Calling Berlin: Paul Hockenos Summarizes His Book At The Deutsches Haus

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Nixon visiting the Berlin Wall

Last night at the Deutsches Haus (German House), Paul Hockenos gave a talk on his new book, Berlin Calling, which focuses on subcultures in East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Staff Writer Abby Rubel attended this interesting, if slightly underwhelming, discussion of punk, poetry, and politics.

The event, “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth,” was held in Deutsches Haus, a beautiful building across the street from the law school. Those of us who found our way there filled the small room in which the event was held. We were there to hear a talk given by Paul Hockenos about the subject of his recent book, Berlin Calling: subcultures in East and West Berlin during the Cold War and how they shaped the Berlin we know today.

The discussion was moderated by a professor from Columbia’s German department, who introduced Hockenos and mentioned that this book is the first one to discuss both East and West Berlin subcultures. Most books, she said, discuss only one or the other, but Hockenos discusses the development of subcultures, such as “punk”, in both cities. While Hockenos alluded to other subcultures, his main focus was on the punk scene.

He began his talk with David Bowie. Bowie’s arrival in West Berlin coincided with the arrival of punk, so in many ways, one can draw a line between the pre-Bowie and post-Bowie period. He clarified later that Bowie himself did not have much to do with that arrival, merely that he witnessed a dramatic shift in the city and that the city Bowie left in many ways reflected what he represented.

Hockenos then moved onto the factors that made West Berlin a prime spot for the development of rich and unique subcultures. First, it had a tradition of sexual diversity and tolerance, a trait not shared by many other cities in Europe at the time. Secondly, West Berlin was in many ways a fairly cushy place to live. Because of the city’s geopolitical importance, the West German government needed people to live there. It created incentives to encourage the population of an otherwise unappealing city. West Berlin citizens were free from the draft and the government subsidized many parts of life, including above-average salaries. Hockenos described West Berlin as a “gravy train.” Finally, West Berlin was seen as a place one could “drop out of society” and get away from everybody else. It was for that reason that Hockenos himself lived in West Berlin.

Hockenos mentioned several times that he lived in West Berlin in the late eighties, during the time he writes about, though he never gave any substantive account of his experience with the city beyond brief anecdotes. He then moved to a discussion of East Berlin, where the political and personal were more intertwined than in the West. The subcultures themselves were similar across cities, but were often used to express different kinds of emotions. For example, punk in the west was about not having any future, but in the east it was about having “too much future”– a future prescribed by the Communist government. He also described East Berlin punk as “poetic.”

One of the most amusing parts of the evening was Hockenos’ description of how the subcultures bled across the semi-porous Berlin Wall. Old women were sometimes allowed into West Berlin to work, and these grandmothers would be given a shopping list by their young-adult grandchildren, coming back from a hard day of work laden with punk wardrobe staples like leather jackets and Doc Martins.

At this point, Hockenos began discussing the 1989 elections, but was interrupted with a detailed question about East Berlin politics. Hockenos briefly addressed the question and moved on with his talk. But this caused the talk, which was meandering to begin with, to lose its main thread.

Hockenos moved on to the political differences in East and West Berlin. Many in East Berlin, he said, wanted to make it more egalitarian and democratic than West Berlin. He briefly mentioned the role that a punk rock faction of the Protestant Church played in trying to bring about this vision, but did not elaborate.

Sensing that the event was running short on time, the moderator moved Hockenos on to the fall of the Berlin Wall. After the fall, West Berlin took over East Berlin and squashed the unique subcultures thriving there. If they had been allowed to go on, Hockenos said, Berlin would be very different today. Instead, the government in West Germany wanted to transform Berlin into a new center of commerce. They rebranded the city and tried to sweep the “unnerving” subcultures under the rug. In the late 1990s, however, people began to realize the potential of the micro-markets created by these subcultures and exploit them by “artificially reanimating” them.

Overall, Hockenos was passionate about his subject, which made the talk enjoyable. I wish he had spent more time discussing how the subcultures he studied shaped modern Berlin and shared more of his personal experiences with the scene. Those stories in particular would have added a much-needed personal dimension to the evening. The talk felt a little pointless at times, like a mere summation of his book. And why leave my room to hear Hockenos talk about something I could just read about on my own time? I do, however, now want to read his book, which I suppose was the point all along.

The man on the wall via public domain wp

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