'90s Berlin and the rise of techno

The fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9th November 1989 precipitated a mass migration of the East German population westwards. They sought the greener pastures of the West and, most importantly, they sought the Deutschmark – the West German currency and symbol of the West German state’s economic might.

Hundreds of thousands of East Germans moved to the West in mere months. In January of 1990 alone, 200,000 people moved from East to West. East German protesters that had called for one Germany in the peaceful revolutions that culminated in the fall of the Wall – wir sind ein Volk! (we are one people) – now called for the Deutschmark.

And if it didn’t come to them, they would go and get it themselves.

Fears of further mass migration, and the West becoming swamped by East Germans, led to the introduction of the Deutschmark in the East in July of 1990. People could exchange their eastern marks at a 1:1 ratio. The hope was that it would keep the East Germans where they were. At the advent of reunification on the 3rd of October 1990, Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of West Germany, crowed that the East would be turned into a ‘blooming landscape’ of growth and prosperity.

Initially the gambit worked. East Germans began to stay put. There were, however, glaring flaws in this short-term fix policy. With Germany reunified, ex state-run businesses in the East had no hope of paying wages in the new currency. Likewise local governments in the East could not afford to pay out pensions and benefits. Productivity was much lower in the East, and business that had seen no investment in decades could not compete with the western juggernauts. What industry remained crumbled under the strain, and the West had to foot the bill.

Kohl’s blooming landscapes did not materialise, and again the East Germans began to look to the greener pastures of the West, and were on the move again. Large areas of central East Berlin such as Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg emptied out, and with East Germany – which, as a socialist state, had eliminated private ownership – consigned to history, buildings lay unowned and uninhabited.

Young bohemians, artists and punks from both East and West alike saw an emptied cityscape ripe for the taking. There was space to reappropriate everywhere: apartment blocks, factories, power stations, former air-raid bunkers, and even bank vaults. There were no neighbours to annoy and the police didn’t bother to appear in these dilapidated dead zones.

In the absence of authority, freedom was embraced enthusiastically and creative, squat and nightlife subcultures began to mushroom. Setting up a bar or a club was as simple as finding some empty space, taking a speaker stack in one night and turning up the bass full whack so the rats fled, and then coming back the next night with as many crates of beer as you could carry. These places were beyond the jurisdiction of licensing and health and safety laws.

Many of Berlin’s now legendary nightclubs were birthed this way. The precursor to Ostgut, the club that would later become Berghain, one of the most famous clubs in the world, was the product of fetish night set up in an old WW2 air raid shelter. At times the ventilation was so bad that people would have to leave the reinforced concrete den because the amount of cigarette smoke had depleted the oxygen levels so dangerously. When it started out, Tresor, meaning safe or vault in German, was exactly that: an abandoned bank vault on Leipziger Straße.

This new Berlin scene needed a new soundtrack, and it found it in techno.

Developed in Detroit during the mid-late ‘80s, techno melded black styles of music such as funk with the electronic sounds of European artists such as Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. Spawning in a period of severe economic decline for the motor city – in which the middle classes fled to the suburbs and left the urban centre to rot – this new hybrid genre embraced futurism in a city that seemed to have no future.

It is little wonder that Berliners gravitated to the Detroit style. The socio-economic circumstances of both cities were very similar. Like Detroit, East Berlin had emptied out and, as mentioned, there was empty space everywhere. The raw sounds created on analog machines complemented the lo-fi nature of the developing subcultures in Mitte, and the pulsing 4/4 rhythms captured the energy and excitement of people who saw freedom and opportunity in the urban wasteland. The rave scene exploded, and by the mid-1990s Berlin had become a haven for the Detroit pioneers – high profile names like Jeff Mills and Blake Baxter lived in the city for a time.

The foundations were laid for what is now one of the city’s most thriving industries and a huge part of its identity. Berlin has become synonymous with techno, and the after-dark scene still revolves closely around it. Berlin’s nightlife, while a little more regulated than the lawless days of the 1990s, is still legendary, and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world every year.

And the city authorities know it. The techno giants of the city’s club scene are allowed a freedom here that could not be dreamt of in other cities. Licensing is incredibly relaxed, with many clubs allowed to remain open from Friday night through until Monday morning. Police interference with regards to what goes on behind those closed doors is minimal, too. Last year Berghain was even designated as a site of cultural importance by the city – the accompanying protections of such privileged status effectively guaranteeing the institution’s survival for decades to come.

Of course there have been examples to the contrary – the crew behind what is now Holzmarkt were forced to close first Bar25 and then Kater Holzig because both spree-side clubs stood upon real estate that had been earmarked for gaudy development.

But, in general, the city’s techno temples are allowed to survive and thrive at a time where housing shortages are approaching critical levels and real estate value has never been higher.

May it long remain so.

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