“I’ve decided to take a long break from uni,” she says.
The kitchen of the shared apartment in Schöneberg is warm and tidy. Bottles of herbs, sleeves of garlic, jars of muesli and wholefoods on wooden shelves. Antonia is making tea.
“I thought you liked it.”
“I’ve had second thoughts.”
“I suppose I felt it was all unreal … academic. Missing a few semesters can hardly do me any harm. But I really want to stop for a while and see what happens.”
Antonia helps herself to some tobacco.
“You don’t seem over the moon about it,” she says
“Just a bit apprehensive. Being suddenly landed with so much free time is quite dizzying.” She lit her roll-up. “No. I’m not apprehensive, damn it. I want to get involved in something new, something different.”
“Practical politics instead of academic politics?”
“I have been doing practical things with the Tenants Union. But what is that achieving? In the long run? If there is a long run! Frustrating meetings. Giving out the paper on freezing Saturday mornings in front of the market hall. I’ve had little or no contact with the people there except at the most superficial level – my fault maybe. A bit like the uni, I suppose – a lot of blah blah blah.”
Antonia pours the tea.
“I’m going to Brokdorf,” Tina says.
Kreuzberg is quiet during the Brokdorf anti-nuke demo weekend. Lots of Szene watering holes are shut. Half the place seems to have gone to West Germany. It’s been in the news all week. The original banning order had been overturned but then relegitimised by several courts in quick succession. The latest report puts the number of demonstrators at 100,000.
Our Hero and Big Bruno are following developments on the radio. Big Bruno has squatted one of the front apartments. He’s called Big Bruno because he’s big. He takes up space.
Our Hero asks him if he thinks there’ll be aggro.
“They’ll smash a few heads in – just to remind people that what they are doing is verboten no matter what the courts say.”
“Bit of a fatalist, are we?”
“No amount of demonstrating is going to stop nuclear power stations. The pigs will get their way in the end. They always do.”
Later, after Big Bruno has left, Our Hero opens the oven floor to put in some coal briquettes. The glowing embers remind him of some lines of a poem by Sylvia Plath. Something about the beauty of fire, crematoria, and smoke rising from chimneys over Poland.
He goes back to the draft of the SF story on his cluttered desk.
Tina rings Antonia from the phone box on Chamissoplatz.
“How was Brokdorf?”
“Wait on a sec, I want to light a ciggie.”
“I saw the TV. Looked pretty heavy.”
“It was chaos. The fucking helicopters were terrifying. They flew over the crowd, diving down over people’s beads. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening.”
“Were many people hurt?”
“A lot. Some pretty badly – covered in blood. I’ve never been so frightened or seen so much … fear. They beat up people for no reason at all. For nothing. Except being there, I suppose.”
Tina hears her take a deep pull from her cigarette.
“We had to leave our cars kilometres from the place and then walk for ages though the snow. On our way to the site we were meeting people who were coming back from it. The Bullen checked us but let us through. But there was no way you could get anywhere near the site itself. Earlier some people had been talking about occupying it but it was surrounded by barbed wire, dikes, and crawling with Border Patrol and Bullen. But the helicopters were the worst. The noise they make is so fucking horrible. People were running in all directions to get away from them. There was one guy there in a wheelchair – he couldn’t even run away. He had courage.”
A Turkish couple, the woman in traditional dress, is waiting outside in the dark.
“Look, I’ll have to hang up now, there are people waiting and it’s fucking freezing out here.”
“There isn’t any solution, or reasonable reason for hope,” Dread pronounces. They were fairly well on, sitting in Niemandsland under the white glare of the neon lights. “When the human race allows someone like Ronnie the Clown to have the power of life and death over the whole fucking planet, how can there be? You can lob a few stones, even Molotov cocktails, but don’t have any illusions about making a fuck of a difference.”
He notices Horse’ s glass is empty.
Horse hands Dread a ten mark note. It’s his turn to go to the bar.
“It’s fantastic up here,” Big Bruno shouts.
The early evening sun is spreading its cold light over the cold blue sky. A sea of roofs stretches to the circular horizon. The white contrail of a jet etches itself across the blue. The air is acrid from the grey smoke drifting up from tens of thousands of chimney stacks.
The others are still clambering up though the skylight.
Familiar landmarks: the slender East Berlin television tower topped by its revolving silver sphere; the glass and steel slab of the Springer Press building; the massive grey Speer-designed main terminal of USAF Tempelhof, the American military air base; and, down by the market hall, the redbrick spire of the Passionskirche.
The last of the four of them hands up a bucket of whitewash, brushes and rollers before getting up herself.
“Well, which way round will we put it?” Joschka asks.
“Does it matter?” says the woman who has come up last.
Three minutes later it’s done. A big white
YANKEE GO HOME
alongside an equally large Besetzer symbol:
The American pilots of the planes and helicopters that use Tempelhof will be able to see it. That’s the idea.
By March there are over a 100 squatted houses in West Berlin. The tageszeiting, the independent leftwing daily usually just called the taz, starts giving the exact figure in a red box on the top corner of the front page. The number increases daily.
There’s a sign graffitied on the house door:
YOU ARE NOW
The bricked-up ground-floor windows have been painted over. One with a yellow sun giving a clenched fist salute. The other with a smiling yellow house doing the same. The background to both is fresh sky blue. Click. Justine photographs the sign and the paintings.
Rudi rings the bell again. Justine had met him in the street while out on one of her photographic expeditions. They know each other slightly from when she and Rainer used to live together in Kopischestraße. He lives in a squatted house and asked her back to have a look, take some photos if she wants to. She’s never been inside a squatted house before.
“Can you give us a few copies when you’ve developed them?” he asks as they wait. “We’d like to do a documentation sometime in the future. Show the state of the place when we first moved in and the work we’ve done. Before and after.”
A long-haired male head pops out the window directly above them, pops in, then out again and throws them down the keys.
Rudi catches the bundle and opens the massive door.
“Muck, our resident hippy!” he explains.
The hallway is dark.
“We’re using the ground floor as a store room. With the windows bricked-up there’s not much else we can do with it. We’ve talked about making it a darkroom, or even a café.”
She follows him up the stairs. The walls are covered in graffiti and posters.
“This is our common room.”
They go in.
“We’ve torn down the dividing wall to make it into one big room,” he explains. “We haven’t gotten around to painting it yet. One of the ovens is working. The other was already smashed when we moved in.”
Muck is sprawled out in an old armchair smoking, reading the latest copy of Radikal – a black and white photo of some American white trash toddlers smashing a Cadillac is on the cover. He gives them a cursory glance. Sunlight shines in through four large front windows. Two worn-out sofas. Cushions strewn around a low table overflowing with pamphlets, chipped mugs, empty tobacco packets and an overflowing ashtray. A doorless doorway leads off to the right.
“This used to be a kitchen,” Rudi explains as they go through it. “We’re turning it into a bathroom.”
Two bathtubs have already been installed and connected up. The walls have been painted a watery blue, complete with Matisse bathers. Justine photographs them. Click.
“We still need to put an oven in – one that will heat water as well. We’ve put an ad in the taz for one.”
The next room they go into is Heike’s, he says. She senses that he does not entirely approve of Heike. It’s in good condition – and in a mess: mattress, crumpled duvet, posters and newspaper cuttings pinned haphazardly to the pink walls, a rucksack, several plastic bags stuffed with dirty clothes, tops of tins that serve as ashtrays, empty wine bottles, books and comics, cassette tapes.
The communal kitchen is across the way. White walls, bare wood, potted plants and a cast-iron cooking stove. Freshly painted multicoloured wooden chairs – obviously done from leftovers – are arranged around a big wooden table. Pots, pans, cups, plates, jars of rice, beans, pasta and muesli neatly arrayed on newly built shelves.
There’s a single poster above the sink, instantly recognisable from the hedgehog symbol as being from the Alternative Liste. Under the black and white photo of German troops marching through the Arc de Triomphe, the words: Better our youth occupies empty houses than other countries!
“I’ll take one or two here as well.”
They go up the next flight of stairs.
“We have another kitchen in the back house. But it’s a bit chaotic.”
She’s getting the feeling that Rudi has definite opinions about order and chaos.
“From here on it’s mainly people’s rooms.”
Nobody is in. The rooms are in various conditions of repair and neglect, neatness and mess. Only two are worth photographing.
One of them is empty except for a stepladder. The floor is covered with flakes of white paint. Someone has been working on the ceiling.
“Martin’s work,” Rudi explains.
Part of the stucco relief has been cleaned. Patches of a baroque-style mural – or perhaps rococo, she’s not quite sure of the difference – in gaudy colours and gold leaf are visible. She aims her camera at it, focuses and presses the button. Click.
“It’s taken him days just to get this far. It was covered with who knows how many coats of paint. It seems that a lot of the ceilings in these old houses had murals like this on them but they were painted over at some point.”
“Originally the facades on most of the pre-war houses were all stucco. And on some of the houses that had survived the bombing it was often deliberately hacked off. It had gone out of fashion, become unmodern, they said. Stucco was out, plain was suddenly in. The past was hidden behind the modernity of the Wirtschaftswunder. Out of sight. Out of mind.”
They continue. The house is a maze of walls removed and doorways without doors where no doorways had been before.
“Now we’re in the back house,” he explains.
He shows her the other kitchen he’s mentioned earlier. A girl of about sixteen with pink hair, wearing black lipstick and tattered black clothes, is spreading dollops of Aldi liver sausage onto a slice of brown bread. Rudi ignores her.
They go down more stairs, pass more rooms, another bathroom. They reach the ground floor.
“This is our workshop. Where our tools are supposed to be kept. Supposed to be.”
There are no windows. A naked bulb hanging from the ceiling is the only light. A collection of tools hangs on the wall behind a rough wooden bench over a row of tins filled with screws and nails. Too dark to photograph. Cold too, like most of the house.
They cross the courtyard and return to the warmth of the kitchen in the front house. It’s no longer empty.
“I’ve been showing Justine around. Justine. Heike.”
“I hope he hasn’t been telling you about how we are all Chaoten,” Heike says. “Rudi’s worse than that Springer rag, the BZ, sometimes.”
“Some people here are,” Rudi says. “But I haven’t quite decided about you yet.”
“Rudi is our resident authoritarian.”
Just then there’s a blast, a tremor of music from somewhere. The Dead Kennedys. California Über Alles.
“The Punks have awoken!” Heike explains.
Afterwards, as she heads down to the U-Bahn, Justine passes the Passionskirche. A banner hangs from its bell tower:
SOLIDARITY WITH THE RAF HUNGER STRIKERS!
So that too is squatted.
Yet everything else is so normal: people wandering in and out of the market hall, the winos at their usual corner on the square, cars stopping at the traffic lights. Normal.
Extract from Anarchy in a Cold War by Kurtis Sunday
Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a ‘recovering musician’, he is the author of The Berlin Diaries, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site. Noel is currently completing his second novel. As well as running indieBerlin, Noel is also active as web designer, chatbot creator and business communication coach.