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La Belle: When a Berlin disco was bombed

This time 35 years ago, a bomb exploded in a West Berlin club known for its diverse crowds and wild dancing. We look back at what La Belle meant to its open-minded revellers.

Image for La Belle: When a Berlin disco was bombed

A memorial to the victims of the La Belle discotheque bomb attack on April 5, 1986 in West Berlin. Photo taken in May 1986. Photo: Imago/Sven Simon

In the early hours of April 5 1986, murder came to the Berlin dance floor. With revellers in full swing, a bomb ripped through popular Friedenau discotheque La Belle. Three lives were lost: a Turkish woman, Nermin Hannay (28), and two American GIs; Kenneth T. Ford (20) and James E. Goins (28). Besides the fatalities, 229 people were injured, some more seriously than others. It took two months for James E. Goins to die from his injuries following the blast.

It’s hard to find Berliners who haven’t seen photos of the aftermath: the scaffolding casing the building, a limp red tarpaulin printed with the words: “Disco La Belle Club”. In the photos, the nightclub on Hauptstraße has all but disappeared. In its place, a gaping hole framed by police barriers and rubble. 

A political motive was swiftly uncovered. Driven by heightened tensions between Libya and the US, Libyan terrorists were found guilty. The arrest of the main perpetrator, Verena Chanaa, in 1988 was followed by that of Palestinian Yasser Shraydi, an employee at the Libyan Embassy in East Berlin. Both received 14 years after the highly anticipated court hearing. Libyan Diplomat Musbah Eter and Chanaa’s ex-husband Ali Chanaa were convicted as accomplices and both were sentenced to 12 years. Verena’s sister, Andrea Häusler, was with her the evening she brought the bomb into the club, but later cleared of any involvement.

At first it was believed that the Stasi had simply tolerated the tragedy, but, after intense investigation, evidence emerged that the East German secret service played a much more sinister role. During the Berlin trial of 2000-2001, it was uncovered that – although not directly involved in planning the attack – the Stasi had been aware of the details at least a week before the bombing took place. In October 2004, after Muammar Gaddafi finally claimed responsibility, Libya agreed to a €24 million payout to the non-US victims and their families. It was referred to as a “humanitarian gesture” and paved the way for improved German-Libyan relations. 

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Sketch from the La Belle trial after a verdict was handed down in the appeal hearing, 2004. Photo: Imago/Eckehard Schulz

There are few photos of the club before the attack. Berlin reporters were never drawn to places like La Belle; for the local press, such clubs didn’t exist. The mid-80s mainstream was dominated by punk, new wave and the pop sounds of Madonna et al. DJs at La Belle played funk, soul and early hip hop. It was the place for a dance-loving audience, a melting pot of ethnicity and culture: African-American GIs, Black women, Turks and other minorities mixing with a handful of white Germans. Many were marginalised at the time, while white women who dated Black men were treated with contempt.

In the absence of photographic documentation, memories of the club’s interior are hazy. Former revellers recall it being rather small and square, with a relatively large dance floor in the middle. What remains are indelible recollections of the music; the intoxicating atmosphere; the people you’d meet. Not only at La Belle, but at the other clubs frequented by Black GIs at the time: Motown on Fuggerstraße in Schöneberg; Chic on Adenauer Platz in Charlottenburg; Silver Shadow on Breitenbachplatz in Wilmersdorf.

Those who had previously only known Dschungel on Nürnberger Straße or Café Swing on Nollendorfplatz were dumbstruck to witness the joyous choreographies that sprung up on the dance floors of these music clubs. Anyone who’s seen the group dance scene in the first episode of Netflix musical series The Get Down will have some idea of the vibe: ’70s glamour, bodies swinging in step.

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Netflix series The Get Down portrays the rise of hip hop and disco clubs in 1970s New York, a dance scene which later influenced Berlin clubs like La Belle. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

The dance bug from army clubs

The US army clubs of the time were no less enthralling. Anyone could enter, soldier or not, from the US, Germany or beyond. All you needed was your passport and a few dollars in change to buy drinks. A rum-cola or Long Island Iced Tea; drinks to get you sloshed were available for a mere $1.50.

Depending on the evening, disco music filled the rooms that were meant for socialising in the barracks. On Fridays, crowds were drawn to Friendship Club on Finckensteinallee and Starlight Club on Goerzallee, both in Lichterfelde. On Saturdays, it was the Checkpoint Club at Clayallee, on the corner of Saargemünder Straße in Zehlendorf and at Silverwings on Columbiadamm in Tempelhof. People threw up their hands to the “Shackles On My Feet” by R.J.’s Latest Arrival. 

“People went there and really just danced,” recalled Katja Bahadori of her visits to La Belle and similar clubs in an RBB interview, 25 years after the Wall fell. “There was a great atmosphere, great music; some of it was music that we didn’t have here before.” At La Belle, for example, US soldier Cedric Nelson moonlighted as a DJ. While the ‘white’ discos in Berlin were still playing one song after another, Nelson was already mixing heavy funk with R‘n’B tracks to create never-ending, ecstatic sounds. “I was involved with the army post office,” he says in a phone call from Camden, Arkansas. “So I could get the very latest discs flown in from the US for cheap.” 

The day that destroyed so much

Katja, a disciple of this new musical style, was a victim of the bombing. For three months, the then 19-year-old was confined to hospital where she underwent several operations. Despite extensive efforts to heal her injuries, she struggled not only with long-term physical impairments but also a deep trauma.

The bitter reality is that the bombing of La Belle didn’t affect the US government or military in the way it affected the young, vivid and open-minded victims. They came from across social and racial divides, unperturbed and undefined by their differences. They were connected by music. 

After the attack, nothing was the same. Ronald Reagan, then US president, ordered the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi to be bombed nine days later. Meanwhile, US soldiers were forbidden by their superiors to visit discos in Berlin for over a year, while army clubs admitted only military personnel.

Cedric Nelson took off back to America in 1988, working at music radio stations before opening a club of his own. Enzo di Nunno, the former La Belle operator, opened the Shalamar in Zehlendorf on Martin-Buber-Straße.

The Wall fell and the last Allied troops left Berlin in 1994. But the image of La Belle’s gutted façade endures. As Die Welt once put it, the atrocity was “one of the most serious terrorist attacks against US Americans in Germany” – and against the people who simply wanted to dance with them. What became of Enzo di Nunno after the closure of the Shalamar? The internet doesn’t know. 

Original article by Eva Apraku for tipBerlin. Translated by Lucy Rowan.