ULRICH GUTMAIR moved to Berlin three weeks before the Berlin Wall came down in the autumn of 1989. It was fortuitous timing. Not only did the Mauerfall, as it’s known in Germany, signal the end of the Cold War, but Gutmair’s move also allowed him to experience Berlin during a unique social moment. The city he recalls in The First Days of Berlin: The Sound of Change, published in Germany in 2013 and now available from Polity Press in an English translation by Simon Pare, is a place where squats, music clubs, and art houses spring up as fast as Berliners move between East and West. “[A] space of possibility had opened up,” Gutmair writes.

The First Days of Berlin revisits the Wende, the period of transition during 1989 and 1990 around the fall of the Wall and German reunification. In its wake, Gutmair writes, people from Berlin and beyond descended on the city’s central Mitte district to “create fashion, music and art, become DJs, design flyers and set up publishing houses and galleries, organize raves, open bars and clubs, sometimes for a matter of weeks and generally with no licence to serve alcohol.” The book, informed by the author’s memories, secondhand sources, and interviews with others who were there, is an intriguing work of cultural history.

Gutmair, a culture and arts editor for the daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung (a.k.a. taz), catalogs various clubs that defined the milieu he’s depicting. Out of the venues he discusses in the book,

[s]ome stuck around for long enough to become fixtures, some existed for a single summer or winter and others for just one party; very few have survived to this day. Some places quickly made the listings in the city’s magazines, others you could only find if you knew the right people or happened to be in the right place at the right time. Flyers publicized parties and exhibition previews. Sometimes music and loud voices would lure you into a courtyard as you were walking past, and you would stand there outside a house, in a courtyard, by a door, listening out for where the party was.

The author describes Kunsthaus Tacheles, a complex on Oranienburger Strasse. The building hosted a basement club known as Ständige Vertretung, which enforced a no-photography rule. As one of the club’s founders claims, the policy was “all about accentuating the moment and the situation we all found ourselves in together. […] There had to be something only people who were there could remember.” Violate the rule and you might see your camera smashed on the floor. As a bartender who worked at the Friseur, another club, tells the author: “We wanted to avoid any commodification of the situation. It was something we created lovingly and quite deliberately to counter that type of exploitation.”

Another key spot was Mauerstrasse 15, the home of the Elektro, “Berlin’s smallest techno club.” The Elektro, Gutmair writes, “looked like a cross between an underground station and a New Wave bar, more in keeping with one of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels than the real-life city centre of Berlin.” The club was located on top of the Favela, also known as the Brazilian, “where the only food was cachaça-filled coconuts and pineapples,” and where the drink of choice was the caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail. At Mauerstrasse 15, the Elektro blasted techno and house music while the Brazilian, downstairs, played salsa and bossa nova. Today, Berlin’s club scene is epitomized by the world-famous Berghain, which opened in 2004 and is mentioned here in passing.                                                                                        

The narrative structure of The First Days of Berlin can be slightly scattershot, jumping around, introducing and reintroducing places and people. The introductory pages include a map of Mitte, highlighting some of the locales discussed throughout, which is helpful. But readers can be forgiven for keeping Google up as they make their way through the book.

Gutmair introduces us to some memorable characters. There’s Klaus Fahnert, who would post up daily next to a kiosk near Tacheles. A journalist once asked Klaus, who wore political badges on his shirt, if he voted. His response: “Your princes are rogues and layabouts. I would abhor voting for you.” (Gutmair reports that these are his only words that appear on the internet.) Klaus, who made his home at Mauerstrasse 15, always hung out at the Elektro, where he was known as “Hausklaus.” Eva Otaño Ugarte moved from Spain to Berlin in September 1989 and decided to stay once the Wall came down. She initially lived at Tacheles — and eventually found work at Ständige Vertretung. She describes the era as “one big party.”

Jutta Weitz worked for the Berlin-Mitte housing association during this time. Her job was to deal with first-time applicants looking for commercial premises. The position brought her into contact with all sorts of people looking to start a project in Mitte. One group, she recalls, wanted to open a shop in which they could seal Berlin air just to release it after three years. “There would be masses of applicants standing in the hallway outside Jutta’s office in the early days,” Gutmair writes. Those looking to establish themselves in Mitte knew that she had their interests at heart. She was central to the scene that arose in Mitte during the early 1990s.

The stories here are placed in the context of the Cold War’s end and the reunification period. One memorable anecdote comes from Thorsten Schilling, who saw the West for the first time in July 1989, the same day he had his East German citizenship revoked. He recalls talking with a saleswoman at a market in West Berlin’s Kreuzberg district:

“Have you got any salami?” A typical Easterner’s question. “Have you got any?” means “Is there any today?” Obviously, that kind of question is totally inappropriate in the West, where there’s too much of everything. The woman replied, “Sure, what kind?” It was this seminal moment when I thought, “OK, this woman knows more about salami than you do.”

Thorsten was politically active in Berlin during the early 1990s. “By day,” Gutmair writes,

Thorsten helped to organize the transition to a working democracy; in the evenings he toured Mitte’s bars and clubs. One place he frequented was the Gogo Bar in a squat on Neue Schönhauser Strasse where they played seventies music like Sweet and T. Rex. A large glass of whisky cost five marks.

The author occasionally takes a wider historical vantage, revisiting, for instance, the massive bombing of Berlin on February 3, 1945, which destroyed a number of churches and old buildings. (“Many of the vacant sites that continue to characterize the landscape of Mitte for some time after the fall of the Wall date from that morning.”) He goes back to the 19th century, drawing a parallel between the rapid development of Berlin during the 1990s and the “explosive expansion” the city experienced after Prussia’s military defeat of France in 1871, which led to German unification. He also refers to the Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” laid throughout Berlin and elsewhere to commemorate the victims of the Nazis and testify to the murderous antisemitism that fueled the Holocaust.

Gutmair’s book takes on an elegiac tone as the narrative progresses. The Elektro, he writes, was shut down by police in December 1994. Mauerstrasse 15, the building where it was located, was demolished the following summer. The end of Tacheles was more drawn out: the site was acquired by a developer group in the mid-1990s and kept running until the money ran out. All remaining artists cleared the building in September 2012.

By 1997, according to Gutmair, Berlin had 1.3 million square meters of unoccupied office space. Mitte’s culture, he writes, “was only able to flourish after 1989 because space in the city centre was affordable.” In time, gentrification would render the Wende years a distant memory. Berlin is still world-renowned for its nightlife, but as Gutmair notes, its party scene now “obeys the rules of the entertainment industry.” The author makes one of his most salient points in the preface to this English-language edition of his fascinating book:

What Berliners fear most today is that their city might meet the fate of London, Paris and New York, where only the wealthy can afford to live […] An environment in which everyone is entitled and able to enjoy the good life cannot be created by market forces, but only by the body politic.

¤

Benjamin Shull is a writer and editor in New York.