Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin



There are several events in the modern history of Kreuzberg which can be described as true milestones: the occupation of Bethanien Krankenhaus in 1971 (this beautiful old hospital by Theodor Stein was to be torn down to make space for an urban housing project including a massive high-rise), the occupation and then in 1975 the partial destruction of Tommy-Weisbecker-Haus during the so called Aktion Wasserschlag  (the police were looking for the members of a terrorist group known as Bewegung 2. Juni who, by the way, were residents of the house from which I am typing these words – material for a future text for sure).

And last but not least, the 1st of May 1987 with the biggest and by now legendary Mai Krawallen (celebrated ever since with sometimes more sometimes less violence but always with lots of beer and anxious anticipation).

However, what happened between the 12th and the 14th of December 1980 produced a totally new dynamics in the borough. It also produced what is known today as the movement of Berlin´s Autonomen. The event went down in history as the Schlacht am Fraenkelufer – the Battle of Fraenkelufer.


On December 12 a group of young people tries to occupy one of the empty yet unavailable houses in Kreuzberg 36, directly at Landwehrkanal. Fraenkelufer 48, just like over 800 other houses standing unused mostly in Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Schöneberg, is bricked and boarded up even though the real estate market in Germany´s old capital is suffering the greatest accommodation shortage in its post-war history.

10,000 flats are standing empty while thousands of groups, families and individual people are finding it exceedingly difficult to find a place to live. There is hardly anything out there that would be affordable and moderately comfortable. Berlin is attracting new hungry crowds from the west of the country but is unable to provide them with proper accommodation.

Kreuzberg squatters 1981 (photo: T. Ordelman)

Kreuzberg squatters 1981 (photo: T. Ordelman)

In SO36, inhabited mostly by the poor, the young and the artistically inclined with part of this crowd being the huge community of Turkish Gastarbeiter an additional problem had to be faced. The borough was undergoing an aggressive urban renewal process (Sanierung) which involved a widespread and pretty much merciless use of the wrecking ball to remove the old and make space for the new.

And exactly here is your reason why Kreuzberg was so popular with the temporarily employed Turks and with the rebelling students: it was to be done away with so it was cheap. A motorway – part of Berlin´s vast system of high-speed roads – was to be built here as well, with even more demolition planned. According to the old plans drafted still in the days of pre-war big-scale urban planning, the Südtangente (a.k.a A 106) was to cut through the borough flashing down what today is Görlitzer Park, then across Oranienplatz where a big junction with another motorway A 102 (Osttangente) was planned, towards Alexandrinenstrasse, Hallesches Ufer and Tempelhofer Ufer (another junction necessary here since this is where it would meet the planned  Westtangente)…

Planned motorways in Kreuzberg (revised version from the Flächennutzungsplan Berlin 1986,   Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung)

Planned motorways in Kreuzberg (revised version from the Flächennutzungsplan Berlin 1986, Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung)

Those plans explain, among others, the perplexing architecture of the new Kottbusser Tor. Their realisation demanded a complete destruction of the old Kottbusser Tor (what was left of it, that is) in the 1950s and having it replaced in the 1960s-1970s with what is standing there now, Neue Kreuzberger Zentrum, n´better known as Kotti.

One look on the map of Kottbusser Tor today proves that the NKZ´s position is not exactly what common sense would have suggested. And neither did it – its shape was dictated by the never realised construction plans for the West Berlin inner-city motorways.

It is those plans, foreseeing a complete demolition both of the Kiez (neighbourhood) and of the Kiez ties, combined with the despicable situation on the housing market and then mixed with the explosive social atmosphere, that led first to the occupation of Bethanien and Tommy-Haus and eventually to the December 1980.


On December 12th police troops were ordered to prevent the occupation of the house in 48 Fraenkelufer. The squatters wanted to hinder its demolition in order to turn it into regular place to live again. In several other similar houses in Kreuzberg they had already been successful and hoped to repeat that feat.

However, this time the order to prevent the occupation was issued. Heavy street fighting ensued with the protesters and police troops giving their best to gain the upper hand. It developed into a sort of a free-for-all with the angry crowd steadily growing and the crowd developing new dynamics.

Those dynamics took it, for instance, to Kottbusser Tor where the inhabitants of the NKZ could witness quite serious clashes from their balconies above. The street fights continued throughout the night and went on the next day as well. They also spread throughout the city – in Kurfürstendamm (Ku-Damm) in City West no shop windows or cars were safe that day.

Eventually 200 people were reported injured (according to Der Spiegel published a day later even 270: 70 policemen and 200 protesters) and between 66 and 107 (the last number quoted after Der Spiegel) arrested. Most of them were released the next day – 28 had to face serious legal charges.

Considering the wrath and the determination on both sides of the conflict it is short of a miracle that only one person was seriously injured: a 27-year-old man had been run over by a police car in Oranienplatz and ended up alive but with a squashed thigh.


In order to stop any further street unrest the police troops were told to step aside when on the 14th of December at around 5 PM another 8 protesters made another attempt at entering and occupation of Fraenkelufer 48. Once inside they claimed the house as their own and thus completed the task of taking over the numbers 46, 48 and 50.

From now on those three buildings will be known in police linguo as Fraenkelburg with their residents being described as particularly hard-core and militant. Soon they will be calling themselves (and be called) Autonomen. The movement is born.

What follows is negotiations with the city (broken off when the demand to have all of those arrested released is denied), then a stalemate guaranteeing the squatters time to take care of their new abode (rules are loosened up a bit and Hausfriedensbruch – trespass – is tolerated), followed by new clashes leading to the situation spinning out of control and the eventual clearing of the house Fraenkelufer 48 (and of the two other houses) in March 1981. The clearing was  supervised by 800 police troops…

The clearing of Fraenkelufer in 1981 (photo: M. Kipp)

The clearing of Fraenkelufer in 1981 (photo: M. Kipp)

And even though this chapter in Kreuzberg´s history might not have a truly happy ending, the protesters achieved a lot: first of all, they attracted public attention to the housing problem and the destructive nature of aggressive urban renewal. They also brought about the important social changes, the building of well-organised pressure groups, of citizens´disobedience which is sometimes the only available means of action.

And last but not least, their protests softened and in many cases completely prevented the blows of the wrecking ball. Many of the houses and buildings which were supposed to disappear from Kreuzberg landscape are still there only because those in power noticed that urban planning involves not only architecture but first and foremost the people living inside it.

Thanks to them Kreuzberg is still Kreuzberg.

For those interested, here is a choice of some striking images found in the amazing archive complied as the Umbruch-Archiv.

This excellent documentary by RBB presents the story of house occupation in Kreuzberg as it unfolded in the 1980s (it is only available in German but the images do speak for themselves). Enjoy the history lesson as much as I did!

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