New Year's Eve in Berlin: Firecrackers, Fascist Light Shows, and Witnessing History in the Haupstadt
Issue #49, April 2000
I rang in the Millennium standing in the square in front of Berlin's city hall with my girlfriend, my sister and friends of mine from the capital. City Hall or the Red Rathaus (Das Rote Rathaus) as Berliners call it, a designation that refers to the building's nineteenth century red brick exterior and sadly not to its denizens' political inclinations, sits near Alexanderplatz in the middle of downtown Berlin. The rathaus has a clock tower and thus was a good place to countdown to the new year.
In the spirit of the dawning corporate millennium, Berlin's city fathers contracted out the organization of the city's official New Year's festivities to a private firm New Year's Eve in Berlin Ltd. With capital raised through the sale of advertising sponsorships, the party company organized a four-kilometer millennial party strip featuring 15 stages, numerous video screens upon which people could check to make sure they were having as much fun as everyone else, two Ferris Wheels, 500 beer and bratwurst tents, and 1,000 toilets. The strip stretched from Alexanderplatz and City Hall, down the famous tree-lined boulevard Unter den Linden, through the symbol of the city the Brandenburg Gate, and finally ended at the Victory Column, the monument commemorating the German armies' victory in the Franco-Prussia War of 1871. This monument is probably best known to the American intelligentsia as one of the many perches occupied by Wim Wender's angels in his film Wings of Desire.
It was at the Victory Column that Mike Oldfield entertained the crowds with his vocal stylings before the searchlight spectacle "Art in Heaven" designed by local artist Gert Hof projected a cathedral of light into the millennial night sky. Although not, mind you, the seven kilometers into the night air that Hof had planned. As Germany's part of the globe rotated into the next thousand years, Berlin was shrouded in a thick fog and thus the Lichtkathedral was not even visible from nearby Alexanderplatz. This was, in the end, probably better. As a number of querulous Berliners noted with discomfort, "Art in Heaven" was strikingly reminiscent of another event in which Berlin and Germany appeared before the global public sphere, the light spectacle organized by Nazi architect Albert Speer at Berlin's Olympic Stadium during the 1936 Olympics.
Despite the obvious allure of, on the one hand, witnessing the continuing difficulty Germans have trying to really learn from their past and, on the other, listening to Mike Oldfield warble in the New Year, we passed on the main celebration at the Victory Column. Nonetheless it is interesting to speculate about what exactly Berlin's movers and shakers were thinking in putting on such a spectacle. Ever since the political Sturm und Drang that accompanied Germany's transition from two partial-nation states to one unified nation-state has waned, Berlin's elites have dreamed of returning Berlin to the pantheon of great European cities. In their civic fantasies Berlin will regain its status as a political and cultural leader in Europe's firmament, attracting talent, money and publicity like it did during the days of the Weimar Republic. Berlin's new-found neo-Weimar vitality will come, of course, without all the messy revolutionary violence and economic chaos of the interwar years.
Which raises a number of questions. Why employ the not exactly fresh Mike Oldfield as the musical face of Berlin's millennium? Phil Collins was not to be had? Who had already booked him? Romania? Latvia? And why for Christ's sake put on a bombastic light show centered around a monument commemorating the nationalist and militarist excesses of Germany's past? Why not something a little more subdued? A modest laser light show at Zoo Station, perhaps? Or something more democratic? A fireworks display at the newly refurbished Reichstag would have fit the bill, no?
Instead of taking in Oldfield and company, we staked out a place in front of City Hall, standing in the nearby Poseidon Fountain in order to better take in the scene. Part of our decision to stay at Alexanderplatz was motivated by a very banal reason. After the big New Year's meal we prepared before hitting the streets, none of us wanted to fight out way through four kilometers worth of people in order to get to the middle of the Tiergarten, Berlin's central municipal park, and the Victory Column's location. But our decision was also motivated by loftier goals. We wanted to witness the Millennium at Alexanderplatz because it is one of the most historically significant spaces in the entire city.
In a city that has not shortage of important plazas, squares and buildings, Alexanderplatz is one of the richest in historical meaning. Standing in the middle of the square that once served as the city's ox market, it is possible to construct a web of associations that link Alexanderplatz with key moments and periods in Germany's past. It is at Alexanderplatz that one can see the traces of the events and struggles that have shaped and continue to shape German everyday life.
Before WW II during the Weimar Republic, Alexanderplatz came to symbolize modern big city life in Germany. Indeed, Alfred Döblin used the square as one of the main settings for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, one of the classics of modern German fiction. It was on and around Alexanderplatz that Döblin's hero Franz Biberkopf -- ex-con, hustler, chump, fatty, windbag, amputee -- was buffeted and finally conquered by the social, economic and political winds that kicked up such a storm during Germany's chaotic interwar period.
The postwar division of Berlin and Germany placed Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic. The square became one of the most important public spaces in a regime whose leaders tried to tame the forces of exploitation, human misery and greed that had gotten the best of Biberkopf. Alexanderplatz was the social heart of the GDR. Here weary tourists from the provinces mixed with regular East Berliners, socializing, relaxing and passing the time. Of course, Alexanderplatz wasn't just a harmless oasis amidst the bustle of greater East Berlin. It was also bound to a repressive regime of control and surveillance. The East Berlin authorities, fearing disorder and perhaps the birth of the next incarnation of the Sex Pistols, banned East German punks from using the square. And lest any of the "normal" occupants of the square act on any subversive ideas of their own, Alexanderplatz was under constant surveillance by the state security apparatus, the Stasi.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reign of the Stasi came to an end, only to be replaced by a different regime of control, that of Western-style consumer capitalism. Like many of the other public spaces in the city -- Potsdamerplatz, Friedrichsstrasse Station, Breitscheidplatz -- "Alex" is now a bustling commercial center with glitzy stores, overpriced restaurants and cafes, and tourist attractions. In this respect it is thoroughly Western. But it is also significantly more than just the hunting grounds upon which consumers hunt down the latest commodity fetish. It is also a reminder of Germany's divided past and its sutured present. And in this important respect it is unique.
In unifying Germany, West German elites had the upper hand. Flush with power, the political initiative and the unshakable conviction that history was on their side, they moved not to create a new hybrid nation made up of equal parts West and East, but to transfer full scale their liberal democracy, capitalist economy and consumerist popular culture to East Germany. Little that was East German was kept, a continuing source of resentment among the former citizens of the GDR.
The unification of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic was driven by the impulse to efface the memory of East Germany and the political, cultural and economic experience of East Germans.
This impulse to efface the past can be seen across Berlin. Obvious signifiers of Berlin's communist past have been hidden under fresh coats of point, renovated beyond recognition, or simply torn down. Friedrichsstrasse Station has been turned into a glitzy transportation hub with cafes, boutiques and the ubiquitous currency exchange booth. German and global capital have turned Potsdamerplatz into one of the largest outdoor shrines to capitalism one can find in the Federal Republic.
Interestingly enough, Alexanderplatz has resisted such effacement. Solidified into the square's built environment is the legacy of forty years of communist government and politics. Standing on the square one can see the low-slung concrete prefab buildings built by the regime during the 1960s to house the Hungarian and Polish cultural centers. Off in another direction the concrete high-rises built to house East Berliners shoot out of the earth. Standing at the southeast corner of the square one can look down Karl-Marx Alle which turns into Frankfurter Alle, itself an historically significant street in the brief history of East Berlin. It was here that the East German regime undertook one of its first great building projects in 1952 and 1953, turning the Alle into a wide boulevard in grand communist style. Huge Stalinist housing blocs hulk on either side of the boulevard, demanding that you be impressed and cowed by the collective power of the triumphant working class. Ironically, it was in working on this project that the triumphant working class rebelled on June 17th, 1953, prompting the Soviet commanders of the city to declare a state of emergency. But the greatest reminder of the past is the television tower. Rising 365 meters into the sky, it is the result of the communist government's largely successful attempt to dominate Berlin's skyline and show that they could build tall things, too. The built environment of Alexanderplatz is the shoals upon which the West German inclination to run roughshod over the memory of the German Democratic Republic continues to founder.
We chose Alexanderplatz in order to witness the passing of the millennium in such a historically rich atmosphere. We chose the Poseidon Fountain because it was a good place to launch fireworks from. And launch them we did. As fast as we could light them we would throw out our firecrackers beyond the fountain's edge, waiting expectantly for the pay-off: the loud bang and flash accompanied by the bits of paper debris that would shoot off from ground zero in pleasantly elliptical arcs. With each explosion we would laugh and then quickly light some more.
We weren't alone in our firecracker pleasures. All around us, Berliners were lighting off fireworks, firecrackers, noisemakers and rockets, and none too cautiously. Bottle rockets whizzed in all directions and firecrackers popped off at people's feet with a regularity forceful enough to put the worry into any MD. No one seemed particularly concerned, though. Instead they reveled in the loud, messy chaos of it all. Which is surprising, I suppose, given the Germans' reputation for general uptightness and love of order and efficiency. But it was New Years and the Millennium at that -- time, in other words, to step outside social and cultural roles, to let loose, and to break a few taboos. It was fun and no one lost an eye.
We celebrated on the streets, got lit, danced to the early hours in a sweaty, smoky club, stumbled home, fell into bed, slept late, ate a big breakfast and nursed our hangovers the next day. It was the kind of experience I wanted to have. In planning to celebrate the millennium I had wanted to do something a little more exotic than sit around the rainy Bay Area. So I convinced my girlfriend that flying three thousand miles to a city that she didn't know would be a good idea, told my friends we were coming, cajoled my sister into letting us flop at her apartment, and off we went, ending up in Berlin on New Year's Eve.
While the desire to go someplace different for the Millennium might not be too hard to understand, my plan to spend New Year's in Berlin, does raise the question: Why that particular city? It's not really an obvious choice, and there are certainly better alternatives for marking a major event like the Millennium. It's a dreary city in Winter. It rains a lot, and it can be ice cold in the bargain. The rainier, but milder Bay Area would have been a better alternative in this regard. Not only dreary, Berlin is also a dirty city with a distinctly shabby side, scarred by the numerous construction sites scattered throughout the city. It is not nearly as picturesque as Munich or even Hamburg. And it certainly can't hold a candle to Paris. Berlin, it's true, is the capital city of one of the most prosperous nations in the world and as a result its inhabitants exhibit a high degree of cosmopolitanism. However it must be said that, when it comes to worldly sophistication, Berliners are rather constipated cosmopolitans. While they recognize the global reality of their city, Berliners seem hard-pressed to productively engage it. They try too hard to be worldly and end-up fetishizing all that is foreign, including the former guest workers in their midst, much to this group's irritation. Or they swing to the other extreme and reject, often violently, representations and representatives of the world beyond Germany's borders, including the former guest workers in their midst, again much to the immigrants' irritation. More often than not, they simply seem uncomfortable with all of the difference in their midst. Experiencing the smug, self-centered sophistication of New Yorkers actually would have been better in this regard.
Despite these drawbacks, I nonetheless chose to go to Berlin. One reason had to do with personal history. While I was doing fieldwork for my dissertation, I spent a substantial amount of time in the city and grew very fond of it. In the time that Winter break afforded me, I wanted to go back and spend some time there, visit friends and re-invigorate my ties to a city I like to think of as a second home. The second reason for going also had to do with history, but in a broader sense, namely in the sense of the history of Berlin as a city and as the new capital of Germany. When I left Berlin in 1997 after my field work was done, the city was, as the cliché had it, still under construction. The many construction projects ranged from refurbishing East Berlin's housing stock which had fallen into disrepair, to the construction of the consumer pleasure palace at Potsdamerplatz, to the restoration of the Reichstag, and to the construction of the buildings to house the Federal government after it pounded the dust of Bonn, the old capital, off of its shoes and moved to Berlin. When I left many of these projects were still not finished and I wanted to see how they had progressed in the three years since I had been to the city. I wanted to witness the passage of time, the making of history and see the difference between the present and the Berlin I had known in 1997.
A similar desire to witness history was at work in the popular fascination with the passing of the Millennium. As a historically constructed unit of time, the Millennium is a rare event, one that comparatively few people are able to experience. Moreover, the Millennium is an event that a person will only be able to experience once. A very few individuals who are able to forgo fat, alcohol, tobacco, and sausage live long enough to witness the beginning and end of an entire century. Although if the science of anti-aging, which biotechnology firms are rushing to exploit, indeed pans out, more and more of us may get the chance to experience an entire history's worth of history. But unless they figure out the secrets of time travel or discover the fountain of youth sometime very soon, none of us will have the opportunity to experience the dawn of the next millennium. Thus in a popular culture in which individuals often establish their identity in terms of their participation in special events -- a particular sports game, a star sighting, a political convention -- the Millennium, as such a singular event, offered people a very valuable opportunity to bolster their individual uniqueness.
Yet there is something problematic about approaching the Millennium as an historical event to be witnessed. In the first place, the Millennium was a highly artificial happening, propped up and given legitimacy by cities hungry for tourists, corporate sponsors hungry for name recognition, and revelers thirsty for champagne. As sticklers have pointed out, the real Millennium is actually a little under a year away. But beyond this surface and calendric artificiality, there was something more fundamentally false about the Millennium as a historical event. History is not a natural process that just happens. It isn't something that just passes us by and that we watch and witness. Instead, history is something that we collectively make and make with more or less conscious intention. What is more, not all of us have the same resources and the same interests in participating in the historical processes that shape our lives. History isn't some populist spectacle. It consists of real struggles between groups to shape the institutions, norms, and rules that govern their everyday lives.
As my stay in Berlin progressed, my perspective on witnessing history shifted. I no longer looked to events like the Millennium or to completed construction projects to get a sense for the historical development of the city. Instead, I looked instead to how Berliners were relating to one another. I also stopped thinking that there was one history that all of the inhabitants of Berlin were participating in equally. Instead, I began to see the conflicts and fissures that exist in the city and divide its inhabitants into different groups, classes and cultures. I began to see that there isn't just one history in Berlin, but many histories, not all of which follow the same logic or advance at the same speed. And I saw that the history of Berlin isn't just something that flows along like the river Spree flows through the city. No, history in Berlin is marked by political conflict and struggle. Berlin's classes struggle to determine the economic fate of the city. The German majority struggles with the city's many minority groups to fashion some kind of common life together. And the political elites and the populace struggle to establish Berlin's place in the rapidly changing European and global contexts. These conflicts aren't always easy to see. They involve shifting alliances, dirty tricks and are fought out on a far from level playing field. They can't be packaged as a popular festival, but they, unlike the Millennium, will determine the future of Berlin.
John Brady is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at UC-Berkeley. He is currently co-director of Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life.