Public and Private Sphere in Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg
Completed PhD project
The two boroughs of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg were once known as Berlin’s ‘poor house’ on the East Side. They shared similar demographics and history, until the two boroughs found themselves separated by the political divide cutting across post-war Berlin. Thereafter, both followed very different paths during the Cold War under opposing political systems. In 1961, the erection of the Berlin Wall eventually cut most connections between Friedrichshain in the East and Kreuzberg in the Western part of Berlin. After the fall of the Wall, however, the two boroughs started to converge again. In 2001, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg even merged to form a joint borough in the reunited city of Berlin. This unique historical constellation allows a special perspective on the German partition. The project attempts to approach the divided German history at a local level while considering not only aspects of division but also shared challenges and mutual reactions on both sides. Thus, this kind of integrated post-war history is not limited to a mere contrasting history of dictatorship vs. democracy but rather explores commonalities, differences and entanglements between Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg.
This project explores the genuinely urban relationship between the public and the private sphere, which developed specific new dynamics and interactions during the years of separation in East and West. An increased withdrawal into the private sphere was paralleled by the formation of new public spheres such as local or counter-publics. Private and public spheres were remodelled, re-occupied and defended against political demands. East and West were linked by a transnational mass media sphere that shaped private lifestyles on both sides of the Wall. For instance, Kreuzberg became a laboratory of liberalisation that heavily influenced the Federal Republic of Germany at large. Friedrichshain, however, lacked the political freedom and social conditions for a comparably expressive privacy and public counterculture to the ‘Gallic village’ of Kreuzberg. Nonetheless, the East Berlin borough of Friedrichshain also generated niches of non-conformist life and solitary counter-publics, which were limited in scope due to the monopolised public sphere under communist rule, but eventually contributed to the peaceful revolution of 1989.
Based on three case studies, the project analyses the relationship between public and private sphere in Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg: by looking firstly at dwellings in old tenements it illustrates that the poor living conditions in Berlin’s proletarian East hardly offered enough space to develop some privacy, but caused numerous public interventions in the first half of the twentieth century. After the Second World War, the massive depopulation and the proceeding neglect of the old urban structure created free spaces to develop alternative private lifestyles that corresponded with new leftist counter-publics in Kreuzberg, such as local newspapers, collectively organised bars and block parties. This contributed decisively to a positive reappraisal of the old tenement quarters since the 1970s, which was part of a widespread history boom and also affected Friedrichshain in the 1980s. The thesis secondly shows how the Protestant Church became one of the key actors in the new ‘cautious urban development’ in Kreuzberg. Protestant ministers turned their attention increasingly towards the social problems of urban modernisation and stimulated new forms of local public spheres. In Friedrichshain, some protestant parishes hosted oppositional counter-publics that dealt publicly with personal problems of urban adolescents and criticised the political and educational claims of the East German dictatorship in the GDR. By looking thirdly at the everyday history of pleasure in Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, the thesis tries to foster a new approach to contemporary history. The cultures of pleasure were constitutive for the relationship between the public and the private sphere and created an important intertwinement between East and West. While urban pleasures in Friedrichshain remained more traditional and resistant to attempts at socialist adaptation, the cultures of pleasure in Kreuzberg became increasingly diversified from the 1970s, thus contributing significantly to the new attractiveness and revitalised urbanity of the old urban structure.
In sum, these developments resulted in an unexpected rise of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. It fully unfolded after the city’s reunification and transformed the two, old working-class districts for the first time in their history into attractive and admired locations. This process was largely based on the historical formation of alternative lifestyles and new public spheres. The question of public and private sphere is still highly relevant in Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg today, as the last chapter on the boroughs’ transformation after 1989/90 reveals. The formerly divided boroughs have merged culturally and socio-structurally. Now they share new challenges such as the privatisation of public space and the gentrification of the meanwhile mostly modernised old urban structures. The origins of this ambivalent development reach back to the period of the German partition. Studying the divided past of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg thus contributes to a historical understanding of our present time.
PhD defended successfully: 19 July 2016, FU Berlin
Kiezgeschichte. Friedrichshain und Kreuzberg im geteilten Berlin, Göttingen 2017.
Die Publikation ist erschienen in der ZZF-Reihe "Geschichte der Gegenwart" als Band 16.
Dr. Hanno Hochmuth
Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam (ZZF)
Am Neuen Markt 1
Email: hochmuth [at] zzf-potsdam.de
Hanno Hochmuth is on leave from 01.02.-31.03.2021.