A Brief History Of Schwarzwohnen

Alexander Vasudevan on the largely undocumented tradition of squatting and ‘illegal living’ in Berlin…

In September 1988, an anonymous report appeared in the East German underground magazine Umweltblätter describing the plight of a group of squatters who had occupied the side wing of an apartment block at Lychener Straße 61 in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg.

In the squatters own words, they had “occupied the house in order to overcome the contradiction between, on the one hand, the many vacant and decaying houses [in Berlin], and, on the other hand, a growing number of people in search of housing.”

“As squatters (Instandbesetzer),” they proclaimed, “we will resist the further cultural and spiritual devastation of the country.”

The Umweltblätter represented one of the most important and widely distributed samizdat publications that was produced in East Germany in the 1980s. It was published by the Umwelt-Bibliothek, an independent information centre that opened in the basement of the Zionskirche meeting hall in Berlin in September 1986.

The Umwelt-Bibliothek was founded by a number of prominent environmental activists including Christian Halbrock, Carlo Jordan and Wolfgang Rüddenklau and it soon became a key site within a wider network of protest and dissent. Umweltblätter was edited by Rüddenklau and was the largest and longest running dissident publication in the GDR (thirty-two issues between 1986-1989 with a print run of 4000 per issue).

While the Umweltblätter and other samizdat publications focused on issues relating to the peace and environmental movement that had sprung in East Germany in the late 1970s, a number of articles also drew attention to the illegal occupation of housing in cities such as Berlin.

But who were these squatters? What were the central characteristics of urban squatting in the GDR (goals, action repertoires, political influences)? Why did some East German squatters choose to describe themselves as Instandbesetzer, a term commonly used by Western activists? And, finally, in what way did these practices challenge the dominant model of ownership and control in the GDR and promote an alternative vision of the city?

Squatters in Kreuzberg, 1981. Image by Tom Ordelman,  CC-BY-SA-3.0

To begin to answer these questions demands a re-thinking of the recent history of radical housing politics in Berlin. The development of the squatter movement in Berlin (Hausbesetzerbewegung) is now well known. While early experiments in alternative forms of communal living in West Berlin can be traced back to the extra-parliamentary opposition of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is widely argued that there were two major waves of squatting in Berlin.

The first was characterized by the development of an alternative scene in West Berlin which, beginning in the late 1970s, responded to a deepening housing crisis by occupying apartments, the overwhelming majority of which were located in the districts of Kreuzberg and Schöneberg. The second was concentrated in the former East of the city as activists took advantage of the political power vacuum that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

At one point in 1990, over 130 buildings were occupied in various districts in the eastern half of the city. The little work that has been done on squatting in East Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s points, in this context, to an equally significant chapter in a wider history of reclamation and resistance, precarity and protest.

As historians of the GDR reminds us, housing was highly politicised with the state assuming principal responsibility for its construction, maintenance and allocation. This is hardly surprising perhaps given the parlous state of housing in the wake of the World War Two. In the 1950s, central heating was available in less than 3% of residences. Only 30% of residences had a toilet and 22% a bath. Over 45% of housing in the GDR had been constructed before 1900.

Administration was largely handled by the Communal Housing Association (Kommunalen Wohnungsverwaltung or KWV) which was responsible for 72% of East Berlin’s properties. A further 15% belonged to housing cooperatives and the remaining 13% were owned privately and under the control of state-allocated trustees. Rents were capped at 1930s levels and citizens were legally required to obtain permission from local housing authorities before they could take up residence at a given address and receive an official tenancy agreement.

Kopi, one of the last remaining Kreuzberg squats, was evicted in 2021. 

By the early 1970s, official policy had only exacerbated the dereliction of older housing stock across East Germany and, despite an ambitious building programme undertaken during the Honecker era, an acute shortage of housing persisted. There were still 600,000 people on official housing waiting lists in the early 1970s with waiting times averaging between six to eight years.

The cost of demolition and construction could not, in turn, be met by the state and, as a result, thousands of properties fell into ruin and remained empty. As a secret report commissioned by the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or the Socialist Unity Party of Germany) in 1985 noted, there were over 235,000 empty properties across the GDR with particular concentrations in major cities such as Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig.

It is against a backdrop of persistent housing scarcity, that many citizens – often young but not exclusively so – chose to occupy properties illegally. What Udo Grashoff has recently described as Schwarzwohnen (Illegal living) or wohnen in Abriss (living in ruins) as some residents preferred to call it, can be traced back to the occupation of a small apartment in 1967 in the East German city of Halle.

As Grashoff argues in the only existing study of squatting in East Germany, Schwarzwohnen was not a marginal phenomenon but involved thousands of citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. A 1983 report, for example, put the number of people illegally occupying buildings in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg at 800. By 1987, the number had risen to almost 1300.

While many squatters believed that they simply needed to pay rent to formalize their status, squatting remained illegal in the GDR. State officials were reluctant, however, to carry out evictions as squatters often took pressure off growing waiting lists and, in many cases, returned dilapidated housing stock into use. As the right to housing was enshrined within the GDR’s 1949 constitution, authorities also tended to avoid forced evictions as they would otherwise be legally required to provide alternative housing for squatters.

berlin besetzt
berlin-besetzt.de have created an interactive map showing the changing face of Berlin’s squat scene.

The history of illegal occupation thus points, as Grashoff suggests, to the complex ways in which in an alternative right to housing was articulated in the GDR. If some squatters, including the activists living in Lychener Straße 61, borrowed and re-developed, in part, an action repertoire that has its origins in the West, other former squatters spoke of a uniquely East German phenomenon. Schwarzwohnen had, so they believed, far more to do with a desire to take control of their own lives and respond to basic housing needs.

For some, therefore, squatting formed part of a wider network of protest and resistance. As Wolfgang Rüddenklau, a former occupant of a squatted house in Prenzlauer Berg at Fehrbelliner Straße 7 explained: ‘The islands of occupied flats and houses […] grew together to form a alternative social structure. They affirmed a self-determined lifestyle and developed a common culture.’

Others detected a more modest challenge to the state and a concomitant impulse to invest the home with a range of meanings that did not necessarily chime with official imperatives. If anything, existing evidence points to a spectrum of alternative practices and tactics that, on the one hand, speak to the importance of housing and the city for the development of oppositional cultures in the GDR and that, on the other hand, anticipate the new wave of squatting that erupted in the winter of 1989.

In the end, as scholars turn their attention to the struggles of East German squatters, the challenge must remain one of commitment to the study of what squatters actually said and did. It is, after all, out of a radical attentiveness to the various histories of urban squatting that we might still come to know and perhaps live the city differently.

And in the case of contemporary Berlin, a stronger awareness of these histories might still point us to an alternative beyond a city increasingly shaped by the logics of profiteering and privatization, displacement and dispossession.

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