My first visit Berlin six years ago coincided with the global financial system going into meltdown. It was all over every screen in my hostel, with panicked-looking people in suits trying to explain incompehensible columns of figures. But I wasn’t there as a financial journalist; I was on a mission to explore a very different universe which exists at the heart of Germany’s capital – the radical underground of Berlin...
There was much that I had planned to check out on this trip, such as the Brandenburg gate, several gig venues and the famous art-squat Tacheles. But despite all my pre-planning, I was prepared for the unexpected to happen. Five days in to my visit, it did.
At about 3pm on 11th November, I was walking through the city centre when I saw a large gathering of people on the central square of Alexanderplatz, so I went over to see what was going on.
They were mostly young people, many of them punks and alternative types, and some were wearing bar codes across their foreheads, while others had hats made out of tin foil. It was obviously some kind of demonstration.
Many of the protesters had T-shirts and placards with the image of a Big Brother-style face –with the slogan Stasi 2 underneath. (the Stasi were East Germany’s secret police during the communist era)
Having a pitiful knowledge of German, I couldn’t work out what was going on. But I found someone who could tell me in English. His name was Roman Froelich.
“The German government is enacting laws to enable the state to intercept emails and phone calls, to examine peoples’ computers and install CCTV widely” Roman explained “…this march is a coming together of almost 200 different groups to oppose these policies”
The march was moving off, so I joined it. Drum’n’bass and electro was blasting from sound systems on the backs of graffitti-painted trucks as we walked down Karl-Liebnecht-strasse. The people around me were holding banners proclaiming ‘Frieheit nat angst’ (freedom not fear) and Num Ziem Stalker-staat’ (stop the stalker-state)
Those standing on the street watching the procession, many from an older generation, were genuinely interested in what the protestors had to say, and the leaflets they handed out as they went. For Berliners, state surveilance is a very sensitive issue. A population that lived under the original Stasi are not as willing to tolerate it as people are in the UK.
An interesting factor was the low police profile. Where British police often line the routes of marches in massed ranks, here there were just a handful at each corner where the march took a turn. It looked as though people are allowed a little more chance to have their say in this city.
The marchers were not tightly packed, and I was able to move towards the front of the the march. As I did, the atmosphere got more confrontational.
I found myself amongst a lot of young men, most of whom were dressed in black hoodies, sunglasses and in some cases, face masks. Their banners screamed “Fuck Control” and “Save The Resitance”. The police were in greater in numbers here, watching menacingly in their military-style fatigues and helmets.
Suddenly, on the wide street Unter Den Linden, the march slowed and came to a stop. I couldn’t work out what was going on, but dozens of police began running back the way we had just come. The young contingent then erupted into massed chants and gestures in their direction. Someone told me that there had been a fight further back involving some fascists. There was a tense atmosphere, but within 3 minutes we were moving again.
I moved up further to where the march was passing the Reightstag – the German Parliament building. The building itself had been totally sealed off with wire fencing. More police and vans were around, and dog handlers stood on the pavement at ten metre intervals, holding back their snarling animals, which were being driven crazy by the noise from the samba band which I was now walking with.
We were being filmed by police cameramen here. And in return, some marchers were filming the police. We eventually wound up at the Brandenburg gate, where speeches were given from a stage.
A few days later, I met up with Roman at a left wing pub in Mitte district. Roman told me he had been immersed in the Berlin radical scene for ten years. Firstly, he expained how Berlin’s radicalism has been nurtured by the squat scene.
“the squat scene happened after the wall came down in 1989. During the GDR era, the authorities moved a lot of people into new tower blocks and left the old buildings abandoned. When the wall came down, lots of people came over to Eastern Berlin to make use of them…the squats offered a lot of space for people to do creative things in the new atmosphere of freedom. More alternative and radical people came to the city. It was a place where they could fulfil their dreams in a non-capitalistic way”
This led to an era in the early nineties where whole neighbourhoods were utilised, with squats providing meeting places, living spaces and venues for the new subculture, largely collectively organised along anarchist lines. However, the city authorities eventually decided to act against this movement.
“In 1993 a law was passed which said that squatters could be evicted within 24 hours of entering a building unless they had signed a contract with the landlord…so now there are no real squats. All of the squatters have contracts, or in some cases they have managed to buy the buildings”
The original squat scene was pioneered by punks, a group that been cruelly oppressed during the communist era. “Punks were punished in the GDR. There were no punk gigs allowed. The only places that punk bands could play was in churches…Some people were put in prison just for being punks. A lot of people from that time are now sufferring from psychological problems.”
Our drinks finished, it was time to visit one of these spaces. Roman took me to a squat-bar which is used by a number of radical groups as a meeting and organising point. The interior had flaked plaster, raw bricks, red lights and layers of graffitti. There were shelves full of underground literature and gig posters on the walls.
Young people were gathered round the bar, playing table football or huddled away having conversations in corners. Amusingly, Sham 69 was playing on the stereo. It was such a cool place, but a universe away from the superficial, commodified world of mainstream youth culture.
Getting back to our conversation on the radical scene, I asked Roman about the black-clad marchers I had seen on the demo a few days before. “They are known as the ‘black bloc’” he told me “they are a movement throughout Europe, have been for about fifteen years…they physically confront the fascists – fight with them. They also fight with the police and cross police lines on demonstrations. They cover their faces to remain anonymous, although covering the face during a demonstration has been made illegal.
in recent years fascists groups have started to adopt the icongraphy, music and style of anti-fascists, to attract the youth…also there is a long history of infiltration of anti-fascists by fascists, and vice versa. And by the police.”
The black bloc seemed to be an almost exclusively male force, with a very confrontational energy, which you feel could attract people who simply like violence, and could go either way. “That is a problem” Roman agreed “…it is a very male thing. But there are also many feminist groups here in Berlin. There’s a big gay and lesbian movement too…but it is not entirely safe. Some lesbian friends of mine were coming out of a squat party once and they got beaten up very badly by turkish fascists”
Berlin’s squatters might not be changing the world but in their adopted buldings something like an alternative, free society has been created. But as Roman explained to me, this radical subculture is under threat as Berlin becomes increasingly gentrified.
“In the last ten years a million new people have come to Berlin, many from abroad. For many years people were coming here and just hanging out. There was a very special alternative and non-commercial culture. But the success of that non-commercial culture has attracted people who spend money on culture. They want to be a part of it.”
Indeed, the amount of UK and American accents to be heard in the cafes of bohemian areas like Freidrichstain is striking. I personally know of arts professionals who have moved to the city, attracted by its edginess, energy and affordability.
“Rents are rising ” Roman says “…and in areas like Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, a lot of poor people have had to move out. When the rents are put up, the new people will still pay it, because it’s still cheap compared to where they are from.”
Many of the squat-clubs in Mitte district have closed in the last 2 years, and are now luxury flats. But the underground is not giving in: “15 years ago, ‘Mietshauser syndikat’ was formed – it’s a charity to help squatters buy houses. Lots of people in the radical scene pay a contribution each month to this”
This kind of solidarity is astonishing. Berlin remains a centre of alternative culture that can inspire, inform and amuse. And remind us of what is possible.
This article was originally written for Nerve magazine.