Dancing in the Ruins

Ulrich Gutmair’s 'The First Days of Berlin' provides a glimpse into the squats, galleries, and techno clubs that sprung up after the fall of the Wall — but what were the political underpinnings of that scene and what is its legacy?

Green flowerpot Trabant in Berlin's Tucholskystraße (Zöllner / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The history of twentieth-century Berlin can be told through its urban landscape, though specific details of destruction, division, and détournement are rarely legible when walking its streets today.

The private members’ club Soho House Berlin sits on Torstrasse in Mitte in a building that opened as a department store in the late 1920s. The property was confiscated from its Jewish owners after the Nazis came to power in 1933, when it became the premises of the Reich Youth Leadership. After the Second World War it was renamed ‘House of Unity’, functioning as an office for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany’s leadership and later as the Institute for Marxism-Leninism, which housed the party’s archives. Ulrich Gutmair’s The First Days of Berlin is concerned with the period separating the ‘House of Unity’ from Soho House, recreating the atmosphere in Mitte, an area in the bomb-damaged city centre formerly divided between East and West, in the chaotic interregnum between the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the neighbourhood’s rapid gentrification in the 1990s.

The author moved from Bavaria to West Berlin just before the Wall came down and immersed himself in the euphoric party scene that sprung up in the years that followed. The book seeks to convey what it felt like to dance in the ruins at the ‘end of history’ when the shape of the future remained uncertain. He describes curious West Germans and foreigners entering Mitte by walking across the rabbit and weed-strewn former ‘death strip’, clambering through holes in the Wall to squat empty buildings and found art galleries, communes, bars, and clubs.

Repurposed buildings and objects are central to the stories Gutmair tells about ‘die Wende’ (‘the turning point’), mostly through interviews with people who lived through it. New venues kept their old names and signage. Boxes of abandoned hats belonging to a recently defunct GDR children’s circus were soon worn by artists. Closed factories and offices stood unlocked so squatters used their still-connected phones to make long-distance calls and looted crockery from their abandoned canteens. East Germans threw out old stuff to replace it with items from IKEA purchased with ‘welcome money’ from the West German state, some of which had ironically been made in GDR factories. Meanwhile, bohemians from the West scavenged through the waste, finding kitsch appeal in abandoned East German objects: a rejected portrait of Erich Honecker hung on the wall of a squat, old Czech electronics decorated a pub, dismantled sections of the former East German parliament, the Palast der Republik, became a club’s bar (that building had been constructed in 1976 and was controversially demolished between 2005–8 to rebuild the royal palace that had stood on the site before being damaged by bombing in both world wars).

Gutmair and his interlocutors are suspicious of nostalgia for a past moment they always knew would be fleeting, but he does dwell regretfully on the disappearance of vacant plots from the area, claiming that empty spaces served to remind ravers of the destruction and violence of the Second World War. Partying in the debris meant twentieth-century German history remained palpable, paradoxically present through absent buildings. Preserving emptiness became a form of memorialisation while the later ‘disappearance of gaps and holes’ functioned as repression.

The book serves as an oral history of the ephemeral, describing ‘short instants of authentic living amid all the fakery’, capturing rhythms of nights on dancefloors and days unstructured by waged work. Gutmair describes the anarchic tendencies of the counter-cultural scenes of Mitte, moments of antagonism between squatters and cops, the state’s involvement in granting temporary licenses to artists, the gradual institutionalisation of communes and the co-optation of events like Love Parade, but he offers little by way of political analysis of these processes. West German militants in the 1970s were fond of spouting Maoist slogans like ‘the revolution is not a dinner party’, whereas for nineties radicals in Mitte social events like dinner parties were understood as politically meaningful in their own right, especially if served on dishes reclaimed from skips. An East German who lived in Mitte before the fall of the wall says he hated the GDR but was under no illusions about the profit-driven West. But there’s little indication here how things could have gone differently post-reunification.

In an interview in 1990, East German playwright Heiner Müller declared: ‘what surprises me most about recent events is not the tumbling of the Wall but the resurgence of nationalism, racism, and antisemitism. I thought these weeds had been pulled out, but the roots were left in the ground to sprout again.’ Gutmair claims Mitte’s weed-covered vacant lots served as reminders of the darkest moments in German history, never to be repeated, whereas Müller suggested weeds belonged as much to the present as to the past.