Our Own Private Germany

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a group of squatters from East and West set out to build their own unified Germany. And, despite endless parties, questionable hygiene, and neo-Nazi turf wars, they pulled it off.

Kati Krause
Nov 8, 2014 · 20 min read

By Kati Krause and Ole Schulz
Portraits by Ana Lessing Menjibar

On a Saturday last March, my Berlin neighbors had a plant funeral. They set up three-meter-high wood crosses on our street corner and placed funeral candles all along the street, and the children drew posters of crying trees and flowers. There was live music, and everyone got quite drunk. Other longtime residents of our neighborhood pitched in with donations, and a week later, many of the plants that the city had dared to remove from in front of our building had been replaced. One of the crosses remains by our entrance, a reminder not to mess with Tucholskystrasse 30 and 32.

My neighbors don’t take kindly to authority. They are used to running their own affairs. After all, they have been doing so since early 1990, when they spearheaded the third wave of the Berlin squatter movement and occupied our and the adjoining building in Mitte’s Spandauer Vorstadt, an East Berlin neighborhood in such bad repair that it was pretty much completely deserted. The first occupants, among them my roommate, were West Berliners, but some Easterners soon followed.

This month marks 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but much more fascinating to me is that it marks nearly 25 years since a bunch of young East and West Germans from very different backgrounds launched something of a social experiment and created their own version of a unified Germany on ungoverned land. Some went at it idealistically, others pragmatically. Roughly 130 buildings were occupied in East Berlin shortly after the Wall fell, and about 100 of them received rental contracts before reunification. Some of them have since been evacuated, but others, including ours, have held out against commercial pressures, turning our stretch of the street into something of a time capsule in the middle of an increasingly gentrified neighborhood.

Who were these people then, who are they now, and how do they feel about their and the German experiment, 25 years and many friendships, parties, children, adventures and quarrels later?

Oliver Nawrot

Berlin (West)

Age in Nov ’89:

Occupation in Nov ’89:
Law student in his second year at Free University Berlin

Occupation today:

Location in the fall of ’89:
West Berlin

First impressions of the East:
“Every time I’d been to East Berlin I’d found it ugly and boring. The biggest difference between East and West were the colors and the smell. There’s a typical East German smell that I recognize to this day, of detergent or maybe coatings. And there were hardly any colors. Everything was gray and dark.”

Moved into the Tucholskystrasse squat:
Spring 1990

“We didn’t feel locked in in West Berlin, even though strictly speaking we were more locked in than the Easterners. The Wall was simply there, something I would happen upon while playing as a child. From the western side you could touch it and it was all graffitied. It was rather like a building — you simply couldn’t pass through it, and we didn’t question that.

“My grandmother and nine of my aunts and uncles lived in the German Democratic Republic, and we went to visit them often. The visa was quite expensive, 25 deutsche mark per day. That’s something like 80 or 100 euros today. People at the visa office were very unfriendly, very ‘ostig’ (from the East). We used to take fishing hooks for my uncle, because those available in the East weren’t very good.

“In West Berlin there was basically no unemployment, everything was so subsidized. And salaries were 20 to 30 percent higher than in the rest of Germany. It was normal for my father to have four weeks of summer vacation, even though he was part of leading management at Siemens. Even so, West Berlin was underpopulated. Normal people didn’t want to live in West Berlin at that time. I think the only people who went were young men because West Berliners were exempt from military service. There were no tourists, except for a few World War II veterans who would stand on pedestals by Brandenburg Gate to peek over the Wall.

“In autumn 1989 there was some TV and newspaper coverage of the protests in the GDR, but to be honest, I couldn’t care less whether they freed themselves or not — I didn’t have the impression that they were living in misery and oppression. The fall of the Wall was a complete surprise, because nobody had seen the protests as a spirit of departure. Politically speaking, everyone except the staunchest Christian Democratic Union voters were against reunification. Everyone else wanted to accept the GDR once and for all. You simply didn’t question the separation of Germany anymore, it would be like questioning the EU nowadays.

“There was a strange atmosphere on November 9, irritation. After all, it wasn’t us who were freed. We classified the whole thing as not very interesting and went home to smoke joints and drink beer. The scope of the event wasn’t evident to us.

“The days afterward we were annoyed. The city was full of people who looked ‘ostig’ — they were wearing the wrong clothes and so on. There’s a reason the word ‘Ostler’ (Easterner) was an insult. They had no money, they were standing around, they touched everything but didn’t buy anything. We laughed at them.

“But we Wessis (Westerners) earned our bad reputation, too. After the Wall fell, we would go to expensive restaurants in the East, looking shabby and behaving like the worst newly rich. We would say things like, ‘Oh, I like this starter, can I have four more please?’ And in Poland we were even worse. We would go to the poshest hotels and simply take handfuls of money out of our pockets, not bothering to even count, and told them to keep the change.

“It was my friend Mohammed who discovered the house. It was completely deserted, only one apartment was an East German couple’s second home. Some of the apartments had running water and electricity, others were just a mess. We first started hanging out in the side wing and threw parties. Then we started bringing mattresses over, a coffee machine, stuff you need. At some point I broke open the door to my apartment and moved in.

“The house filled up quickly. There was roughly one adult to a room, maybe 20 in total, plus partners and friends. Today we’re 12. We shared kitchens and bathrooms, and there was always a party going on somewhere. The women didn’t tend to stay long, mainly because the hygienic situation was questionable. Children were also a reason to leave. It got really cold during winter, too, because we only had coal stoves and never got up early enough to fire them up. And we didn’t have warm water. But when you’re young, that’s okay.

“For one year after we moved in, it was complete anarchy. The Western police couldn’t come here and the Eastern police didn’t really feel responsible anymore. There were lots of street battles with neo-Nazis. We were attacked with clubs, it was really rough. It took a long time, four to five years after reunification, for some sort of order to be established. Until then we could to whatever we wanted — there were no licenses and no police.”

Mirko “Staab” Weihmann

from Dessau (East)

Age in Nov ’89:

Occupation in Nov ’89:
Member in his third year of the Felix Dzerzhinsky Guards Regiment, a visible and unpopular part of the Stasi apparatus responsible, among other things, for protecting the GDR’s Politbüro

Occupation today:
Record label owner, artist manager, drummer

Location in the fall of ’89:
Berlin. The barracks were located in Erkner, southwest of Berlin, but Staab spent most of his time in Berlin, patrolling and protecting the Stasi headquarters

First impressions of the West:
“It smelled differently, of döner kebab, and everything seemed very colorful. But it also scared me a little. I picked up my welcome payment and returned quickly.”

Moved into the Tucholskystrasse squat:
In 1992 he joined the parties, from 1993 he crashed there with a musician friend, and in 1996 he got his own apartment

“I’d conscripted voluntarily in 1987 in order to be able to study music. In the GDR, if you wanted to study anything that wasn’t a standard profession, you had to join the army for three years first, and studying music was one of only two ways to become a musician. An alternative would have been to do what people do today and simply make music, but in the GDR you’d be considered antisocial if you did that, so normal people like me didn’t even think of it.

“Our lives at the regiment had certain routines: We would have guard duties for three weeks — I controlled pedestrians at the Ministry for State Security’s main entrance, for 134 days in total — , then an ‘extended short vacation’ for three days, then three weeks of training.

“Starting in June 1989, we weren’t allowed to receive visitors or letters, or to leave the barracks except for our guard duties. We knew even less of what was happening than before. We only got the official info about ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and heard rumors, for example that a mob had hanged a border guard from the clock at Alexanderplatz. We believed them. When you’re in a cocoon like that, you believe anything, and especially when anything else is simply unimaginable. We felt there was something evil out there that wanted to harm the state.

“On October 7, at 6:30 p.m., the alarm sounded. Protests at the Palace of the Republic, where the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the GDR was happening that day. There were practice alarms regularly, but this time, we all received live ammunition. I asked my commanding officer what would happen if I refused to shoot. He smiled. ‘Then I will first shoot you, then the mob!’ On the way to Alexanderplatz, our platoon leader was crying. That’s when we really woke up. Would we shoot or not? I stood on a bridge and heard the shouting from afar. The order never came. But that night, we knew we were screwed. We couldn’t leave — once you’d conscripted, if you left, you’d never get a job. You’d end up in a mine somewhere.

“A week or so after November 9 we finally got furlough again, and that’s when we first found out what had been happening the past three to four months. I was with my then girlfriend and friends, all of whom had been beaten up by police. That’s who the mob was — our friends. That’s when we realised we were the assholes, the bad guys. I immediately submitted my petition for release. Why? Because I felt abused. I knew I would have shot.

“On December 13 I was released. ‘You rat, we’ll get you,’ the last officer I saw told me. I got a job at the Stefanus monastery’s daycare for the disabled children of members of the opposition. My group was run by Evelyn Zupke, who organized all the anti-election protests. When I told her I’d been with the Stasi, she replied: ‘Look, I’ve been arrested by the Stasi more often than I can count, and the only reason I’m still alive is because I live on church grounds, and you are the stupidest Stasi spy I’ve ever seen.’ We soon became great friends. I stayed for a year and a half.

“I had no expectations from the fall of the Wall. It simply happened. I had no contact with the alternative or counter-revolutionary movement. We were fine. I didn’t want to join the West, I wanted to join the Party! But I wasn’t disappointed, either, because over the next six months or so, everything started. I did whatever I wanted. I wasn’t too concerned about the whole East-West thing in our building, either — I think our neighbors, at number 30, are more West German and more political. We just made music together. The only thing I never wanted again was to be in a situation where someone used me. That was the most important thing.”

Ramona Cole

Berlin (West)

Age in Nov ’89:

Occupation in Nov ’89:
A single mother on maternity leave. Ramona’s son turned one on November 8, 1989 — one day before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Occupation today:
DJ and social worker

Location in the fall of ’89:
Kreuzberg, West Berlin. Ramona was a resident at the Tommy-Weisbecker-Haus, a self-governed living project for youths set up during the first squatter movement in the early ’70s. It exists to this day.

First impressions of the East:
“For me, the East was the black-and-white television program of the GDR. The only things colorful were the bright blue Trabant cars. And at the border I always felt queasy. You knew that you had nowhere to complain if you were harassed for something. I was always put off by the East because of my skin color. I knew that many over there weren’t exactly fans of me.”

Moved into the Tucholskystrasse squat:
2002, after having partied there since the ’90s

“I arrived in West Berlin at the age of four and grew up on the streets of Kreuzberg. Even back then, many migrants lived in Kreuzberg, a lot of Turks and Arabs. For me as an African-German it was like paradise. It was a manageable world, a niche protected by the Wall. There was hardly any traffic on the roads and a children’s farm right on the border strip. And everything was connected to political demands. If we threw parties, it was to show solidarity, not just for the parties’ sake as we did in the ’90s.

“East and West Berlin — it was a strange thing. Ghost underground stations that the West Berlin U-Bahn passed through without stopping. Or GDR real estate in West Berlin. We occupied one of those, the Lenné Triangle, in May 1988. It was completely overgrown, a huge wasteland where the new Potsdamer Platz buildings are now, and we wanted to maintain it as a biotope. In the days before it passed back to the West it came to serious street battles with the West Berlin police, who hadn’t been able to enter the area while it still belonged to the East. It was like a war, hundreds of tear gas grenades were fired at us in just one night.

“The night the Wall fell I was at the Tommy Haus, but I didn’t want to see all that shit. For days after, there was no fresh milk at the supermarkets because the Easterners bought it all. A few months later, I walked across the Oberbaum Bridge from Kreuzberg to Friedrichshain for the first time with my son. I had colorful dreadlocks and people would come out of shops to stare at us. They hadn’t seen anything like us before. For all the ‘Apaches’ (migrants) in Germany, reunification was very weird. We felt excluded from this coming-together of East and West Germans. After all, what was it to us?

“After the fall of the Wall, I went to London a few times and bought my first Dancehall singles from Jamaica. We founded a sound system, and only then did I start going to the East more and moved into the ‘Tucho.’ For five years, from 1995 to 2000, we played music and organized parties every week. We helped bring Dancehall music to Berlin.

“Our neighborhood has changed completely. The original Easterner residents have moved away. There are many galleries, but hardly any ordinary shops. Only the mom-and-pop store across the street has survived from pre-unification times. They still have human prices, and everybody can afford something.

“During West Berlin times life was more comfortable. We didn’t have to struggle as much as today in order to survive. If I had one wish, I would like to be able to experience one day of West Berlin again, but with today’s knowledge. To see it all again, life in Kreuzberg directly beside the Wall, the Polish Market at Potsdamer Platz or the watchtowers on the eastern side of the Wall. How would we feel today about something we considered normal back then?”

Peter “Auge” Lorenz

Berlin (East)

Age in Nov ’89:

Occupation in Nov ’89:
Student of civil engineering in his final year at Weimar university

Occupation today:
Librarian, comic artist, and co-founder of the Renate comic book library

Location in the fall of ’89:
Between Berlin and Weimar

First impressions of the West:
“My first expedition into West Berlin took me to Wedding, and that was just as gray as the East. In late November ’89 I went to a Ramones concert in West Berlin. I used to say that that’s what I spent my ‘welcome payment’ on, but I recently remembered that, in fact, I paid in East German currency. No one cared: It was a time of ‘Ost-Solidarität’.”

Moved into the Tucholskystrasse squat:
1994, when they had to move the comic library out of its original squat, Schokoladen

“For me, the change happened before the Wall came down, between October 9 and November 4. That’s when we realized they wouldn’t shoot and we’d have the opportunity to turn this into a better country. That’s when I started dreaming. I was studying civil engineering and did all the architecture courses that had anything to do with drawing, because I’d been drawing comics since the mid-’80s. And that October I first thought that I could become a comic artist — a profession that didn’t exist in the GDR.

“In Weimar, protests didn’t really start until October 9. I didn’t join them, but I was active in the cultural scene. In early 1990 I moved back to Berlin. I think we started occupying buildings in February that year. For the first six months, Easterners and Westerners were curious about one another. Then it was over. After all, we had a lot to do: We laid new ground, set up new rules. There was space enough here.

“It didn’t bother me very much that the system broke down. I had already lived a bohemian lifestyle in a squat before, but you had to find your little corners to have fun. Now I could be the person I really was. But alternative ways existed before, too — it was just more work, more exhausting. Well, now it’s exhausting, too, because of money. For years there were job-creation measures. I’d get two thousand deutsche mark a month to be a comic book librarian.

“My GDR is different from the official version. When people today say that back then we were suppressed and surveilled, I find that just as bad as the things we used to be told about the West — a world of good and evil. As if everything were free and fair today. Back then life was more diverse than it’s often presented today. I even read my Stasi file. The information about me is ridiculous — the police could compile that within a few minutes today. Of course the GDR wasn’t an ideal state, otherwise it wouldn’t have fallen. But I know whose turn it is next.”

Effi Ulrich

Dresden (East)

Age in Nov ’89:

Occupation in Nov ’89:
Student of opera singing

Occupation today:
Music teacher

Location in the fall of ’89:
Hamburg, after she’d fled the GDR via Hungary and Austria in August ’89

First impressions of the West:
“I loved the West. I’ve never been a materialist person, but I really enjoyed being able to buy things, clothes for example. And I loved the music. I was from Dresden, the ‘Valley of the Ignorant,’ where we didn’t receive Western TV or radio signals. I spent my first months in the West watching MTV.”

Moved into the Tucholskystrasse squat:
Summer 1990

“During summer 1989, my boyfriend and I decided we wanted to leave. My family’s circle of friends in Dresden were all artists, and many had left already. I had a huge fight with my mother about it because she thought we were naive and unprepared.

“We crossed the border on August 21. We’d travelled to Hungary with a visa and taken our bikes along to cycle to Austria. We were super scared. At our first attempt we were picked up by Hungarian border guards, which was frightening because we didn’t know whether they had a firing order. They were nice, though. I remember they gave us wine and kept us for 12 hours. At the second attempt we made it — by foot, basically crawling across — and ended up in an Austrian village. The first thing I ate there was a banana split! We did have bananas in the GDR, but to get them you had to wait in line for about two hours.

“From there we went on to Vienna, where I had my first döner kebab. Then we were sent to a reception camp in Münster, and then we could pick a city. Since we were both music students, we looked for the best music academies and chose Hamburg. There we lived in a hotel for three months, paid for by the government. We were so poor, my mother used to send us care packets from the East. I didn’t like the mashed potato powder they had in the West.

“My friend Susanne and I were among the first Easterners to move into the Tucholskystrasse squat, and I felt that many here weren’t too keen on Ossis. You noticed the difference in conversations: Westerners had had a different kind of education, they had travelled. We had a more hands-on mentality. I felt a certain arrogance and it was difficult to be accepted at first. But I soon had two children, so I was distracted, and then the party period started. And I quickly became close friends with everyone anyway.

“I cherish the fall of the Wall mainly because of the music, the sudden access to so much of it. And because without it, I wouldn’t have met Mohammed and wouldn’t have my two sons today. I also don’t think reunification would have been possible in any other way. No Easterner was willing to fight for the system. However, I continued to vote for the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to the East German ruling party SED). Not everything was bad, after all. Only that we were locked in.”

Ole Schulz

Berlin (West)

Age in Nov ’89:

Occupation in Nov ’89:
Studying history, economy, and sociology in his second year at the Free University Berlin

Occupation today:
Historian and journalist

Location in the fall of ’89:

First impressions of the East:
“East Berlin was even grayer than West Berlin in those days, with a strong smell of coal in the air. Empty streets, no advertisement, abandoned houses. But I liked this unreal atmosphere.”

Moved into the Tucholskystrasse squat:
Spring 1990

“On November 9, I was at the cinema with friends. We watched Themroc, a humorous French anarchist film from the 1970s in which a factory worker breaks out of his routine and obligations, tears down his apartment’s walls, barbecues a policeman. We left the cinema feeling that we should free ourselves as well. But somebody had beaten us to it.

“We could hardly believe it. At the border crossing at Heinrich-Heine-Strasse the masses already flowed into the West. West Berliners were lining the streets and clapping. Some screamed with joy, strangers hugged, others cried. Champagne was served and money handed out to the Easterners.

“People say that on November 9, the Berlin Wall came down. But that’s not true: It only became more permeable that day. East Berliners were allowed to come over to us, but we weren’t allowed to pass into the East. So we came up with the idea to storm the border from our side and climbed the Wall. Unfortunately, no one followed us. Before us stood a row of grim East German border guards who made it very clear that we’d have to return.

“It was a great day — and it was followed by even more exciting weeks. There were daily demonstrations, political debates, roundtables. Who does not want to experience a revolution firsthand? Politically, however, things moved quickly in a direction I didn’t like too much. The slogan ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (‘We are the people’), which was chanted at the GDR protests, quickly became ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ (‘We are one people’). As a young leftist I supported the idea of a third way, socialism with a human face. But in the 1990 elections the East Germans voted for the Conservatives. And in the autumn of that year, German reunification happened.

“For the left, it was not easy to accept the fall of the Wall. The GDR’s socialism may have been an absurd system, but it was also the only alternative to capitalism. I think capitalism was more human back then because it had to compete with socialism. With the collapse of the Eastern bloc, an era without utopias began.

“At the very least we got to experience a few years of anarchy in East Berlin, until the new order was established. Anyone who wanted had plenty of room to play around and fulfill themselves. And we — a group of young West Berliners with some new friends from the East — occupied two abandoned houses.

“Over the years, our life together has changed significantly. It has become less collective and collaborative. Some have fallen out and are not talking to each other any longer — that happens easily in such communities. But there are also positive things: close friendships, for example. I already went to school with some of my neighbors, and I enter and leave others’ apartments as if they were my own. Some of us still make music together, others play soccer in one team.

“Our rents are still very low. The new owner told us that he came out of the liberal ’68 generation, and he gave us a lease contract on very favorable terms for the premises in both houses. What happens when it expires in 2026? We’ll have to see.”

“Some time in the new millennium I started to feel alienated from my neighborhood. Berlin Mitte was the foundation of a new alternative culture and club scene in the unified city. But today my quarter is completely gentrified, full of chic boutiques that don’t interest me and and expensive restaurants that I can’t afford. (The residents of Greenwich Village must have felt similar in the ’70s.) It feels almost as artificial as the world in The Truman Show.”

Archival images by Jiri Kandeler, Katja Elger, Mark Null, and Roland Curth

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