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  • Excerpt: How Berlin went from almost bankrupt to techno capital


Excerpt: How Berlin went from almost bankrupt to techno capital

In an essay from a new book through the Goethe-Institut, Tobias Rapp tells the story of a scrappy city that became home to one of the world’s most influential music scenes.

Image for Excerpt: How Berlin went from almost bankrupt to techno capital

In an essay from a new book through Goethe-Institut, Tobias Rapp tells the story of a scrappy city that became home to one of the world’s most influential music scenes. Photo: Tilman Brembs

How did Berlin, once a city in deep crises, become home to one of the world’s leading music scenes? As nightlife around the planet sits at a standstill, we take a look inside Ten Cities, a new book sponsored by the Goethe-Institut. It collects 21 essays penned by 25 writers that tell the story of club music and culture in 10 urban centres across Africa and Europe, from 1960 to March 2020. 

In an essay from the anthology, journalist Tobias Rapp describes the rise of electronic music in our city. After the fall of the Wall, abandoned buildings were transformed into temporary nightclubs that gave way to a scene that eventually became the global techno capital. 

Order Ten Cities through Spector Books.

Berlin, open city

Nobody anticipated the fall of the Wall. Neither the GDR regime, nor the Soviet leaders, neither the Americans, nor the West German government. It was one of the twentieth century’s major strokes of good fortune; without any bloodshed, the GDR simply collapsed. Since no one anticipated it, there were no plans as to how to deal with the new situation. People had to improvise, and that is one thing subculture activists have always been better at than the authorities. Just as East Berliners flocked into West Berlin to marvel at the glittering shops, there was a similar movement in the other direction. Hundreds of artists, squatters, students,and other people headed to East Berlin where they found inner-city neighbourhoods with entire streets that were abandoned – and East Berliners who had already begun to squat in flats and buildings.

When, shortly before the official reunification, the GDR introduced the West German D-Mark, East German industry began to collapse – mostly because it had been subsidized by the state for years and, with production costs that were too high and often out of date technology, produced only a few competitive products. This meant that there were now not only abandoned houses but also abandoned factory buildings. What made the situation even more complicated was that many of the plots of land originally belonged to Jewish citizens who had been expropriated by the Nazis. During the GDR era ownership had changed yet again. The reunification treaty included the principle of ‘return overcome-pensation’, and the heirs of the former Jewish owners were to be given back their property. This was complicated and took a long time. It was an exceptional situation in world history where a major city of a leading industrial nation had to make do with a total and complex stopgap solution. For the Berlin subculture, this was a dream come true.

For a Berliner, it is almost impossible to imagine East Berlin’s bohemia at the beginning of the 1990s.

From the fall of the Wall until the mid-1990s, East Berlin was one large adventurous playground – at least for those who took advantage of the situation. There are many reasons for the fact that, in retrospect, techno seemed to have been the soundtrack of those years, even if the real nightlife of that era was different. Yes, techno and house were played everywhere. But there was also reggae, hip-hop, ska, punk, and easy listening. If there was a predominant aesthetic, then it had at least as much to do with the flea market eclecticism of many DJs as with the ‘machines in ruins’ aesthetic of techno.

But the reason why the music with the straight four-to-the-floor beat has remained and become a feature of Berlin’s identity, while all the other styles disappeared after a short while, is likely to be the power with which this predominantly lyrics-free genre lent itself as the sound of a new beginning. In the years after the Wall had come down, this music seemed to be just as unmarked as the city itself. In retrospect, we could trace back many different lines that point to the time before the fall of the Wall. However, back then, everything felt exciting and new.

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For a Berliner, it is almost impossible to imagine the peculiar life of East Berlin’s bohemia at the beginning of the 1990s. Renting a flat was extremely cheap, there were – in the middle of the industrial nation Germany – no telephones, next to each door there was a little roll of paper where you could leave messages if you wanted to meet up with others. Most flats were still at a post-war standard with coal ovens for heating and single glazed windows, despite the very cold Berlin winters. Most of the furniture was found on the streets, as East German neighbours bought new furniture and threw the old stuff away. Many buildings were empty and inspected by squatters. It was not unusual to break into those buildings, change the locks, and open an improvised bar in the rooms you liked. Those bars were really everywhere, and each weekend hundreds of people would wander through the streets and backyards in search of new venues. Often, these bars would only exist for a few weeks. If those who ran those places got bored, they went looking for another place.

Both E-Werk and Tresor, the two most important techno clubs in the 1990s, came about in this way. E-Werk was a former power station; Tresor was located in the vault rooms of the former Wertheim department store, the building itself having been erased by Second World War bombs. The club WMF, named after the building of the WürttembergischeMetallwarenfabrik, changed location eight times within fifteen years. However, the large clubs were only the most visible ones. The whole city centre, an area of Berlin which had once been vibrant during the 1920s, but had become a gigantic building site, was more alive during the night than during daytime. All the city’s hedonists got their chance; nobody asked for a permit or for approval by the building inspection authorities. You only had to seize the space (and maybe found an association for the support of the arts and then declare each party to be an event organised by the association).

It was a party that stood in strange contrast to reunification in the rest of Germany, which was predominantly a triumph of the West German capitalist system over the socialist East, as well as a sell-out of the East to the West. A different lifestyle characterised Berlin’s inner-city areas. ‘‘The state that has established itself in the interim period between the two systems is close to what utopians in the nineteenth century described as anarchism,’’ stated journalist Ulrich Gutmair, ‘‘an order that seems to function almost without governance’’. Temporary autonomous zones were created in everyday life. These spaces opened up for a while, new situations unfolded and were soon gone again. Nothing remained as it was, everything was transient, and that’s what defined the beauty of those years.

It soon became clear that the fleeting nature of the moment was not all advantages. ‘‘While some slept until the next party started, the very person you had just danced all night with might be buying the building in which the party had taken place’’ remembers Natascha Sadr Haghighian. After the fall of the Wall, driven by the hope that Berlin would soon play a part in the big concert of the world’s metropolises, many property developers were keen to grab East Berlin land. Driven by tax write-offs and the decision to reinstate Berlin as Germany’s capital, prices began to soar. However, redeveloping the city took longer than originally thought.The property situation was so complicated that it often took authorities years to find out which part of land belonged to whom. Fifty years after the war, it was difficult to track down heirs who were often spread over several continents

In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that the concept of interim use (Zwischennutzung) emerged. This meant the temporary letting of unused rooms to interested parties, often from the cultural sector. In reality, however, the emergence of this idea was rather a happy coincidence: The right woman held the right chair at the housing association in Mitte, which managed most of the property. Her name is Jutta Weitz, she was one of the officials in charge of commercial property– and one of the central figures in the East Berlin of the 1990s. Weitz liked the hedonists with their often strange ideas, and she started to rent them spaces on a temporary basis. The consequence of this was that even when squatting was no longer possible, it was still possible to get spaces in East Berlin without being able to provide a detailed business plan. Galleries, clubs, bars, studios, and all sorts of strange mixtures of these forms sprang up. It was a time of great cultural boom that took place, without much attention in the media.

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However, East Berlin’s subculture was not invisible, and the rise and fall of Rave and Techno as the first unified German pop-cultural movement got a large public response. On a very superficial level, this response can be seen in the visitor numbers of the Love parade. About 150 people came to the first parade in 1989. In 1990, this number rose to 2,000. From then on, the numbers more than doubled each year until it was said to have reached over one million in 1997. This figure is probably too high, as were the figures given for the following years, which were, again and again, said to be over a million. From 2001, the numbers decreased, and in 2003, the Parade took place in Berlin for the last time. It is the almost classic story of youth culture: from the darkness of a basement into the limelight of the charts – and then down into the dust of oblivion.

Music with the straight four-to-the-floor beat has remained a feature of Berlin’s identity as the sound of a new beginning.

For a while, those who wanted to, were able to earn a lot of money with electronic music. The movement grew, and many believed that it would go on like this forever, that this music would know no boundaries. Friendships fell apart over the question of whether you wanted to remain in the underground or whether you wanted to enter the charts. For the first time in Berlin, these questions were no longer theoretical; there was a way out of the Berlin clubs and into the charts. Westbam and Marusha became popstars. Yet, the growth wasn’t sustainable. In pop culture, the same laws of social movements applied as everywhere else, and for those who have profited from growth for years, who live on the beauty of growing, stagnation is death. Techno, it seemed, was over at the end of the 1990s.

The Rave bubble burst at roughly the same time as the property bubble. The German government indeed moved to Berlin as planned; the city became a major German city again. But instead of a big boom, a depression set in. When Berlin subsidies were cancelled, the city’s remaining industry collapsed and no new companies came to fill the gap, at least not in sufficient numbers. At the end of the 1990s, the city was left with tremendous debts, a decreasing population and grave social problems. The buzzword Clubsterben (the death of clubs) appeared for the first time. It had become more difficult to find new venues. Many subculture activists began to realise that their actions had taken place in an utterly exceptional situation in world history – and the fear of conditions becoming normal, took hold. 

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Ten Cities collects 21 essays penned by 25 writers that tell the story of club music and culture in ten urban centres across Africa and Europe, from 1960 to March 2020. Photo: Tilman Brembs

Decreasingly poor, still sexy

If you walk through the streets of Berlin Mitte today, you will be surprised at how little has remained from the exciting subculture after the fall of the Wall. Basically nothing. Subcultures are always temporary. However, the fact that hardly a gallery, no clubs, and no bars have survived is quite surprising indeed. Gone are the no-name, open-air bars in backyards, often simply named after the days of the week on which they were open: Monday bar, Tuesday bar, Wednesday bar. Gone are all the basements, barracks, factory halls, and other venues where you would sit together at night, drinking, talking, and dancing. Many of the buildings are still there, but nothing about them is reminiscent of those wild years, which are nothing but an episode in the long life of those buildings – just like the Kaiserreich, the war, and socialism. However, what is even more surprising is that this disappearance has not done any damage to the city’s attractiveness. Berlin is still the European capital of subculture and dance music, even more so than in the 1990s. The streets are full of young people who have come to Berlin because of this reputation. What has happened here?

In fact the economic collapse of the post-reunification boom at the end of the 1990s was a godsend for the subcultures. The fact that investors ran out of money also meant that the remaining inner-city waste-lands – of which there were many at the time – were not built over. The fact that the population was still decreasing, although there was a flood of redeveloped flats coming onto the market, meant that, for some years, rental fees and property prices not only stagnated but actually went down. The city became cheaper at the turn of the millennium and the fact that Techno, as mainstream spectacle, had disappeared meant that music could retreat into the darkness of the niche in order to renew itself–only that all the protagonists had become a little cleverer through the experiences of the 1990s.

Berlin is still the European capital of subculture and dance music. The streets are full of young people who have come here because of this reputation. What has happened here?

Berlin’s rise to become the hipster capital would not have been possible without the deep crisis the city went through around the turn of the millennium. At the beginning of the 2000s, Berlin was the metropolis of bankruptcy, a city in which nothing worked, at least nothing which was initiated by politicians and investors. When, in 2006, the Bayer group bought the Berlin-based Schering AG, the city lost its only company listed in Germany’s main share index, DAX. Berlin remains to be neither a financial centre nor a centre of mechanical engineering; no automotive brand has its headquarters in Berlin, no computer company, and no chemical company. At the beginning of the 2000s, it very much looked as if this would never change.

Two developments that are completely unrelated to Berlin would mark the beginning of the city’s renaissance. First of all, the liberalisation of the European flight sector, which from the end of the 1990s allowed cheap city trips. It would take some time until Europe’s dance-crazed youth noticed what possibilities this entailed. This changed at the beginning of the 2000s when increasingly greater numbers of ravers started to come flying into Berlin. All of a sudden, you could hear all sorts of languages being spoken in the queues in front of the city’s clubs. The ‘Easyjetset’ was created, named after the low-cost airline.

Furthermore, the subcultures networked over the internet, again something new. No scene was quicker in doing so than the electronic music scene. Soon people in Italy’s Bologna or Toronto, Canada would be better informed about the programmes of Berlin’s clubs than those living in the German capital. You only had to want to know. How important this internationalisation would be for the scene became obvious in March 2010 when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted and paralysed the whole European air travel. On that weekend, all of Berlin’s clubs were only half full at best. People simply couldn’t come.

All of a sudden, you could hear all sorts of languages being spoken in the queues in front of the city’s clubs. The ‘Easyjetset’ was created, named after the low-cost airline.

In the 1990s, it was the alliance of East German ravers from Berlin’s suburbs, the gay community, and the creative scenes that shaped Berlin’s nightlife. In the 2000s, the tourists joined them as a fourth group on an equal footing. Additionally, around the river Spree, at the border between the neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, a new club mile was forming. In the 1990s, the clubs were located in the city centre, which was no longer possible, all free spaces there had been taken by companies, institutions and newly arrived state agencies. Hence clubs moved to the Spree area. Interestingly enough, this was also an area the Senate had earmarked for building offices. A plan that would be met with resistance. This culminated in summer 2008, in a regional referendum, in which the majority of the population decided against the plans for the so-called ‘Media Spree’, the senate’s large-scale development programme.

This referendum marked the beginning of a significant cross-milieu debate, which the city of Berlin has been having ever since, and in which the big questions are being discussed: How do we want to live? Who owns the city? Which role does culture play? Which role does money play? Can we avoid displacing the poor? The Berlin clubs and the corresponding subcultures play a central and contradictory role in this debate. On the one hand, the operators of clubs themselves are investors who upgrade the district in question. On the other hand, they stand for a different form of urban development, for the promise of emancipation that forms the core of all subcultures.

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The discussions have become more urgent because, since 2008, in the wake of the worldwide credit crunch, property prices in Berlin have soared. A lot of money was moved at the time, on the hunt for investment opportunities. The cheap and obviously undervalued Berlin property market seemed, and still seems, to be a lucrative target. This was a new development, unfolding with the relentlessness of a threat. The impression was that Berlin, the subcultural paradise, seemed to want to oust the very hedonists who had turned it into a sought-after place in the first place and get them to move to the suburbs. 

But this was, and is, mainly just a fear. In fact, cultural life in Berlin is as dynamic and vital as it has always been. There are more clubs than ever before, more artists and musicians live in the city today, with more arriving constantly. Furthermore, club owners and party organisers have learned their lessons from the 1990s and are now focusing on sustainability. The era of temporary clubs that would move from one location to the next is over. Berghain and Bar25, the two trendsetting clubs of the last ten years, operate in different ways and have become permanent institutions. Berghain operators have bought the building, and although theBar25 operators had to vacate the area because the soil was contaminated and had to be cleaned up, they were successful in finding investors for a risky project to build a new neighbourhood on the site, which enabled them to buy the property. Tresor has redeveloped a huge old powerplant, and other clubs have secured long-term leases.

In fact, cultural life in Berlin is as dynamic and vital as it has always been. There are more clubs than ever before, more artists and musicians live in the city today, with more arriving constantly.

This is something new: a subculture that understands itself as a player in urban development. Of course, this has to do with the self-confidence resulting from the economic success of this former subculture.Where there is money, there is power. However, this is also the preliminary end of a particular Berlin model of subculture, whose strengths has always been a certain kind of tunnel vision. The truly interesting artistic developments were created in the dark and felt most at home there too. A darkness in which one preferred to remain among like-minded people. After all, the city was big enough to avoid each other, unlike other German cities where, like it or not, you would find yourself confronting each other in the same bars at night.

Now the subcultures are beginning to account for themselves. It is also their activists who drive the discussions on what kind of city Berlin actually is and wants to become. The fact that the Senate has abandoned its practice of selling land simply to those who offer the most money, and, since 2012, has also been taking into account social and cultural aspects, is the first positive result from this development. How far subcultures will actually remain subcultures in these situations, remains to be seen.