Just thirty years ago, on 9th November 1989, the border crossing on Bornholmer Strasse, the street where I live today, allowed the first inhabitants to cross from the East to the West. It was on this street in the north of Prenzlauer Berg that the first border guard decided to raise the iron curtain that had divided the German capital in two since 1961. This followed a speech by a GDR official on television, who had just announced an easing of travel to the West. For many, it was the end of a nightmare that had lasted far too long.
For others, born during the partition of Berlin, it was a plunge into the unknown, the discovery of a world that until then had only been accessible, for the lucky ones, via television. I met some of them, in order to understand how the physical and idelogical separation of Germany and the reunification impacted their daily life, their identity, their thoughts. Here is the first article of this serie.
Jens, the punk kid from East Berlin
How can one shape their personality when growing up in a city torn between two ideologies, when born into a dictatorship where the crossing of a wall can cost lives? These are the questions (among others) that I asked Jens Schwan, author of the magazine CLUBMAP, dedicated to the life of clubs in Berlin and co-organizer of Zug der Liebe, the Berlin Love Parade. An ex-punk of East Berlin, he was one of those who danced at the first rave parties organized in the rubble of the city, seeing a counter-culture that would soon become part of the DNA of the German capital, now a Mecca of the underground culture in Europe.
« I was 17 years old when the wall fell and lived in a squat on Senefelder Platz (in the Prenzlauer Berg district of East Berlin). We had been occupying the area since August 1989. At that time, I had already been a punk for two years.” For this kid with his own specific opinions, he thought « the capitalist FRG was as bad as the GDR dictatorship« . He thought about escaping. « When I was 15, I trained as a sailor. The aim was to be able to leave the GDR. My neighbour was a sailor and went everywhere. To Hamburg or Africa…… For me, it didn’t matter. The most important thing was to leave. « A destiny that his mother would quash by saying: « She told me that my uncle, who had never been invited to family gatherings, had been a colonel in the Stasi (the GDR’s political police). An official request to leave the country or become a sailor would never have been granted. »
➰ East German or just German?
Growing up in East Berlin leaves its mark. The physical boundary that served to delimit capitalist and socialist ideologies also characterised a whole generation of Germans for good. According to Jens, « Ossis (people from the East) and Wessis (from the West) are different. East Germans consider material values to be less important than social values. This is why they have difficulty, especially at work, in dealing with criticism. East Germans aspire to social justice, helpfulness and modesty, while West Germans value prosperity, social recognition and freedom more. East Germans appreciate the cohesion within a neighbourhood. For the West German, the perfect neighborhood is when you don’t bother each other. But I think it has completely changed for everyone under 30. »
I had to find my way into a completely different social system. In a film, it would be like a New Yorker moving to Moscow in the early 1980s.
As for whether he feels East German or just German, the answer is clear: « First of all, I am a Berliner (even if I find the attitude of Berliners who think they are cooler than others because of where they live unbearable). But I will never be only German. When I am asked, I always say « German, East German strictly speaking » because there is a difference. A big difference. When someone settles in Germany without speaking the language, they integrate by learning to speak German. I had to find my way into a completely different social system. In a film, it would be like a New Yorker moving to Moscow in the early 1980s. »
➰ His Image of the West
Before 9th November 1989, Jens had never set foot on the other side of the wall. How do we imagine a world whose crossing is punishable by death?” I watched the news almost every day. I still do today. In the 1980s, the GDR government tried to remove the antennas from Berlin’s rooftops so that we could no longer receive ARD/ZDF (West German public television channels). Much of what we saw on state television was propaganda and lies. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Chernobyl incident. My image of the West was: rich, free, problematic unemployment, more crime, better music, poverty, lack of compassion, cold attitude. A very sober, austere country. »
My image of the West was: rich, free, problematic unemployment, more crime, better music, poverty, lack of compassion, cold attitude. A very sober, austere country.
At school and in society, the food and goods banned by the system were strongly desired. “If you had family in the West, you would receive packages full of things like chocolate, gum and other things that didn’t exist in the East. These children at school were privileged. Coca-Cola cans were so hip that they were left empty on the shelves. In general, most people found the GDR crappy, but had managed to live with all the restrictions imposed by socialism.”
When the wall fell, he didn’t really believe it. « I never thought that this dictatorship could be conquered from within.” On 9th November 1989, the miracle took place. After that, he will regularly travel to the West, to the Kreuzberg district. « We regularly went to punk concerts in Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg has always been the Mecca of Eastern Punks. All the cool music came from there. But it also led me to no longer want to be a punk. In Hallesches Tor, there were these punks, at the bottom of the stairs who were begging. I thought it was really disgraceful. For me, the punk scene was dead. I changed it to the S.H.A.R.P. Skins*.”
*Sharp Skins means Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. It is a movement of skinheads militant against racial prejudice and neo-fascists, created in the United States of America in 1987.
After the fall of the wall: reunification and disillusionment
If the fall of the wall put an end to surveillance, paranoia and confinement, the sudden reunification with West Germany was for Jens a bitter pill to swallow. The East-West separation had indeed given rise to the hope of a political rebirth, neither communist nor capitalist, to this dissident from the East, who was squatting in buildings and demonstrating for peace.
« The most difficult thing for me was to see that the East Germans came out in favour of sudden reunification (advocated by the FRG) and Deutsch-Mark. Both were promised by Helmut Kohl (the chancellor in the West at the time and member of the CDU Liberal Conservative Party). We wanted a new free socialist state. But not capitalism. The Bündnis 90 (Alliance 90, a German political party with civil rights groups such as Neues Forum and Demokratie Jetzt), achieved a meagre 2.9% of the votes in the March 1990 free parliamentary elections in the GDR (see box). The first free election of the East German People’s Chamber was also the last. And ended our dreams.”
THE BURNING QUESTION OF REUNIFICATION
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the question of reunification was at the heart of the free parliamentary elections in the GDR, which took place in March 1990.
The supporters of sudden reunification in the Alliance for Germany (right-wing), supported by the head of the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, Helmut Kohl, opposed the social democrats, advocating measured reunification and wishing to keep certain socialist traditions inherited from the GDR and other alternative parties such as Bündnis 90.
In the end, the Alliance for Germany obtained 48% of the votes. Reunification was officially declared a few months later, on 3rd October 1990.
➰ Freedom, gentrification, violence
While the sudden reunification was difficult to take, the fall of the wall also brought its share of good things, such as the end of political oppression. « What has changed is the way we see life. All the old certainties of people who could previously oppress, threaten and humiliate us had disappeared. We had won.”
A double-edged freedom: « East Berlin was (at that time) an anarchic paradise that attracted creative people from all over the world. At the same time, neo-Nazi groups gained in power, and we had other concerns than going on holiday or going shopping.”
While in the early 1990s we were dancing in the ruins, foreign investors have since bought half of Berlinas their playground, which costs people their living space and forces them to move
How has the German capital evolved since the Fall of the Wall? « Gentrification and crime are the two most evident examples of negative change in Berlin. The city had to move from a creative playground to a real capital. Normal people have settled there, started their own businesses, brought money and knowledge, but also their need for peace and quiet. They killed bars, clubs and rave parties following complaints they filed, turning entire neighbourhoods into boring mini villages. The playful freedom of the early days has disappeared. While in the early 1990s we were dancing in the ruins, foreign investors have since bought half of Berlin as their playground, which costs people their living space and forces them to move.”
➰ Techno as an escape route
The confusion that emerged at reunification, the time when the two sides of the city came together, saw the emergence of an incredibly rich counter-culture, taking advantage of the abandoned buildings of the East to experiment with new ways of celebrating, including the emergence of new kinds of music, starting with techno. Front row, Jens.
Techno was like a second fall of the wall
« There was no techno before the wall fell. For years, I « wasted » my youth in clubs, behind the bar, I worked in record stores, I even played with Aphex Twin (Welsh DJ pioneer of electro music, including IDM) and Felix the Housecat (American DJ and house music producer).”
« At that time, I was a radical left-wing skinhead who lived in a squat. But everything changed when I went to a party (I don’t know where…). There were no drugs yet. Techno was like a second fall of the wall, making you forget all the political bullshit. At the time, there was no internet, only leaflets in some record stores and a radio show that informed you of the places (where the parties were held). I left everything behind to explore this new world. It really started with the opening of the first Tresor Club (a mythical techno club in Berlin) and the Tekknozid parties (the first rave parties organised in 1990/91 in East Berlin, which strongly influenced the future of the Berlin techno scene). There were places like La Turbine (a former club located in Kreuzberg that hosted the first evenings of the legendary Kitkat club), but from then on, it really grew.”
To the present day, Jens is still active in the Berlin nightlife scene. « My online magazine THE CLUBMAP provides daily information about Berlin clubs and new music. I am co-organizer of Zug der Liebe (a kind of Love Parade founded in Berlin) and co-organizer of OpenAir to go (rave parties organization). I am also at the heart of Club Kataster (a directory listing the cadastre of cultural/festive clubs and places that developers and builders can consult in order to allow festive life and residential places to thrive) with the support of Musicboard Berlin.”
And he still lives in East Berlin, in Prenzlauer Berg, which remains his favourite district. « Even though it’s a dead neighborhood today. All the clubs have closed. But it remains… home.”
A home that has disappeared, in the space of three decades, from a proletarian neighbourhood to an intellectual and alternative area, to a neighbourhood populated by yuppies…