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On a chilly December morning in 1989, just weeks after the Berlin Wall’s breach, eight scruffy-looking, twenty-something Germans gathered in East Berlin’s old working-class district of Friedrichshain. The group of friends—and fellow conspirators under the Communist regime—considered themselves anarchists. Although, as a rule, anarchists eschew leaders, one might have mistaken Silvio Meier, a small-framed guy whose magnetic personality eclipsed his slight physique, for the group’s frontman.
Their intention that day was expressly political: to occupy an empty apartment building in which they would live by libertine principles while they fought to turn the newly no-longer-communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) into a state more, not less, liberal than its neighbor, West Germany. For them the two projects—the squat and the GDR’s thoroughgoing democratization—were deeply intertwined.
The ‘wonderful year of anarchy,’ between the fall of the Wall and unification is a little-known chapter in the history of Berlin and Germany as a whole.
They appropriated the five-story building, 47 Schreiner Street, and, in so doing, sparked a chain reaction across the city. Throughout 1990, DJs, artists and wannabe artists, middle-class students, activist filmmakers, clubbers, musicians, and other free spirits would occupy hundreds of apartment buildings, vacant shops, shuttered warehouses, and long-forgotten subterranean vaults. They came from East and West Germany, as well as from across Europe and beyond, to initiate Berlin’s rebirth as a cosmopolitan center after decades of reclusion. The Iron Curtain’s breach and Communism’s demise unleashed a groundswell of utopian energy and DIY zeal, most powerfully focused in the occupied spaces of East Berlin’s inner city districts, such as Friedrichshain. One couldn’t have known it at the time, but this ethos would infuse Berlin for years to come and does even today, earning Germany’s capital a reputation as one of Europe’s hippest metropolises.
In late 1989 and 1990 I watched East Berlin’s transformation through the lens of the 47 Schreiner Street squatters. I was twenty-something myself, a novice journalist living between Budapest and Berlin during the year of tumult. The Wall’s breach ushered in an exhilarating period of people power, improvisation, and revelry, which I both chronicled and took part in.
The “wonderful year of anarchy,” as the German publisher Christoph Links labeled it, between the fall of the Wall and unification is a little-known chapter in the history of Berlin and Germany as a whole. It is hard to fathom now, but just after the Wall came down, the unification of the two Germanies was by no means assured. The future was up in the air, open for a fresh start and original designs. That year offered a fleeting glimpse of what another kind of Germany—indeed, post–Cold War democracy—could look like: a nation imbued with the spirit of community solidarity, bottom-up decision-making, and a sharing economy. This vision wasn’t the product of a pat ideology; rather, it unfolded spontaneously in the multitude of East Berlin’s unclaimed spaces, or freiraum.
A quarter of a century later, the legacy of Berlin’s zero hour reverberates, especially in the city’s raw urban vibe that lures world-famous artists and filmmakers, publishing houses and galleries, adventure-seeking young Americans, and millions of tourists a year. But many of its most eccentric visions and offbeat projects lasted only a short time. Among its diverse figures, the year or so of anarchy slipped away at different points, for different reasons. For some it ended with the bloody Battle of Mainzer Street in the autumn of 1990; for others the end came years later, when the original techno scene faded. For me and for 47 Schreiner Street, it came to an abrupt, tragic conclusion in November 1992 with Silvio’s death at the hands of teenage neo-Nazis. The wunderbares Jahr der Anarchie had an ugly underside: the rise of right-wing extremism, another legacy of the new Berlin’s first days that continues to shape the city’s identity.
• • •
In the ’70s and ’80s, long before Rolling Stone and the New York Times concluded that the cool scenes in twenty-first-century Brooklyn and Berlin were joined at the hip, the Cold War island of West Berlin lured a steady stream of young Americans. I was among them, drawn to West Berlin’s rough-hewn cityscape and image as a far-flung outpost prone to excess and eccentricity. West Berlin was a walled-in city, not just on the frontline of the Cold War but almost a hundred miles behind it, cut off from the West but still part of it. My dank little apartment in an immigrant neighborhood abutting the Wall was as far east as one could travel without leaving the West for another world.
Of course, West Berlin’s legendary subculture enticed me too: Bowie and Iggy; Christiane F. and Bahnhof Zoo; Nick Cave and the Einstürzende Neubauten; the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Margarethe von Trotta. Naturally I had Christopher Isherwood’s novellas packed in my bag along with the mandatory Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin and Peter Schneider’s Der Mauerspringer (1983). I arrived in Bahnhof Zoo in autumn 1985 with nowhere to live and not an acquaintance in the city. But before long I was where I wanted to be: the district of Kreuzberg, West Berlin’s locus of leftist politics and squats, punk rock and all-night clubs.
I was supposed to be reading Hegel and Marx at the Free University. But exploring the city, taking daylong walks along the Wall, and idling away hours in cafés over milchkaffee and hand-rolled cigarettes ultimately occupied more of my time than did the universität. The student job service provided a unique vehicle for probing West Berlin and meeting its people, natives, and guest workers: the service could send you delivering mail one week, stacking drugstore shelves the next, and running a wheelbarrow on a dusty construction site soon after, all in remote corners of the city.
I visited East Berlin many times, entering at Checkpoint Charlie and venturing to Alexanderplatz and the magnificent Pergamon Museum, strolling up and down grandiose Unter den Linden. Most of the city, though, struck me as drab and monotonous, just as the Western media described it and communism itself. The sky and the buildings had the gray tones of a wet newspaper. There was no sign that the city’s burghers were chafing against the rigid dictatorship that attended to their needs and controlled their lives. I, like most Westerners, was not aware that East Berlin had a lively, highly politicized underground that fought the dictatorship by prying open space for independent-minded, critical culture.
These guys weren’t on their way to Austria or West Germany. They said they were staying in the GDR and planned to change it—Wall or no Wall.
By the time I returned to West Berlin in September 1989, the entire Eastern Bloc was on its feet. The 1980s hadn’t been kind to the Soviet Union or its Communist satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. Everywhere the bloc’s Soviet-style planned economies were bottoming out, a result of decades of mismanagement and technological stagnation. Aged leaders were increasingly unable to provide their citizens the comfortable lifestyles enjoyed in the West and unwilling to grant them comparable liberties.
In the Soviet Union, though, a young reformer by the name of Mikhail Gorbachev had risen swiftly through the party’s ranks. The world watched enthralled as he introduced, under the names of glasnost and perestroika, democratic and market-economic reforms unthinkable in previous decades. Yet most of the Eastern Europeans (the GDR’s geriatric rulers foremost among them) dug in their heels, afraid—as it turned out, for good reason—that opening the barn door a crack would prompt a stampede. Everywhere in Eastern Europe, populations were restive, and opposition groups were pulling at the seams, demanding democratic rights: freedom to travel, freedom of speech and assembly, and elected, multiparty government.
In Budapest, the reformist Communist leadership, more in tune with Gorbachev than its neighbors, had clipped open its barbed-wire border to Austria, enabling anyone who wanted to leave the Eastern Bloc from Hungary to do so. First thousands and then tens of thousands of East Germans availed themselves of this opportunity in autumn 1989—voting with their feet, it was called, and setting in motion events that would bring down the Berlin Wall once and for all.
From Berlin I travelled to Hungary in October 1989 on the overnight train that stopped in Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, and every border in between before pulling into Budapest’s Keleti station in the early morning. At the time Budapest’s smoky neighborhood beer bars were brimming with East Germans fleeing the GDR, many living in transit camps on the Hungarian capital’s outskirts. I first made the acquaintance of the future Schreiner Street troupe in the Fregatt Pub, a bar covered in cheesy maritime regalia and widely known as a favorite of foreigners and young Hungarians wanting to meet them. With their scarves, earrings, and punky coiffs, Gerd and Micha stood out from the crowd. These guys weren’t on their way to Austria or West Germany. They said they were staying in the GDR and planned to change it—Wall or no Wall. I was immediately intrigued by these two, engaged as they were in the illegal GDR opposition, and by their determined vision of a remodeled East Germany based on radical ideas of democracy and fraternité.
• • •
Gerd, Micha, Silvio, and the others who would settle at 47 Schreiner Street knew one another from the 1980s underground that took root in the forsaken urban niches of East Berlin. Much, though not all, of this subversive activity happened under the wing of the Protestant Church, which had from day one—October 7, 1949—refused to accept the atheistic ideology of communism. But the Church trod a cautious path between full-fledged opposition to state power and pragmatic coexistence with it. The Church’s quirkier (and braver) pastors went out on a limb by providing even nonbelievers—including loud agnostics—space and some degree of protection from the authorities. The discontented citizens who took advantage of this space defied the regime by giving life to a rich DIY subculture of illegal concerts, impromptu exhibitions, samizdat newssheets, and all-night soirees. East Berlin in the mid-1980s wasn’t nearly as comatose as I, or most West Berliners, had imagined.
Among the menagerie benefitting from the Protestant Church’s protection was the Kirche von Unten, or Church from Below, a secular cluster of vaguely defined anarchists, freethinkers, and punks. It was the political home of Silvio and friends, from which they waged spirited, imaginative resistance to the regime. They pushed hard when elder activists urged restraint. Indeed, they had a not insignificant hand in toppling East German Communist rule, although you won’t read about that in many books. Opposition activities landed Silvio behind bars temporarily, but they also broke the ice for the GDR’s more careful burghers, who finally took to the streets in autumn 1989 after decades of humble degradation.
The Church from Below’s credo was aktionismus, and this the membership lived by resolutely, staging protests, publishing samizdat, holding discussions, hosting Super-8 film festivals, and organizing working groups on topics from apartheid in South Africa to draft resistance in the GDR. The habitué of the Church from Below were tireless civic activists in a state that banned civic activism. Much of this work transpired in the cramped rooms and informal café they assembled on the premises of the tumbledown St. Elizabeth Church in the Mitte district, precious freiraum they had fought tooth-and-nail to get their hands on.
A skilled toolmaker and the son of a mid-level engineer, Silvio had abandoned his hometown Quedlinburg, a quaint gabled city along the German-German border, for East Berlin in the mid-1980s. “He was probably the brightest guy in the class,” recalls Erhard Grimm, a friend from Quedlinburg and fellow Schreiner Street resident. “But if he wasn’t making wisecracks, he’d put his head down on the desk and doze off. He still passed the tests, but the instructors gave him hell.”
Silvio was twenty-one years old when he arrived in Berlin. He had opted out of the army as a consciousness objector, a status few young men in the GDR dared, or managed, to obtain. His old brother Ingo had been thrown in jail for a year and then booted out of the country for desecrating the GDR flag one alcohol-fueled evening. Exile or prison: these were the options for most who refused to submit.
In Berlin Silvio crashed on a friend’s floor until he found an apartment in Friedrichshain and fell in with the underground punk scene, which the East German police watched with a close eye. They imprisoned teenage punk rockers in the early ’80s but quit after concluding that the stress simply wasn’t worth their while. Harassment and incarceration didn’t stem the tide of discontent among the GDR’s young people.
It was the political home of Silvio and friends, from which they waged spirited, imaginative resistance to the regime. They pushed hard when elder activists urged restraint.
Silvio soon walked the walk of the East Berlin underground scene. His style wasn’t all-out punk but rather thrift-shop mod with a dash of the street, which still stood out in the straight-and-narrow GDR. A Stasi surveillance photo shows him in a tight-fitting black leather jacket and black baseball cap. In another photo from the time, he is immediately recognizable sticking his head out a window: long chin, chunky nose, gold-dyed coìffure.
He paid his way with part-time work for Volkssolidarität, a state-run service responsible for delivering hot, noontime meals to elderly people in the neighborhood. With an insulated carrier pack on the back of his bicycle, Silvio could make his rounds in just a few hours and have the rest of the day to foment political change.
It didn’t take long before he found his way to the nucleus of young activists who would call the Church from Below into life in 1987. Dirk, Kathrin, Mimi, Jörni, and others hung out at the Nachtpott (Piss Pot), a basement in what was once the Protestant Redemption Church’s infirmary. During the war the building had been bombed to its foundations, leaving only the cellar more or less intact. The groundskeeper had covered it with a few sheets of roofing asphalt pinned down with rubble. If ever there was a club that deserved its name—or was ideally suited for earsplitting music—it was the dimly lit, subterranean Nachtpott. Until the kids from the Church from Below managed to secure their own rooms in St. Elizabeth Church, the grimy cellar was the only place they had to meet, dance, and drink.
Silvio was at the center of the Church from Below from its inception, always talking, spinning off ideas, organizing, networking. His tiny apartment on Bänsch Street in Friedrichshain became a focal point of the scene. “He absolutely had to have a finger in everything,” says Dirk Moldt, at the time a frizzy-haired idea man with wire-rimmed spectacles who produced a samizdat fanzine with Silvio. “When he was into an idea he’d put an incredible amount of time and energy into it—and convince others to do the same. But it could be really difficult to get one’s own ideas across, too. It always took a lot of time.”
“He had such a big mouth,” says Uta Ihlow, who worked with Silvio on a makeshift printing press tucked away in rooms belonging to the Zion Church in Mitte. “That’s why everybody knew Silvio, everybody,” she says, referring to the East Berlin bohème.
Though not a musician—“not a musical bone in his body,” one friend remembers—Silvio became the chief organizer of unauthorized gigs in the East Berlin underground. These were gutsy, hard-edged bands, with names such as Die Firma, Wartburgs für Walter, and Antitrott. They shrieked verboten texts at the top of their lungs. There was no way they were getting official approval to play in clubs or concert halls, so Silvio hooked them up with churches, empty courtyards, and living rooms.
Months after the GDR’s gates were flung open and the dictatorship was swept away, Die Firma still sent chills up the spine with scathing post-punk songs such as “Kinder der Machinenrepublik” (“Children of the Machine Republic”). The bassist and singer, Tatjana Besson, a cult figure in the East Berlin scene, practically growled lyrics about the hypocritical mores that warped East German youths.
One of Silvio’s tasks in the late 1980s was to prevent neo-Nazi skinheads—another subculture in the GDR—from raiding the gigs, as they did with increasing regularity at the time. The shorn and angry teenagers in gray-green bomber jackets and high, black combat boots were a taboo topic in East Germany, which proudly boasted of being an “anti-fascist state.” According to GDR doctrine, the only fascists in Germany were in West Germany, the successor state of Hitler’s Reich, which had coddled ex-Nazis after the war and unapologetically stocked its official posts with collaborators. It was inconceivable to the GDR elite that their society and schools could produce young Nazis. It was heresy just to mention the possibility; the state did its best to sweep the blight under the rug.
Nevertheless, since the early 1980s, ever more alienated East Germans had been gravitating to fascism as a form of protest. On the surface Nazism looked like the ideology most antithetical to communism, which they despised with all of their energy. The young Nazis read old copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf pilfered from their grandfathers’ attics and scrawled anti-Semitic slogans on walls and Jewish cemeteries. On the streets they’d chase down Vietnamese and African guest workers, soccer rivals, and, with particular relish, the “dirty,” “lazy” punks.
Ordinary East Germans, oblivious to their rightist politics, looked benevolently on the young men with their neat buzz cuts, rigorous work ethic, and respect for authority. It was the profane, in-your-face punks and disheveled hippies who clashed with their notions of ordnung and decency. Even if they didn’t admit it, the authorities knew very well that the fascist element existed—the Stasi files prove this—and gladly looked the other way when Nazi thugs busted up punk gatherings.
The state’s hands-off approach blew up in its face on the night of October 17, 1987. Silvio and the Church from Below crew had managed to get the well-known West Berlin band Element of Crime to come east for a live concert in the Zion Church with Die Firma. As the central meeting place of much of the East Berlin opposition, Mitte’s nineteenth-century redbrick church was a powerful symbol; almost all of the samizdat was printed in its cellars. This was no secret to either the Stasi or the far right, which until then had respected churches as places of sanctuary.
The logistics of the gig were complicated, as Element of Crime’s five members couldn’t bring their instruments over at Checkpoint Charlie. This would blow their cover and put their instruments at risk of confiscation. So they crossed the border on one-day tourist visas. Silvio collected instruments, met them at a clandestine location, coordinated everything with the Church, tacked up hand-made posters, and prepared the stage and sound system.
The show that evening was all the talk in the East Berlin scene, and the turnout reflected it. Blurry black-and-white footage from the evening shows a crowd of maybe two thousand: punks, longhairs, rockers, church staff, musicians. The altar served as the stage, and a lively mosh pit formed in front of it. The spare, unheated hall with its towering belfries had been cleared of most everything save the bolted-down wooden pews. One close-up in the video shows Silvio wearing a grin and a dangly earring, sipping beer from a plastic cup.
The band had just finished when thirty skinheads burst in screaming, ‘Communist pig! Jews out!’
After Die Firma, Element of Crime came on. The band had just finished its second set at 10:30 p.m. when thirty inebriated skinheads in bomber jackets and boots burst through the entrance screaming, “Communist pig!” “Jews out!” “Heil Hitler!”
“They seemed to come from nowhere,” one onlooker remembers in a documentary film of the episode, Die Nationale Front: Neonazis in der DDR (2006). “Suddenly they were just there and the whole place descended into mayhem.” They laid into the crowd, punching and kicking anyone within reach. Some swung metal rods, chains, and broken bottles wildly. “People were screaming and trying to flee through the pews but kept stumbling and falling in front of others,” he recalls. The members of Element of Crime watched aghast, unprepared for anything like this.
This band of skinheads was known to both the East Berlin underground and the cops. Led by twenty-three-year-old Ronny Busse, the group called itself the National Front and had contacts across the country. The neo-Nazis were also linked with like-minded hate groups in West Germany. That evening, a handful of the Westerners came over to meet Busse and his men at Sputnik, a bar on Greifswalder Street. Since their ranks were just as infiltrated with informants as those of the democratic opposition, the security services knew in detail their plans to storm the concert.
The attack ended as it began: all at once. The skinheads hadn’t expected nearly so many people in the church, and most fled into the night when the sturdier of the concertgoers realized what was happening and began to defend themselves. Police stood right outside the church and watched without raising a finger, even when the fighting poured onto the streets. When concertgoers pleaded with police to intervene, they just stood there.
The punk band Antitrott entertains an East Berlin crowd, late 1988. (Siegbert Schefke / Robert Havemann Gesellschaft)
News of the raid quickly made the rounds, even landing in the Western press. Busse and three others were arrested and got prison time for hooliganism. The regime could no longer deny the existence of reactionaries in their midst, although naturally it tried to blame the West Germans. Moreover, the brawl marked a new kind of confrontation between the right and the punks, both the children of the socialist state. The stage was set for worse to come, and the GDR had no idea how to handle it.
The security services who watched idly while neo-Nazis attacked the concert were ever-present in the lives of Silvio and the Church from Below gang. The Ministerium für Staatsicherheit (Ministry for State Security), or Stasi, was fearsome even by Eastern Bloc standards, notorious for keeping close tabs on the GDR’s 17 million people through a thick web of informers. The Stasi had infiltrated the entire East German opposition, including the Church from Below, which it had labeled a “hostile-negative grouping.” The now-open archives attest that the activists were followed, spied upon, photographed covertly, and harried.
At the time none of the Church from Below kids could know for sure who was and wasn’t working for the secret police. Top figures in the opposition and subculture scene—including two members of Die Firma—who had been blackmailed and recruited were relating to their handlers every detail of the underground’s work. The Stasi had developed sophisticated techniques more effective than brute force, although violence wasn’t excluded from the program. (The former are portrayed well in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning 2006 film The Lives of Others.) The opened files also show that, remarkably, the inner circle of the Church from Below was clean. It hadn’t given away comrades or worked for the Stasi in exchange for favors.
Perhaps because of their youth, most of the Church from Below crew hadn’t been dragged in before the Stasi and interrogated, as surely would have happened in the early 1980s. But there were exceptions, and Silvio’s day came in September 1988, when he, his partner Chrischi, and Jörni were arrested after staging a small protest in the city center. The Stasi had known of their plans and clicked blurry black-and-white photos of them every step of the way.
The target of the protest was the International Monetary Fund’s annual congress. It had been set to take place in West Berlin, but left-wing activists across West Germany rallied against it in an attempt to throw a spanner in the works of international capitalism. For well-founded safety reasons, the city of West Berlin requested that East Berlin put the IMF officials up at night, a favor for which the GDR would be paid in precious West German hard currency. The Church from Below caught wind of this stunning act of hypocrisy—the socialist GDR accommodating the IMF, the overseer of Western imperialism—and couldn’t let it slide.
The group managed to pull off their prank: they sprayed the IMF officials with handfuls of East German pennies as they stepped off the bus and then ran like crazy. The police picked up Silvio, Chrischi, and Jörni shortly afterward and transported them to one of the Stasi’s remote locations on Berlin’s outskirts. One by one, the gang was given the full Darkness at Noon treatment: a night in the cells, grillings under blinding lamps, no food or drink.
“They kept asking why we did it,” Chrischi recalls. “They didn’t seem to grasp who we were or that we were calling them out.” The word in the scene was that if you wound up in the hands of the Stasi, you were supposed to keep your mouth shut. But finally Chrischi burst out, “How could you let those IMF fat cats into the GDR? This is capitalism in its purest form!”
“They were speechless,” she says. “Obviously they couldn’t say the GDR was doing it for the money.” The Stasi, seemingly baffled, tossed them back out onto the street the next day.
• • •
By 1989, with unrest mounting everywhere in the Eastern Bloc, opposition groups in the GDR had stepped up their protests on all fronts, demanding the same reforms that Gorbachev was introducing in the Soviet Union. In Poland and Hungary, there was movement toward multiparty elections. But not in the GDR. In East Berlin the leadership refused to budge on its single-slate pseudo elections scheduled for May 7. On the contrary, it thought it could even win back some legitimacy by pulling off its usual sham and trumpeting 100 percent of voters in favor of the government list. After all, it had always worked before.
Voting in the GDR was a well-organized propaganda ploy. Everybody was obligated to vote, and the ballot only included candidates from the Communist Party or its satellites. With the streets decked in banners and flags, trade unions, sports clubs, and other institutions sent their members to voting centers where they would pick up a ballot, fold it, and throw it in the urn. This was all one had to do. A dissenter could vote no by neatly crossing out every name on the ballot, which most citizens didn’t even know was an option. Any variation of this was considered an invalid ballot. Most GDR citizens went along with the ritual as they did all the other mindless drills.
I never dreamed that I’d see ordinary GDR citizens taking to the streets. I knew the faces from ticket counters and restaurants, not punk rock concerts and underground printing presses.
GDR opposition groups had tried to get alternative candidates on the May 7 ballot but, predictably, were unsuccessful. So they picked up on a previously unused clause in the election law that enabled the public to watch the ballot counting process. Church from Below activists and others—predominantly younger members of the opposition groups—fanned out across East Berlin, covering several hundred of the voting centers. When the results were tallied, they could count the no votes. At the end of the evening, everybody met back at St. Elizabeth Church: now they finally had hard evidence that the elections were a fraud.
This time the regime conceded that Party candidates received only 98.85 percent of the vote. “An Impressive Acknowledgment of Our Policies for Peace and Socialism!” the Party daily Neues Deutschland exclaimed. It was hardly surprising that the state-run media made no mention of the independent, citizen-led monitoring. So the Church from Below and its allies went to the West German press with their findings: the vote was rigged, the results falsified, the Party lying. The news made the front pages of West German newspapers and went around the world, delivering the regime a severe blow that would reverberate through the summer and herald its fall from power.
The May 7 election monitoring was a pivotal event in the demise of Communist East Germany. For one, it boosted the profile of the opposition groups, which were previously marginalized and largely invisible to the average person. The exercise also illustrated that it was possible to take the Party to task, to expose its hypocrisy and tricks rather than submissively accept them. And, incredibly, the self-appointed election monitors were not arrested. Sensing official disarray, the Church from Below vowed to keep up the pressure: on the seventh of every month that followed, they and other young activists staged demonstrations to protest the rigged vote and demand real, transparent, democratic elections.
In Berlin, the “7th demos” started in June with just a couple dozen protesters. The ranks were limited to the Church from Below’s punk rock faction—some of them only sixteen or seventeen years old—and a few others with hand-painted banners accusing the regime of electoral fraud. These demonstrations, like others before, didn’t pose a threat to the regime.
The story was different, however, in the industrial city of Leipzig, south of Berlin. By the end of the summer, weekly demonstrations every Monday at the St. Nicholas Church were garnering numbers far outpacing those in Berlin. The “peace prayers” that began with the local congregation after mass attracted others and were soon overflowing the church. The cries for free elections and basic civil liberties grew louder by the week. Leipzigers chanted, Wir sind das Volk! (“We are the people!”), a phrase that would define the “peaceful revolution,” as it came to be called.
I never dreamed that I’d see ordinary GDR citizens taking to the streets. I knew the faces in the Leipzig throng from ticket counters, border crossings, and restaurants, not punk rock concerts and underground printing presses. As we marched by the Stasi headquarters, a cacophony of boos and hisses filled the downtown. Little did we know that Stasi officers inside were prepared to shoot should the crowd attempt to sack the building. Stasi provocateurs among the demonstrators urged storming the building, but the demonstrators singled them out, expelling them from the procession. In Leipzig, for the first time in the GDR since the workers’ uprising in 1953, law-abiding burghers, whose quiescence over decades had ensured the regime’s survival, were protesting.
Many German historians consider October 7 day one of the friedliche Revolution that would overthrow Communism in East Germany, although there was nothing at all peaceful about the day, which coincided with the long-planned and much-trumpeted celebrations of the GDR’s fortieth anniversary. This, the Stasi’s records show, was the word from the very top of the security apparatus: “hostile activities will be terminated by all means necessary.” In East Berlin the morning began with a pompous military parade along Unter den Linden, followed by street parties across the city.
That afternoon, Silvio, Chrischi, and the rest of the troupe met as usual at Alexanderplatz for the monthly vote fraud protest. Compared to the tens of thousands on the streets in Leipzig, the East Berlin crowd was meager, just 300 people. Alexanderplatz was swarming with police and Stasi, uniformed and undercover, the tension thick. Stasi records show there were thousands of security personnel in and around the square. Yet Alexanderplatz turned out to be an ideal location for the protests because, with so many people milling about, arrests would be conspicuous. And the crowds gave the protesters an audience, as well as the possibility of attracting afternoon shoppers to join in.
Before long a swarm of onlookers and western TV teams surrounded the group. As they made their way to the nearby Palace of the Republic, where the GDR brass was meeting with none other than Gorbachev, the procession ballooned in size, participants chanting “Gorbi, Gorbi,” “democracy now or never,” “no violence,” and “Gorbi, help us!” By the time they were within shouting distance of the Soviet premier, the procession had grown to 3,000 people, and the security forces lit into them with all their might.
From all sides, police, Stasi, and ordner, toughs from the youth sections of the Communist Party, grabbed demonstrators, beat them to the ground, and hustled them into police wagons. At one point, the security forces managed to split the demonstration in two, a tactic they had practiced. “They had us trapped, encircled,” Chrischi recalls. “We could see the other protestors on the other side of the police line, and we knew we had to get there. And then we just decided to make a break for it, to run at them all together, all fast and hard as we could. It worked, I thought, at first. There were just too many of us. Gerd and I made it without having our heads bashed in, but in the crush we were all separated from one another. I lost Silvio. I couldn’t see him anywhere. I hadn’t seen them arrest him.”
Back together as one assembly, the incensed crowd headed north toward Prenzlauer Berg, where activists were camped out in the Gethsemane Church, staging a hunger strike in the name of the GDR’s political prisoners. “Come, join us!” the crowd yelled to passersby, who did exactly that. As they passed the state-run media agency they yelled, “Liars! Liars!” and “Free Speech! A Free Media!” Tanks lined up along Schönhauser Allee, just a stone’s throw from the church.
The police tried a second time to stop the procession: they cut off the streets, allowing Stasi special forces and anti-riot squads with water cannons to bear down on the marchers. Women were beaten up indiscriminately, onlookers bloodied, and bones broken with nightsticks. One armored police van after another filled with handcuffed demonstrators.
By this time Silvio was in a holding cell packed with hundreds of other battered and terrified people who wondered whether a Tiananmen-style crackdown was underway outside. In Leipzig, Dresden, Plauen, Jena, Magdeburg, Karl-Marx-Stadt, and Potsdam, hundreds of protestors were bloodstained and behind bars. Silvio was released a week later.
On November 4 a million people massed on Alexanderplatz. Protesters flowed onto side streets, where they demanded democratic reforms and shouted, ‘We are the people!’
In the month that followed the October 7 demonstrations, the Church from Below was one of dozens of groups—many of them newly formed, others with new members—ratcheting up pressure on the regime. With tens and soon even hundreds of thousands demonstrating across the country, the average GDR citizen also dared to speak out.
On November 4 a million people massed on Alexanderplatz. Protesters flowed onto side streets, where they demanded democratic reforms and shouted, “We are the people!”
Five days later, on November 9, the Wall came crashing down. I was in Budapest, on my way to Ceau¸sescu’s Romania. The Church from Below troupe was scattered across Berlin or nearby. “I thought I’d be living with the Wall my whole life,” Dirk told me. The others in the Church shared that sentiment, and, a child of the Cold War, I felt the same way and had written as much just weeks beforehand.
When the news came late that evening that the border was open, most of the Church from Below didn’t waste a second. In contrast to their countrymen, they didn’t embrace strangers or drink warm champagne from the bottle at the Brandenburg Gate. Rather, they made a beeline to Kreuzberg. The East Berlin anarchists knew very well what Kreuzberg represented, with its rich history of counterculture, squatting, and protest. Micha, out of town when he heard the news, hitchhiked to West Berlin, negotiated public transportation in the city until the end of the line, and finally walked all the way to the Pink Panther, a punk club from way back, where he drank on the house until daybreak.
Meanwhile Silvio and Chrischi hooked up with Silvio’s bother, Ingo, who was living in Kreuzberg. The brothers hadn’t seen one another for years.
Ingo suggested going to hear what Germany’s chancellor, Helmut Kohl, had to say on this historic night. The trio metroed across the city to Rathaus Schöneberg, where the chancellor was addressing a patriotic crowd. At some point radical leftists interrupted the event, shouting at the chancellor and launching tomatoes at the podium. Police waded into the crowd with billy clubs smacking anyone who looked to them like troublemakers. Chrischi, with her hennaed hair, black jeans, and leather jacket, got mixed up in the tangle, whacked on the shoulder, and yanked aside for questioning.
The police were shocked and then genuinely mortified when she pulled out her GDR passport. Had she really just come over from the East tonight? What was she doing in a crowd like this? Apologetic, they let her go. Afterward, the gang headed back to Kreuzberg, Ingo schlepping them from one club to another.
Kathrin celebrated her own way. The day after the wall fell, she ventured to one of Kreuzberg’s progressive bookstores on Oranien Street, where she bought a translated copy of Animal Farm, visited an alternative kindergarten, and then returned to Friedsrichshain. After twenty years in the GDR, she was dying to travel—but West Germany wasn’t one of the destinations high on her list.
• • •
Not far from the Friedrichshain neighborhood where the Church from Below would find a house to squat in December 1989, I scouted the desolate neighborhoods in East Berlin that had festered alongside the Wall for three decades. I wandered through the vacant streets in awe, reminding myself that I was in the middle of Europe. The cracked, peeling façades of Friedrichshain’s once-dignified tenement housing rose to the sky like the walls of a giant urban canyon. Their edifices still bore the pockmarks of World War II machine-gun fire and shell shrapnel. It was as if whole city blocks had been suspended in time. The acrid stench of coal ovens and two-cylinder Trabants filled the air, despite the fact that few vehicles of any kind were parked along the empty curbs. The eerie, black-and-white cityscape was largely devoid of people, trees, any sign of life.
By 1989 there wasn’t much about the rundown quarter that appealed to the average East German. Even rank-and-file workers, for whom the rows of formerly handsome five-story brick buildings had been built a century before, had abandoned the residences in favor of modern, socialist-style apartments in tower blocks on the city’s outskirts. This migration, and the steady exodus of East Germans to the West, left large swaths of urban space in East Berlin vacant when the border opened.
Their edifices still bore the pockmarks of World War II machine-gun fire. It was as if whole city blocks had been suspended in time.
Prowling through the frozen, cobbled streets of Friedrichshain on this winter’s morning, the small group of Church from Below regulars knew the lay of the land better than anyone. Silvio and the troupe climbed over walls and fences, boosted one another through open windows, and marched up and down wooden staircases with lock picks in hand, sizing up the structures’ rooms, plumbing, and rooftops. Almost all of the houses they inspected were scheduled for demolition and thus were not only empty but lacked even interior doors and electricity. Others were in better shape, though they reflected Friedrichshain’s norms: shared toilets in the stairwells (one per floor), cast-iron sinks with a single spigot, and man-sized, ceramic-tiled coal ovens.
After much traipsing about, the group settled on 47 Schreiner Street, a freestanding building with rubble-strewn, weed-choked lots on either side of it—the handiwork of World War II British bombers. A document tacked up in the foyer stated that the building was condemned due to an infestation of pigeon ticks. Its heavy, cracked cement balconies sagged but weren’t in danger of collapsing, at least not imminently. A central staircase opened at each floor to a pair of apartments on either side, their varnished wooden doors with art nouveau inlays among the few signs of better days. Every floor had functional coal ovens, and two rooms even had the luxury of gas heating. There was no sign of pigeons or ticks.
But the building wasn’t uninhabited. It had two sets of tenants, a sixty-year-old man and a low-income, alcohol-plagued family of four, the kind socialism had left behind in Friedrichshain and other neighborhoods. “What are you doing here?” one of them barked in thick Berlin dialect from behind a crack in a doorway, obviously intimidated at the sight of the activists. At the height of the GDR, just two months earlier, a ragtag group like this on the streets was suspect at once. “This building is now squatted,” the intruders responded matter-of-factly. Later that day they painted the same message on an oversized, white bed sheet and hung it from the second-floor balcony: Dieses Haus ist besetzt!
When the Church from Below gang moved into 47 Schreiner Street in the final days of 1989, the fate of the GDR was undetermined. The talk at the time was of two democratic German states coexisting or perhaps a gradual merger of the two Germanies over an unspecified timetable. France and Great Britain had reacted allergically to Chancellor Kohl’s suggestion of a unified Germany, as did most left-leaning Germans. But the GDR’s Communist leadership had stepped down, and the country’s first free elections were called for March. They would determine the trajectory of the post-Communist GDR.
The activists and dissidents largely responsible for upending the system had called to life a panoply of civic-minded parties, which they assumed would guide the long-term transition of the GDR. The GDR, they envisioned, would undergo sweeping democratization at all levels, from nursery schools to the highest echelons of the state. Indeed, in just one month, the GDR’s former subjects had turned themselves into active citizens for the first time in their lives, forming committees and elected councils in factories, schools, and other institutions where they began the processes of reform and self-rule. Eventually, the activists hoped, the East German demos would draft a new constitution, which might take on some of West Germany’s better facets, such as parliamentary democracy, but would jettison others in favor of ideas more akin to democratic socialism or participatory democracy—direct citizen rule, with a high degree of individual involvement. Only when a healthy, democratic GDR was on its feet would it negotiate with the Federal Republic—and then as an equal—about different forms of merger or even unification.
Silvio Meier (right) and fellow Church from Below member Harald Vollman, 1988. (Gabrielle Trier / Robert Havemann Gesellschaft)
The Schreiner Street squatters wasted no time putting their objectives into words in a typed, one-page manifesto. It stated that they had no intention of seeing a Communist dictatorship replaced by a state subservient to the interests of big business. That wasn’t what they had fought for so bitterly during the darkest days of the GDR. The self-proclaimed anarchists were going to create something new out of the unloved GDR, starting with the squat, where community would be based on the principles of “socialism, mutual understanding, and solidarity.” This was a unique opportunity in history, they wrote, to define their lives and society as they wanted to, unencumbered by a paternalistic authority. They urged others across the GDR to do the same.
What anarchism meant to the Friedrichshain squatters wasn’t entirely clear to me, beyond an intense commitment to direct democracy and unending discussions about most everything. Silvio and his cohort weren’t steeped in political theory, as Western Europe’s sectarian leftists were. After all, they hadn’t attended college nor had they the opportunity to learn much about anarchism in other ways—in doctrinal East Germany, it was as blasphemous and off-limits as fascism. They’d read a small handful of anarchist classics that Jörni had lifted from the banned books locker at the Humboldt University library, where he had worked as a handy man. They read, took extensive notes, and returned the texts to the library’s forbidden stacks.
The core group of Schreiner Street was fourteen men and six women, all Church from Below denizens. After divvying up the rooms and dragging mattresses up the stairs, the old building experienced the full force of this group’s impressive agency. This was a troupe of doers, and their resourcefulness struck me every time I visited the squat. In the GDR, a society plagued by material shortages, one had to make do with what one had. And it helped that all of the Schreiner Street men could work with their hands: Mimi was a roofer; Joe and Jörni, electricians; Silvio, toolmaker; Dirk, watchmaker; Micha, mechanic; Gerd, organ builder; Kuele, electrical engineer; Patrick, carpenter; and Ekke, gardener. Each tackled some aspect of house repairs, putting more elbow grease into the structure than the state had in the entire postwar decades.
Schreiner Street’s women, however, remember it a bit differently. “Chrischi and I did all the painting,” says Kathrin, a kindergarten teacher who was one of the few with a steady job. “The guys,” she remembers, “were mostly just sitting around smoking joints, listening to music.” The politics of gender was not a subject among the group in the GDR days. This would change.
One of their first moves was to switch off the gas and electricity meters to avoid utility bills. They tore down walls to rearrange the layout of the apartments; stripped, sanded, and painted floors; erected loft beds; mounted a homemade solar water heater on the roof; tacked up posters; sculpted a jacuzzi out of three bath tubs; and arranged no-frills but comfortable common rooms on the fourth floor, which included the one functional kitchen, where everyone ate together.
Furniture and kitchen supplies were easy enough to come by. The newly liberated Easterners chucked their old stuff into the street by the armful to make room for new furnishings purchased from West German department stores. The squatters picked up whatever chairs, tables, sofas, and pots and pans they needed. They also found assorted volumes of Marx and Engels’s collected works in their handsome dark-blue hardcovers, Rosa Luxemburg’s writings, and the poetry of Bertolt Brecht, which GDR burghers tossed out along with their Party memberships. These went into Dirk’s library.
What anarchism meant to the squatters wasn’t entirely clear to me, beyond an intense commitment to direct democracy and unending discussions about most everything.
Everyone at Schreiner Street had a passion he or she could now pursue openly. Dirk was writing a book about his adventures in Transylvania. Gerd played violin in the world music band Michele Baresi. Joe and Micha set up a secondhand bike shop behind the squat. Mimi was into martial arts. Heike studied psychology at Humboldt University. Speiche helped start the punk club Eimer.
Silvio, Chrischi, and Jörni saw that the squat and its allies in the democracy movement desperately needed a printing press and joined forces with Ihlow, who during the 1980s had run the rudimentary press—actually a hand-cranked mimeograph machine—at the Zion Church. They found a discarded manually operated offset printer from West Berlin and began Hinkelstein Press in what, until World War II, had been urban horse stables in a courtyard behind Schreiner Street. “At first we had no idea what we were doing,” Ilhow says. “None of us had any real experience, and our products were pretty shoddy at first. But with some help we got the gist of it.” Chrischi, who had a degree in accounting, ran the books.
The press’s hours were erratic, as the Schreiner Street contingent rarely appeared before noon. “Silvio in particular always looked totally beat,” Ilhow says. “There was so much discussion every night [at the squat] that they never got enough sleep.” Nevertheless, after a few months, the ever-more professional Hinkelstein Press was providing the new scene in East Berlin with posters, fliers, concert bills, tickets, petitions, invitations, and newssheets, its machines clattering into the wee hours of the morning.
Of course, there was plenty of celebrating, too, much of it in the bars and clubs just across the Wall in Kreuzberg. Most of the cooler-than-thou Kreuzbergers initially had no idea that a place called Friedrichshain was so close to their drinking holes. But the West Berlin hard left eventually found its way to 47 Schreiner Street. At first the West Germans saw the entire East as a potential Shangri-La for radical politics, as the population had been socialized under Communism. The Westerners’ role would be to guide.
“Oh, they visited us and told us exactly how squatting is done,” Dirk says with irony in his voice. “You don’t, for example, register with the local housing authorities, as we did.” He describes the first bunch of visitors as “humorless.”
There was a tradition of squatting in East Germany as well—though not whole houses at once—that was strictly illegal. In the eyes of the authorities, squatting marked the formation of a subversive organization. Though apartments had been empty all over Friedrichshain, in order to get one, interested parties had to register and linger on a waiting list until a communiqué finally arrived from the housing agency. If a response came at all, you had to take what was offered. But there was a short cut: you could break into a vacant flat, which wasn’t difficult, and simply begin paying rent. After three months you could show up at the housing authority, produce a bank statement proving that you’d been paying, accept a small fine, and put your name on a lease.
This is what the entire Church from Below troupe had been doing for years. The East Berliners thus had experience institutionalizing their squatting, achieving rapprochement with the authorities.
Their experiences, however, didn’t impress the West Germans. “For them squatting was a nonstop battle against officialdom. That’s the word they used, häuserkampf. That defined everything,” Dirk says. “But we didn’t see our lives or politics in such martial terms. We wanted to be part of the [GDR’s] transformation, not just wage opposition.”
After the Schreiner Street occupation set the tone, squatting picked up across the city. In Mitte, adjacent to Friedrichshain, an activist named Tom Sello recruited Westerners to join him in an old apartment building at 7 Fehrbelliner Street. The building was so bomb-damaged that GDR officials approved his move there in the 1980s on the condition that he not request any repairs or amenities. Sello, too, had worked at the clandestine printing press with Silvio and Ihlow and through the press had a network of acquaintances in West Berlin who would smuggle over ink, paper, and spare parts for the covert enterprise. Upon the border’s opening, he told them there was plenty of space in the house and encouraged a handful to move in as soon as they could.
Silvio Meier (middle), captured in a Stasi photo outside Zion Church, late 1980s. (Robert Havemann Gesellschaft)
As it turned out, the occupied venues provided the first opportunities for East Germans and their Western counterparts to begin Germany’s long, troubled process of reunion. In the squats, the techno clubs, and brick-and-board cafés in the narrow side streets of Mitte, they got to know one another—for better and for worse—after decades of separation. Often tensions flared as the good vibes wore thin.
The West German leftists “firmly believed that the old GDR was a good thing since it was something other than ruthless capitalism,” Sello explains. “I tried again and again to make the point that this was not the case, that this kind of socialism, if that’s what you want to call it, was fundamentally deformed. But it didn’t sink in, and then the next day it was as if I hadn’t said anything at all. The picture they had in their heads was intact.”
Likewise, Manuel Zimmer was a West Berlin native who soon after East Berlin’s opening found himself caught up in an uncomfortable East-West quandary in a squat that a mixture of Ossis and Wessis had staked out in Mitte’s old Jewish quarter. Three of the group’s members, the only Easterners, wanted to open a money-making club in the building’s first floor and cellar, which had housed a bakery in the 1950s. With its thick brick walls, the space was ideal for parties and raucous gigs, which the squat had been hosting irregularly. The Easterners wanted to make a small business out of it, put it on firm financial footing, advertise events, and bring in better-known bands. But the Westerners insisted on keeping it off-the-cuff and informal, with fluid opening hours.
“It was really hard for us,” Zimmer says, “to tell Easterners that they couldn’t start up their own business because we considered it capitalism. I mean, this is why they couldn’t start their own club in the GDR. But we didn’t want a club that was just like all the clubs in West Germany and everywhere else. It was a really awkward situation.”
The Easterners eventually won out and opened Zosch, which survives today as a rare example of a squatter-era club that paid its own way over twenty-five years in pricey, tourist-infested Mitte. In fact Zosch isn’t like all the other glitzy, antiseptic clubs in western Germany. With its ivy-clad and graffiti-sprayed walls, banged-up wooden tables, and reasonable prices, it still has a vintage feel to it. Zimmer’s vision of an improvised club with no cover charge and whenever-they-felt-like-it hours had zero chance of lasting beyond the wildest days of the interregnum. The Wessis turned out to be wrong.
“Sure, some Wessis were overbearing and arrogant, but we didn’t divide the world into Ossis and Wessis,” Dirk says of 47 Schreiner Street. The building was the only all-Ossi squat in East Berlin, but the residents were arguably more open to West Germans than were most of their countrymen, since, as GDR outcasts who dressed the part, they were regularly harassed in school and on the streets and treated with disdain by law-abiding GDR citizens, who much preferred that young people conform as they did. In the Schreiner Street squat, there was no love lost for fellow Ossis. On the contrary, the tenants hoped they’d find kindred spirits out there in the wider world, or maybe nearby in Kreuzberg.
West German leftists ‘believed that the old GDR was a good thing since it was something other than ruthless capitalism. I tried again and again to make the point that this was not the case.’
The Schreiner Street crew did absorb some ideas from West Berlin activists, not least of which was a re-evaluation of gender roles. And Hinkelstein Press would have been unthinkable without the aid of veteran Kreuzbergers who tutored the novices and passed along old hardware. West German activists had been working on collectively managed, self-administered projects for years and had accumulated valuable experience. And Westerners knew the ins and outs of lease contracts, welfare benefits, and job creation programs, which would soon become relevant when the authorities finally took notice of East Berlin’s unexpected metamorphosis—and took measures to stem it.
• • •
In early 1990 the Schreiner Street squatters made a bold move that fundamentally transformed the landscape in Friedrichshain and eastern Berlin. They were aware that at any time the city’s administrators might snap out of their funk and try to evict them. Moreover, the political fray had emboldened the GDR’s homegrown far right, which had already zeroed in on the lefty squatters of 47 Schreiner as a prime target. (The rightists had squatted their own building in Lichtenberg, right next to Friedrichshain.) Recognizing the strength in numbers, the Schreiner Street residents handed the West Berliners a list of all of the buildings in northeastern Friedrichshain ripe for squatting.
In Kreuzberg and beyond Germany’s borders, word was soon out: much of East Berlin was fair game, open to anyone with a crowbar in hand and a project in mind. Freaks and adventurers from across Europe flocked to Berlin to take advantage of this unprecedented urban freiraum. Until then, East Berlin had led a secluded life, the foreigners in the GDR limited to handfuls of students and guest workers from other socialist countries. Visitors to the East had to buy a costly day visa and couldn’t even spend the night. West Berlin wasn’t a big international tourist attraction either, as the Sex Pistols knew when they wrote in “Holidays in the Sun.” For the first time since Christopher Isherwood left in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, Berlin—East as well as West—was open to the world.
In Mitte and neighboring Prenzlauer Berg, too, apartment buildings were occupied one after another by an extraordinary mishmash of characters, each with his own vision of bohemia. Caravans lumbered into the abandoned lots that speckled Berlin’s eastside. One of the preconditions of this settlement was the disappearance of the Communist Party and the apparent surrender of the local police force, the Volkspolizei, in East Berlin. The GDR officialdom was rattled to its foundations with the Wall’s opening. Out of angst or bewilderment or inefficacy, it pretty much gave the newcomers a free hand. Though state-prescribed law and order was suspended, there wasn’t a rash of looting or vandalism. On the contrary, the suddenly wide-open space and absence of authority set the stage for an unprecedented explosion of creative energy.
In early 1990 the dreary neighborhoods of eastern Friedrichshain were transformed into a teeming Bohème paradise. More than forty residential buildings in the vicinity of Schreiner Street were occupied, including a cluster of nine on little Mainzer Street and seven in a row around the corner on Rigaer Street. These thoroughfares were unlike anything I knew elsewhere in Germany. Banners and flags fluttered from windows and rooftops. Graffiti was everywhere, and giant, colorful murals—much like Berlin Wall art—soon adorned facades, some of them soaring all the way to the roofs’ eaves. Now that the Wall was obsolete and disappearing as tourists chiseled it away, the squats themselves became the city’s urban canvas.
The area’s new occupants were conspicuous with their dress-down apparel; dreadlocked, technicolor hair; and pierced faces. The all-black look was in, often in combination with a threadbare jeans jacket and Palestinian keffiyeh. The squatters set up old sofas and upturned plastic beer crates on the sidewalks where they brunched and smoked grass. Music, such as the squatter anthem “Das ist unser Haus!” blared from open windows, and residents transformed vacant lots into playgrounds for their ragamuffin children.
On sunny days the buildings’ black asphalt rooftops were covered with bath towels, plastic chairs, and naked bodies. One could clamber across the roofs to visit other squatted buildings on the block and take in breathtaking views of the city. Nearly every squat had its own makeshift café, bar, or “info stand,” where fliers announced demonstrations or denounced enemy number one: Kohl, Germany’s conservative chancellor. (A big, slow-moving man from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, unflagging in his loyalty to the United States and to German big business, Kohl was an easy target for the leftists’ ridicule.) At night candles and campfires lit the cool, damp courtyards.
At first I thought I might be wrong for this crowd. To get into a squatted house in Wall-era West Berlin, you not only had to wear the right clothes, but you also had to know someone. The squatters were used to vicious run-ins with the West Berlin police and therefore deeply suspicious of outsiders. Moreover, being American was the equivalent of wearing a suit and tie, at best.
A once-grand 1920s department store ruined in the war became Arthouse Tacheles, a graffiti-covered monstrosity in which as many as thirty artists at a time worked and lived.
But I felt welcome in Mainzer Street. Just about anybody could walk into one of the impromptu parties, sit around the fire, and sip a glass of wine. On Mainzer, just across Frankfurter Allee from Schreiner Street, every squat had a distinct profile and house rules. Number 4, for example, was Tuntenhaus, or House of Queers, home to a close group of flamboyant gay men and transvestites who had been shunted around West Berlin before finding Friedrichshain and becoming the subject of Juliet Bashore’s 1991 documentary The Battle of Tuntenhouse. Number 3 was the domain of a militant lesbian faction, and 5 and 6 belonged to West German Autonome, radical leftists not averse to pelting cops—that is, nasty West German cops—with paving stones. Mainzer Street 23 ran the Edith Piaf Collective Kitchen, where locals could eat for a dollar.
And Mainzer Street was just the tip of the iceberg. On Schliemann Street a group of rock climbers from the East German university town of Jena squatted one building, the edifice of which was turned into a climbing wall. The house became the headquarters of East Berlin’s first independent climbing club. Nearby Duncker Street 14 and 15 were taken over by a group from the Free University’s Institute of Eastern European Studies, who beckoned friends, and friends of friends, from Yugoslavia, Poland, and Russia to join them. The adjacent squats had a cellar techno club, bar, and barebones recording studio. At the base of Schönhauser Alley, Number 5 was the residence and practice space of the cult East German punk bands Freygang and Feeling B. An East-West film cooperative coalesced at 5 Tucholsky Street, where it produced a regular news show for the squatter scene on videocassettes passed from house to house, to cafés, and to makeshift mini-cinemas.
“Every squat was organized differently,” my friend Rüdiger Rossig, who lived at Duncker Street 14, told me. “At our house there was a pretty low level of organization. They’d start a meeting and then twenty minutes later someone would walk in late because he was too stoned to get out of bed. So they’d start the meeting all over for his sake. Eventually we just cancelled the group meetings and everyone did their own thing. In Kastanienallee 77, in contrast, meals, shopping, and cleaning duties were all perfectly planned and carried out in shifts.”
For a while, even money was not a major issue. Rent was free or cheap. The West Berliners had access to student loans and part-time work on the western side of the city, which provided them with West German deutschmarks. When exchanged into Eastern marks, these went a long way: Eastern goods and public services were still subsidized. I remember travelling from East Berlin to Budapest on the overnight train for $15. A pack of unfiltered Karos was about fifty cents. There were also still jobs in the East, something that would change dramatically for the worse on July 1 when, overnight, the currency union was established, putting the East’s economy on competitive footing with the West’s, one of the world’s strongest. But while the going was good, many of the Schreiner Street residents still worked for Volkssolidarität, the East German equivalent of Meals on Wheels, and brought leftovers back to grateful housemates at the squat. Never again would it be so easy to live on so little in Berlin.
House and apartment squats were just a fraction of the picture. Other spaces also had new tenants. One of these was the former Schultheiss brewery in the middle of leafy Prenzlauer Berg. A sprawling fortress-like, brick structure complete with towers and turrets, it dominated a good-sized city block. Soon it was home to young architects and design aficionados whose progressive visions for East Germany had been shelved by the GDR authorities, a phenomenon portrayed in Peter Kahane’s 1990 film Die Architekten. These squatters turned the brewery’s twenty buildings and six courtyards into a freewheeling forum for the creative and performing arts, earning it the name Kulturbrauerei (Culture Brewery).
A once-grand 1920s department store ruined in the war became Arthouse Tacheles, a graffiti-covered monstrosity in which as many as thirty artists at a time worked and lived. In the enormous lot behind, an English performance arts group called the Mutoid Waste Company installed apocalyptic sci-fi sculptures crafted from Soviet army discards, including a MiG-21 fighter jet that poked out of the sand. Beneath Café Zapata on the ground floor, the dark catacomb of a cellar became one of the most popular techno spots in the city and a launching pad for others. You could hear Spanish, French, Italian, and Dutch spoken in Tacheles’ corridors, and above all pidgin English, the new vernacular. And you could roam the premises for hours with a plastic cup of draft beer and a joint. Hashish was sold beneath the stairwell.
The open-ended, off-the-cuff ethos made for exceptional nightlife, the landscape of which often mutated from week to week. Just across from Tacheles was the mouth of August Street, where a cast of offbeat characters peopled dance houses, galleries, and tiny bars and cafés that popped up and then disappeared without a word. Sometimes parties were advertised with a handwritten flier taped to a telephone pole: “Party at XX August Street tonight in back courtyard. Bring wine.”
One of my locales was Café Ici, a candle-lit bistro where you could strike up a conversation or find a chess partner without trying. The matron was an aging diva who decorated the café’s high walls with dozens of painted portraits of herself. Every rickety chair in the place was one-of-a-kind—by the look of them all plucked from refuse bins or secondhand shops. A down-and-out former opera singer made the rounds most nights singing requests for a deutschmark.
On the way to Ici you’d pass two squats, which were the creations of art and drama students who performed experimental theater pieces on their stage in the rear house. They named their project “KuLe,” collapsing the words kultur and leben. Gigantic papier-mâché creatures loomed in the courtyard and hung from high windowsills as if monsters scaling the building.
Further along was the Mulackritze, a bar that on warm nights spilled into the street. There was something magical about evenings at the Mulackritze, even though physically it was nothing special: two nondescript, low-ceilinged rooms with a keg of draft beer and roughhewn wooden tables lit by dripping candles.
Inner city East Berlin in 1990 was a transient pirate utopia of non-hierarchical, uncontrolled social space.
A bit beyond Mulackritze was the music club Eimer, which Speiche and others from Schreiner Street helped get off the ground. It was conceived as a venue for below-the-radar bands and events and for the remnants of the GDR-era punk scene, who could now play anywhere but remained connected to the squatter communities. Eimer was created from the bones of a four-story wreck that hadn’t been inhabited for decades. Much of the ceiling between the first and second floors had caved in years earlier, leaving a gaping hole that club goers could peer up through from the ground floor. The second floor, despite the yawning void in its middle, was stable enough around the edges to support a band, a makeshift bar (a fridge with bottled Polish beer), and a dozen or so intrepid concert attendees. The entrance fee was a deutschmark or two.
Arguably, inner city East Berlin in 1990 was, to borrow a term from the anarchist writer and poet Hakim Bey, a “temporary autonomous zone”—a transient pirate utopia of non-hierarchical, uncontrolled social space. It boasted self-organized institutions, including radio stations, newspapers and magazines, publishing houses, an Anarchist Party, several DIY free libraries, unlicensed taxis, and even for a while its own currency. By mid-1990 the scene also had a security network alert to skinhead attacks, which had become an everyday issue for Schreiner Street and other squats bordering the high-rise projects home to young right-wingers on the loose.
• • •
Though the partisans of Temporary Autonomous Zone East Berlin felt loosely connected, the diverse groups within it harbored distinct political priorities and acted upon them. The 47 Schreiner Street residents saw the squat as a base from which they could engage politically as a new GDR came to life. They were convinced—as were all of the former GDR opposition—that central to sculpting a democratic GDR out of the ruins of Communism was the complete dissolution of the Stasi and the prosecution of its crimes, as well as a society-wide “coming to grips” with its legacy, which meant opening all of its files to the public.
In the aftermath of the Wall’s breach, the GDR’s interim governing body—an improvised mix of reform-minded Communists and opposition figures—officially disbanded the despised secret service without agreeing upon what would happen next with its mammoth apparatus, personnel, or assets. These included its files on four million East and one million West Germans; arranged on a single long shelf, they would extend sixty-five miles. Some outspoken Communist reformers—who soon after their fall from absolute power renamed themselves “democratic socialists”—wanted to spin off from the Stasi an Office for National Security, an intelligence service for a new GDR. This limbo served the former Stasi personnel, who into January 1990 were diligently at work stealing and shredding documents. They were heavily armed and possessed immensely valuable and damaging information. They came and went from the “former” headquarters at will, occasionally to buy new paper shredders in West Berlin when theirs broke down.
This incensed the former opposition as well as many other GDR citizens, now galvanized by a taste of people power. They pitched tents outside the gates of the headquarters in Lichtenberg to impede former Stasi agents’ access to it, which didn’t work since there were secret entrances to the building. Finally, fed up with the dithering of the GDR’s new officials, the protestors scaled the fence and stormed the building, barricading the archives with bricks and mortar. With the occupation of the former Stasi HQ, the volk snatched away the ancien régime’s last remnant of power. In response, the government created citizens’ committees to start the enormous task of dismantling the Stasi apparatus.
Yet the citizens’ committees, too, soon ran into brick walls, their mandates and staff curtailed by the freely elected GDR parliament, which decided that the Stasi archives would be closed for thirty years to everyone except the Federal Republic’s intelligence service, for by this time it was clear there would be one, unified Germany.
This was entirely unacceptable to most East Germans, especially those who had been victims. The Schreiner Street residents weren’t alone in demanding full access to their files, which they and the whole GDR needed to reckon with their past. But even a hunger strike outside the former headquarters couldn’t budge the new interior minister. He and his allies asserted that opening the files would only inspire havoc, blackmail, and retribution.
In response the Schreiner Street group and Hinkelstein Press devised a prank that made waves beyond East Berlin. They printed thousands of fake forms claiming that Easterners could gain access to their files. All they had to do was fill in the form and personally bring it to the former Stasi headquarters at nine o’clock the next morning. Throughout the night, the squatters delivered the forms—two per mailbox—across Friedrichshain, Mitte, and Prenzlauer Berg.
On November 14, 1990, Berlin police evicted hundreds of squatters in what became known as the Battle of Mainzer Street. (Hendrich Rauch / Bobsairport)
The result was a coup greater than any of them had imagined: the next day hundreds of people lined up outside the building, forms in hand. The media was on the scene, too, to document the ruse, which the disappointed applicants also finally understood. Yet the point was made: East Germans wanted to see their files. Thanks to the pressure from below, that is what eventually happened. Unlike in Poland, Hungary, and other countries in Central Europe, Germany set up a special commission to process the files, which was led by Joachim Gauck, an activist pastor and today Germany’s president. All GDR citizens with Stasi records were able to inspect their own files.
But even as the squatters helped score a victory for transparency, national politics were veering out of reach. In the former GDR, Chancellor Kohl’s conservatives rode the wave of post-Wall euphoria to a landslide victory in the March 1990 elections. Most observers—myself included—had predicted enthusiastic turnouts for the GDR’s new political parties, born of the old opposition and symbols of the peaceful revolution. The left-of-center Social Democrats, who were less gung-ho about unification than Kohl and presumably closer to the Easterners’ post-socialist mindset, also assumed they’d do well. But the Ossies proved as cautious as they had been for forty years under Communism. They preferred a strong-willed authority figure who promised them that everything would be rosy if they fell in line. Kohl’s party campaigned with the slogan “no experiments,” promising GDR citizens that under conservative leadership there would be no democracy-from-below or other unproven stunts. The new parties took 2.9 percent of the vote—a pathetic showing that reminded the revolutionaries just who their countrymen were. A taste of open-ended liberty wasn’t going to change everything overnight. Germany was on the road to some kind of unification, even if in spring 1990 almost no one imagined it would happen that year.
The residents of 47 Schreiner Street were blindsided. At first, many refused to recognize the election’s implications, no matter what I or anyone else said. They remained defiant—naively so—and unflagging in their evaluation of the Federal Republic as an archconservative security state that could very well slide down the slippery slope toward ultra-nationalism. They had never wanted to be part of a greater Germany, which conjured for them visions of Naziism and Prussian militarism. Some of the squatters firmly believed that, with the far right ascendant, Germany would revert to a darker past.
Meanwhile, two key dynamics were playing out in Berlin and the East at large. First, the police service on the eastside, which was merging into its West Berlin counterpart, was recovering its self-confidence and enforcing the new laws of the land. Property rights, for example, were being sorted out and real estate appropriated by the Communists returned to its prewar owners. This augured ill for the squatters, who found themselves tied up in complicated legal battles over the buildings they had taken. The pressure also radicalized the scene: the West Berlin factions, less willing to work with officials on legalization, gained an upper hand among many of the squatters.
In the street battles between left and right, the police were completely overwhelmed.
Second, the far right was not only harassing the squatters in East Berlin but was also wreaking havoc across the territory of the GDR. The fury of the neo-Nazis in the aftermath of the Wall’s breach, as well as their affinity with many ordinary Germans, sent shockwaves throughout the country and Europe at large. Right-wingers began to form parties that argued for more than a unified Germany: they wanted a nation free of foreigners, in its 1937 borders, encompassing parts of today’s Poland, Czech Republic, and Baltic states.
The same freedom and shattered structures that exhilarated the Schreiner Street troupe unnerved many other young people socialized in the rigid GDR, causing them to lash out against the symbols of disorder and change, a phenomenon described by Sabine Rennefanz in her 2013 book Eisenkinder (Iron Children). In eastern cities nearly devoid of foreigners, rightist hooligans besieged buildings that provided temporary housing for refugees, raining stones and even Molotov cocktails on them. A half dozen people were killed in 1990—stabbed or beaten to death, one thrown out of a window—and countless injured in public, with witnesses standing passively by. In East Berlin’s running street battles between left and right, the police appeared completely overwhelmed, and sometimes even sympathetic to the rightists.
These developments were extremely disturbing to the Schreiner Street gang, and to me, though I felt concerns about a “Fourth Reich” were overblown. In Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia, I had also run across far-right subcultures and upstart electoral parties espousing racist and xenophobic ideas. It troubled me that the media wasn’t taking them seriously, caught up as it was trumpeting free elections across Central Europe, Václav Havel’s appearance in the Prague Castle, and the West’s historic triumph in the Cold War. I spent considerable time tramping through high-rise developments in Eastern Germany and down-at-the-heel towns in Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia where rightists had their bases, trying to ascertain what motivated them and how dangerous they really were. Some ultra-nationalists had courageously defied Communist regimes during their rule. But despite their opposition to the system, many of them had uncritically inherited its authoritarian mindset, which they were now free to load with jingoistic convictions. Other rightists had been loyal, card-carrying Communist Party members who found the jump from one top-down ideology to another much easier than learning the complex ways of democratic culture.
The foot soldiers of this movement were frightening and disgusting to behold. One evening in early 1990, I was stranded in Ostbahnhof, an East Berlin train station, on my way to Poland, when, without warning, about 250 skinheads and assorted soccer hooligans burst into the station like a tidal wave inundating a coastal town. Shrieking obscenities and rightist slogans—“foreigners out!” “Heil Hitler!”—they scared every sensible person out of the main hall and proceeded to trash the station. They broke anything made of glass, pulled down signs and kiosks, jumped up and down on top of fast-food counters until they burst into splinters. At one point several of the thugs made their way to the upstairs restaurant, where I was seated watching the spectacle. Two waiters and a good-sized dishwasher who had some kind of martial-arts training rushed out to meet them, making a good show of it and preserving the sanctity of the restaurant, which had filled up with petrified travelers.
The Schreiner Street squat was especially vulnerable because Friedrichshain bordered the district of Lichtenberg, where the tower blocks began and skinhead gangs commanded particular allegiance. Most of the Friedrichshain squatters had boarded up all of the windows on their first two floors and double bolted their front doors. The Schreiner Street residents had constructed a trap door through which in-the-know friends could come and go. No one went out on the streets alone.
Some of the squatters relished mixing it up with the skinheads. There were tough customers among the anarchists, who usually gave better than they got. The Schreiner Street guys, though, weren’t particularly intimidating. At five-foot-seven-inches and 134 pounds, according to Stasi records, Silvio may have been the smallest, but none of them was brawny. Back in the GDR days, each of the male Church from Below members had been a conscientious objector, which meant they lacked even the basic military training that all of their tormentors possessed.
The squatters were soon on the defensive in other ways, too. They suffered a resounding defeat in November 1990 when Berlin police, backed by heavily armed anti-riot troops, raided Mainzer Street. Negotiations between the city and the squatters had broken down after the most radical factions of the squatter movement refused to accept a brokered compromise. The city then insisted that they leave at once or face eviction.
A confrontation loomed for weeks. Within the squatter scene, temperate voices such as Silvio’s were pushed to the margins. The louder, more aggressive currents in the community now set the tone, driving the stalemate to a showdown. “There were things the Ossis knew better than we did,” one of the Mainzer Street leaders from West Germany told me years later. (He asked that I not use his name.) “But when it came to the West German police and security forces, we knew what had to be done,” he said. “We told [the moderates] get out of our way and let us do it.” It was a disaster waiting to happen.
The squatters suffered a resounding defeat in November 1990 when Berlin police, backed by heavily armed anti-riot troops, raided Mainzer Street.
At five in the morning on November 14, just weeks after reunification was formalized, hundreds of police burst through the squatters’ barricades at either end of Mainzer Street with armored bulldozers. A column of mounted water cannons, armored personnel carriers, and paddy wagons followed, as helicopters buzzed just overhead. The raid was the biggest military operation in Berlin since the GDR had put down the workers’ uprising in 1953. Every one of the squats was boarded up like a fortress, and masked leftists camped atop roofs with arsenals of paving stones, cinder blocks, ripped-out toilets and bathtubs, and Molotov cocktails.
The battle of Mainzer Street didn’t last a full day, but when it was over the street looked like it had been hit by a typhoon. Debris lay everywhere and tear gas hung in the air. Seventy police officers were in the hospital, and at least 300 squatters were behind bars. A week later the Berlin city government resigned and called new elections in the face of vicious criticism across the political spectrum. For weeks afterward Schreiner Street brimmed with Mainzer refugees, who crashed in the kitchens and hallways, any corner that could fit a sleeping bag.
• • •
After the Mainzer Street eviction, the squatter community began to unravel. On Schreiner Street Kathrin became fed up with male dominance and directed her energies to a women’s group. Others drifted toward the radical Autonomen or other far-left anti-fascist groups. Several took it upon themselves to turn the Church from Below rooms in St. Elizabeth Church into a cost-covering punk and hardcore club. Political fragmentation took a toll elsewhere, too. Post-Wall civic groups were imploding as members scattered across the spectrum of German parties.
And, in spite of their commitments at home, the Schreiner Street residents wanted lives beyond politics. They travelled, taking advantage of the far-flung squatter network across Europe to visit Amsterdam, Basque Country, Copenhagen, and Rome. Some took off for months at a time to knock around Africa or the Middle East. Silvio and Chrischi gave birth to the squat’s first baby, Felix, who was followed by others.
It is impossible to put an exact date on when Berlin’s zero hour came to an end. Germany’s unification on October 3, 1990 represents a threshold for many. I look to a different day. On November 22, 1992, I was working in my apartment in Mitte, writing a book about right-wing extremism in Germany and Central Europe, when I heard on Radio DT 64 that there had been an altercation around the Samariter Street metro stop, which was three blocks away from Schreiner Street. The report claimed that “rival youth gangs” were at the center of it.
I hadn’t seen the crew in a while, so I ventured over to Friedrichshain on the underground metro. As I ascended the stairs to the street, I came upon a group of young punks sitting around lit candles and scattered bunches of flowers. On the wall above them hung a hand-painted placard reading: Silvio würde hier ermordert. I stopped in my tracks and asked the kids in disbelief, “Silvio Meier? From 47 Schreiner? It can’t be. Dead? Murdered?” They nodded silently. One of them, not sixteen years old, came over and gave me a hug.
The teenage right-wingers who killed Silvio were tried for manslaughter. Three of them received prison sentences of eight months to four-and-a-half years.
At the house I saw Micha and Thomas coming out the front door, their faces streaked with tears. Silvio, Jörni, Ekke, and Christine, they told me, had been in the metro stop late the previous evening when they got into a shouting match with eight or so young guys and three women from the local right-wing scene. The squatters descended the stairs to the metro’s platform only to learn that it wasn’t running any longer. When they went to leave the station, the gang cut them off in the passageway. Several pulled knives, lashing out at the Schreiner Street guys. Silvio and Ekke went down, blood seeping through their clothes. Jörni was wounded, too, and then kicked in the head until he passed out. Police and ambulances arrived with lights flashing and sirens screeching, but by that time Silvio was dead.
In a couple of vans, the group drove to the Baltic coast about a hundred miles north of Berlin, where they scattered Silvio’s ashes in the sea. Soon afterward, Chrischi and Felix, then two years old, left for Kreuzberg; others followed or relocated farther afield, some as far away from Germany as they could get.
The teenage right-wingers who killed Silvio were tried for manslaughter. Three of them received prison sentences of eight months to four-and-a-half years.
• • •
A quarter century after the wonderful year of anarchy, 47 Schreiner Street still distinguishes itself in the neighborhood, with a four-story-high, green-and-gray dragon painted on its westerly facade overlooking a playground. Several layers of concert bills and anarchist posters are pasted on the front door and in the stairwell, which doesn’t look much different than it did in 1990.
Dirk, Jörni, and another original resident, Deini, still live there, as does Micha’s nine-year-old son with his American mother. Early this year Chrischi, who never remarried, moved back in after more than twenty years away. Felix studies psychology in Berlin. All of the apartments now have telephones, central heating, and bathrooms. Residents share kitchen space, pay affordable rent, and participate in the house’s monthly plenum at which issues are thrashed out and collective decisions made. It is still time-consuming, but direct democracy remains part of the house’s identity.
Once each year Friedrichshain becomes a meeting place for anarchists and anti-fascists throughout Germany who come to demonstrate against racism in the name of Silvio Meier. Hundreds of participants march through the district, after which speakers charge that Germany’s authorities still treat right-wing extremism with kid gloves. Far too often, they say, officials write off politically motivated hate crimes as teenage hooliganism, just as they did Silvio’s murder. But, signaling some change, in 2013 the city renamed a nearby avenue. Now Schreiner Street runs perpendicular to Silvio-Meier Street, a gesture to the victims of contemporary fascism.
Today’s Berlin is the capital of Europe’s mightiest economy, a brushed and polished version of what it was in the early 1990s. So profoundly have reconstruction and gentrification transformed the city that it is usually impossible to tell where the Wall once bisected streets and neighborhoods. On most of the bomb-razed, sun-filled lots that punctuated gloomy streets during the Cold War, one now finds commercial buildings or high-end apartments. Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain are choice neighborhoods for professionals and small families. Young Germans can’t comprehend the distinction between Ossis and Wessis.
Yet none of this has extinguished the vitality of Berlin’s urban subculture, which regularly reinvents itself with changing circumstances and infusions of new blood. And there are still areas of freiraum, as well as cheap digs, at least compared to any other major European metropolis.
There is no better example of Berlin’s lasting metamorphosis than the electronic music scene, one of the hallmarks of the new city. The techno scene was in full bloom through the 1990s, migrating about town with DIY attitude intact, as its clandestine venues were shuttered or sometimes even bulldozed away. The eccentric, world-famous Bar 25, a combination commune, cabaret, and rave spot encamped along the Spree River, took up where others left off and then perished itself, despite a citywide campaign. But the legendary club Tresor still throbs until the early hours from its new home in a converted power station on Köpenicker Street in Kreuzberg. Now the techno scene is more settled, with permanent establishments such as Berghain, Trust, Watergate, and Club der Visionaere attracting pleasure seekers from far corners of the earth.
There is no better example of Berlin’s lasting metamorphosis than the electronic music scene, one of the hallmarks of the new city.
Some of the projects launched in East Berlin’s post-Wall freiraum became commercial, and a handful, such as Zosch, Lichtblick Cinema, Acud, and Culture Brewery, still exist. August Street is lined with private galleries, including the KW Institute for Contemporary Arts, born in the early 1990s. More than a few of East Berlin’s early ’90s impresarios moved on to projects that are now cornerstones of the local cultural scene. One of the masterminds behind Arthouse Tacheles, for example, now runs an internationally known dance company and the RADIALSYSTEM X, a handsome performing arts center on the Spree. Even Hinkelstein Press is still around, serving the left-wing community in Berlin, though now from Kreuzberg. There is continuity almost everywhere when you start looking seriously—in aesthetics, too. The décor of one bar and café after another in Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg riffs off the images of squatter-era Berlin. So impressive is Berlin’s record of turning urban ruins into attractive, money-making enterprises that the city of Detroit arranged a visit of Berlin’s culture designers to give its city planners tips.
A surprising number of the squatters, including those at 47 Schreiner Street, were eventually offered reasonable lease contracts, which they accepted. Take a stroll along Rigaer or Mainzer Street today, and you can still see red-and-black flags, rain-soaked banners decrying international capitalism, and bright murals that cheer up the street, all vestiges of the anarchic past. The city may not acknowledge it, but it has the squatters to thank for sparing historic structures from the wrath of the wrecking ball, which could very well have been their fate in 1990.
Unification was a one-sided takeover of the East by the Federal Republic, which quashed new forms of democracy at the national level. Yet the experiments of early 1990s Berlin foreshadowed and perhaps even enabled alternative forms of organization that are today much in vogue: the commons, the sharing economy, sustainability. And these experiments are ongoing in Berlin. Like 47 Schreiner Street, all of the legalized former squats—an estimated 300 across Berlin—are run according to variations of participatory democracy, a legacy of 1990 and other periods of political ferment. So too are an unknown but considerable number of housing co-ops, collectively run businesses, and cultural establishments. Opinion polls in Germany show citizens—in the West as well as the East—overwhelmingly favor broader forms of democracy such as referenda, citizen’s initiatives, youth parliaments, and directly elected city councils, suggesting that hands-on governance is not just the fancy of dreamers and house squatters.
In Berlin the latest victory of people power over business interests was this year’s fiercely contested citywide referendum on the fate of the former Tempelhof airport, where the Western allies famously supplied Berlin during the Soviet blockade of 1948–49. When the 750-acre urban airport was shut down in 2010, Berliners turned it into a vast park called Tempelhofer Field. Hundreds of thousands of bikers, skateboarders, kite-flyers, picnickers, soccer and baseball players, urban gardeners, and others visit each year. Berlin’s municipal administration proposed developing the space with 4,700 new apartments and commercial spaces as well as an enormous public library, athletic fields, and an artificial lake. But two-thirds of Berliners voted against the plan, insisting that Tempelhofer Field remain as it is—Berlin’s largest, proudest swath of freiraum.
Despite all the cosmetic surgery, Berlin still has something raw and unpredictable about it that fires the imaginations of creative people. This is why Germany’s most exciting record labels, publishing houses, and art galleries all picked up stakes and moved to Berlin. And it is why foreign musicians flock to it—Pavement founder Stephen Malkmus and Travis’s Fran Healy, to name just two. The Chaos Computer Club, Europe’s largest association of hackers, which pushes the anarchist tradition into new dimensions, is based in Berlin for a reason. When filmmaker Laura Poitras felt forced to leave the United States to make her controversial documentary on Edward Snowden and the NSA, she chose Berlin.
Still, the city’s shortsighted administrators have allowed developers to crush many pearls of the subculture.
Still, the city’s shortsighted administrators have allowed developers to crush many pearls of the subculture. A representative of the mayor’s office told me Berlin has to grow up and become a normal city, like Paris, London, or Munich. Arthouse Tacheles is one recent casualty. Each year it drew hundreds of thousands of visitors to its paint-splattered rooms. It was listed prominently in every tourist guide, and it cost the city nothing. Yet it succumbed to gentrification in 2012 and will eventually be the site of yet another block of offices and luxury apartments. Such development is self-inflicted damage, consuming the city’s uniqueness and economic base for quick property sales. Indeed, Berlin’s cultural scene and its penumbra are such cash cows that Diedrich Diederichsen, one of Germany’s foremost arts critics, has argued that Berlin businesses should cough up a “subculture tax” to pay for their share of the benefits.
Amid all the transformation, anarchists continue to thrive in Berlin. One contingent calls the punk and hardcore club KvU its home base. These are the initials, in German, of the Church from Below. The club has done some moving around since its days in St. Elizabeth Church. Today it is in Friedrichshain, not far from Schreiner Street. The newest generation of anarcho-punks—all post-1989 progeny—are impressively aware of the club’s roots. On Youtube, you can find grainy videos from the GDR era, assembled by KvU, that tell the story of punk under socialism, the vote fraud protests of 1989, and the enduring impact of zero hour.
The young are fortunate to learn their heritage this way. They won’t find it in history books.
Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer who has written about Germany and Central Europe since 1989. His work appears in Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other media. He has held prize fellowships at the American Academy in Berlin, European Journalism College, German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of four books, most recently Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
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