The First Days of New Berlin
Nov 4, 2014
3 Min read time
25 years after the Wall fell, the untold story of Berlin's anarchist utopia.
Patrons gather at Obst und Gemüse (Fruit and Vegetables), a bar in Berlin's Mitte district, 1992. Photograph: Ben de Biel
On a chilly December morning in 1989, just weeks after the Berlin Wall’s breach, eight scruffy-looking, twenty-something Germans gathered in East Berlin’s old working-class district of Friedrichshain. The group of friends—and fellow conspirators under the Communist regime—considered themselves anarchists. Although, as a rule, anarchists eschew leaders, one might have mistaken Silvio Meier, a small-framed guy whose magnetic personality eclipsed his slight physique, for the group’s frontman.
Their intention that day was expressly political: to occupy an empty apartment building in which they would live by libertine principles while they fought to turn the newly no-longer-communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) into a state more, not less, liberal than its neighbor, West Germany. For them the two projects—the squat and the GDR’s thoroughgoing democratization—were deeply intertwined.
They appropriated the five-story building, 47 Schreiner Street, and, in so doing, sparked a chain reaction across the city. Throughout 1990, DJs, artists and wannabe artists, middle-class students, activist filmmakers, clubbers, musicians, and other free spirits would occupy hundreds of apartment buildings, vacant shops, shuttered warehouses, and long-forgotten subterranean vaults. They came from East and West Germany, as well as from across Europe and beyond, to initiate Berlin’s rebirth as a cosmopolitan center after decades of reclusion. The Iron Curtain’s breach and Communism’s demise unleashed a groundswell of utopian energy and DIY zeal, most powerfully focused in the occupied spaces of East Berlin’s inner city districts, such as Friedrichshain. One couldn’t have known it at the time, but this ethos would infuse Berlin for years to come and does even today, earning Germany’s capital a reputation as one of Europe’s hippest metropolises.
In late 1989 and 1990 I watched East Berlin’s transformation through the lens of the 47 Schreiner Street squatters. I was twenty-something myself, a novice journalist living between Budapest and Berlin during the year of tumult. The Wall’s breach ushered in an exhilarating period of people power, improvisation, and revelry, which I both chronicled and took part in.
The “wonderful year of anarchy,” as the German publisher Christoph Links labeled it, between the fall of the Wall and unification is a little-known chapter in the history of Berlin and Germany as a whole. It is hard to fathom now, but just after the Wall came down, the unification of the two Germanies was by no means assured. The future was up in the air, open for a fresh start and original designs. That year offered a fleeting glimpse of what another kind of Germany—indeed, post–Cold War democracy—could look like: a nation imbued with the spirit of community solidarity, bottom-up decision-making, and a sharing economy. This vision wasn’t the product of a pat ideology; rather, it unfolded spontaneously in the multitude of East Berlin’s unclaimed spaces, or freiraum.
A quarter of a century later, the legacy of Berlin’s zero hour reverberates, especially in the city’s raw urban vibe that lures world-famous artists and filmmakers, publishing houses and galleries, adventure-seeking young Americans, and millions of tourists a year. But many of its most eccentric visions and offbeat projects lasted only a short time. Among its diverse figures, the year or so of anarchy slipped away at different points, for different reasons. For some it ended with the bloody Battle of Mainzer Street in the autumn of 1990; for others the end came years later, when the original techno scene faded. For me and for 47 Schreiner Street, it came to an abrupt, tragic conclusion in November 1992 with Silvio’s death at the hands of teenage neo-Nazis. The wunderbares Jahr der Anarchie had an ugly underside: the rise of right-wing extremism, another legacy of the new Berlin’s first days that continues to shape the city’s identity.
November 04, 2014
3 Min read time