To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Berlin

The 4th of July was a hell of a day to get out of the States.  I’d originally planned my trip to last from May Day 2006 in Berlin to May Day 2007 in Barcelona, but I left late, and so it was another sort of holiday that marked my arrival.  My older brother met me at the airport.  Carl had been living in Berlin for two years, teaching English.  At the end of the month he would leave to go to Palestine as a volunteer teacher, around the time Israel was bombing Lebanon. In the meantime I could stay with him in his little apartment in Moabit.  The neighborhood shares the name with the huge prison that still holds some members of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF: Red Army Fraction), an urban guerrilla group that attacked German capitalism throughout the 70s and 80s, placing itself politically somewhere between the autonomous movement and the Stasi.  For this yearlong trip, I had only saved up enough money for the airplane ticket and some food—the lodging and transportation had to come free, so it helped that I had already had a place to sleep that first month while I figured out how to pretend I was a rugged vagabond.  I also needed some time to refresh my German, which I had learned in high school and hadn’t used much since.

Freie Arbeiterinnen Union Berlin

An anarcho-syndicalist brochure from Berlin.

The wide, tree-lined avenues of Berlin echoed with a history of struggles that continue to resound today. The signs along Karl Marx Allee marked the locations of the barricades of 1848, the old path of the Wall was still traced across the cobblestone streets, and great hulking buildings draped with banners and graffiti testified to the survival of the autonomen. In the 80s and early 90s, neighborhoods like Kreuzberg were semi-autonomous zones, filled with immigrants, squatters, and punks, fighting to defend their streets against gentrification, neo-fascists, and police. Writers like Ramour Ryan and George Katsiaficas describe how every year the anticapitalists celebrated May Day with a massive battle against the cops and the luxury stores, even starting the previous evening, Walpurgisnacht, Witches Night. And the rest of the year was characterized by fights against neo-nazis, attacks against the authorities responsible for deporting Kurdish refugees back to Turkey, squatting and the organization of autonomous social centers, trashing bourgeois restaurants that drew yuppies into the neighborhood. And within these popular and militant neighborhoods, Marxist and anarchist armed groups like Rote Zelle, Rote Zora, 2nd of June, and Rote Armee Fraktion found hiding places and large bases of support.

Now Berlin is heavily gentrified. The working class neighborhoods in the center have become trendy and expensive. There are fewer squats and most of the remaining ones have been legalized, though the fact that they still exist in any form is a direct testament to how forcefully they were defended from eviction in years gone by. The May Day riots still continue every year, though they are shorter and less intense. And throughout the year the tradition of opposing gentrification by directly attacking the rich finds its manifestation in the burning of luxury cars. Every year in Berlin hundreds of shiny, expensive vehicles meet their fiery deaths. Sometimes these actions are claimed by the “Militante Gruppen,” often by no one at all.

While I was there the city was calm, enjoying a warm July that brought everyone outdoors to sit alongside the canals, sunbathe in the parks, or bike to one of the nearby lakes to go swimming. In Berlin I saw an anticapitalist community far more developed than anywhere I had seen in the US, where community tends to be an abstract—an ideal or a pretty lie. But here there really was a liberated culture existing alongside the commercial one. Take a copy of Streß Faktor, the monthly booklet publicizing all the concerts, people’s kitchens, debates, film showings, presentations, and other events happening in the many social centers in the city, and you could find a way to partake in this community every day of the week, even if you were an outsider.

Perhaps the most common sort of event was the Volksküche—a people’s kitchen—a communal meal which is like a Food Not Bombs except they generally ask for a little money and it’s not at all service-oriented. Several times I went to the vokü at Köpi, Berlin’s most famous squat.  It was over 17 years old at that point, though technically it’s an ex-squat, as the city legalized it years ago.  The building is huge, and along one of its outer walls runs a bold declaration: Die Grenze verläuft nicht zwischen den Völkern sondern zwischen Oben und Unten. The borders run not between peoples but between above and below.

Köpi’s junky front gate and dirty, punk-strewn courtyard are hardly inviting, but such an aesthetic is a defense against gentrification. Few bourgeois people would want to move next door to such a place, and they certainly wouldn’t park their cars there. At first the people there seemed cold and unwelcoming, even to a fellow anarchist, and in fact the German movement has a reputation throughout Europe for being closed, suspicious, and arrogant. But in all fairness, the place receives a constant stream of visitors and radical tourists, so it doesn’t make much sense for the regulars to spend the time getting to know people they’ll never see again. And later in the month, at a presentation about the prison system, I met several nice people and even got invited to stay for the night so I wouldn’t have to bike all the way back to Moabit.

The radical community in Berlin contains many different circles and hubs that extend well beyond the punk scene and the squatters’ scene. My brother had found himself a niche at Baiz, an antifascist bar. This was another interesting phenomenon in Berlin and other cities in Europe: anticapitalist businesses. The idea was a bit jarring at first, but the logic has a certain appeal to it. A radical group of friends get together to start a bar, a restaurant, or a shop, in order to create a stable place to hang out and hold events, and to employ themselves without having to tolerate a boss. They’re not trying to sell revolution, just recognizing that until they abolish capitalism they’re going to have to pay for beer so they might as well be supporting a friend at the same time. This is not entirely alien to the US, but every example I know of back home that’s not a book store (for some reason that’s the one permitted exception) does not portray itself as a cultural hub within a revolutionary anticapitalist movement but as a cooperative or some other positive alternative project within capitalism. By being honest that they’re a compromise and not an end in themselves, and by availing themselves to a broader revolutionary movement that intends to go much further than the cooperative form, the spaces in Berlin seemed to have more potential.

Like many neighborhood bars, the people who drank together at Baiz were friends. It was a community hub. However this place was draped in red and black, and the back room was used for presentations and discussions. But not everything had to be explicity political. After all, community is what exists between meetings and protests, when people form friendships and share food. My favorite moment in this bar was the night when everyone crowded in to watch the final match of the World Cup and erupted in delirious cheers when Zidane lost the game for his team by headbutting the fascist Italian player who had provoked him with a racist insult.

BAIZ

Monthly program for the antifascist bar Baiz

The World Cup wasn’t all fun and games though. It marked a frightening milestone in the reemergence of German nationalism. Under the innocent alibi of “rooting for their team,” the World Cup had made it acceptable for normal Germans to fly their flag for the first time since they were waving a different flag entirely. And you saw it everywhere, draped from people’s balconies or attached to car antennas. The media had rigged a debate on the subject, and in the street you could hear people repeating what they heard on TV as though it were their own opinion, that this was the “good kind of nationalism.” At one antifascist march the protestors even yelled at people flying the flag from their homes, calling them nazis. I had to smile, imagining such a protest taking place in the US, where after September 11 you couldn’t spit without hitting a flag.

Sun and stormclouds play checkers in the sky over Berlin. My bicycle weaves the days and neighborhoods together as I travel from protest to vokü to film showings to the fussball table at the bar where tricky-fingered antifascists are waiting to hustle you. The passing time is filled with activity but empty of some deeper contact. Friendship and political affinity can take years to develop: will my trip through Europe be peopled by mere acquaintances? Am I here just to tour, to observe, to stay on this side of the glass wall and accumulate experiences superficial enough that they fit on a postcard? Or will I break through and enter a new world so completely that I lose the way back home? Somewhere down the road, someone is cracking open a door. Somewhere down the road, someone lights a match. My brother flies away, but he leaves me his bicycle to speed me down the road.

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