the target]. The people working for the Stasi didn’t release him after four weeks coincidentally, they knew what he had coming.
Do you regret accusing some people falsely? No. We were kids. We were completely overwhelmed by the explosive nature of it all. And on the other hand we weren’t. When I look back at some bands’ lyrics, like L’Attentat from Leipzig or Wutanfall from Leipzig, they sang those and knew the consequences. Some of them went to prison twice. And no one wants to go to jail when they’re 17 or 18. You want to party, you want to have sex, you want to get drunk. Those people sat in jail for three months, or six months, and they knew what was coming for them. In that sense we were overwhelmed by the power of our actions and maybe we were a bit naïve, but this naïveté dissolved quite quickly into a political conscience and a clear political statement: don’t give the system an inch.
As an outsider and an outlaw in the system, how did you handle being treated as a second class citizen? We weren’t second class citizens! We were punks! On the contrary, we had a huge amount of self-esteem. Even with all the trouble we faced – not all will agree, but I assume some would – we were the cool ones. They were the left-wing Spießer [half-hearted conformists, in this context]. They described us as ‘negative elements’ and we considered that an award, we reclaimed those terms. We were the elite.
What about when the Wall came down? I got out of the scene in ‘84. I did different things, it was a fluent transition from the punk to the artist and bohemian scene. I started writing and publishing illegal magazines. I was barely in touch with punk and almost didn’t know anyone from that scene anymore. Most of them went in other directions. That’s the fascinating thing about punk, it’s a transitional space that you ideally pass through to end up somewhere else. I used punk to position myself, try new things and radicalise myself. I went from writing lyrics to full-time writing, so I was not punk anymore when the Wall came down.
Of course it was a privilege to watch the system collapse from within. So now, in the aftermath, I can say that I’m really happy that I never left. It was a highly intense and chaotic time and also an important time because it was way more anarchic than anything else we experienced as punks before.
Did Ostpunk have to to die with the fall of the Wall? In our documentary Ostpunk: Too Much Future Cornelia Schleime says, in her unique way: “Ostpunk died the way it came up. It couldn’t transition into other fields.” It’s eloquently put and highly dramatic, so we left it in, but it’s wrong. I’m a good example of this. I think without the punk experience I would have not ended up in the bohemian scene, I wouldn’t have founded my own publishing company, I wouldn’t have opened up my own gallery. That all had something to do with punk. I know so many people who write, who build museums. People who are DJs, who paint, who make movies. So I wouldn’t agree with that. Ostpunk never died. It just transitioned into other fields.
Henryk will be DJing at Pop-Kultur 2019 under his alias Nic Sleazy. Find out more in our full guide to the festival.