Leftists behind bars

See red at three of Berlin's best leftist locals: leather-heavy havens of scruffy activism, cheap liquor, GDR memorabilia and defiantly anti-glitz attitudes – for the most part. There's never a bland moment in these alternative strongholds.

Image for Leftists behind bars
Photos by Rasa Urnieziute

They might seem intimidating at first, but these Berlin hangouts keep the city’s rebellious spirit alive. The cheap drinks don’t hurt, either. 


No Becks, no latte, no bullshit… But for how long?

It all started 10 years ago. Matthias, a big guy with a blonde ponytail and a leather vest who wouldn’t look out of place in a motorcycle gang, had been living in an occupied house in Prenzlauer Berg since 1990. He did regular shifts at the bar there, but “at some point I noticed I was 10 years older than all the people on the other side of the counter,” the old-school East Berliner recalls. He wanted to create something more professional, a space that was open every day with multiple events a week. so in 2003, BAIZ was born right on the border between Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.

“Baiz” is actually a Swiss German word for a local tavern, but the bar with the black-red flag is a true Berliner Eckkneipe: smoke-filled, noisy and initially aggressive. A sign advertises “No Becks, no latte, no bullshit.” Instead, there is Berliner Pilsner for €1.90, Zapatista coffee from Chiapas and, if you’re in the market for luxury, a shot of Cuban rum for just over €2. They used to serve €1 shots until they noticed tourists from nearby hostels would come by to drink themselves warm on the cheap.

Regulars include neighbours, political activists and a crazy person or two, ranging in age from students to 90-year-old grandmothers. The black-clad staff try to live by their left-wing principles: “On paper, I’m the boss,” explains Matthias, “but in practice all the people who work here make the decisions together.”

At the end of last year, they discovered an advertisement on the internet: apartments in their building would be available for sale by the summer, and the BAIZ space could be rented out as an office soon after. Their contract was set to expire in October and the building owners planned to renovate the entire building and sell it as luxury condominiums. The contract has since been extended to February, but BAIZ’ future is still very much in jeopardy. As soon as word got out, 120 regulars – scared of losing a hang-out and a source of cheap beer – crammed into the back room to form a “BAIZ bleibt!” initiative. they’re going to try the legal route first, but “people might do things we don’t know anything about,” says Matthias. “A Barman Can Bear No Responsibility For What His Customers Do.”

For now, the little bar is full. The back room features regular screenings of films from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, even silent Eisenstein films with live musical accompaniment. If you’re lucky, you might hear a talk by former terrorist Knofo Kröcher about kidnapping a conservative politician in the 1970s. Maybe the 14-member East Berlin band “Bolschewistische Kurkapelle Schwarz-Rot” will hold a cramped concert in the back. And of course, there are continuous political meetings: as soon as the Marxist-leaning school newspaper Red Brain packs up, the “anarcho-syndicalist youth” sit down. With all this support, these indomitable anarchists might yet hold out for a while.

BAIZ, Christinenstr. 1, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz


Punks’ paradise

In an increasingly tamed Friedrichshain, Rigaer Straße is a defiant bastion of punkhood. Among the squatted houses, the façade of a soon-to-be-completed luxury apartment building is stained black from a trash can blaze set by persons unknown. And at the corner of Silvio-Meier-Straße, a street recently renamed after a young antifascist murdered by neo-Nazis in 1992, sits the Abstand. On a summer night, you will meet dozens of leather-clad punks sitting on the sidewalk, accompanied by at least as many dogs. Both species occasionally get into shouting matches and can be scary at first. But Lena, a young woman with blue hair and more piercings than we could count, was happy to tell us about the location.

Open since 2009, the bar is technically a “private club”, where a €1 ‘donation’ buys you a bottle of a Sternburg. Its building on Rigaer Straße has been occupied for 23 years – longer than many of its residents have been alive. Now the residents have a 99-year lease, and they are planning to buy the building outright.

As legal residents, they are not often harassed by the police. “If there is stress, it’s usually from familiar faces,” Lena explains. They ask people to go outside if they insist on fighting. Dogs are also okay, “as long as they don’t bark constantly or pee everywhere.” One punk at the bar remembers a drinking game: “We would take a shot every time one of the dogs pissed in the corner.” But even the Abstand is experiencing gentrification, in its own small way: the bathrooms, once legendarily rancid, were remodeled a few months ago.

“We’re apolitical,” Lena says. “At least, we’re not politically correct.” Of course the bar is against Nazis and sexism – a big poster on the wall exclaims “no means no!” and shows a woman with a pair of bolt cutters – but Abstand serves meat in their Volxküche, alongside vegan hamburgers. And what do they think about tourists walking down from antje Øklesund down the street? “Tourists tend to be uncertain. They walk by, look in the window, and usually move on.”

Abstand, Rigaer Str. 78, Friedrichshain, U-Bhf Samariterstr.


Eastern wonderland

“Restricted area!” “State border!” “Mines!” the signs at the door don’t exactly make you feel welcome – more like you are approaching the Berlin Wall and are about to be shot. But inside, Die Tagung, a remnant from an earlier time in the trendiest part of Friedrichshain, looks a lot more upbeat. The walls are decked with diverse memorabilia from the german Democratic Republic, from the blue flags of the Free German Youth (FDJ) and busts of Marx and Lenin to cigarette ads and price lists from a bakery – as long as it’s Eastern, you can see it here.

The bar has been around since 1992. “All this stuff was just lying around on the street, and the founder thought it was a shame that it was being thrown away,” remembers Dodo, the owner. The East Berliner has been working here since 1998 – back when the bar included an illegal basement club – and took it over seven years ago.

She doesn’t think of East Germany as a paradise: as a child, she and her parents weren’t allowed to visit her grandparents on the border with Bavaria, due to the danger that they might flee. “If I had come of age there, I would have been the first to apply for an exit visa.” But now she’s running a bar stocked with Red October beer, Pfeffi schnapps, Wurzener crisps and Caro cigarettes.

Google the bar and you’ll find a review: “they hate tourists!” But not without reason: “I just don’t understand how people can take things off the wall to take pictures.” On the other hand, sometimes guests will bring their older parents from the East and “they’re just happy as biscuits to see all the stuff here. Sometimes they’ll even offer things to add to the collection.”

Afraid smaller items might end up stolen, Dodo keeps them at home, leaving things like a gigantic black bust of Julian Marchlewski, a Polish Communist who was a founder of the KPD. They got the statue years ago from the island of Usedom. Now a biography of Marchlewski taken from a GDR reference book is printed right in the menu – saves the trouble of telling his story every time.

Die Tagung, Wühlischstr. 29, Friedrichshain, U-Bhf Warschauer Str.

Originally published in Issue #118, July/August 2013.