Ulrich Gutmair captures 'anarchic' 1990s East Berlin in newly translated memoir

The English translation of 'The First Days of Berlin' revisits a unique moment in the city's history

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, a former symbol of the divided city, in 1990. Alamy
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The wide-open, bohemian Berlin of the time immediately after the wall’s fall in November 1989 is now the stuff of legend – and rightly so. Those of us who were there can attest to the thrilling originality of the impromptu cafes and bars, dance clubs and pop-up galleries. They materialised almost overnight in the basements, abandoned factories, disused shopfronts and destroyed buildings that littered downtown East Berlin in the aftermath of an exhilarating democratic revolution that upended communism and terminated the Cold War.

Remembering those days, though, and that unique moment, is more than simply an exercise in nostalgia. Berlin still lives – or perhaps better said “profits” – from the sound, aesthetic, style and spirit of the 1990s, if in a much altered, commercialised, depoliticised and made-for-the-mainstream incarnation.

“Those anarchic years have become a selling point in the global competition for tourists, investors and businesses,” writes Ulrich Gutmair, author of the catchy, recently translated memoir The First Days of Berlin. A journalist today, Swabian-born Gutmair experienced that time as a history student who moved to West Berlin three weeks before the Wall’s breach.

Ulrich Gutmair's 'The First Days of Berlin' comes out on January 4, 2022. Photo: Polity

Gutmair and I navigated the same dilapidated neighbourhoods and barren streets of East Berlin in the months of 1990 and 1991 – although we never met. In part, at least, this is because we travelled in different worlds of the subcultural bohemia that spanned about a hundred city blocks across East Berlin, the capital of the German Democratic Republic until October 1990.

I was a young, left-leaning American journalist and spent long evenings talking politics with the revolution’s makers, who saw East Berlin and the post-communist GDR as a crucible of another kind of Germany – one better than either the post-war East or West.

Gutmair’s chronicle is about another mise en scene, one that only at times converged with mine, namely that of the first electronic dance clubs. His descriptions of the sounds and smells, bass drums and breakbeats, the low-ceilinged and cinder-strewn dance floors transport one to those locations better than any film version of the day. While this is a memoir, Gutmair gives voice to many of the personalities behind the projects, large and very small, that populated the city like wildflowers pushing up in the cracks and crevices of an abandoned car park.

The First Days of Berlin shows that much more than revelry made the Berlin clubs so extraordinary. Their quirky impresarios came from all over the world, including from East and West Berlin. They didn’t come to partake vicariously, but to make and create. It was as if a tsunami of creative energy had been building up for years – and indeed in the East bloc this had been exactly the case – and found the moment and geography right in 1990s Berlin.

One didn’t need capital or a credit rating to make something out of nothing, but simply a crowbar, an idea, and perseverance – and a resilience to the biting cold: it snowed and snowed during the winter of 1990-1991. The coal ovens took hours to get even warm, and then died out during the course of the night.

Gutmair captures this feeling precisely, describing the different world one entered crossing from West Berlin to East Berlin: “To cross the border was to experience how social pressures lost the power you’d always regarded as innate in them; they meant nothing here. Why live alone if you could live together? Why pay rent when you could live free of charge in a squat? Why go to work when you could make art? Why watch films and read novels when, every day and every night, you could talk to people, listen to music, party and have new experiences?”

Gutmair could perhaps tell readers a little more directly why this story is so important to Berlin today, if he thinks it is. Does the world of today’s techno clubs – with names like Katerblau, Watergate, Tresor, Wilde Renate and, of course, the worldwide citadel of electronic music, Berghain – embody any of the zeitgeist of the wonderful years of anarchy? That omission, however, is minor.

A more important point of criticism is naming persons as East German secret police informers when there’s no evidence behind these charges – and even plentiful evidence to the contrary. To do so is unscrupulous. Authors can make factual mistakes in a first edition, but a translation is a perfect opportunity to correct them. Gutmair should definitely have taken the opportunity to do this.

The First Days of Berlin will be out on January 4, 2022

Updated: December 17, 2021, 2:36 PM