Squat Paradise

06/18/2013 08:48 am ET | Updated Aug 18, 2013
  • John Feffer Director, Foreign Policy In Focus and Editor, LobeLog

It was an exhilarating time to be young in November 1989 and living in East Berlin. It was not only the physical Wall that fell on November 9. It was also the many invisible walls that closed off anyone who didn't conform. All those who had been largely hidden from sight -- punk rockers, dissidents, transvestites -- stepped out of the closet, so to speak, and into a newly liberated public realm.

Many East Germans had already fled the country in 1989 before the Wall fell -- decamping to Prague or travelling through Hungary to Austria and West Germany -- and many more streamed across when the border opened. They left behind their jobs, their Trabants, and, perhaps most importantly, their apartments. For those who stayed behind, especially young people, there were suddenly a huge number of empty places they could occupy. The big cities in East Germany, but particularly East Berlin, became squatters' paradise. Even people from West Berlin, which had its own squat culture before the Wall fell, began moving East -- to the new land of squat opportunity.

As a young man, Dirk Moldt was involved in the opposition movement in East Germany, particularly the Church from Below group that broke away from the official Church structures. He was also at the center of the squatter culture that blossomed in East Berlin in the early 1990s. Back in February, in a café in what had once been a primary squat neighborhood in East Berlin, he told me about the party atmosphere that prevailed in those early days after the Wall fell.

"On Mainzer Straße, there were 11 buildings squatted," he related. "Visually and culturally this was something new. The part of the street with squatted houses was 200 meters long. On the street there were several different groups. One house, for instance, had transvestites. The boys walked around with very hot female clothes. It looked like in a movie. They were wearing make-up and blonde little curls and short skirts, it looked really crazy. Other houses were really militant where they were always wearing black clothes and hooded jackets. All the houses were draped with flags and banners. Every evening, people would sit in front of their houses eating, chatting, and drinking."

But the squats occupied only one side of the street. "On the other side of the street, normal people were living," he continued. "The problem was that they had to get up early to go to work. Most of them didn't dare tell the squatters to please be quiet. If they called the police, the police said: 'We are not stupid, we are not going in there.' A street where the police doesn't go? No state can tolerate this."

The state struck back. So did the neo-Nazis. Eventually the forces of gentrification also ate away at the squat culture. Dirk Moldt still lives in the apartment that he squatted so many years ago. Over coffee, he remembered the intense joy of those early days as well the intense despair that followed, particularly when neo-Nazis killed one of his close friends.

The Interview

What was your feeling when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

For me and also for my friends, those weeks were an endless party. I grew up in social circumstances that were as rigid as concrete. But since about mid-September 1989, things slowly started to change. Then in the beginning of October, let's say October 7 and 8, there was so much change everyday like never before in my life. The opening of the Wall was a new dimension on top of that.

I worked in the Kirche von Unten, the Church from Below, a resistance group here in Berlin. In the middle of the 1980s, the leadership of the Protestant Churches in the GDR did some things that seemed very close to the state. Thus, many groups within the Church that were critical formed the Church from Below. Actually, we never believed that there would be a change, only that there would be some small relief. Such a great change was totally unimaginable. That's the reason why the joy about the opening of the Wall was so big.

There was also another aspect. We always knew that the existence of the GDR was closely linked to the Wall. The Wall basically protected the system and the state. So, our feeling was ambivalent. We were very happy. At the same we realized -- subconsciously even though it was obvious at the time -- that if the Wall is open, the GDR will stop existing. We wanted change within the GDR. But we also wanted the state -- this country -- to continue to exist.

There was a particular reason. We were younger. We grew up in the GDR. The existence of the state was normal to us. Our conception is maybe comparable to the existence of Germans in Austria or in the Netherlands or in Belgium or in Switzerland. Everywhere in those countries there are Germans. In the same way, the GDR was a German state. We couldn't imagine that there would be such a big change in Europe like we're having nowadays.

And this might sound a bit strange. To us, cities like Hamburg or Munich or other West German cities were much further away than, for example, Krakow or Prague or Budapest. That was the perspective from behind the Wall.

So, you had a party for two weeks, or three weeks...

Oh no, for three months! We had a feeling of elation. For example, every day you encountered boundaries. There was the Wall. But there were also invisible boundaries. And there were a lot of functionaries and police. There were also normal citizens who always said: "It has always been like that and it is good like that and what you do is wrong and so on." To see that they didn't understand the world at this moment when their "idyllic world" was falling apart was also a party.

I understand that you where part of a squat here in Berlin.

All my friends lived in squatted flats. The principle of a squat was not new to us. Here, in Friedrichshain, it's now an area where a well-situated middle class lives. But in the early 1980s it was a proletarian environment. Many flats here were in very bad condition. They had stoves, but only very few had radiators. There were few bathrooms. Toilets were outside the flat on the stairway. And a lot of flats were empty.

We squatted these flats. We had a special system for doing this. It was not allowed but you could nevertheless do it. Of course we listened to radio, to Free Berlin Broadcasting (SFB) and Radio in the American Sector (RIAS), these Western radio broadcasts. In the early 1980s, there were daily reports on SFB about squatted houses in West Berlin. Sometimes we were better informed than the people in the West. Of course the circumstances of these squats were different. We knew that.

In 1989, when the Communist government was no longer in power, my friends and I said: "We are going to squat a house. It does not belong to anyone and we would like the house for us." It's here on the street called Schreinerstraße. This happened in December 1989. To us, this squat was not something new but a normal consequence of the revolution. We also viewed the squat on Mainzer Straße in that way. In West Berlin we met old and new friends and told them: "In the East there are a lot of empty buildings. You can support us by squatting buildings." And then people from Kreuzberg and also from West Germany came and squatted houses.

How long did the house squat last?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.