Some 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – on November 9 1989 – Berlin is a utopia for many people.
In otherwise precarious and uncertain lives, Berlin holds out the hope of pursuing creative work in an affordable, liberal and connected urban centre with significant public spaces and endless cultural events, plus a long history of political activism and philosophical thought.
In Berlin, many things seem possible that conditions elsewhere make impossible. That’s especially true for musicians.
Berlin is, of course, a world-renowned hub of electronic music, and that’s an increasingly large part of the capital city’s otherwise flagging economy: the city is “poor but sexy”, in its mayor’s notorious words.
A stint in Berlin is a rite of passage for many, as scores of graduates and artists can attest.
Although the history of novel musical forms in Berlin stretches back over a century, German re-unification around 1990 was an exceptionally productive moment.
Love and hope
Around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, electronic music took on a new role in the lives of many eastern and western Germans. The 1970s and 80s had seen a range of innovative electronic music productions, not least from Germany – and this rapidly developing form gathered increased pace just as the Berlin Wall fell.
In the 1990s, this music subculture became a feature of mainstream culture. By 1997, the annual Berlin Love Parade saw a million people dancing in the city’s Tiergarten.
Hope for the future was ecstatically enacted in a city energised by an open future. My recent research has noticed how often positive affect (ecstasy) was prevalent in re-unification narratives – take all those famous scenes of Germans embracing as the Berlin Wall was opened – while also being repeated in histories of clubs across Berlin and Brandenburg.
Consider the blurb for SubBerlin - Underground United, a 2008 documentary film about Tresor, a renowned techno club set-up in an abandoned department store bunker in 1990s Berlin:
The fall of the Berlin Wall was something no-one had ever expected to be happening so quick and with such intensity, leaving Germany in a state of euphoria, upheaval and confusion … The years that followed were marked by new-found freedom, chaos, change, and a rush of collective ecstasy.
The author’s invocations of openness, joy, exploration and elation represent a common narrative of life in Berlin’s clubs across the time of the Wall’s fall, the Wende (or turnaround period of 1990) and re-unification. In clubs and at the Wall, subjects reported elation so great the self momentarily dissolved in the crowd.
This elated outpouring has had lasting effects: the city’s once annual Love Parade was a Summer draw-card for hundreds of thousands of Europeans for over a decade; eastern Germans are overrepresented in the ranks of acclaimed DJs and producers, their identities forged in the rush of collective ecstasy in clubs around 1990.
Many international connections were also forged after 1989, linking up eastern and western Germans with producers from Detroit, Chicago, London, Bristol, elsewhere in Europe and the Caribbean. Some of those connections are documented in Paris/Berlin: 20 Years of Underground Techno (2012).
Meanwhile, many informal cultural spaces founded after 1989 in the “gaps” left by the Cold War – the abandoned buildings, the bombed-out ruins and the underpopulated city centre – have been formalised in the past decade and are now marketed by the city as a tourist attraction.
Thousands of people – “the EasyJet set” – get on inexpensive flights each weekend for some “techno tourism”.
The city government’s website announces “Berlin is the clubbing capital of the world”.
Estimates suggest around 10,000 people are employed in the city’s clubbing sector. A proposed rise in 2012 to royalty collections that would have affected all clubs saw 6,000 people protest (and 300,000 sign an online petition), claiming 100,000 jobs could be lost in Berlin when tourism was tallied into the equation.
Battle for Berlin
More broadly, the removal of the inner-German border after the fall of the Wall ushered in a new set of international relations – the end of the Cold War remade relationships within and across nation-states.
A period of intensified globalisation and financialisation followed as eastern Europe was opened up to the market economy, and efforts were increased to establish a European Union across national territories.
These political changes – the end of the socialist alternative and the rise of the trans-national liberal EU – had significant cultural and social effects.
Indeed, nowhere are the tensions and complexities of this new problematic more apparent than in Berlin, the site of brutal and joyous historical events throughout the 20th century.
The symbolic “battle for Berlin” continues between long-standing residents (including post-war “guest workers” from Turkey) and new arrivals.
The battle has various fronts, including an influx of international capital into the housing market, which has raised rents, and in anti-gentrification activism, such as torching up-market cars, graffiti on shop windows and so on.
Unemployment is high and an increasingly pernicious welfare system, brought in by the social democrats a decade ago, makes life difficult in a city whose global desirability is increasing the local cost of living.
Here, capitalism’s global flows become material as residents face thoroughgoing change.
This goes to the heart of how to sustain the culture of the city without setting it in aspic. How to retain the openness and potential for novelty that created the celebrated spaces. For the first time in decades, Berlin’s population is rising rather than falling, thereby bucking the national trend of a shrinking population.
Even as a city with horrific historical episodes, Berlin remains a place for new beginnings and inventions.
Many new dreams were forged in November 1989. Disappointingly, few of them have come to pass in any lasting way as Berlin too is slowly remade in the image of global capitals.
The clubs offered – and still sometimes do – a respite from the cultural, political and economic battles outside.
But as property developers circle the city, even the places that recall the ecstatic happiness of November 9 will soon face a fight to stay open.
Der Klang der Familie (The Sound of Family) (2012), chronicling the rise of the Berlin techno scene and its connection to the Fall of the Wall, will be launched in English translation on Saturday November 8 at Berghain, Berlin.