If we can’t define punk, we can certainly talk about the influence it has had on society at large. Aimar Ventsel’s article looks at how the development of GDR punk articulates and therefore helps define social attitudes within unified Germany—in particular, attitudes towards the state. For Ventsel, the relationship between sub-culture and parent society is of integral importance…
Aimar Ventsel is a senior researcher in the Department of Ethnology at the University of Tartu, Estonia, and visiting academic of the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK. His article, This is not my country, my country is the GDR: East German Punk and Socioeconomic Processes after German Reunification, was published in an issue of Punk and Post-Punk that focused primarily on Russia and Eastern Europe. A concept developed by one-time Crass drummer Penny Rimbaud has a strong presence in this issue, being cited in articles more than once. His idea, simply, is that punk isn’t.
I imagine we are talking about […] [s]omething we call ‘punk’. Well, I’ve got the answer to [the question] what is punk. And it is very simple. It isn’t. Period. It’s whatever […] one makes of it where they make it. It has strong traditions since the beginning of the last century with bohemianism, dadaism and running through to the beatniks. It’s all one and the same thing, a quest for an authentic voice… I think, the overview of authenticity is a difficult problem to deal with as well, because by the very nature of authenticity […] [i]t is beyond definition. The moment it is defined then it ceases to be. That has been the case of all great cultural movements. Define them and they are dead. (Rimbaud, Penny (2011), Rottenbeat: Academic and Musical Dialogue With New Russian Punk Workshop, London, 4 May.)
But even if punk isn’t, its effects most definitely are. If we can’t define punk, we can certainly talk about the influence it has had on politics, fashion, art, and society at large. Ventsel’s article looks at how GDR punk articulates and therefore helps define social attitudes within unified Germany. Of particular focus here, are attitudes towards the state. For Ventsel, the embedded relationship between a sub-culture and its parent society—a relationship observed by University of Birmingham’s Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies—is of integral importance. He states, “Recent developments in the East German punk scene help us to understand how a subcultural ideology is used to address larger social issues through music, behaviour and rhetoric.”
Ventsel’s research for this article consists primarily of fieldwork undertaken in Halle, Germany. Between 2006 and 2010, he acted as what he terms a ‘participating observer’, taking part “in all possible gatherings and activities, from football matches to private birthday parties.” He also kept a diary, conducted numerous interviews and took hundreds of photos.
Halle dates from the 800s and is now the largest city in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. It is an ideal place to explore these issues insofar as it has had a strong punk scene, historically, around which extreme post-unification changes have taken place. Under socialism, according to Vestel, Halle had a proud working class culture. This was dramatically undermined by economic turbulence resulting from the process of privatisation. In recent years Halle has experienced intense gentrification, largely attributed to the expansion of its universities. There is now a marked social division between local working class youth and the increasing numbers of students arriving from elsewhere in Germany and beyond. Ventsel’s representation of this split is based on the selective use of particular venues. Local ‘football hooligans’ keep to ‘their’ bars, while local sub-culture groups, including punks, generally outright refuse to go anywhere near what they perceive as the ‘student clubs’.
In looking at how punk cultures relate to their social, political and economic environment, Ventsel pans out to the broader history of East German punk. He notes that early German punk fostered both left and right wing ideologies. While violently at odds with each other, these groups were even more violently anti-state. In the socialist state, punk sub-cultures also had quite close links with other alternative groups like hippies and metal fans, a circumstance due in part to limited venue space. (The venues most often used for counter-culture activities, oddly enough, were churches, which has a striking resonance now with Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk Prayer’.) During this period, Ostpunk—punk from East Germany—wasn’t strongly distinct from the standard Deutschpunk, “except that eastern punk bands seemed to have fewer sing-along choruses and ‘they often tended to have a saxophone in the band because they wanted to have an intellectual touch’ (Mytze, personal communication, November 2006).”
After, and despite, the fall of the wall, the rupture between East and West sharply increased in many ways. Economic instability and rising unemployment in East Germany were deeply felt and hugely divisive—when the state began to implement privatization, only one million employees of four million kept their jobs. This lead to growing social tensions:
…in addition to the privatization of enterprises, former GDR universities were reformed in a process called Abwicklung/implementation, East Germany was flooded with West German products whereas East German ones disappeared from the shops, and in many top official and management positions, people were appointed from Western Germany ‘who always knew everything better’ (referred to by East Germans colloquially as Besserwessi [bettter + western])… H. DeSoto (2000) concludes that the use of the term Besserwessi symbolizes the power imbalance between East and West Germany.
(DeSotot, H. (2000), ‘Crossing western boundaries: How East Berlin women observed women researchers from the West after socialism, 1991–1992’, in H. DeSoto and N. Dudwick (eds), Fieldwork Dilemmas: Anthropologists in Postsocialist States, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 73–99.)
East Germany came to see West Germany as the new manifestation of an oppressive state. In West Germany there was a generalised feeling that they were being made to bear the financial burden of modernising the East. This social schism is reflected in today’s punk culture. Though the wall is gone, movement is still instinctively restricted:
‘It is just a fact that Ossi-bands tour in the East (Germany) and Wessi-bands in the West (Germany). We do not go over (to western Germany) that often and they do not want to come over to us either. I do not know why it’s like that, it just is.’ (Zippel, field diary, 1 December 2006)
From Ventsel’s perspective, the reason for this must be the relationship between these two related-but-divided subcultures, and their respective, socioeconomically defined parent cultures.
The lack of job prospects, stories of the past when the industry of the GDR was a well-functioning branch of the economy, and the popular view that West Germans are to be blamed for this devastation shape the nature of the Ostpunk world-view… East German punk subculture does not exist outside of society. There is contact through their parents, relatives, jobs and vocational training. As people from a vanishing group of industrial workers in towns that used to be centres of socialist heavy industry, punks are confronted with a complex socio-economic situation. Their anti-state stance becomes the ‘articulation’ of the wider national agenda, a protest against the threat of unemployment and lack of prospects that East German punks as people from a working-class background cannot in many respects avoid.
— IQ Editor
Aimar Ventsel is a senior researcher in the Department of Ethnology at the University of Tartu, Estonia, and visiting academic of the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK. He was a founding member of the Siberia Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle. He received his Ph.D. in 2005 from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. His academic interests lie in identity and property relations in the east Siberian music business, nomadism, and subcultures in Siberia and Germany. His publications include Reindeer, Rodina and Reciprocity: Kinship and Property Relations in a Siberian Village (Lit, 2005); ‘Punx and skins united:One law for us, one law for them’ (2008, Journal of Legal Studies, 57: 45–100); ‘Consumption and popular culture among youth in Siberia’ (with J. O. Habeck, 2009, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 134, 1–22); and ‘Generation P in the Tundra: Youth in Siberia’ (2009, Special Issue of Electronic Journal of Folklore, 41).
Punk & Post-Punk is a journal for academics, artists, journalists and the wider cultural industries. Placing punk and its progeny at the heart of inter-disciplinary investigation, it is the first forum of its kind to explore this rich and influential topic in both historical and critical theoretical terms.
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