A vision of another Germany died with unification – Al Jazeera America

Oct. 3, 1990, was a glum day in the bastions of Berlin’s subculture: the squatted tenement buildings, the subterranean dance clubs and the late-night haunts of the artistes and free spirits who had made them their homes. Many of the underground’s habitués — eastern and western Germans, as well as many internationals like me — understood unification as crushing the breathtaking “short year of anarchy” that had reigned in eastern Berlin since the Wall’s breach on November 9, 1989.

No doubt, it spelled the end of the exhilarating time when absolutely everything seemed possible. For a moment there even flashed the fantasy of a new Germany based on direct democracy, solidarity and DIY ingenuity — the culture that prevailed in the 130 squats of eastern Berlin, as well as the occupied industrial spaces, shop fronts and abandoned breweries and bank vaults. With unification, no longer could anybody with an idea and a crowbar set up a gallery, café or publishing house in eastern Berlin.

Yet, 25 years later it’s fair to say that our dark moods weren’t entirely justified. While the intoxicating year of innovation and experimentation couldn’t be replicated, the years that followed generated thousands of ingenious projects that bore the imprint of the 1989-90 zeitgeist when eastern and western Germans met for the first time in the postwar ruins of eastern Berlin. Berlin’s cool, late-night scene and the city’s greater art community — as well as many start-ups and mainstream endeavors — thrive on this energy, which is less raw today but still forceful enough to enable Berlin to continually reinvent itself. This is why almost all of Germany’s first-rate publishing houses, such as Suhrkamp, and serious recording labels moved from western Germany to Berlin.

Some of the 1990s’ most colorful phenomena such as the techno acid scene had only just begun in October 1990. There was still a surfeit of unclaimed space — freiraum in German — that distinguished Berlin from any of its international counterparts and still does. You could make ends meet on very little which left plenty of freizeit (free time) – the other prerequisite for original culture — for collectively run, self-made ventures, some of which turned a euro, some of which didn’t.

Today the kids in the world-famous club Berghain may not know — or care — that the source of the techno dance club’s cool goes back even further than 1989-90, but to the vibrant subcultures in postwar East and West Berlin. Long before the Wall fell, both Berlins were on the map as havens for artistes and radicals, draft dodgers and individualists, gays and lesbians, eccentrics and punk rockers. Today’s Berlin is unimaginable without the legacies of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, Christiane F., the Ingenious Dilettantes, Wolf Biermann, and the East German punks who rocked the red-brick churches in 1980s Prenzlauer Berg.

In West Berlin the advent of subculture happened in the form of Kommune I, a full-fledged free-love commune that emerged from the late ’60s student revolt, which challenged the mores and structures of West Germany’s nuclear family, its authoritarian schooling, Christian morality and all of the cultural underpinnings that the student
radicals claimed made fascism possible in the first place. The communards said: Stop the talking and do it yourself! The 1967-69 Kommune made a host of mistakes but the spirit of participatory democracy, collective living and creative revelry inspired decades of young Germans who weren’t prepared to think just what their parents did.

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