Squatters Under Siege: Berlin and the Flight of the Temporary Autonomous Zone

by Evan Moffitt


Published in Issue IV of Graphite Interdisciplinary Journal of the Arts, May 2013

What began as a light patter of raindrops grew quickly into a torrential downpour. As lightning illuminated the Berliner Dom’s golden cupola, I ran through the streets of Mitte looking for shelter. For one of Berlin’s only remaining neighborhoods still a chaotic tangle of medieval cobblestoned streets, Mitte was eerily empty. Flaneurs like myself had already found warmth in dimly lit bars along the River Spree. Thoroughly soaked, I ducked under the relative shade of a condemned building on Oranienstrasse. Down the street, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) glowed dully, the monumental relic of a socialist Germany now faded away. It was my first of many nights in the city, and feeling dispirited by the wet weather (I had arrived from arid Los Angeles), I began to plan my commute home when a voice spoke to me from the shadows.

A portly woman had emerged from the doorway behind me, clutching a half-smoked cigarette in her right hand. She invited me in, toward a wash of turquoise light and the opening bars of “Blue Monday.” I looked more carefully at the building, its crumbling stone exterior pasted with countless concert bills, colorful posters, and spray-painted scrawl. Above the door a rubber gorilla and a penguin held a dripping banner that read, “Where shall we go now?

The woman led me into a gallery, art tacked to the walls from floor to ceiling. Slogans stenciled on cardboard hung forty feet above us, near a splintering ladder that led to an attic loft. Flyers and zines lay scattered on folding tables. A few people sat at a makeshift bar, drinking beer and passing around vinyl records. I was informed that I had arrived at Tacheles, a center of countercultural activity and illegal squat. The building had been repurposed in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when vacant, derelict buildings were used as exhibition spaces and dance halls by jubilant East Germans who were finally free from state oppression. But now, she told me, it was all over. Tacheles would be closed in only a month’s time; the property owner had finally made eviction orders, and the Berlin police intended to act on them. She led me through another door, once an entrance to a beer garden and tent village that covered the muddied ground behind the former department store. It had been barricaded with scrap metal, old junkyard items like discarded dishwashers and car parts, made intractable by police intervention. “They want to stop us from getting in,” she lamented. “This is our workplace…our home.”

It was the last time I would go inside Tacheles. Several weeks later, the squatted building lay empty and shuttered, its entrances blocked by more debris. The last of many squats in Berlin, Tacheles was formed out of the creative ambitions of a few artists who used the vacant structure for studio and gallery space after the Wall fell. Like many other squats in Berlin and northern Europe, its inception was motivated by political and social interests and not by a need for housing. “Protest squats,” along with communal squats like Christiania in Copenhagen, functioned as experiments in alternative social and political organization. While I had never before seen squatting used as a protest tactic, I learned upon further investigation that a prolific squatters’ movement in northern Europe had been doing so for decades, transforming “dead” urban spaces into vibrant community centers.

A partially destroyed Jewish department store cum squatter’s art center, Tacheles was one of many squatted structures occupied by its activist residents not out of economic need, but out of political and artistic solidarity. Squatting has a significant place in the history of proletariat uprisings in northern Europe, giving a wide variety of activist groups, from anarchist cells to architectural preservationist clubs, a platform from which to broadcast a political message while exercising their fundamental right to housing.[1] These communes have saved historic landmarks from demolition while obtaining legitimacy as centers of community action through municipal “buy-outs” or self-imposed renovation programs. There is a shocking disparity of critical research on such groups’ collective action against state control and corporate land ownership, and I believe they constitute what ontological anarchist Hakim Bey calls a “Temporary Autonomous Zone” or TAZ, a temporal community that excises itself from the state and declares its existential independence from systems of external control, unified in purpose by its members’ shared convictions.[2]


2. The Siege of Kreuzberg: Beginnings of the Squatters’ Movement in Berlin

The German word for squatting, besetzung, translates to English as “besieging.” An extremely active word, “besieging” conjures up military campaigns and violent revolutions. In describing the unlawful occupation of buildings, besetzung implies decisive, purpose-driven action. Squatting, in the German mind, seems to begin as a public statement, made manifest by the active takeover of an unused, private structure. Far from the images of homeless vagrants in condemned tenements that the word “squatting” may conjure in the mind of an urban-dwelling English speaker, the word besetzung pulses with political energy. This understanding of the act as a “siege” of the established order made the German-speaking world a fertile ground for the squatters’ movement, whose primary objective was political change rather than an end to homelessness.

The housing crisis of the late 1970s and ’80s was another factor that made Berlin a perfect home for the most vocal factions of the squatters’ movement when it first emerged. West Berlin in the late 1970s was still busy rebuilding from the ravages of the Second World War. Far more advanced in its reconstruction efforts than its eastern half, West Berlin was nevertheless plagued by inflated real estate prices and a shortage of affordable apartments, despite the profusion of empty flats. A 1978 study by the Berlin Senate reported that some 80,000 people were registered as seeking apartments, yet 27,000 apartments remained uninhabited.[3] This manufactured housing shortage was a result of the prevailing ethic of redevelopment in the city: “House owners and housing associations deliberately allowed houses to become derelict with the expectation that they would be able to demolish and re-build or fundamentally modernize them using government funding, and eventually charge correspondingly higher rents.”[4] At the same time, a growing alternative movement in Berlin organized in bars, cafés, and bike shops. Their opposition to heavy-handed police tactics, government victimization of political radicals, and the state-approved “yellow press” of Axel Springer led the radical leftist and student movements to protest in a variety of forms, none more appropriate than besetzung. As a visible and locally significant act of resistance, squatting emerged as the perfect expression of leftists’ frustration with West Germany’s suppression of civil liberties and manipulative housing practices. “Its intervention in urban restructuring, preoccupation with the problems posed by apartments standing empty, the housing shortage, property speculation and displacement—all these issues constituted an opportunity for the movement to go beyond…personal concerns.”[5] This new form of resistance synthesized disparate political platforms within the alternative movement by appealing to a common concern: the housing crisis.

Surrounded by the enemy East German state, West Berlin was an unattractive destination for many West Germans, and the Berlin Senate declared all university education free and all its male citizens exempt from military draft. In the 1970s, dozens of nineteenth-century tenement complexes (Mietkaserne, or “rent-barracks”) lay empty in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood once shadowed by the heavily fortified Wall that proved an undesirable living space for Berliners of economic means. Young men eager to capitalize on free education and draft exemption found derelict flats free for the taking, along with a diverse neighborhood of politically active and creative transients—a crucible of radicalism on the Cold War’s primary battleground.

Four days after the December 4, 1971 police shooting of Georg von Rauch, a militant leftist and resident of the Wieland commune in Berlin-Charlottenberg, members of the Berlin punk rock band Ton Steine Scherben (known in English as The Shards) led a large audience of students from the Technical University (TU-Berlin) in the siege of Bethanien, a nineteenth-century Deaconess hospital just steps from the Berlin Wall. Von Rauch, who earlier that year fled trial for assaulting a journalist, had been walking in the neighborhood of Schöneberg, Berlin’s traditional home of artists and intellectuals, when he was caught by a plainclothes policeman. Accounts about the ensuing firefight vary, but it left the young radical mortally wounded. “Rauch” is the German word for smoke, and Von Rauch’s death inspired Ton Steine Scherben’s takeover of the hospital complex’s smokehouse, which became a base of operations for punks, vagabonds, and radical leftists. Their squat lasted until April 19, 1972, when the police raided the premises; until then, Ton Steine Scherben and their young Kreuzberg following made a successful (and widely publicized) stand against police brutality and state oppression. Although the squatters were removed from the complex on Mariannenplatz, the gothic brick hospital survived as a center for countercultural activity. In 1973 the Berlin Senate purchased the property from its owner and established Künstlerhaus Bethanien, an art initiative that today hosts twenty-five social and cultural institutions.

The defeat of the Social Democratic Party in West Berlin’s senatorial election of 1981 led to a radicalization of the prominent alternative movement in the city, in what urban sociologists Andrej Holm and Armin Kuhn call “Revolt 81.”[6] Already in February 1979, the Kreuzberg citizens’ initiative SO36 had organized the first “rehab squats,” which took over crumbling apartments and refurbished them for public use. Revolt 81 saw a surge in squatted houses throughout Kreuzberg and its western neighbor, Schöneberg. The new besetzer’s “practice of occupying houses and immediately starting to renovate them was meant, on the one hand, to point out the long-standing deterioration and emptiness of the apartments and, on the other hand, to create acceptance of this method of civil disobedience.”[7] The growing popularity of squatting as a means of resistance fractured the alternative movement, already a patchwork assembly of diverse perspectives and political programs. Some squats were forcibly evicted by the West Berlin police, while others were negotiated with landlords. The lucky few, like Bethanien, were legalized by government decree and survived as cultural centers in the community. West Berlin’s transitional mayor during Revolt 81, Hans-Jochen Vogel, said in February 1981 that he wished to turn squats “into legally ordered conditions that are also in complete harmony with civil law.”[8] Factions of “negotiators” and “non-negotiators” emerged within the broader movement, pushing the more radical “all or nothing” squatters deeper into the trenches of resistance. Those willing to compromise with property owners were, in certain instances, allowed to remain in the apartment rent-free upon the completion of their refurbishment project, or granted temporary, discounted leases. The non-negotiators, on the other hand, refused to give in until all demands were met, political prisoners released, and a permanent solution to the housing crisis found. They “began to differentiate themselves from the alternative movement by referring to themselves as ‘autonomists’ (Autonomen) and accused negotiators of giving up the political struggle and of resorting to the mere preservation of their own spaces.”[9] The militant Autonomen gave a famous face to the squats, often dressing in ski masks, heavy black clothing, and helmets and causing the German press to dub them der schwarze Block, or “the black block.” Building barricades and throwing stones or Molotov cocktails, they successfully defended squats on Hafenstrasse in Hamburg, and protected many other squats in West Berlin. The German Autonome movement, tied to Marxist autonomism, rejected the imposition of state control. Some Autonomen declared their complete independence from authority, and defended it aggressively in buildings they squatted as “part of an extended and differentiated alternative subculture that centered on the inner-city districts of Kreuzberg and Schoneberg.”[10] Their resistance pushed squatting to the end of its political tether, using occupied buildings to declare autonomy from state control. All squats, in rejecting the authority of land ownership and legal order, exercised their independence from the governing status quo, many operating as self-sufficient communes. The most vocal participants in Germany’s early squatting movement, the Autonomen defended the guiding principle behind besetzung as a method of resistance: a wholehearted rejection of authority.


2. Squats and the Temporary Autonomous Zone

The autonomy of squats encouraged the development of communal societies in buildings wrenched from private ownership and municipal control. Such communes live and work as bands, functioning as what Hakim Bey calls a “Temporary Autonomous Zone” (TAZ).

In the Paleolithic Period, much of human society ordered itself in bands, each consisting of roughly sixty members, who survived together as a nomadic hunting collective. Bey argues that the band, often the seedling of larger tribes or clans, operates as a basic social unit reemerging to replace the crumbling nuclear family, a product of the Neolithic agricultural revolution that has (according to twenty-first-century critics) fallen prey to divorce and sexual libertinism. As nomadic tribes worldwide began to form stationary agricultural settlements between 10,000 and 5,000 bce, the nuclear family formed to support rapidly growing communities that required more laborers to till the earth and secure city walls. However, Bey argues that in our post-industrial age, such a system “closed…by the hierarchic totality of agricultural/industrial society” must be replaced by a social unit open to anyone sharing similar life convictions. The modern-day band, a hodge-podge of coworkers, lovers, social media networks, and the like, seems to shatter the secure reclusiveness of the family unit; “the nuclear family becomes more and more a trap, a cultural sinkhole…and the obvious counter-strategy emerges spontaneously in the almost unconscious rediscovery of the more archaic and yet more post-industrial possibility of the band.”[11] This possibility has taken root in our post-industrial, postmodern society, the modernist notion of “truth” now fractured into a multiplicity of equally valid viewpoints. This postmodernism, “in some ways a de-centering of the entire ‘European’ project” and in some ways a reflection of Nietzsche’s proclamation a century earlier that God is dead, “was attained at the expense of inhabiting an epoch where speed and ‘commodity fetishism’ have created a tyrannical false unity which tends to blur all cultural diversity and individuality.”[12] Bey continues, “this paradox creates ‘gypsies,’ psychic travelers driven by desire or curiosity, wanderers with shallow loyalties (in fact disloyal to the ‘European Project,’ which has lost all its charm and vitality), not tied down to any particular time and place, in search of diversity and adventure.”[13]

Bey’s vitriol is coupled with optimism for what the global transience of divergent postmodern identities can create in a new age without one God and one accepted system of authority. His list of “psychic travelers” seems to describe the colorful milieu of Berlin’s squatting communities well; any visitor to the squatted art-house Tacheles, even in its twilight days, was likely to meet Heinrich, the bald-headed blue-goateed gallerist, or DB, the Rastafarian house DJ from Antwerp. The transients there relocated to Berlin from the far corners of Germany and the world beyond, forming bands of their own, tied together by mutual interest. Tacheles’ inception as a center for wayward artists in the once-depressed East Berlin neighborhood of Mitte fostered the growth of a vibrant artistic community for over twenty years, housing work by hundreds of street and performance artists and sculptors, while also hosting dance, music, and theater performances.

Known as the art department store, Tacheles “focused on creating spaces that would primarily help squatters achieve self-realization. [Its] function as a place of residence was merely secondary.”[14] Other temporal squatting groups, like the group of senior citizens that besieged a community center in the East Berlin neighborhood of Pankow during the summer of 2012, united under a political cause. For the seventy- and eighty-year-old squatters at Stille Strasse 10, the cause for solidarity was resistance against the destruction of community resources and cuts in social welfare benefits. Their resistance, along with the appropriation of the derelict Tacheles complex, constitutes what Stephen Pearl Andrews calls in his preamble to the constitution of the International Workers of the World “the seed of the new society taking shape within the shell of the old,”[15] a TAZ for the modern era. It is precisely this “seed” of freedom from the state that flowered in the crumbling shell of the pre-Nazi department store on Oranienstrasse, where the Gestapo had once imprisoned political dissidents.


To read the rest of the essay, and view a complete source list, download a free copy of Graphite IV here