Tour 3 – Cops and Squats

A walking tour around some of the squats of Friedrichshain, a trip to the Museum of Youth Resistance against the Nazis and the Communists, taking in the impressive Stalinist architecture of the Karl-Marx-Allee and the notorious police station near the film set of the The Lives of Others on Marchlewskistrasse. Consider doing this tour in the evening if you want to try the food, beer and punk bands playing in the social centres in the old squats!

Walking distance: 4km/2.5 Miles; 90 mins, plus time to visit museum.
Start: Samariterstrasse U-Bahn Station (U5); End: Weberwiese U-Bahn Station (U5) or Warschauer Strasse S and U-Bahn Station (U1).

Accessibility: The tour is along pavement which is often uneven and without dropped kerbs. The entrance to the Museum of Youth Resistance has two steps of approx 20cm, although there is a ramp available (ring the door bell).

Warning – this text contains spoilers!

Walking Map

Download the GPX Track for this tour.

The Tour

Get the underground (U5) to Samariterstrasse and leave at the Mainzer Strasse exit.

Mainzer Strasse

The Mainzer Strasse is best known for the lengthy and violent eviction of thirteen squats immediately after re-unification in November 1990. Although nothing remains now to remind us that this was once the centre of the squatting scene, the street played a key role in the post re-unification political history of Berlin.

Before the squatters moved in, the street had been abandoned by the GDR government – it was scheduled for demolition and replacement by pre-fabricated concrete flats – and most residents had already moved out. Windows, doors and fittings had been stripped by locals desperate to repair their own homes.

Friedrichshain was home to most of the squats opened and occupied by people from West Berlin, as was the Mainzer Strasse, although squatters from both sides of the wall took part in resisting the eviction, as did many members of the Berlin Senate and prominent figures from the 1989 revolution.

Spoiler Alert - click here to show/hide a passage from Stealing The Future

Shortly after the Wall opened, a stream of squatters came in from Westberlin. Feeling the pinch from hardline police tactics over there, full of youthful arrogance and convinced that they were the ones to show us in the East how to do this revolution thing properly.

A series of squats were opened up, the Wessis concentrated round Friedrichshain, the Easterners taking over derelict buildings in Prenzlauer Berg, and, to an extent, in Mitte. Interestingly the two scenes didn’t mix too well—even though they had a squatters’ Round Table, and the West-squats were twinned with the East-squats, but you didn’t find many Easterners wanting to live in a Wessi-squat. I didn’t blame them, the Wessi-squats sounded quite stressful. They tended to annoy their neighbours more with raucous parties and fly-tipping, and I’d heard that they had all sorts of alternative-living experiments going on—toilet doors were considered bourgeois, as was exclusive use of underwear.

The Ossi-squats seemed much more civilised to me—sure, they annoyed their neighbours too, with loud parties, graffiti art and flags, and below average awareness of hygiene—but they were, on the whole, well integrated into their neighbourhoods, providing support and labour to whoever needed it, whether it was doing the shopping or taking empty bottles to the SERO for the elderly, or carrying out structural repairs to one of the many derelict buildings.

The coalition ruling Berlin (the Senate) fell apart as a result of the eviction, and both squatters and politicians agreed that they had no appetite for further violent evictions. As a result of this no further evictions took place for a while, and squatters in Berlin were encouraged to formalise their arrangements, with the result that most squats in the east of the city were legalised.

The Umbruch Bildarchiv has photographs of the eviction, as well as a description of events (in German) on their website.

Vetomat

Just round the corner from the Mainzer Strasse is Scharnweberstrasse where there were also several squats. Two squats were legalised in the 1990s, and continue to host regular parties and provide food. Although not in a an (ex-)squat, Vetomat (Scharnweberstr. 35) is a good example of the type of social project that almost all of the squats have continued over the last 25 years. Vetomat holds events most evenings, often with cheap meals (including a regular Saturday buffet brunch – see their website for dates).

As an optional extra you could visit another good example of the social function of squats at Jessnerstrasse 41. In a legalised squat, next to the Supamolly bar (which holds regular concerts) is the Schenkladen, an impressively well organised free shop where you can bring along unwanted clothes, books and bric-a-brac, and take away anything you find useful. The Schenkladen also holds regular events, concerts and cafés.

Samariterkirche

Walk back up the Mainzer Strasse, and cross the Frankfurter Allee, heading up the hill on Samaritersraße (diagonally opposite, a little to the right). Walk 400 m up the hill to the Church of the Samaritan on the right hand side. This is where the Bluesmessen – the Blues Services were first held. They drew thousands of young people from all over the GDR, providing a concert space free of interference from the state (see the post Martin’s Music – Not Fade Away for more on the Blues and the political role this musical genre played in the GDR).

Walk back down the hill, (past two squats on the right hand side – one of which was legalised and is now the Sama Café) and turn right into Rigaerstrasse, The next junction is the Silvio-Maier-strasse, named after a GDR dissident and squatter who was stabbed to death in the Samariter U-Bahn station by neo-nazis in 1992.

Continue along Rigaer Strasse until you get to number 83, on the right hand side: the Fischladen, another social space provided by an ex-squat (now a housing co-op), where Martin eats goulash while his daughter and Annette talk with Karo.

The Fischladen still serves food (Tue to Sun) at 8pm, for a donation of at least €2, as well as very good cake (€1).

Carry on down the Rigaer Strasse, and take the third right, the Liebigstrasse. On the left hand side is another squat – the XB-Liebig, which hosts a social centre and information shop. (In total on the Rigaer Strasse and neighbouring streets there were over 20 squats in 1990 – most were legalised after negotiations, but quite a few were evicted, the most recent one in 2011).

Museum of Youth Resistance

Galiläakirche, Rigaer Strasse
Galiläakirche, Rigaer Strasse

Go back to the Rigaer Strasse and just a bit further along is the red brick Galilee Church on your left. This is the Museum of Youth Resistance (Tue-Sat, 11am-7pm, free entry) which has exhibitions of resistance to both the National Socialist and Communist governments, along with a library and regular events.

Thaerstrasse

Continue to the end of the Rigaer Strasse, to the Bersarinplatz, named after the first Soviet Commandant of Berlin, Nikolai Bersarin. The main road running to the south and north of the Bersarinplatz was also named after Bersarin (Bersarinstrasse), but was given its old name of Petersburger Strasse in 1995.

Turn to the right, and take the second road, Thaerstrasse (from Bersarinplatz the road is closed to traffic). One of the first buildings on the left is the fictional Thaeri squat where Karo lived. Although it was tempting to use one of the many squats in the area as a basis for Karo’s house I decided to site her squat in a place (as far as I know) where there has never been an occupied building (although a house in the Thaerstrasse was squatted – and evicted – on the 15.12.90 in response to the Mainzer Strasse evictions – Youtube Video).

Spoiler Alert - click here to show/hide a passage from Stealing The Future

I ran across the road, skipping over the tram tracks and holding my hand up to ward off the sparse traffic. Round the corner, into the Thaerstrasse. A few houses up the road a small knot of cops stood around a doorway. I shouldered my way through, getting an elbow in my kidneys for my efforts, although at least none of them seriously tried to stop me. Past a heavy wooden door, the lock smashed, and into the hall. Up the stairs: second floor right, Weber had said. I was going up as fast as I could, feeling the pain in my left kidney, but not responding to it, concentrating on getting up those stairs, blocking out the shouts and the screams around me. A helmeted policeman, wooden truncheon ready in his hand, was standing at the entrance to the flat. He was peering in through the open door when I reached the top of the stairs, but he must have heard my laboured breathing, turning to look at me. I held my palm out towards him, moving past, into the flat.

Opposite Karo’s fictional squat, at Thaerstrasse 16 is a second hand shop which specialised in GDR products, including some rarities. Bizarrely, I’ve never been allowed to buy anything in there: whenever I’ve found some East German gem that I’ve wanted to purchase I’ve been told to put it back since “it’s the last one”.

Karl-Marx-Allee

Frankfurter Tor, looking towards the Television Tower
Frankfurter Tor, looking towards the Television Tower

Go back to the Bersarinplatz and walk down the hill to the junction with Frankfurter Allee: the Frankfurter Tor. This is the start (or end, depending on which way you look at it) of the Stalinallee development, designed and built as an architectural showcase for socialist living in the 1950s. The towers are reminiscent of the dome of the two cathedrals on Platz der Akadamie (now Gendarmenmarkt). Looking down the boulevard, the buildings themselves, built in Stalinist Classicist (Wedding Cake) style, provide a perfect frame for a later icon of German socialist architecture, the Television Tower.

If you are interested in architecture it is worth taking a walk from the Frankfurter Tor down to the S-Bahn station east of here – it is said that this stretch of the Frankfurter Allee has representatives of every building style to be found in East Berlin, from Kaiser-era tenements to socialist pre-fab flats and shops.

Our tour takes us down the Karl-Marx-Allee, which until 1961 was called Stalinallee, past some of the remarkable architecture to be found here. Although we’re not going that far, you may be interested to note that the famous Mayday parades, showing off the undying gratitude of the people and the unyielding military hardware of the socialist state organs of the GDR were held at the other end of this boulevard, near Alexanderplatz. The Stalinallee (as it was still called) served as the point where resentment at the Communist government’s policies crystallised into open opposition. Builders working on the Stalinallee development downed tools and marched on the seat of government. Other workers joined the march, and a national general strike was called for the next day, the 17th June 1953. The uprising was put down with the aid of Soviet tanks, at the cost of over 100 lives.

Walk down the right hand side of the Karl-Marx-Allee, to one of the few breaks in the building alignment along the Karl-Marx-Allee: the Kosmos cinema. Built in 1962, the largest cinema in the GDR at the time, and one of the premiere cinemas. With seats for 1001 people, its circular auditorium is still impressive, although sadly it is now only rarely used as a cinema.

Kosmos Cinema in 1962
Kosmos Cinema 1962
Spoiler Alert - click here to show/hide a passage from Stealing The Future

Half an hour later I was stood on the Karl-Marx-Allee, in front of the Kosmos, waiting for Evelyn. Behind me lights beckoned warmly through the glass façade of the cinema, but it was getting cold standing in the late September evening without a jacket on. After twenty minutes I was ready to give up and go back to the tram stop. I turned to gaze ruefully in to the glow of the foyer when I saw Evelyn, just inside the entrance, waving at me.

“Silly you! I thought you’d never see me,” she grinned at me, not at all bothered about being late. “We’ll have to go straight in, it’s about to start.”

We went through the foyer, and past the ticket collector—Evelyn just beamed at him as we went by into the auditorium. The trailers were playing, and we slid into the back row, the ranks of white seats before us a dusky grey in the gloom.

From the cinema cross the road at the lights and turn into the ginnell near the chemist. This should lead you through to Lasdehner Strasse. The development around the Stalinallee cut off many of the old streets, and it’s easy to get lost – if this happens to you don’t worry, just enjoy looking at the buildings and gardens and try to walk in a straight line until you find someone to ask the way to the police station(!)

Marchlewskistrasse Police Station

At the end of the Lasdehner Strasse go through another ginnell and continue in the same direction along the Wedekindstrasse. At the next junction you’ll see the Marchlewskistrasse Police Station.

Spoiler Alert - click here to show/hide a passage from Stealing The Future

I showed my pass to the policeman sitting at the front desk, asking for Captain Weber. He didn’t answer, just pointed up to the first floor. It was the first time I’d been in the Marchlewskistrasse police station, and I was curious. Apprehensive too. The cops from this station had a reputation: the hard lads of the Berlin police force, happy to take matters into their own hands. They were the ones who made sure suspects stumbled down stairs and walked into fists. Before the revolution a friend of mine had his flat turned over by Marchlewskistrasse officers. No reason, no excuse given, and despite the fact that he lived in Prenzlauer Berg, a long way off their beat.

From the police station you can walk either way along the Marchlewskistrasse – to the northwest you will find the U-Bahn Station Weberwiese (U5), or the other way will take you to both the S-Bahn and U-Bahn Stations Warschauer Strasse (U1). While you walk along the road keep your eyes open to see if you recognise the film set of the Stasi drama The Lives of Others.