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Berlin Special Part 1 - Music`n`history of Germany´s capital city

The phat B home by the river Spree, brings joy in the summer and in winter pain (Seeed). That’s true. Before we drown in the grey of November we take a walk with Brad and Jeff Dope from Pothead through the late-summerly city and capture the last sunrays on film.

Before that we have to take a look at the general history. After all history cannot only be seen in the cityscape. We still have about 3-5000 old bombs scattered throughout the city. On our tour through Kreuzberg history awaits us at every turn. Brad who lives in Berlin for years and acquainted himself intensively gave us a little historical guide.

Look from the Oberbaumbrücke: the skyline of Berlin


It started about 750 AD with the first population census of the settlements in the area that is today known as Berlin and Brandenburg. By the 18th century Berlin had become a metropolis with 150’000 residents and was the economical and cultural center of the country. One reason for this surely was that Berlin always had a huge amount of immigrants: since the 13th century Jews, in the 16th century Calvinists who had fled from the Dutch struggle for freedom, in the 17th century Huguenots who were prosecuted in France and in the 19th century a strong immigration from Silesian areas. Those immigrants introduced their knowledge, technology, culture and of course their language which enriched the local vocabulary and spun off many regional names. Today about 180 nationalities live in the city. In the 19th century many concerts and dance events took place in the gardens and parks outside of the city or on then-outskirts like Tiergarten, Kreuzberg, Hasenheide and Gesundbrunnen.

In summertime Berlin „happens“ in the parks

At that time a quaint order allowed instrumental background music implicitly but for singing presentations a concession had to be granted. Many residents kept up that urge to go out into the nature in summer, and many venues like Musik-Theater des Westens, Neues deutsches Schauspielhaus (today’s Metropol), Sophiensäle or also Mehringhof that were build at that time are still in use today.

Tiergarten. Popular venue then and now

At the beginning of the 20th century Berlin had 2 million residents who lived together in a confined area. Housing space was territorially limited and so by rearward expansion the infamous tenements with up to 6 rear courtyards emerged. Many people lived in dark, degrading housing conditions – only every 3rd Berlin worker had his own flat in 1871. During the first World War (1941-1918) the supply situation in the city was disastrous and the so-called “Volksspeisung” (people feeding) was introduced. Something similar came up again nowadays with charitable soup kitchens or “Volksküchen”.

In 1920 Berlin became geographically the city we know today: many towns, communities and estates were suburbanised and some can still be found in today’s districts and quarters. This created a heterogeneous city with extreme contrasts that united rich mansion quarters in the southwest with the dark tenements in Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg. This merging is also the reason that Berlin doesn’t have a city center. Instead, there are at least as many neighbourhoods (“Kiez”) in Berlin as there are quarters. A Kiez is what you regard as one. In the 2-volume opus “Berliner Kieze” (Ullstein, 1998) are many which I’ve never heard of before.

Berlin at the water

In 1920 Berlin was the 3rd biggest city in Europe with 3,8 million inhabitants. In the meantime musical amusements had dislocated to the center and life was not civilised anymore. According to a contemporary the whole city was like one large hotbed of sin, this is why initially the establishments of certain Madams weren’t attended. Many of the then-hot-spots like coffeehouses and mocha bars were located on the boulevards that are still known today: Kurfürstendamm, Friedrichstraße, the areas around Nollendorfplatz and the Scheunenviertel.


The roaring twenties: "Night! Tauentzien! Cocaine! This was Berlin!"(Andrej Belyj)

Affected by the inflation, which of course hurt more the ordinary and poor people, and a cultural and technological boost between 1924 and 1929 the Naziregime cast its shadow before and the streets of Berlin were ruled by decadence and exuberance. Absinth wasn’t illegal yet, cocaine was bought in case of need from the waiter, women took more and more liberties and also homosexuality could be enjoyed for a while in many clubs. For the latter stood and still stands Schöneberg and Nollendorkiez but people also savored life excessively on Kurfürstendamm, Tauentzienstraße and Friedrichstraße. Mainly dance events belonged to that lifestyle, either own or watching (nude) revues. The prudery in the cities was over and the debauched addiction to pleasure allowed for new fashion trends for the ladies: the short Charleston dresses offered the needed legroom for dancing and flirting.

Most notably women have shaped the picture of the „roaring twenties“ until today. One of the most famous, Anita Berber, was a dancer, actress, muse and queen of the underground. She gained fame not only as a dancer in the hottest clubs like the “Weiße Maus”, Wintergarten (back then on Friedrichstraße, today on Potsdamer Straße) or in the “Apollo” but also for her aggressive temper. She danced naked and besides having countless lovers of both genders she also worked as a high-class hooker but she wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. She coshed one viewer who didn’t recognize it with a champagne bottle, which was the prelude to a fierce bar fight – also naked. She threw the tableware at a waiter who couldn’t bring her a cognac because it was out of stock. She was aggressive, wasteful with her own body, money and drugs, and died at 29. Nina Hagen set the “wild child” a musical monument with the song “Born to die in Berlin” from her 1996 album “Bee happy”. Anita Berber is buried in the cemetery of the St. Thomas parish in Neukölln.

The synagogue on Oranienburgerstraße

Until the 1930’s Berlin was the center of fashion that set the trends. Anita Berber wore anklet, a painted navel and a monkey in the neckline. Her monocles determined the style back then. After centuries of abstinence Berlin has build up its reputation as a city of fashion again in the last couple of years. A lot of young designers work here and offer their fashion to comparatively cheap prices mainly in Prenzlauer Berg and around Kastanienallee and Oderbergerstraße. Fairs like “Bread and Butter” and “Premium” have made an impression and drawn further fairs.

The music of the 20’s and 30’s was Jazz and pop. The latter was more innocent then the one we know today and mostly politically tinged. Some of those songs come up today again: Max Raabe and his palace orchestra is in the meantime even internationally successful. Also Claire Waldoff with her acquired because not native Berlin tongue is still often copied.

Popularity and distribution of the pop songs were considerably influenced by the radio that had spread until the 30’s rapidly (the first radio transmission ever came from Berlin) and was exploited by the Nazis like the pop songs themselves to show an ideal world and until today it hasn’t reached the same standard as back then. Nowadays the most radio stations of the country can be found in the Berlin and Brandenburg area with corresponding pressure of competition and genres for almost every musical taste from rock to classic and world music.


The next 12 years of the Naziregime changed the city completely. Jazz and Swing still influenced the 1930’s and the meeting places were called cafe. A club was at the time a clique, like-minded people with whom you could meet up to listen to music, dance and so on. Like in today’s clubs newsletters and programmes were published. The Nazis banned Jazz but it wasn’t seriously prosecuted at first. Played down to Swing with „white imprinting“ and with the Olympic games in mind that should take place in Berlin in 1936 the Nazis held themselves in and between 1935 and 1937 there was a proper swingwave in the city. The restrictions for Jewish artists got more and more drastic and from 1942 „dancing events“ were completely forbidden. At that time the people had other worries anyway.

On Spreebogen today

In 1945 Berlin was the „heap of ruins near Potsdam“ (Bertolt Brecht) and seperated into 4 zones of occupation. Many persons engaged in the cultural sector and the bigger part of the Jewish population had emigrated or was murdered. Hills were heaped up from the ruins like the Teufelsberg in Grunewald with its 115 m the biggest of all and actually one of the highest elevations here at all. For 22 years about 26 million m3 of rubble were heaped up. An American monitoring station was based at the top until 1992. 28,5 m2 of the city’s area was destroyed and only a few buildings were reconstructed. Particularly the outskirts lay idle and only today buildings will be constructed there. But even after the new building development places like for example the Potsdamer Platz are still quite bleak. Other wastelands have become nature sanctuaries, wild picnic places or beer gardens. These sudden and abrupt holes and green corridors in the sea of houses still represent Berlin’s peculiar cityscape today and hopefully it remains the same. In 1947 the Allied Control Council abolished Prussia and so Berlin wasn’t capital anymore but the self-confident inhabitants of the city didn’t care. At least in the Western part of Berlin the big city affectation were retained and the Eastern part became the capital of the GDR anyway. But that loss continued to have an effect: one of the favorite topics is the “metropolis issue”.

The Metropol, former Theater des Westens

Until the construction of the Wall in 1961 many things went on quite similar; the 50’s were difficult, marked with rebuilding and slowly both sides grew into fronting cities - the Eastern part as a figurehead for the „actually existing socialism“ and the West as last stronghold against communism. The Russians could’ve been „in 15 minutes on the Kurfürstendamm“ like Udo Lindenberg sneered in 1981. That special fear led to a very conservative climate in the 50’s which was only scratched when Rock ’n’ Roll and the Rebel culture came up – only in the 70’s Berlin became a paradise of subcultures. The construction of the Wall in 1961 ceased the freedom of travel from East to West for the people and for the music. From that time on it became not only more difficult for the people in the Eastern part of the city to get the desired records from the Western part but also it was difficult to play Rock ‘n’ Roll as a band and to publicly love it as a fan. The reprisals were extensive and it wasn’t only about the accursed music (like in the Western part) but it was also to establish a border between East and West and to present an independent youth culture that was conformable with the socialism. The government chose for that the “Lipsi” which of course was no match for the Beat from the West. The “Ostrock” (Eastrock) that had developed from musical isolation is probably worth its own special.

The palace of the republic (Palast der Republik). Symbol of the division and currently one of the most scurrile venues of the city

After the construction of the Wall the Western part of the city became an island surrounded by the GDR. Big companies and important industries migrated away. This movement of labour still burdens the city today – especially now after the money from the West has been axed quite abruptly. Back then the city was on a drip from the West and its continuance depended on the goodwill of the Western ally. People in Western Germany were and are not pleased with the “Berlin oblation” stamps back then and today’s solidarity surcharge. There was even a plan to rebuild West Berlin in the Lüneburger Heide…

Construction site and television tower

Until the reunion there was the so called „Berlinzulage“ (Berlinbonus), some kind of extra-pay in addition to the normal salary for people who voluntarily lived and worked in Berlin. There’s something similar today for the people from the West who should explain Hartz IV (a reform of the job market) to the people in the East.

By constructing the Wall many districts of the former city center like Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg became outskirts (again). Areas at the Wall – not a very good location. The houses deteriorated, the rents went through the floor and gradually a whole new way of life developed which became a synonym for left-wing, alternative lifestyle and of course influenced other districts.

Friedrichstraße today

What awaits you in part 2 of the Berlin special:

We will focus on these alternative lifestyles and of course also on some of today’s clubs that shape the city. In the second part of the special we will deal with protest and subculture and of course important clubs. On the drinking tour through Kreuzberg we together with Brad and Jeff will introduce some “typical” establishments where you can get solidly pissed.

Author: Anja Röbekamp, Translation: Kathleen Gransalke, Photos: Katrin Winter
Date: 2005-09-11

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