How Berlin Became a Powerhouse of Young Alternative Culture

A new book explores how the city evolved from techno parties in abandoned buildings, through the Tacheles art center and the Love Parade, to today’s iconic Berghain club.

In September 2012, the Berlin police evicted the occupants of Tacheles, an art center situated in a vast space that once belonged to a department store that was badly damaged by Allied bombing in World War II. That structure, which had stood empty for decades, was reoccupied and rejuvenated after the fall of the Berlin Wall by a group of artists, and became one of the bastions of alternative culture in the resurgent German capital. Following a protracted legal battle, possession of the building with the name – given to it by the artists – meaning “straight talk” in Yiddish slang, was transferred to the bank that holds title to it, which plans to sell the property. For the time being, the building stands forlorn in its central location on Oranienburger Strasse, void of the creative vibrancy that was its hallmark for more than 20 years.

In fact, though, the counterculture that Tacheles represented had undergone a metamorphosis long before the building’s closure, even if it continues to exert an influence. On the one hand, like Tacheles, most of the other squats that flourished in Germany in the first years after the country’s reunification were evacuated, and the abandoned buildings were either renovated or demolished to make way for capitalist construction projects. On the other hand, the colorful, hedonistic culture of that period is what engendered the contemporary image of Berlin, which remains a magnet for herds of tourists and flocks of new residents from all over the world.

Both of these aspects are considered in “Die ersten Tage von Berlin” (“The First Days of Berlin”), a book by the German journalist Ulrich Gutmair (published May 2013 by Klett-Cotta/Tropen). Gutmair tells the story of the rebirth and reinvention of Berlin in the 1990s. His analysis shows how the city that was the capital of the Third Reich and a symbol of the Cold War underwent a reawakening in the waning days of the 20th century to become a glamorous, sexy metropolis, a capital of night life, electronic music and young culture.

The initial motivation to write the book stemmed from his personal experiences at the time, Gutmair tells me in a conversation held in a Berlin pub. “A few weeks before the wall fell, I moved to West Berlin from Bavaria to study at university. In October 1989, West Berlin was an island, cut off from the rest of the world. It was dark and gray, a place outside time and space. But then, all of a sudden, everything began to change rapidly. After East Germans chased the Politburo out of office, people felt the future to be wide open. And the old center of Berlin, which since 1961 had been behind the wall, was now open, too. Berlin was spinning into a frenzy that didn’t stop for years. Squatters, artists, musicians, DJs from all over the world came and appropriated empty spaces.

“In those years, the culture emerged for which Berlin is famous today,” he continues. “But when the wall fell, it was not only the artists who came. Investors tried to grab a piece of the cake in the middle of the old German capital. The rapidity with which the inner city changed was tremendous. And a after a few years a lot of people – including myself – felt that we had stayed the same, but somehow the city we lived in had changed a lot. That’s when I first had the idea to write the book. That was at the end of the 1990s. Today, the places where the new Berlin emerged, are hard to find, and the early 1990s are like a distant dream. My book is perhaps a written monument for these early days.”

Journey in a time machine

This is the first book by Gutmair, who was born in 1968 in the city of Dillingen an der Donau, in Bavaria. After studying history and publicistic writing at the Free University of Berlin, he worked as a correspondent for a variety of newspapers and magazines, specializing in culture and history. Since 2007, he has been the editor of the page on Berlin culture that runs in the newspaper Die Tageszeitung. He and his wife, Tal Sterngast, an Israeli artist and art critic, have one daughter.

Gutmair has lived in Mitte for many years. “When you entered Mitte – the old city center – from West Berlin, you felt like you were traveling back in time,” he relates, describing the atmosphere in the early ‘90s. “It looked as if the war had just ended. A lot of brown fields could be seen where the Allied bombs had destroyed houses, sometimes whole blocks. You could see the traces of machine-gun fire on many walls, left from the battle between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht in April 1945.

“Many old houses were run down and ready for demolition by the city authorities. One of the centers of the new culture was in Spandauer Vorstadt, a formerly poor neighborhood where many Jewish immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe, had settled before and after World War I. The East German government was by ideology ‘antifascist,’ which paradoxically led to a general lack of interest in all things Jewish. No one cared about the fact that many of the former inhabitants of a central inner city area in East Berlin, very close to the new socialist Alexanderplatz, had been deported in 1943.”

Just as the area’s Jewish past was forgotten, so too the involvement of veteran East Germans in the Nazi regime was erased from the collective memory. But in the late 1980s, the repressed memories burst back into the consciousness, when neo-Nazi groups began to operate in East Berlin. Says Gutmair: “For the GDR [the German Democratic Republic, popularly known as East Germany], West Germany was the successor to the Third Reich, and the GDR itself was the successor to Communist resistance to Hitler. This ideological framework made it almost impossible to talk meaningfully about racist and anti-Semitic tendencies in East German society. Of course, one also would avoid talking about the Nazi party membership of people who were now members of the new ruling party.”

Amid the temporary anarchy that descended on East Berlin in the wake of the political upheaval, hundreds of squatters soon occupied many of the abandoned buildings in Mitte. Occupying the buildings was easy enough, because in the transition period, which began with the fall of the wall in November 1989 and continued until the official unification of the two Germanies in October 1990, the rule of the East German authorities was quite lax.

“By the summer of 1990, 130 building were occupied by squatters,” Gutmair says. “But a lot of people also squatted in [individual] apartments, thousands of which were sitting empty in old buildings. One important condition for this development was of course the fact that it was often unclear who the building’s owner was. In many cases, former owners or their heirs did file claims on the family property, but the restitution process took some time. But already in the autumn of 1990 the anarchy was over. Thousands of police evicted a whole cluster of squats in East Berlin. They had to use tanks and helicopters, because resistance was heavy.”

In his book, Gutmair examines the ways in which the squatters provided fertile ground for the growth of an underground musical culture. He also maps out many of the locations of these sites. The bars and clubs that were founded in these unconventional spaces were initially influenced by the punk scene, but it wasn’t long before they became centers of house and techno music. “In the Berlin clubs, the beat would stop only in the morning, and in some places the weekend party would end only on Monday morning,” Gutmair notes.

The book focuses on a central intersection that acquired the ironic nickname of the “Bermuda Triangle.” It was located in a history-saturated area, close to the famous Checkpoint Charlie crossing point between the two Berlins, to a modern building beneath which lay buried the ruins of Hitler’s bunker, and to Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda building, which remained intact. “This empire of the new culture consisted of three buildings that remained standing within a vast area that had been completely destroyed,” Gutmair says. There was a dance club called WMF, which afterward moved to different locations in the city and was one of its important techno clubs until 2010; a small techno club called Elektro, run by a video artist and his friends; and a collective of artists, filmmakers and curators who called themselves “Botschaft” (“message” or “embassy” in German) and operated a bar that quickly became one of the hot spots of post-wall Berlin Mitte culture: Friseur.

Those venues also spawned the minimalist, ascetic, seemingly throwaway aesthetic that continues to characterize things in Berlin ranging from the interior design of cultural venues to clothing, Gutmair observes. “In the months after the wall came down, many residents of East Germany, who could at last acquire Western products, were happy to get rid of the contents of their home and threw them into the street. The pioneers of the clubs and bars used this furniture, along with the orphaned furniture and equipment of East German firms that were shut down or abandoned. For example, the bar of the WMF club was taken intact from the Palace of the Republic, the East German parliament building. Thus, together with the influence of punk and squat culture, there emerged the Berlin style of exposed walls and precise interior design, which includes furniture collected from the street, along with a style of dress that lacks glamour but is sexy, cool and androgynous.”

Most of the people who were part of the “Bermuda Triangle” scene gave little thought to the fact that the new cultural hub was located just a few hundred meters from the site of the Fuehrer’s bunker, Gutmair points out. “Nevertheless,” he adds, “there was a strong feeling for the historic moment and the historicity of the place. The new culture was anti-racist and pluralistic. In the clubs, all colors and sexual orientations were welcome, without regard about race, class and gender. The dance floor was imagined as a free, utopian space.”

One chapter of “The First Days of Berlin” is devoted to the Love Parade, a formative event that contributed to the creation of the aura of the period. The parade had its origins in the summer of 1989, when 150 people danced through the city’s streets to the sounds of house music, chanting slogans such as “Music has no borders and no nationality” and “Peace, joy, pancake.” During the 1990s, the parade swelled in size each year, eventually drawing hundreds of thousands of participants from every part of the world. But despite its success, and even though it inspired similar parades in other cities (including Tel Aviv), the event was criticized for years because of its commercialization and the disappearance of the pacifist messages that initially accompanied it.

“Love Parade was the event that symbolized a new, hedonistic youth culture that was influenced by the do-it-yourself ethics of punk and the celebration of joy and excess displayed by the rather big gay scene of West Berlin, which in today’s terminology was very queer,” Gutmair explains. “Love Parade was basically a moving party, a loud demonstration of fun and noise. Which is also the reason why it could be transformed into a gigantic festival of consumerism within just a few years. It became mainstream, and its image became less extroverted and transgressive, more heterosexual and ‘normed.’”

The party is (not) over

Inevitably, there is more than an iota of nostalgia in the way Gutmair’s book lauds the colorful alternative scene of the early 1990s. “When you talk about that period today, you actually feel like an old person,” Gutmair laughs. At the same time, he acknowledges that the influence of that brief era still persists in Berlin’s clubs. “In no other city was techno culture as successful as in Berlin. It created a whole network of clubs and a certain kind of musical subculture that has become something like a brand,” he notes. He mentions the flourishing Berghain club as a particularly striking example of the continuity of the celebration of Berlin’s over-the-top dance culture.

The veterans of that counterculture take pride in the contribution they made to the reshaping of Berlin’s image. It’s also thanks to them that the city did not become a militaristic, nationalistic citadel, as many feared would be the case at the time of the unification, Gutmair says. Still, he and many of the people he spoke to for his book are critical of the gentrification of Mitte and of additional areas of the city, which has caused substantial price rises and the flight of artists and the indigent.

Gutmair’s book allows the heroes of the scene – the physical traces of which have disappeared almost completely – to speak in their voice. “The restoration of the abandoned buildings in Mitte to their former owners and the sale to the highest bidders led to the end of the party,” he sums up. “Those who invented the party, or who encountered it by chance, were forced to leave because of the inevitable encroachment of business and politics. My book, in a way, reclaims the right to the urban space and shows that things can happen in it other than the purchase of apartments and the maximization of profits. The very story of what took place at that time in the center of Berlin can also be interpreted as a reappropriation of the city space, even if it simultaneously heightens the myth of the city – and thereby also heightens its property value.”

Benjamin Biel
Benjamin Biel
Kristin Loschert