The 1920s: Babylon Berlin
When night falls things really pick up in the Berlin of the roaring twenties. The underworld conducts its shady business in the dim pubs and bars around Alexanderplatz and on Friedrichstraße while politicians and barons of industry, dandies and divas grace the glamourous restaurants on Potsdamer Platz with their presence. When in doubt, everyone does cocaine.
In the aftermath of the First World War, Berlin is desperate for a good time. In the 1920s, the German capital is open to everyone and up for everything. Anything goes. The gay and lesbian scene booms around Nollendorfplatz. Transvestite shows take place at the Eldorado, with the original location at Lutherstraße 31/32 (today Martin-Luther-Straße 13) and a second at Motzstraße 15 (today number 24). It was considered fashionable to spend an evening there. Lesbians danced in Toppkeller in the third courtyard at Schwerinstraße 13, including the famous folk singer Claire Waldoff. In her memoirs, she writes: “It was the typical Berlin nightlife with its sin and its brilliance.”
The writer Klaus Mann took no pleasure in Berlin’s nightlife: “Millions of malnourished, corrupted, desperately lustful, angrily pleasure-addicted men and women reel and stagger in a jazz delirium.”
“I am Babel, the sinner, the monster amongst the cities. Sodom and Gomorrah were half as depraved, not half as miserable as I! Now come on in, gentlemen, anything goes with me.”
This Babel was a magnet for international celebrities. The dancer and singer Josephine Baker appeared at Nelson Theater on Kurfürstendamm in 1925. Sparsely clothed, the “Black Venus” spun across the stage dancing the Charleston, making faces and driving the audience, the critics and the entire city into ecstasy. The shooting star, recently celebrated in Paris, was fascinated by Berlin: “Looking from Kurfürstendamm, the city seems like a shiny jewel. At night, it shines with a splendour that Paris does not know.”
The 1930s: Cultural bloodletting
When Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, Berlin’s unrivalled, vibrant, queer nightlife came to an abrupt end. Under the new intolerant regime, amusement was now only available by decree. Germany's capital was expected to play along with the destruction of all cultural diversity. Jewish directors and actors, musicians and composers, vaudeville performers and dancers went into exile. The city would never recover from this bloodletting.
The theatre director Max Reinhardt and the composer Kurt Weill were among those who turned their backs to the Third Reich. Berlin’s best-known boy group, the internationally successful vocal ensemble Comedian Harmonists, disbanded. The Imperial Chamber of Music had banned the three Jewish members of the sextet from working in 1935.
The emigrants included the poet Mascha Kaleko. On her decision to go into exile, she wrote: “Before these ‘thousand years’, I / travelled a lot in the world. / The strangeness was lovely, but only an ersatz. / My homesickness is called Savignyplatz.”
While the voices of artists and intellectuals became ever quieter and eventually fell completely silent, the Nazis staged pompous mass events. Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympics. The eyes of the whole world were on the city. Half the world celebrated in Berlin - and allowed itself to be fooled by appearances. “Degenerate” swing was played in clubs. Across the city, the signs that said “no Jews” were taken down, at least temporarily, until the Games were over.
The 1940s: Low spirits
The first bombs fell on Berlin in June 1940 and more aerial bombardment followed through the end of 1941. The opera houses and theatres, the Wintergarten-Varieté on Friedrichstraße as well as many restaurants and bars remained open. That changed when the American and British bombers brought the “total war” screamed for by Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to the city in 1943. All businesses not deemed central to the war effort were closed. Berliners spent their nights in air raid shelters.
By May 1945, much of Berlin had been reduced to rubble, including Kurfürstendamm. Of 235 buildings, 192 were completely destroyed. The popular artist's meeting place Romanisches Café and the Gloria-Palast cinema were gutted by fire. With approval from the Soviet commandant, comics began performing again at Café Leon at Kurfürstendamm 156 as of 1 June. Street cafés opened in front of ruined restaurants.
The 1950s: New life
Berlin is divided, but the borders between the sectors controlled by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union are open for work - and for leisure. America set the style: the girls wore petticoats, the boys wore leather jackets like Marlon Brando and everyone loved swing, bebop and rock ‘n’ roll.
Things were especially wild in the Badewanne club: couples somersaulted while dancing. In the jazz club at Nürnberger Straße 50–52, guests could move however they wanted, in pointed contrast to other places. The club was especially popular with American soldiers, even if it was in the British sector. After all, the big stars performed here: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong. Starting in 1957, Rolf Eden stirred things up on Kurfürstendamm. With his Eden-Saloon, he brought glamour and la dolce vita back to the ruined city.
And in the East? One of the most popular getaways was Eierhäuschen on the banks of the Spree in Treptow. Here, people danced as they did back in the days of the Kaiser and before the war. As they did at Clärchens Ballhaus, at Auguststraße 24.
In October 1952, Die Distel cabaret opened up in the old Admiralspalast on Friedrichstraße, serving as a counterweight to the West Berlin cabaret Die Stachelschweine. To the disappointment of the Communist Party, the cabaret artists didn’t just satirise the class enemies in the West, they also took the piss out of everyday life in East Germany. Shows there were sold-out virtually every night. These were the final years before the Berlin Wall went up. Berliners were still free to decide where to spent their nights.
The 1960s: Divided pleasures
The construction of the Berlin Wall that began on 13 August 1961 also divided Berlin’s nightlife. Rolf Eden continued to set the trends on Kurfürstendamm and brought international flair with New Eden, the Eden Playboy Club and Big Eden. In the Eden Playboy Club, topless waitresses served drinks on roller skates. Rock stars like the Rolling Stones or film star Liza Minelli partied with him. Soul and beat music provided the soundtrack and people dropped tabs of LSD in the bathrooms.
The East Berlin counterpart to Big Eden was Hafenbar on Chausseestraße 20, which also opened in 1967. The trade organisation of East Germany, known as HO for its German initials, was not particularly glamourous and wanted a chic club for its international clientele. The club became a major attraction. It had a maritime atmosphere: entire generations partied between aquariums filled with fish from the South Pacific, fishing nets and portholes. The dancers from the nearby Friedrichstadtpalast also enjoyed coming here.
Karl-Marx-Allee spiced up East Berlin’s nightlife in the 1960s with the Cosmos and International cinemas as well as Café Moskau, which offered Russian cakes, cocktails and live music until the early morning hours. Women from the East met men from the West here - and some ended up marrying.
The 1970s: Big feelings
The Woodstock of East Germany took place in the summer of 1973 in East Berlin. Eight million people from around the world came to the Tenth World Festival of Young People and Students. Bands played on 95 stages.
In those years, the hip scene met up in the old Friedrichstadtpalast theatre. In the beloved Große Melodie bar, jazz musicians from East and West jammed together on Mondays. Die Möwe, an artist's club, was also famous for its wild parties.
In West Berlin, young people made a nightly pilgrimage to Sound, a discotheque in Genthiner Straße 26 in Schöneberg. Sound was the most modern disco in the city: laser beams, fog machines and video projections energized the mood on the dance floor. One regular guest achieved sad infamy. Christiane F., the protagonist of the film (with David Bowie) by the same name, began her journey to heroin addiction at Sound.
Attracted by the morbid charm of West Berlin, Bowie had moved to Schöneberg in 1976. He ate breakfast regularly at Café Anderes Ufer on Hauptstraße and partied in Chez Romy Haag, a club on Fuggerstraße at the corner of Welserstraße. He and Romy fell deeply in love.
“In Berlin, I felt joy at being alive for the first time in years and a great feeling of relief and healing,” said Bowie while reminiscing in 2006. You could “lose yourself so easily in it, but you could also find yourself.”
The 1980s: Fun for all sorts
Im Dschungel on Nürnberger Straße in Schöneberg was wildly popular in the 1980s and Bowie was a regular guest. He was joined at the disco by the likes of Iggy Pop and Blixa Bargeld, Prince, Grace Jones and Depeche Mode. The punk scene met up at SO36 in Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg. Bhagwan fans floated above the brightly lit dance floor at the Osho disco Far Out on Lehniner Platz and techno pioneers raved at Linientreu on Budapester Straße.
East Berlin nights were also long in those years. Things were boisterous at the shows, in the restaurants and bars in Palast der Republik, during and after the revues at the new Friedrichstadtpalast, which opened in 1984, and in the canteens of the theatres and bars of the Interhotels.
There was, of course, alternative nightlife. The gay community met on Mondays at Operncafé on Unter den Linden or went to Schoppe (its full name was Schoppenstube) at Schönhauser Allee 44 in Prenzlauer Berg, one of the oldest gay bars in Berlin.
The singer Inga Humpe (Neonbabies, DÖF, Humpe & Humpe, 2Raumwohnung) has bad memories of the second half of the 1980s in West Berlin.
“In 1986, Berlin was a stain, there was nothing going on. There were three acceptable clubs. The entire music scene was gone. They’d destroyed themselves with the help of some stupid corporations. It was plain salvation that the Berlin Wall came down, for boring, completely bogged down West Berlin as well. It was really awful!”
The 1990s: The booming East
East Berlin took over the reins from West Berlin after 1989/90 very quickly. Oranienburger Straße became the new party strip with bars like Obst und Gemüse and Silberstein and the Tacheles art squat. As in the 1920s, street prostitution flourished along Oranienburger Straße.
All over East Berlin - in Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain - new venues sprouted out of the ground where you could party for as long and as hard as you liked. The clubs were places like Im Eimer (Rosenthaler Straße 68), Walfisch (Köpenicker Straße 76), Bunker (Albrechtstraße at the corner of Reinhardtstraße). They were always full. Sweat dripped from the ceilings. There were no fire exits.
“The club culture that boomed in Berlin after the Wende had something authentic and honest about it,” wrote Sven Marquardt, who was and still is the bouncer at the techno club Berghain.
“The fertile soil for its unfathomable nature was found in the morbid, rotting cellars of the East. Here, everything grew and thrived that had no place in posh apartments or bars for suits: ecstasy, sex, sadomasochism, trance.”
Techno became the sound of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That included the Love Parade, which was held on Kurfürstendamm until 1995. The following year it moved to the Siegessäule in Tiergarten and evolved into a mass spectacle that ultimately attracted up to 1.5 million people. The ravers moved on to the clubs after the parade, to E-Werk (a former transformer station at Mauerstraße 78-80) and to Tresor (Leipziger Straße 126a). Ecstasy, speed and pounding bass seemed like the perfect recipe for bliss.
West Berlin's nightlife fell to the wayside. The grandees of City West, Rolf Eden and Harald Juhnke, continued to hang out in hotel lobbies in Wilmersdorf and the VIPs of the Berlin Film Festival meet up at Paris Bar on Kantstraße 152.
The 2000s: The Easyjetset
The beautiful, the rich and the famous, not to mention the press, discovered Berlin’s nightlife. Madonna once rented out Kaffee Burger at Torstraße 60 (Mitte) and Bruce Willis partied at 90 Grad on Dennewitzstraße 37 (Schöneberg). In 2009, Berghain, at Am Wriezener Bahnhof (Friedrichshain), snagged first place on a list of “top 100 clubs in the world”. One year later, the Soho House members’ club opened at the end of Torstraße. Nowadays, you might spot George Clooney or Brad Pitt swimming laps in the rooftop pool with a view of the TV Tower.
The 2000s were also the decade where hotels seemed to shoot out of the ground at Rosenthaler Platz and night owls from half of Europe came to Berlin for a party weekend on low-cost airlines. There was wild partying from Thursday to Tuesday. The time of basement clubs was over. And all the same: the spirit of the 1990s could still be felt at night. Alongside Oranienburger Straße, neighbouring Torstraße became popular.
In between Spätis (late night convenience stores) and kebap shops were trendy restaurants, tourist bars, fancy cocktail bars and hipster clubs. The writer Wolfgang Herrndorf, who died in Berlin in 2013, complained: “On Torstraße, I’m in the middle of somewhere with all the crazies.”
And what was that spinster, West Berlin, up to? A lot of nightclubs closed: Linientreu in 2001, Far Out in 2006. Rolf Eden sold Big Eden in 2002. But hipsters discovered traditional bars. Young men with full bears sat in dives wearing the same clothes as retirees and the women wore pleated trousers and oversized coats.
The 2010s: Sex positive parties
The KitKatClub on Köpenicker Straße 76 (which shares a space with the Sage Club in the location of the former Walfisch), is one of Berlin’s most unusual clubs. The parties don’t start before midnight and the dress code is not for the prude: corsets, uniforms, fishnet stockings, latex bodysuits, leather outfits, fetish costumes or else complete nudity. The door policy is tough. Sex isn’t everything, but it’s part of the party and it takes place on the dance floor or in private dark rooms. Anything is possible, nothing is forced.
Sex-positive techno and fetish parties are part of this scene, and can still be found some nights at Alte Münze at Molkenmarkt 2 or Wilde Renate at Alt-Stralau 70. Here you'll find famous DJs, sexy burlesque shows - and plenty of beautiful people.
A lot of clubs are closing, though, and KitKatClub is also under threat. The owners can’t keep up with the rising rents of today's Berlin. The situation has worsened drastically in the pandemic. Will the scene ever recover from the coronavirus? Which clubs will reopen? When? How?
One thing is for certain, though: even if Berlin’s nightlife has to adapt and change, the desire to party like there’s no tomorrow won't die any time soon.