Last November saw the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and the re-unification of Germany after forty four years of division. Heads of state from countries across Europe were present and the public celebrations were televised worldwide. A chain of one thousand giant dominoes running along the route of the wall was toppled in a symbolic re-enactment of its fall in 1989. Even an autumnal downpour could do little to dampen the scenes of jubilation across the city.
Since re-unification in 1989 a succession of governments in Germany has invested vast sums of money in the East of the country and the East of Berlin, which were formerly run by the Soviet Union. After 44 years of Communist rule, East Berlin was significantly poorer than West Berlin; its citizens had been brought up under a very different set of values and beliefs. For these reasons social and economic integration has been a slow process.
Today, Berlin is not rich. A bird’s-eye view of the city is singular in its lack of sky-scrapers and high-rise buildings. Germany’s financial sector has taken root in cities like Munich and Frankfurt and this is where big business has flourished. Thus, while politically Berlin is the capital of the country, economically it is the capital of the ‘working poor’. One quarter of the workforce (about 360,000 people) earns less than 900 euros a month. Unemployment too, however, is far higher than the national average – it reached a staggering 14.2 per cent in July last year, when the national average was far lower at 8.2 per cent.
Most of this poverty and unemployment is still concentrated in the East of the city. A short walk round any neighbourhood in this part of town is enough to show you how current the problem is. Derelict apartment blocks, disused factories, empty spaces – the vestiges of Communist rule and a poignant symbol of where recent government investment has failed to bridge the gap left behind when the wall came down.
Berlin is also a fairly ‘young’ city. The capital has several large universities and because of the flexibility of the German educational system, many young people remain students into their late twenties. Students make up no less than 25% of the city’s population. What’s more, they all tend to gravitate towards the East of the city, largely due to the simple fact that it is cheaper to rent housing here than in the West.
Because of this, in the last twenty years a novel phenomenon has sprung up in these areas of Berlin. In Eastern quarters such as Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, communal houses known as Hausprojekte have begun to spread. They started out life as squats: students taking over derelict buildings and turning them into functioning living spaces, but they are now far more official and more common. They have become a ubiquitous sight as one wanders round the Eastern boroughs.
From the street, these houses are instantly striking: brightly painted murals often stretch right across the entire facade of the building; banners screaming political slogans hang out of windows; groups of young people often congregate on the steps outside; loud punk music emanates from within the bowels of the building.
These Hausprojekte are run on a basic principle of communal living – the inhabitants share the physical space, their food and drink. Some of the more radical Projekte work on a pure communal ideology, each individual sharing everything with the other residents: all their possessions and their money.
Food is an essential part of this communal lifestyle. Often these projects will open up their doors for a Vokü (short for Volksküche, ‘People’s Kitchen’), which involves the cooking of a large pot of food which is then dished out to anyone who has one or two euros to spare. Other projects house public spaces such as cinemas, cafés or even climbing-walls.
One of the oldest Hausprojekte in Berlin is known as Köpi (it is situated at 137 Köpenickerstrasse in Friedrichshain). In February of this year, it celebrated its twentieth birthday, meaning that it was first squatted only three months after the Berlin wall came down.
The old apartment block sits a way back from the street and is obscured by a number of tall trees behind a rusty fence. As you step in through the open metal gate, however, an impressive sight meets your eyes. You stand in a shadowy courtyard and look up at the vast building as it looms enormous and dark over you. Graffiti, slogans and blazing political banners cover its face. The residents of Köpi are radical and on the far Left of the political scale. To live here, you have to be.
The residents organise regular demonstrations and marches, often in defence of other squats in Berlin which are in danger of being closed down by the authorities. Political slogans are all over the project’s website – ‘Gemeinsam sind wir unausstehlich. Raus auf die Strasse!’ (‘Together we are intolerable. Out and onto the street!’). The group has recently also taken itself off Myspace as it does not want to subscribe to the ‘capitalist brainwashing of Rupert Murdoch’.
Berlin has always had a reputation for being a focal point of political expression and protest. Virtually every year, May Day (International Workers’ Day) culminates in riots on the street and clashes between demonstrators and the police. The Hausprojekte like Köpi seem to have become vehicles for this political expression and provide a space in which people can speak out against issues as wide-ranging as neo-Fascism, climate change and animal testing.
Berlin’s recent history is unique and the influence this has had on the city is clear. The remnants of Communism in the East are still very visible. Street names commemorating the heroes of the German Democratic Republic are still preserved in East Berlin today – if you choose to, you can do some window-shopping on Karl-Marx-Allee, take the underground metro to Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz or grab a drink on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse.
But there are more subtle ways in which the Communist past has helped shape the Berlin way of life. One could argue that the Hausprojekte, so common in East Berlin now, are one example of the way in which Communism has influenced the lifestyles of at least some people in Berlin today. This is not to say that they are all Communists, but more that the values of sharing and equality at the heart of the Communist ideology seem to form the basis for their way of living together.
Communal living is something which has virtually died out in Britain. On average, we no longer even live with our extended relatives any more, preferring instead the even more insular confines of the nuclear family.
Perhaps this is no bad thing. Perhaps, however, we might look to East Berlin and the Hausprojekte and take a more open approach to the idea of living communally. For I can see no reason why it should remain such a foreign concept.