“The Future ls Female” - Joan Reutershan

Hexenhaus squat

An article on the feminist Hexenhaus (Witch House) squat in Berlin in 1981.

Originally published in Sylvere Lotringer (ed) - Semiotext(e): The German Issue (1982)

Two women active in the Berlin Emergency Center for Rape Victims had been looking for an apartment for months. In the Blocksberg, a cafe for women, they met other equally desperate women. At that time 一in the Fall of 1980 一 25 houses had been taken over by squatters. Occupying a house emerged as a solution. A core group of five decided to look for fifteen women inclined to live in a feminist cooperative and willing to risk criminalization. They needed twice that number to help in preparations. The search mobilized the women's network in Berlin 一the cafes,bars and bookstores, the Women's Center, the feminist art gallery and a monthly journal called Courage. Soon participants started holding weekly “conspiratorial meetings“ in the Blocksberg.

The women were looking for a structurally sound house in an area where other squatters would be at hand for practical advice, or should the police interfere. The Squatter's Councils and store-front tenant's rights offices in Berlin neighborhoods provided information on houses in their area. The women decided to occupy the house at Liegnitzerstrasse 5, located in Berlin-Kreuzberg 一a working class district with a large foreign worker population.

Liegnitzerstrasse 5, a house with a large street frontage and two side wings had been renovated after the Second World War. The owner, a private housing corporation, was evicting tenants. A superintendent and six legal occupants still lived in the building. Their prospective neighbors might call the police. The women decided to take the risk.

The occupation date was finally set for early January 1981. At that point the women heard that another squatter's collective, an all-male group already experienced in squatter's techniques and recently evicted from their building, had decided to move into the same house. In the Squatter's Movement no one has a claim to a building unless living in it. The women called in their supporters, donned leather jackets and confronted the male competition. Intimidated, the men retreated.

This public confrontation alerted many people of the women's intentions. Yet operations had to remain clandestine because of police informers. Successful infiltration had led to houses being boarded up and guarded by armed agents immediately preceding a planned occupation. The women set an“official“ occupation for January 7, 1981; only the core group and their supporters knew that it was to be two days earlier.

On “the evening of January 5th, several carloads of women arrived at Liegnitzerstrasse 5 with sleeping bags, food, furniture, extension cords and seven bouquets of flowers which they presented to the superintendent and the tenants. They assured them that their goal was to stop the evictions, repair the house and force the owner to grant, or renew, leases.

Most tenants had mixed reactions. They were afraid of being evicted because of the occupation. Turkish workers were afraid of loosing their jobs and be expelled from the country if they had police records. The superintendent was afraid of being fired for not informing the owner and the police.

Meanwhile other women were entering the empty apartments. A few had been recently renovated and were in excellent condition. They had new windows,freshly painted walls, polished parquet floors. Others, left vacant for years, had faulty wiring and leaks. The women hung banners they had brought with them from the windows. One dubbed the building the “Witch House.” “The future is female“ was painted at the entrance.

One group of women stayed in the house while another drove to the cafes frequented by Squatter's movement people to announce the occupation and solicit donations. Some 3,000 Marks was soon collected, a generosity no doubt triggered by the fact that until then occupations had been a male prerogative. The squatter's sympathizers also welcomed the prospect of lining up the women's community firmly behind the Movement. The first night in the Witch House was spent in a mixture of exuberance and
anxiety.

A second feminist house occupation followed closely. The house at Winterfeldstrasse 37 in Berlin-Schoeneberg was an obvious choice. It was surrounded by squatter's houses. The owner had scheduled the building for demolition. One of the last remaining apartments still under lease belonged to two active feminists. That this Art Nouveau building with an entrance hall of marble and mirrors, a mahogany carved staircase, apartments with 16' ceilings decorated with plaster reliefs, was to be torn down further outraged the prospective squatters.

Renovation work was begun immediately in both occupied houses. It called for more than the usual interior decorating. The women learned the repair techniques from the Squatter's newspaper, or from women carpenters, plumbers, etc. Women members of the Weddinger Werkstatt, a construction collective close to the squatters, came to demonstrate how to repair electrical circuits. The wiring work was approved by a licensed electrician,which entitled them to service by the Berlin utilities company. (In peculiarly German fashion, the publicly operated electrical concern has developed contracts for illegally occupied houses. As long as they pay, squatters are treated just like other customers.)

Taking over traditionally male construction tasks didn't prove as difficult as living up to feminist ideals of cooperative living, work and politics. The women had hoped to create an emotionally supportive environment; now they hardly had time to communicate. Chaotic living conditions, women's projects, house renovation, Squatter's Council meetings, demonstrations, interviews for feminist magazines, radio programs soon took their toll. The thought that their work on the house could be brought to naught should the owner decide to call the police, or the Senate to evict the squatters en masse, began to weigh on them. They harbored conflicts rather than carrying them out; many started to seek the privacy of their apartments instead of using the communal rooms.

The women squatters also had to confront various responses from their immediate communities: the verbal abuse from male tenants and some neighbors; the antagonism of the superintendent infuriated by the fact that his wife kept using the squatter's apartments to get away from him during domestic arguments. The attacks of right-wing punkers were a more serious threat. Bands of young men on motorcycles occasionally roll by and throw rocks in squatter's windows. They know the occupants won't fight back for fear of the law. The squatters were put in the schizophrenic position of having to call the police when an occupied house neighboring the Witch House was badly damaged. The officers arrived late and immediately pointed to the banners hanging from the Witch House. Squatters should expect such aggression, they said. A house occupied by women was an obvious provocation to the young men.

The Minister of a Protestant church in their community, a woman active in progressive and pacifist politics in Berlin, invited the Witch House occupiers to Speak at a church women's meeting. The response of the parishioners was so favorable that the minister decided to publicly support the women's occupation and serve as mediator in any negotiations. She wrote to the Berlin Senate as well as to the landlord criticizing housing policy and requesting that the women be granted leases. The parish thus became publicly a “sponsor” of the Witch House.

A few weeks after their occupation, the owner threatened the women with police eviction if they didn't leave on their own accord by March 9th. Whenever buildings are vacated, teams of thugs are usually sent with iron bars and clubs to destroy Windows, heating ovens, pipes, floors, etc. The building is made uninhabitable, and the owner entitled to an official certification for demolition. The women locked the main entrance door and moved into the front to keep a close watch on the street and eventually activate the phone chain calling out supporters. The 9th of March came and went; neither police nor owner arrived.

Within the Squatter's Movement, the women's politics also gave rise to various conflicts. The women's Cafe in Winterfeldstrasse 37 has a policy of admitting women only. As a consequence, men in the Writer's Cafe across the street refused to help out the feminist squatters when their water supply was interrupted.

By far the most intense controversy between the feminist squatters and the rest of the Movement, however, turned around the issue of “sponsorship“ and negotiations with house owners. Besides pushing for an immediate legalization of existing occupations, the Squatter's Councils in Berlin made it clear that their long term goals were to negotiate with the Senate a new housing tenants, as well as preserving the architecture and the integrity of established neighborhoods. However, increasingly harsh police actions and long jail sentences without bail against demonstrators accused of rock throwing led the Councils to break off negotiations with the Senate until amnesty for jailed squatters is pronounced. Although Berlin traditionally declares amnesty in politically charged times, the prospects had become slim now that the Christian Democrats had taken over the Berlin City Council. Besides, any negotiation was looked upon as treason by an increasingly radicalized Squatter's Movement.

The women from Winterfeldstrasse 37 agree with this position,but the Witch House women do not. From the outset their lawyer, a well-known radical and feminist, demanded that the owner extend them leases. Infighting among moderates and radicals within the Squatter's Council however, prevented them from pushing further their relationship with the Protestant church and the women's community. Pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric and posturing, they felt, were paralyzing the Movement. They could no more approve of the Squatter's violent masculine style than they could tolerate police aggressions.

Having created their own structures and styles in order to put their energies into feminist politics, the women realized that they couldn't reach their goal unless they pursued the negotiations with the landlord. For the majority of the women in the Witch House the Squatter's Movement, threatened by patriarchal reaction,had become a means to their own end.

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Fozzie
Apr 4 2021 09:45

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