Oct. 3, 1990, was a glum day in the bastions of Berlin’s subculture: the squatted tenement buildings, the subterranean dance clubs and the late-night haunts of the artistes and free spirits who had made them their homes. Many of the underground’s habitués — eastern and western Germans, as well as many internationals like me — understood unification as crushing the breathtaking “short year of anarchy” that had reigned in eastern Berlin since the Wall’s breach on November 9, 1989.
No doubt, it spelled the end of the exhilarating time when absolutely everything seemed possible. For a moment there even flashed the fantasy of a new Germany based on direct democracy, solidarity and DIY ingenuity — the culture that prevailed in the 130 squats of eastern Berlin, as well as the occupied industrial spaces, shop fronts and abandoned breweries and bank vaults. With unification, no longer could anybody with an idea and a crowbar set up a gallery, café or publishing house in eastern Berlin.
Yet, 25 years later it’s fair to say that our dark moods weren’t entirely justified. While the intoxicating year of innovation and experimentation couldn’t be replicated, the years that followed generated thousands of ingenious projects that bore the imprint of the 1989-90 zeitgeist when eastern and western Germans met for the first time in the postwar ruins of eastern Berlin. Berlin’s cool, late-night scene and the city's greater art community — as well as many start-ups and mainstream endeavors — thrive on this energy, which is less raw today but still forceful enough to enable Berlin to continually reinvent itself. This is why almost all of Germany’s first-rate publishing houses, such as Suhrkamp, and serious recording labels moved from western Germany to Berlin. Berlin’s former mayor relied on it to sell the city, boasting that Berlin was “poor but sexy.”
Some of the 1990s’ most colorful phenomena such as the techno acid scene had only just begun in October 1990. There was still a surfeit of unclaimed space — freiraum in German — that distinguished Berlin from any of its international counterparts and still does. You could make ends meet on very little which left plenty of freizeit (free time) – the other prerequisite for original culture — for collectively run, self-made ventures, some of which turned a euro, some of which didn’t.
Today the kids in the world-famous club Berghain may not know — or care — that the source of the techno dance club’s cool goes back even further than 1989-90, but to the vibrant subcultures in postwar East and West Berlin. Long before the Wall fell, both Berlins were on the map as havens for artistes and radicals, draft dodgers and individualists, gays and lesbians, eccentrics and punk rockers. Today’s Berlin is unimaginable without the legacies of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, Christiane F., the Ingenious Dilettantes, Wolf Biermann, and the East German punks who rocked the red-brick churches in 1980s Prenzlauer Berg.
In West Berlin the advent of subculture happened in the form of Kommune I, a full-fledged free-love commune that emerged from the late ’60s student revolt, which challenged the mores and structures of West Germany’s nuclear family, its authoritarian schooling, Christian morality and all of the cultural underpinnings that the student
radicals claimed made fascism possible in the first place. The communards said: Stop the talking and do it yourself! The 1967-69 Kommune made a host of mistakes but the spirit of participatory democracy, collective living and creative revelry inspired decades of young Germans who weren’t prepared to think just what their parents did.
An inventive avant-garde scene had thrived in West Berlin since the late 1970s thanks to the students, punk rock’s revolution, the squats in Kreuzberg and a self-confident queer crowd like nowhere else in Europe. If ever “no future” fit as a label, it was in the stranded island city of West Berlin — occupied by three armies, surrounded by another, and smack in the middle of a nuclear standoff. The UK’s punks had nothing over the West Berliners with the exception of the fact that the Berliners chose their poison — and quite liked it. The Wall made their little anarchic sociotope possible.
East Berlin’s post-punks envied their western peers’ option to drop out. In the socialist dictatorship, their illegal bands screeched and tortured their instruments to protest “too much future.” Their fates were determined by the state from cradle to grave. Dropping out and pursuing music or painting or fashion design beyond the state’s parameters meant challenging the system — which could bring with it a prison sentence or at the very least exclusion from the perks bestowed upon the compliant majority.
The grit of the East Germans’ underground protest movement — of which the punks were just one thread — played a bigger role in the Wall’s fall than historians give credit for today. But when the Iron Curtain was finally raised, the punks and the literati, the bohemians and the artists wasted no time taking advantage of the moment. In the sudden power vacuum, the peoples’ first impulse wasn’t to burn and plunder, but rather to use the extraordinary vacant space to create, interact freely and live according to their own rules after lifetimes of dictatorship. They squatted condemned houses — today the pricey gems of the new Berlin — where they created in miniature societies that they naively thought might inspire a new Germany. The spirit of the day was to break new ground in the name of a Germany that had never existed before. The partisans tested new forms of community and sharing economy — and had loads of fun doing it.
In the squats and on the floors of the techno clubs the East met the West for the first time. The early encounters weren’t always smooth. But the denizens of the “temporary autonomous zone” of East Berlin had a common foe. Before their experiments got very far off the ground the processes of German unification were set in motion. For a moment they forgot that their counterculture was just a tiny niche on both sides of Cold War Germany. The new Germany would look much like old West Germany, only bigger: As of October 3, 1990, from the Rhine to the Oder-Neise.
But Berlin still riffs off the short year of anarchy. 1990s Berlin generated something original, intensely political and enduring. The ethos and aesthetic of the Berlin underground makes Berlin cool and attractive. Berghain, written up in The New York Times, doesn’t make Berlin hip: Berlin makes Berghain hip, like the dance clubs that preceded it in the wild 1990s and before. This is why Detroit asked 1990s Berlin impresarios to come to their failing city to help them repurpose Detroit’s decrepit inner-city neighborhoods.
The squats and other projects of the early 1990s offered a glimpse of what another kind of Germany could look like. Though this never came to fruition for all of Germany, it lives on in Berlin’s multitude of collectively organized houses and many other projects, including many in the private sector.
As long as there is freiraum and people with freizeit, Berlin can be a location for unique subculture that reverberates far beyond its immediate circles. Its enemy is gentrification. If it prevails, Berlin will become just like every other big city in Europe.