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E-Werk to Berghain: How Berlin became the world’s clubbing mecca

As Berlin clubs fight for their survival, Slow Travel Berlin’s Paul Sullivan traces the scene’s rich history back to before the Wall fell…

People come from all over the world to queue for hours outside Berlin’s most famous club, Berghain. Photo: imago images / imagebroker

To say Berlin is well known for its nightlife is something of an understatement. For at least the last two decades, it has, along with the fascinating history and vibrant cultural life, formed a major part of the city’s international allure. This is not only because the parties at Berlin clubs are legendarily long and hedonistic—hence “the Ibiza of the North” tag—but also because the scene brings with it an associated sense of tolerance, open-mindedness and youthful flair.

And yet it was never a given that such a scene would develop in the German capital. When Dimitri Hegemann, Achim Kohlenberger and Carola Stoiber, who ran the electronic music label Interfisch, started an acid house club called UFO in the cellar of a Kreuzberg tenement building in 1988 (along with future star DJs like Tanith and Dr. Motte), none of them had any idea the Berlin Wall would fall several months later—an event that would influence the scene more than any other.

Ripe for a rave: A club scene rises as the Wall falls

Adalbertstraße in Kreuzberg, 1990: Abandoned buildings in former East Berlin became the perfect setting for new type of club. Photo: imago images / imagebroker

Post-Wall, the UFO crew, who had moved their club to a new location in Schöneberg just before it fell, along with other party organisers, quickly realised that East Berlin’s thousands of suddenly-empty buildings were ripe for a rave. The unique milieu of the city during the early nineties proved essential for the direction and aesthetic of the scene, with unused and derelict factories, basements and power plants providing idiosyncratic spaces for parties run by an independent and (initially, at least) non-commercial network of organisers, promoters, DJs and radio stations.

The serendipitous timing of a burgeoning new form of music based around concepts of inclusion and community, and a city suddenly reunited after decades of cruel division, was magical, providing ideal circumstances for residents of former east and west to dance together side by side. By the early 90s, the likes of DJ Tanith, Kid Paul, Paul Van Dyk and Westbam were well established as DJs, and clubs like the mighty Tresor—set up by Hegemann in the vault of the former Wertheim department store at Potsdamer Platz—Der Bunker (which today hosts the Sammlung Boros art collection), Planet/E-Werk (set inside an electrical substation in Mitte) and the smaller Elektro drew in curious—mostly male—punters.

A city reunited after decades of cruel division: a techno party at E-Werk, 1994. Photo: imago images / Rolf Zöllner

From squats to Love Parade: A subculture goes mainstream

This new wave of alternative culture overlapped with hundreds of squats and venues like Tacheles, Der Eimer and Schokoladen. But as the 90s wore on, the inevitable competition and commercialisation of the scene occurred, epitomised most obviously by the success of the Love Parade, which had attracted 150 people in 1989, and a whopping 1.5 million a decade later. Between the mid-late 90s and the mid-00s, in step with global trends, the scene experienced a fairly seismic shift towards new levels of organisation and professionalism, as the number of international visitors to the city also grew.

Love Parade, 1997: Thousands of ravers take to Straße des 17. Juni as the inclusive spirit of Berlin’s burgeoning club scene spreads to the mainstream. Photo: imago images / Seeliger

It was during this period that many of the clubs that make up today’s vibrant constellation were opened. Almost all continued the trend for occupying spaces in the former East and inner-city peripheries that were left abandoned or derelict after the Wende: Berghain, which rose from the ashes of Ostgut in a former power plant in Friedrichshain; Bar 25 (formerly Kater Blau, now Kater Holzig,), set on the eastern side of the Spree; the itinerant Cookies, now closed; the artistic, squat-like Wilde Renate in Treptow; Sisyphos, located in a former pasta factory in Lichtenberg; and Griessmühle, which until recently was housed in a former dog biscuit factory in Neukölln. In 2007, Tresor also moved into its current venue, a combined heat and power plant on Köpenicker Straße— the very same street UFO had been on.

Long-standing icon Tresor moved to its new Köpenicker Straße location in 2007. Photo: imago/Schaap

No VIPs, no photos: Berlin clubs stay true to their gritty roots

Despite the growth, popularity and relative commercialisation of the scene since the nineties, most clubs today remain independently run and maintain a ‘purist’ ethos that connects back to the scene’s origins. There’s a distinct lack of VIP rooms, bathrooms are famously grim, and photography is usually forbidden. The music also generally refuses to pander to popular taste (or innovation for that matter), sticking for the most part to the tried-and-tested formulas of classic house and techno, and the emphasis—more often than not—remains on the music rather than the fashion and ‘lifestyle’ aspect that has grown so popular in clubbing cities like London and New York.

DJs, many of whom made Berlin their home in the last twenty years if they didn’t live here already, love that they get to play long, indulgent sets, and this no-nonsense, underground vibe is a large part of what makes the clubs so wildly popular today, with the challenge of even getting into the more oversubscribed clubs such as Berghain, Watergate, and Kater Holzig, providing an added thrill for many visitors (and locals).

People queue to enter the now defunct club Maria am Ostbahnhof. Photo: imago images / POP-EYE

It has to be admitted that a few additional lucky factors have fuelled the success of the club scene: the failure of the nineties economic plan to transform the city into a Potsdamer Platz-style corporate hub, which would have left hardly any room for clubs at all had it worked out, is a big one, as is the unexpected rise of cheap flights in the late nineties and early naughties (which prompted the ‘EasyJetSet’ tag for Berlin’s club tourists).

Rising rents and the corona crisis: An uncertain future for Berlin clubs

Similarly, the future of the scene is far from guaranteed. Although almost a hundred clubs are today in operation, many have disappeared over time (Cookies, WMF, Delicious Donuts, Maria am Ostbahnhof, Icon, Picknick, Farbfernseher), as land and venues are sold off and rental leases are discontinued. More recently, major hotspots like KitKat and Griessmuehle have been threatened with closure, and the ongoing restrictions of the Corona era has placed further strain on their capacity to survive—as seen in this photo series of Berlin’s clubs without the people.

The doors remain closed for the foreseeable future at Berlin’s biggest clubs. Photo: imago/Emmanuele Contini

How the scene emerges from this latest challenge remains to be seen, though with the Club Commission and Culture Minister Klaus Lederer campaigning loudly for funds and support, and locals donating to keep their favourite venues afloat via live clubbing platform #UnitedWeStream, the chances are that the city will be up and dancing again before too long…

Paul Sullivan is a guidebook author, travel journalist and the founder/editor of Slow Travel Berlin. His words and images have appeared in The Guardian, BBC, Sunday Times Travel, The Telegraph, Nat Geo UK and more. He has lived in Berlin for 12 years.

Reckon you know everything about Berlin’s musical history? Test your David Bowie-in-Berlin knowledge with these 12 facts.

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