An overview of the militant squatters' movement in West Berlin in the early 1980s - and the state's attempts to clamp down on it.
WEST BERLIN has a history, of radical protest. The squatting movement is its latest manifestation. It is a history that in the postwar period goes back to the APO (extra parliamentary opposition) of the late '60s and the 'Long March through the Institutions'. The APO was mainly a student movement and intellectual, Marxist and ideological, though just as capable of fighting on the barricades as today's squatters and their supporters. When they were beaten off the streets the protest became terrorist -the Second of July Movement and the RAF, which ended when Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof 'committed suicide' in the top security prison of Stammheim. The anti-nuclear movement of recent years also has a strong West Berlin connection.
West Berlin, in this respect as in many others, is very a untypical West German city. Its geographical position makes it ultra sensitive. The propaganda war between East and West is at its most intense here. Turning on the television you know within minutes which side you are tuned into. Politics, not the weather, is the most common subject of conversation. But, ironically, the reason the city has become known as a city of protest rather then a city of conservative anti-communism is probably because of its four power status. No German army is allowed here, and thus there is no compulsory military service. This law is also valid for West Germans who come and live here - which they do in their thousands. There are also two large universities here and Berlin is still the cultural capital of Germany
SQUATTING A HOUSE A DAY
The housing problem in the city had been simmering for years but at the end of 1980 it became pubic. A building contractor had fraudulently obtained 120,000,000 DM of public funds, had invested some of it in a construction project in Saudi Arabia, and taken up residence in the Bahamas. The ruling Lord Mayor was forced to resign. partly due to the Publicity given to the scandal by the main daily, Die Berliner Zeitung (BZ). This paper, owned by the Springer Concern, who control 50% of all newspapers and magazines published in West Germany and 80% of those published In West Berlin. was anxious to put an end to the Social Democractic-Liberal alliance which had controlled the city government since the war. An Interim Lord Mayor, Vogel, another Social Democrat, was appointed to run the city government until new elections could be held.
Using this breathing space, various groups and organisations who had been involved in the housing problem for years began to squat empty houses in an attempt to publicise the housing scandal - 600 empty houses (10,000 apartments) and large scale speculation. But before anyone knew what was happening squatting acquired a momentum of its own; other groups who were looking for a free living space under their own control had joined in. Overnight empty houses were being squatted at the rate of one a day.
Most of the houses were in Kreuzberg, in the American Sector. This is the city's poorest area and it is where most of the Turkish migrant worker families live. The authorities had been caught off guard. The police reacted with dawn searches of the houses, during which some of the houses were vandalised. Refusing to be intimidated by this the squatters and their supporters reacted by going out on the streets after every search and smashing the windows of banks, insurance companies and supermarkets. The police, at this time inexperienced in street fighting, were unable to stop them. However. they did baton charge one big demonstration on the Kurfurstendamn, the city's main street. The effect of this display of police brutality was to turn many peaceful demonstrators into potential rioters.
For a time the searches became daily, followed at night by the 'counter violence' of the squatters. The Social Democrats wanted a quiet city for the elections, so eventually the searches were more or less stopped.
Another factor was at work too. A new political party, the Alternative Liste. a broad coalition of ecologists, feminists. socialists, citizen action groups, anarchists. radicals. Gays, Turkish groups etc was contesting the elections. Among their demands were a neutral Germany, free of nuclear weapons and nuclear power (East and West), a thirty-hour week, free public transport, the vote for the migrant worker community, and an amnesty for the demonstrators who has been arrested. And they said they would be active in the streets as well as in the Senate.
All three establishment parties were united in their opposition to this new 'undemocratic' party. But the Social Democrats had most to lose. There was a very real possibility that it would lose a lot of its leftist voters to it. The Social Democrats' reaction to this was to promise to reform their housing policy and say they were prepared to negotiate with the squatters. The squatters, who refused to negotiate while some of their people were still in jail, maintained that this was a cheap electioneering ploy. They still had a substantial amount of public support at this time, despite being branded as Chaoten and Radikalinskis in the Springer Press.
Reacting to this press campaign, the Social Democrats tried also to promote their image as a 'law and order' party, so at the end of March, without warning, they ordered the eviction of three houses. The demonstration that evening ended in a police baton charge and there were riots into the early hours of the following morning, during which over a hundred people were injured. And two weeks later the entire Besetzerrat (Squatters Council) meeting in a house in Kreuzberg, wax arrested and charged with the conspiracy section of the 'anti-terrorist' laws.
Yet, despite all this squatting remained for most West Berliners a media event. But on April 12 Sigmund Depus, an ex-RAF member, died on hunger strike in a West German jail. In Kreuzberg a loudspeaker van toured the streets announcing the news. The reaction was swift and once again caught the police off guard. A thousand people made their way immediately to the Kurfurstendamn and, rushing through the Easter tourist crowds, smashed 80% of the windows on the two mile long monument to consumerism and the post-war rebuilding of the city. When the police arrived in force a half an hour later most of the damage was already done and there was nobody around to arrest. From then on the troop carriers and the para-military Uniforms of the riot police became part of the sights in the city centre. It was becoming blatantly obvious that a large and militant minority had rejected the West German state and the consumer society.
In May this was confirmed at the polls. The Alternative Liste got 9% of the votes, gettirig 13 seats in the Senate. But the Christian Democrats were the new government, though they had not obtained an overall majority. Elation at the success of the Alternative Liste blinded many people the at the time to what this could mean in the long run.
THE SUMMER OF 1981
By June 160 houses had been squatted. The Alternative Liste organised a demonstration calling for on end to evictions and searches and to demand an amnesty for alt those arrested in the street fighting. The demonstration was timed to coincide with a debate on the matter in the Serrate.
50,000 people turned up. Three quarters of an hour later. as the demonstration was approaching Rathaus Schoneberg, where the debate was taking place, the first rounds of tear gas were shot into the crowd and the first stones began to fly. About thousand demonstrators broke through the police barricades and there was was a several hour long pitched battle outside The Rathaus itself. Millions of West German television viewers were treated to full coverage of the spectacle that night. Fighting spread to other parts of the city, mainly to Kreuzberg, the squatters' stronghold. It was only the next morning, when the clouds of tear gas had dispersed and the streets were being cleared of the remains of the barricades, that the police could say they were in control of the streets again.
Now the situation was obvious; any new evictions would lead to fierce street fighting, hundreds of injured, millions of DM worth of damage, and even possibly deaths on both sides.
The next two months were relatively quiet. The Senate was in recess and the squatters, with the pressure off them for the moment, were busy renovating their houses, many of which were near ruins after years of being empty. They also began to canvas support for their cause among the general public. Faced with the hostile propaganda machine of the Springer press this was an almost impossible task. (When it was alleged that they were getting financial support from Moscow, a group of squatters actually went to the Soviet Consulate to demand it, only to discover that no baldly needed roubles were available.)
There was a great mood of optimism in the air. Islands had been created where poeople could begin to exercise autonomy ever thee own lives and attemp to end the isolation and alienation which industrial consumer society was imposing on them. Symbolic of [this] were the Durchbruche (break throughs), the joining up of several previously separate apartments.
A squatters' weekly magazine, Die Besetzer Post, was published; it took no advertising and reached a circulation of 5,000. A pirate radio station began broadcasting from a squatted house in Kreuzberg, and when the police closed it down another one started broadcasting from another house. Houses had open days on which members of the public were invited to visit and see what was going on for themselves. Several Kindergarten and an alternative school was started. Several houses opened up cafes arid galleries. A cinema, the Frontkino, was started in another house. Music and theatre groups got together, and some groups began painting colourful illegal pictures on some of the grey walls of the city.
TUWAT! DO SOMETHING!
On August 5 the unofficial truce ended. Innensenator Lummer issued an ultimatum to nine of the squatted houses. The squatters were told to leave the houses within two weeks or else the police would evict them.
The squatting movement regarded this as a declaration of war. Their reaction was TUWAT (in Berlin dialect: Do something!). This was to be a month long festival of resistance and solidarity starting on August 25. Clandestinely, leaflets Inviting people to come to Berlin were printed in German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, French and English and were taken out of Berlin by sympathisers.
The authorities in turn regarded TUWAT as a declaration of war on the legal government of the city. The TUWAT offices which had been opened in two of the squatted houses were raided and large quantities of leaflets were confiscated. The Springer press reacted with its usual tirade against all forms of dissidence; but, ironically, this only publicised the coming event even more.
Just before TUWAT eventually started, the police chose the yearly Chamissoplatz Festival, an event sponsored by the local tenants' organisation, the parish and the local branch of the Social Democrats. to raid the TUWAT office in an adjacent street and arrest the two people who were there at the time. A crowd from the Festival which gathered at the local police station to protest against the arrests was dispersed by a baton charge. To deny police access to Chamissoplatz a barricade was built and set on fire, and it was only two hours later, when it had finally burnt out, that the police, shooting massive quantities of teargas, were able to occupy the square.
Later, a teargas cannister was shot into a crowded pub adjoining the square, the windows were smashed, and the owner and several customers brutally assaulted. A beautiful summer afternoon which had started off like a church picnic had ended in terror.
TUWAT started. People with rucksacks began arriving from all over Europe. A lot of them came from Amsterdam, another squatting capital. Not as many came as had been expected; but those that did come gave the squatting movement fresh hope and energy. Daily. for the following weeks, things were happening. There were meetings and discussions in the houses. The Frontkino and several other cinemas showed films on the struggles being waged in Poland, Zurich, South Africa, Amsterdam. El Salvador, Brixton, Belfast etc. Street parties were held in the areas where there were a lot of squatted houses, and streets barred to the use of cars for the day, were used to dance in. In the Kukuck, a squatted factory turned into a youth centre, there was music, theatre and mime every evening. Sleep-ins were organised on the Kurfurstendamn. Crowds of Chaoten went to the exclusive Cafe Kranzler for coffee and cakes. When the management refused to serve them, they served themselves.
Everyday there was at least one small demonstration somewhere in the city, but it was the big demonstrations which conveyed the optirnism and sense of freedom that were an integral part of TUWAT. These were massive affairs, during which the streets became alive with colour and music. They were like like walking circuses, leaving trails of graffiti behind them. The demonstrators painted their faces, dressed up, some as clowns. others as anarchists in black cloaks and hats carrying the traditional black spherical bombs, and others did not wear any clothes at all, something which freaked the police as rnoch as when they were presented with red roses, the symbol of socialism.
Generally TUWAT was peaceful. An exception to this was when a demonstration visited the villas of some of the owners of the squatted houses in the exclusive residential area among the woods and the lakes of the Grunewald. A few windows were smashed, including those of the South African Consulate, and when the police went into action, the residents got their first whiff of teargas.
Some houses got involved in particular 'social problems'; one house was occupied mainly by people who had been through psychiatric institutions; another by people who had problems with drugs. Wall paintings appeared on the fronts of some of the houses. The back yards of houses were cleaned up and planted and children from neighbouring unsquatted houses would come in and play. One house even got hold of some chickens and goats and started a city farm.
The squatters, living and working communally and, most of all, having a good time, had turned their backs on the consumer society with its alarm clock and 'work hard, earn money, buy things' ethic. The problems that would later arise in the houses were not yet evident.
THE HAIG DEMONSTRATION
On September 15th Alexander Haig landed at the US military airport and was flown by helicopter to Rathaus Schoneberg, where in a speech before the Senator he quoted Voltaire: 'Even when we disagree with what you say, we are prepared to defend to the death your right to say it.'
He was referring to the 80,000 people who at that moment were demonstrating against his presence in the city. The Alternative Liste, who along with other groups had called the demonstration, had refused to attend the official reception to welcome him. The demonstration, at which both American and Russian flags were burned, was peaceful, despite the provocative action of the police, who, before the demonstration had started, had arrested 150 people and placed them in 'preventative custody'.
However, trouble broke out at the end, when a part of the crowd tried to continue on towards Rathaus Schoneberg. They made some progress and had the police on the the retreat for s while. A few barricades were built, but the police got the upper hand and drove them back with teargas batons and water canon. They eventually cleared the streets by striving their troop carriers through the crowds at high speed. The Lord Mayor, von Weizacker, was very embarrassed. and publically assured Haig that those on the streets were only a small unrepresentative minority and should not give him the impression that the American presence in the city wag unwelcome.
On the following day Innensenator Lummer issued a final ultimatum to the nine houses. If they were not empty by the September 21 he would order the police to evict. The squatters and their supporters saw this as an obvious act of revenge for the embarrassment caused by the anti-Haig demonstration.
The next six days were ones of frenzied activity. The squatters put their main hope in the sponsors they had acquired over the summer. These were various organisations, writers, artists, intellectuals and persons of standing in the city who had 'adopted' particular houses. As a gesture of solidarity a lot of the sponsors began sleeping in the houses.
At dawn (the usual time for evictions and searches) on the September 21 Lummer's ultimatum ran out, but the police did not come. At dawn on the 22nd neither was there any sign that anything was going to happen, but at eleven o'clock, when it seemed that the squatters had been granted an extra day's grace and when the sponsors who had being staying in the houses overnight had left, thousands of riot police sealed off the areas of the city in which the nine houses were situated and began evictions. Two hours later this military style operation had been completed and the police had occupied the houses themselves to prevent them being retaken by the angry crowds which were quickly gathering.
Innensenator Lummer, in what was considered even by the Social Democrats and Liberals as an unprecedented display of arrogance, gave an after victory press conference in one of the houses. A protesting crowd which had gathered outside was baton charged by the police and driven onto the busy Potsdamer Strasse, where, in the panic and confusion, one of the demonstrators, the 19 year old West German, Claus Jurgen Rattay, was hit by a bus and dragged 50 yards along the street. He was pronounced dead on admittance to hospital.
The reaction in the city was one of shock and anger. Sporadic street fighting continued all day. The Scientific and Teaching Union registered a demonstration for the evening. Before setting off for the demonstration, squatters in the TUWAT office listened to the six o'clock news silently. When it was switched off they remained silent. Nobody had anything to say. Nine houses, nine autonomous communities, into which people had put work, energy and love, had been brutally stamped out of existence, and one of their number was dead. The tragedy was beyond words.
The angry shocked crowd assembled for the demonstration; the size of which was reminiscent of '68. In angry silence the long torch light procession marched through the dark streets at a funeral's pace The police, also shocked and shaken by what they had unleashed, remained safely out of sight in the side streets. At Savigny Platz, where the demonstration was supposed to end, the loudspeaker van asked the people to disperse, but the crowd demanded that it continue with them to Potsdamer Strasse. A few minutes later, the van announced over its loudspeaker that it would and requested to police to allow them to proceed in peace.
Then the demonstration began slowly moving towards the Kurfurstendamn. Slowly, what began as a chant became a deafening roar: 'Lummer is a murderer! Lummer is a murderer!' Passersby and the few tourists watched the never ending stream of demonstrators. As they passed a Berlin flag on the Kurfurstendamn the demonstrators lowered it to half-mast. As it approached the Potsdamer Strasse, the front of the demonstration passed the first of the evicted houses. From its windows the police began shooting volleys of teargas into the crowd. It had started.
In the following eight hours some of the most intense street fighting that West Berlin had seen since the war took place. Again and again the columns of police troop carriers were attacked with paving stones and petrol bombs and were forced to retreat. When they attempted to counter attack they we foiled by the rows of barricades that criss-crossed the streets. At the height of the fighting it was hard not to believe that a civil war was going on - burning barricades, ambulances rushing to and from from the area, burnt out cars and looted shops in tear gas and smoke filled streets. At around three o'clock, when a lot of the demonstrators had left the area, the tide began to turn, and the police felt confident enough to leave the safety of their troop carriers and to start taking possession of the streets again. But it was only at dawn the next day that they could announce that they had the situation in control.
Later, it was learnt that when the fighting was at its fiercest, the US Military Commander had informed the Senate that he was prepared to assist controlling the situation should the city police be unable to do so.
In the following days the Potsdamer Strasse remained closed to traffic and people came to lay flowers on the spot where Claus Jurgen Rattay had been killed. In the Senate, Lurmmer denied any responsibility for the tragic outcome of the evictions, but he announced that it was unlikely that there would be any more houses evicted until after Easter '82.
NO FUTURE WINTER
After Rattay's death and the eviction of the nine houses a long cold winter of pessimism and perspectivelessness set in. For many the phrase 'No Future!' became a slogan. It was also a time when the peace movement became the focal point of alternative politics. Reagan's statement that he could envisage a limited nuclear war in Europe shocked most Germans; even the news commentators were visibly freaked by it; and there was no end of explaining it away as some sort of misunderstanding. In Bonn, 300,000 people turned up at a peace demonstration; and, privately, people were talking about getting out before Armageddon started.
In the houses it looked as if the energy and the creativity of the summer had disappeared overnight. The Frontkino closed down, the pirate radio stopped broadcasting and Die Besetzer Post stopped coming out. The differences between the '81ers and the '68ers, between the punks and the politicals, between the Mollis (hawks; from Molotov cocktail) and the Muslis (doves: from muesli), which during the summer had not been evident, began now to spilt the movement and drain it of its vitality. Disillusioned, many people left the houses: but others took their places. The Besetzerrat stopped meeting; and when it did meet again, in early spring, it provisionally divided itself into two — negotiators and non-negotiators.
However, with the approach of Easter and another summer things began to get better. It had become obvious though that the idea of squatting a house and transforming it into a utopian island in the middle of capitalist society had been naive.
On April 26 the winter truce ended. Without warning the police raided a house in Kreuzberg and carried out an eviction. This action was unexpected; a lot of the squatters had been discussing models for a possible legalisation of the occupied houses with various authorities. That evening a small and peaceful spontaneous demonstration was teargassed and baton charged by a large force police on the grounds that it had not been registered and was thus illegal. The police behaved with a brutality not shown before, amd spent the rest of the night driving around Kreuzberg breaking up any small groups that gathered, there was little resistance. Scores of demonstrators and passersby were injured: only three policemen.
The next evening a registered demonstration of 5,000 people made its way to the house that had been evicted. As it went down the narrow street where the house stood, the police inside the house began lobbing teargas grenades at point-blank range into the crowd. Blinded and terrorised the crowd dispersed into the neighbouring streets, many falling and being trampled on. Then the force of 2,000 police, went into action. The next two hours can only be described as an orgy of state violence. Everybody on the Streets was considered a legitimate victim for the teargas and the heavy wooden batons; small groups, individuals, people on bicycles, people corning out of the U-Bahn (tube), even injured people lying on the ground were savagely beaten. Escape routes were blocked off; teargas was shot into the local U-Bahn station; ambulances on their way to the hospital were not allowed through police road blocks.
The next day West Berliners were told by the Springer press and the state-run television that police had bean forced to break up a rioting crowd, and Innersenator Lummer was publically congratulating the police on the fine work they were doing.
THE REAGAN VISIT
The reason for this sudden change in police tactics was obvious even at the time. It was an attempt to create such an atmosphere of terror on the streets, that nobody would go out and cause embarrassment when Ronald Reagan came on June 11.
Other measures were also taken; squatted houses were searched and vandalised and anti-Reagan leaflets and banners found in them were confiscated; the police also took to painting over all the anti-American graffiti; and finally a total ban on all demonstrations in the city during the visit was imposed.
Reagan landed on June 10 in Bonn to attend the NATO summit conference on rearmament. 400,000 other people also went to Bonn. They came to take part in a demonstration demanding disarmament. The next day he flew into West Berlin, where the authorities refused vague hopes of repeating the reception John F Kennedy got in 1962 when 100.000 Berliners turned out to greet him.
But times had changed. The intense media campaign, the distribution of free American flags, and a day of work only brought a handful of Berliners out to hear Reagan deliver his “Wir sind alle Berliner!” speech. (”We are all Berliners!" Kennedy had said that the proudest boast a free man could make was “Ich bin ein Berliner!” / “I am a Berliner!” History repeating itself as farce!)
However the Alternative Liste defied the ban and called for a demonstration in the city centre. About 5,000 people, at the risk of arrest and serious injury, turned up. The police surrounded the crowd with barbed wire barricades and informed them that they would have to stay where they were until Reagan had left the city. But this crowd, furious at the construction of this temporary 'concentration camp'. broke out. The police were taken off guard by this resistance and had to retreat suddenly, leaving behind one of their troop carriers to be burned.
This was the start of more heavy street fighting — as in-tense as that took place after Claus Jurgen Rattay was killed. 300 people were arrested and 200 of those injured required medical treatment.
During the following week, against the background of the predictable inflamatory press campaign, numerous houses were attacked by right wing groups and the main offices. of the Alternative Liste were burned down and Innersenator Lummer announced that he was how considering supplying the police with CS gas and ordering the eviction of more houses.
Frank Jackson, July 1982
Willibaldalexis Strasse 11
From Ecomedia's Squatting in West Berlin