Utopie in grauen Mauern

Von Belinda Davis[1]

Belinda Davis spürt in ihrem Artikel der Faszination von Westberlin nach. Der oft graue Alltag wurde durch utopisches Denken überspielt. Die Bedeutung, die die Berlin-Frage in der Weltpolitik spielte, gab Vielem (auch eine mediale) Aufmerksamen, was anderswo kaum bemerkt worden wäre und auch oft den Provinzialismus überdeckte. In dieser Beziehung waren sich aufbegehrende Rebellen und altgediente Fronstadtberliner sogar ähnlich.

„Hinter der Mauer-das alte Westberlin“

Von Belinda Davis[1]

How did the „Halbstadt” Westberlin, lying some 200 kilometers from the West German border, become such a bastion of postwar leftwing activism?  The city was not the singular site it is often imagined to be.[1]  It was, however, a critical locus of protest and other popular politics, indeed, for nearly the entirety of its existence.  For many, Westberlin offered special allure. It was certainly no glamour, or beauty, or even the prospect of fun.  The “Drang nach Westberlin” that one contemporary described was a complex and contradictory impulse, born of a closely linked anticipation and fear.[2]Westberlin symbolized resistance to the growing Cold War during the USSR’s attempt in 1948-49 to blockade the three “Western” zones; stories of the “candy bombers” and other elements of Trizonia’s airlift imputed courage to Westberliners themselves.  The half city was mythologized too by U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s stirring peroration in June 1963 before Rathaus Schöneberg (and elsewhere in the city), rousing the walled-in urban population to courage—and outsiders to admiration.[3]  Despite Westberlin’s effectively absent geopolitical status, “grosse Politik” there were simply unrelenting, creating “Weltgeschichte” in its 30 square kilometers. Global leaders—including those representing dubious visions of “freedom,” such as Shah Pahlevi of Iran, and South Korean President Park—flocked to the city, to associate themselves with its well-buffed image. From at least the early 1960s, then, “Frontstadt Berlin” tantalized many young West Germans as others as a beacon of freedom and democracy.  Certainly it offered one quite real freedom:  young West German men escaped to Westberlin to avoid West German military service. 

But the city’s mythological status jostled uncomfortably with a forbidding everyday reality. From August 1961, Westberlin was further isolated by the East German “Antifaschuma” that ringed its boundaries, and that made transport to and from West Germany still more cumbersome.  Its bleak, gray postwar physiognomy was marked well into the postwar decades by bullet-pocked and bomb-damaged buildings, alternating with vast stretches of ugly, new apartment blocks.  The city was “hard” and forbidding too in other ways.  Christian Semler, who had grown up in both Westberlin and Munich, recalled that Westberlin had boasted a notably liberal bent in the early postwar years.  However, inverting tendencies in much of the BRD, older Westberliners grew far less tolerant and accommodating of “difference” and of perceived “disorder” from the mid-1960s on.  Protestors in that city feared severe beatings, as „das Gros der Bevölkerung natürlich gegen uns war,” Semler perceived. For if this unattached city was a strange center of world attention, its older residents, officials and others, were terrified of seeming to that wider world like they couldn’t control their own streets—and feared the reality or even outside perception that there was a fifth column within, the internal corollary to some encroaching DDR that would leave the city unworthy of the support of the Cold War western bloc.  (It is true that a particular concentration of activists from East Germany fed an early challenge to the burnished image in West Germany of a shining U.S., though by 1964-5, the Vietnam war spread such disappointment and ambivalence far and wide.)

            Yet such conditions seemed to nourish the Berlin imaginary, for those who imagined it from afar, and even for many who lived there.  Benno Ohnesorg had metonymically “an dieser Stadt gestorben.”[4] All aside from the June 1967 police shooting of first-time demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg and the April 1968 assassination attempt on Rudi Dutschke, the prospect of everyday violence, alongside the overall sheer difficulty of everyday life, created a dystopic reality that bred often utopian visions.[5]  It was only in the “Scheiße” of that city that “die schönsten Rosen” could bloom, claimed poet-activist Peter-Paul Zahl.[6]  The “dream” of Westberlin lay in what could be, then—and the very distance between that and everyday reality. Westberlin “Szene” band Ton Stein Scherben sang in the 1970s and ‘80s, “Wir müssen hier raus! Das ist die Hölle! Wir leben im Zuchthaus!But the path would lead them “Schritt für Schritt ins Paradies.”[7]  Activist Hanna Kröger found in 1969 that nowhere was activism so exciting—or so effective, in her view—as in the city of Westberlin; through the pages of the SDS periodical Neue Kritik, she spelled out her perception to thousands of others?[8]

The “harte Leben” was also a unifying force, melding activists together in a crucible heated by the opposition to them. Activists regularly invoked the metaphor of conflagration concerning the prevailing political atmosphere, especially in Westberlin. Its “unglaublich aufgeheizte politisierte Atmosphäre” held a “brennend[e]” interest for Tulla R.[9] Nowhere else was “revolution” so likely to succeed—or at least to take place.  Constant collisions of opinions and bodies across the city were both effect and cause of the unceasing media scrutiny, which in turn created the “self-fulfilling prophesy” of the activist city, Christian Semler believed. The appeal for Semler too thus lay in the city’s potential to “unmoor” from its present—and its past—just as it was now adrift from Germany altogether.  Only a city that had sunk so low had the potential for such heights.[10]  Its pockmarked surfaces were a constant symbol of Berlin’s place as the former capital of the Third Reich. Indeed the ruptures with the larger city’s past, physical and otherwise, created a crowded stage filled with a jumble of old sets and characters, primed to be written into new narratives.  In so many ways, Westberlin offered an especial mutability:  an extreme case of what cities in general offered those with visions of change. 

This “extreme” form of the urban activist experience was not for everyone. Marianne I. held a great “Liebe zu Berlin,” but it made her constantly tense.  Such tensions prompted 31-year-old Wiebke S. to leave Westberlin, where she had grown up after fleeing the Soviet army.  By 1972, „ich hatte die Schnauze voll von Berlin.“ She started “ein neues Leben,“ politically and otherwise, in small-town Hildesheim, which drew her in with its own „tolle Atmosphäre.“ She may have moved from the city commonly acknowledged as birthplace of the broad West German women’s movement, but it was in Hildesheim that Wiebke discovered feminist politics, which completely transformed her life.  Others happily avoided Westberlin altogether. Certainly Frankfurt activists proclaimed the strengths of their own city’s contributions to the larger movement. Hannover activists Norbert, Tobias, and Hubert found their own small city an excellent site for activists to achieve success, in part a consequence of its lesser “world-historical” character that left the broader population more “liberal”—and simply more relaxed. Frank Böckelmann found counterproductive the very elements that others celebrated in Westberlin—such as the constant media attention. “Und alles, was da passiert ist, in Berlin, das hatte sofort mehr Aufsehen, Sensationen gehabt.”  Political theater was meant “die ganze Wirklichkeit, das ganze Alltagsleben intensiver zu machen,” Böckelmann explained: a different type of “intensity” than in Westberlin.  These south German activists sought to “die Menschen durch Vorbild zu verführen, Seduction, so dass man die Leute zum Nachmachen verleiten wollte.” It had to be “Gaudi,” fellow Munich activist agreed: not like activism in Berlin that was nolens volens so high-stakes, invariably courting efforts to repress them, by police and private citizens alike.

Most powerful, in the event, was the mixing of strategies from one city—and small town—to the next.)During an extended visit to Westberlin in 1963-64, Kunzelmann wrote to fellow Situationist Frank Böckelmann in Munich, “Hier in Berlin wurde mir zum erstenmal bewusst”: “Wir provozieren Monsterprozesse, durch die wir unsere ganzen Ideen publik werden lassen.  Wir stürmen z.B. ein Kaufhaus, nehmen alle Güter und verteilen sie auf der Strasse […]. Oder wir inszenieren […] eine Vögel-Szene” in the middle of a big shopping area.[11] Indeed, much of what became associated with popular activism specifically in Westberlin by the mid-1960s—positively or negatively, depending on the audience—was this mixture of Gaudi, surprise, and provocation, brought from Munich, reinterpreted in the new setting, and further developed by the rising numbers of young people now moving to Westberlin.  (It was such acts too that became associated specifically with the “student movement,” though Kunzelmann himself was no student—and although many students and leaders of student politics at the FU, including in the SDS, actively rejected Kunzelmann’s tactics.)

This mix of strategies emerged from the equally diverse mix of participants—including former East Germans now in Westberlin. The “Viva Maria Group,” formed in 1966, represented the volatile amalgamation of Bavarians Kunzelmann and Marion Steffel-Stergarand earnest Protestant East Germans like Dorothea Ridder, Bernd Rabehl, and Rudi Dutschke.[12]  Rainer Langhans snickered in describing the friendly but intensely earnest Dutschke as the “Rudi war der absolute Antispaßvogel.  “, der wusste nicht, was Musik ist, was tanzen ist, alles war bitterer Lebensernst.  For Dutschke, “das Spaßigste war eben, wenn man eine große Rede halten konnte, wo man ernsthafte Theorien verbreitete.”  Yet this man from small-town Brandenburg joined a political group bearing the official motto “Revolution muss Gaudi sein.”  Thus, what became by the mid-1960s the best-known character of contemporary Westberlin activism represented a “hybrid” from its origins.  Of course, well beyond any simple cultural duality, each of those involved represented especial hybridity within themselves, living over time and space across political and social cultures, particularly pronounced in Langhans’s own peripatetic life.

This hybrid form of activism was the setting for Westberlin’s Kommune 1, the lifestyle and political action collectiveformed in 1967, one of the outcomes of the Viva Maria group.[13] Kommune 1 constituted a summa of contemporary urban activism, exploiting all available resources, particularly the laser-like of media scrutiny of Westberlin, one of the very reasons Westberlin officials so tried to quash any disturbances of order. Kommune members honed their skills at eliciting this media attention through provocation.  One result was that their actions reached an audience across West Germany and beyond: readers learned of, and identified with, the Kommune’s exploits and way of life, creating networks of real and imagined connection that helped the movement cohere, even if the attention also stirred resentments. The abundant and captivated media attention that Kommune 1 enjoyed came to the chagrin of the more sedulous members of the FU SDS, although the chapter’s growing symbolic role grew substantially out of association nolens volens with the Kommune.[14]

Through the publicity they elicited in the Cold War city that attracted attention like no other, Kommune I offered examples of how to use the city’s spaces and surfaces to transmit political messages. They engineered rather “stroll demos” down the Ku’damm, and “Christmas shopping demos” in the city’s Christmas markets.  Their sit-ins became “die-ins,” in turn inspiring “switcheroo-go-outs.”[15] They were not the only activists engaging in creative forms of provocation in the period.  But their wild success in attracting media attention made them central in discussions of the movement, both contemporaneously and retrospectively.  In turn, a major element of this perceived centrality was an ability to inspire action elsewhere—even if the less-recognized inverse was also true. The squatting movement of early 1980s Westberlin looked to the example of Frankfurt a decade earlier—and also the examples of Hannover and Hamburg, even Aachen and tiny Bottrup.In the late 1960s, these SDS expellees and other “outsiders” were central in reinforcing Westberlin’s symbolic centrality.  At least as important was their effective role in challenging this centrality as unique.

Still, in addition to the intensity of outside gaze and its (related) character of being on the edge came one more quality that particularly characterized Westberlin. Unmoored from any national significance for Germany, the new “Halbstadt” became paradoxically a kind of Weltstadt supremus.  This shrunken piece of the former ignominious Nazi capital brought to the minds of Germans and others an imagined geography.  Christian Semler saw Westberlin as the navel of the world, somehow a portal to other parts of the world.  It was, Tulla saw it, a totally global city, despite its physical marginalization.  Even as the city’s new incarnation itself challenged understandings of “core” and “periphery,” those living specifically outside the city gave new significance to these terms. Westberlin was for many the central element in a conceptual transitive relation.  In a highly networked movement, activists felt that, through their actions, they connected with Westberlin—and through this conduit, among others, to the rest of the world.  Many outsiders were drawn physically to the Westberlin of their imaginations.  In turn, the “rest of the world” was also both practically and in activists’ imaginations a central locus of West German political action.


[1] Rutgers University, USA

[1]This piece is drawn from Belinda Davis, The Inner Life of Politics: “Extraparliamentary” Politics in West Germany, 1963-83 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming); see also “The City as Theater of Protest:West Berlin and West Germany, 1962–1983,” in Gyan Prakash and Kevin M. Kruse, eds., The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008),247-74.

[2]Unless otherwise indicated, quotations are from oral histories I carried out.  At the request of many interview subjects, I have given pseudonyms to all such subjects except the very most widely known.

[3] Compare Andreas Daum, Kennedy in Berlin.  It remained no easy city to reach:  there was no hitchhiking allowed on the GDR highway that connected the city to West Germany, and trains to the city ran overnight, including an hours-long stop on the border for passport checks.

[4] Not “in dieser Stadt,” but “an dieser Stadt.” Cited in Peter Mosler, Was wir wollten, was wir wurden. Studenterevolte – zehn Jahre danach (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1977), 27.

[5] See Davis, “The City as Theater of Protest,” from which some of this discussion is drawn; also MacDougall, “Cold War Capital: Contested Urbanity in West Berlin, 1963-1989,”Ph.D. Dissertation, Rutgers University, 2011. Cold War leaders attempted to make Westberlin anew from above, but their plans were often derailed by competing “re-makings” from below.

[6] Peter-Paul Zahl, “Vorwort,” in Wolfgang Krolow, Häuserkämpfe: Instandbesetzer Bilderbuch (Berlin: LitPol, 1981), n.p.

[7] Compare the bands songs of the same titles, “Wir müssen hier raus,” “Schritt für Schritt ins Paradies,” as well “Der Traum ist aus” and “Rauch-Haus-Song,” among others.

[8] Hanna Kröger, “Die organisatorische Situation in Berlin,” in Neue Kritik 54 (1969): 49–61.  On Westberlin as the “Politikshauptstadt,” the “Hauptstadt linker Debatte,” and “Szenehauptstadt,” compare Klaus-Jürgen Scherer, “Berlin (West): Hauptstadt der Szenen. Ein Portrait kultureller und anderer Revolten Anfang der achtziger Jahre,” in Manfred Gailus, ed., Pöbelexzesse und Volkstumulte in Berlin: Zur Sozialgeschichte der Straße 1830–1980 (Berlin: Verlag Europäische Perspektiven, 1984), 197–222; Joseph Scheer and Jan Espert, “Deutschland, Deutschland, alles ist vorbei”: Alternatives Leben oder Anarchie? Die neue Jugendrevolte am Beispiel der Berliner “Scene” (Munich: Bernard and Graefe, 1982); also Rolf Lindner, “Urban Mindscapes of Europe,” European Studies 22 (2006), 33-42.

[9] Coming from Hamburg, Karl found it “only made sense to come to Berlin…Berlin simply constituted the summa.”  Peter Mosler wrote that the transcendent movement had been constituted in the mid-1960sx through the “talk of the cities in which the pavement was the hottest, Berlin and Frankfurt”—by which he himself came down on the side of the former—and, perhaps most to the point, the comparison began with the assumption that there was a larger movement that the two cities helped hold up.  Mosler, Was wir wollten, 9.  The image of “hot pavement” resonated more broadly: even well before the Paris May and its association with the paving stone, activists recalled the situationist notion of the “beach” that lay beneath the paved streets, the city’s liberatory—and liberatable—potential, despite as well as because of its external structures.  Compare film short Die Stadt, dir. Herbert Vesely (1959).  See on Frankfurt, Wolfgang Kraushaar, Fischer in Frankfurt. Karriere eines Außenseiters (Hamburg: Hamburg Edition, 2001), 24-25.

[10] Compare too Ulrika Poock-Feller: “’Berlin lebt – Berlin ruft’: Die Fremdenverkehrswerbung Ost- und West=Berlins in der Nachkrigeszeit,” 105-116, who cites a 1946 US Army pamphlet: “Other cities—like Hiroshima—have been more nearly obliterated, but no other city so mighty as Berlin has fallen so low.”

[11]Letter 4.1.1964, reproduced in Frank Böckelmann, and Herbert Nagel, eds., Subversive Aktion: der Sinn der Organisation ist ihr Scheitern (Frankfurt/M: Neue Kritik, 1976), 129. The original idea was to carry out these acts in Munich—but then Künzelmann and others decided the tactics would work much better in Westberlin.

[12] The group was named after Louis Malle’s 1965 film with Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot, a film Westberliners kept in local cinemas for over six months. 

[13] See also Kommune 2, Versuch der Revolutionierung des bürgerlichen Individuums : kollektives Leben mit politischer Arbeit verbinden! (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1973).

[14] Compare Klaus Hartung, “Küchenarbeit,” in CheShahShit, eds. E. Siepmann, et al (Berlin: Elefanten, 1989), 103; also Kunzelmann, Leisten Sie, 82.

[15] As when members of the Wieland Kommune tricked court officers into accidentally freeing imprisoned activist Georg von Rauch, playing on jurists’ apparent difficulty in distinguishing one long-haired young person from another. On “stroll-ins” and other “creative” acts, compare e.g. Enzensberger, Die Jahre der Kommune I, 160.