Autonomous space in Berlin: Liebig34, eviction, and gentrification

The violent police eviction of Berlin’s iconic Liebig34 housing space is the latest event in a never-ending battle between the city’s radical-left counterculture, and the forces of state-aided profiteering and gentrification.

Liebig34 displaying queer feminist banners and flags.

This year, Berlin has seen the closure of some of the city’s most important subcultural autonomous spaces. Collectively run houses, community centres, and bars face an increasing struggle as the cost of living in the city increases. Speculative property investment is driving up the cost of commercial and residential space, leading property managers to get closer to achieving their long-term goals of transforming Berlin into a fully privatised neoliberal city. Despite this, there is a broad scene of different community movements across the left united in resistance against capitalism.

House Projects: A German collective housing model

Berlin has a long history of alternative housing spaces. In the former West, students and punks in the 1970s and ‘80s squatted houses in inner city neighbourhoods. Many of these squatted spaces lasted only weeks or months, but of those that survived longer, many were able to negotiate contracts with the landlords, creating housing structures called ‘house projects’ (Hausprojekte).

Most house project structures began when the residents formed non-profit associations, which then signed contracts with the building owners. This only worked because the building owners were at the time often not wealthy enough to renovate their building enough to rent them out as individual units. Therefore, renting out the entire house was better for them than letting the house stay empty. Obviously, this arrangement could not last; when the building’s owners could sell to international property companies or could potentially afford to renovate and rent individual units at a higher price, they would do so in a heartbeat.

Squats and Houseprojects in Berlin Kreuzberg in 1989
Squats and Houseprojects in Berlin Kreuzberg in 1989

The transition to capitalism in East Berlin

These house project structures created a template that would be recreated in Berlin’s Eastern neighbourhoods directly after the fall of the wall. When the wall came down, the terrible mismanagement of the privatisation process meant that people who formerly lived in state-run housing now lived under private landlords. These landlords were usually wealthy people from West Germany who partook in the feeding frenzy of affordable property. The cash-poor East Germans were not able to afford to buy their housing and the new neoliberal German state did nothing to make sure that collective or cooperative housing structures could rise out of the fall of East Germany. This mass transfer of housing from East German social ownership to West German capitalist ownership was part of the design of the transition. However, in this backdrop of smash and grab attitude towards East German property, dozens of buildings were occupied, many by West Berlin punks who brought over their well-established methods of collective house management.

The hotspots of occupied houses in the post-reunification East were in the Mitte and Friedrichshain neighbourhoods. In Friedrichshain, the streets Kreuzigerstraße and Rigaerstraße had high concentrations of house projects. Many houses that had been occupied in 1990 on Kreuzigerstraße were evicted in 1996 to 1998, with massive street demonstrations and riots. These street battles were part of what earned Friedrichshain it’s reputation as a punk anarchist neighbourhood where residents don’t take eviction without a fight.

Since the late 1990s the number of house projects in Friedrichshain and Mitte has been reduced to a fraction of what it once was. But the remaining spaces, such as Grüni, Supamolly, Rigaer94, and Liebig34, and antifascist collective bars like Fischladen and Ziealona Gora, are integral to the persistence of the radical political subculture of Berlin. These spaces host events that support local resistance movements, run advice workshops for people facing eviction, host informational meetings, and run donation price dinners to support local and international political movements.

Liebig34 and queer anarcha-feminism

Liebig34, which sits on the corner of Liebigstrasse and Rigaerstrasse in Friedrichshain, was one of the best-known house projects in Berlin. It is unique because since 1999 it was the only house project that was entirely ‘FLINT’. ‘FLINT’ is a German acronym that is popular in the ever-evolving space of labels around queer identity. It stands for ‘Frauen, Lesben, Intersex, Nichtbinär, und Trans’ (women, lesbians, intersex, non-binary, and trans). It can also be understood as ‘no cis men live in the space’. While some other houseprojects across Berlin have FLINT collectives within them, Liebig34 is the only entire building occupied exclusively by women, trans people, and nonbinary people.

The house was frequently a landing place for punk, anarchist, antifascist, and other politically radical women, non-binary, and trans people who came to Berlin without contacts or support, and who were unable to fit into the rigid German bureaucratic social safety net. The space and the surrounding community of Rigaerstrasse provided support networks, community, help with paperwork, and access to food and shelter.

In 2008, the house was sold to notorious property investor, Gijora Padovicz, who owns more than 200 buildings in Friedrichshain and over 2000 in Berlin. In 2018 the contract between the Liebig34 collective and Padovicz expired, and since then the residents lived in a legal limbo, constantly facing the threat of eviction while trying to organise to potentially purchase the property to keep this collective alive. Throughout the years long political struggle to win the support of the city to stay, the Green, Left, Social Democrat led city government did little to support the house. The Greens and the Left occasionally paid lip service with tweets, and there were some allies in government, but awareness was not enough to win the right to stay.

Police infiltrate Liebig34 by stairs, because the front door was heavily fortified.

The Christian Democrat/Social Democrat-led federal government has run a campaign of harassment against the house and Rigaerstrasse in general. In 2015 they designated the street as a ‘danger zone’ which made it legal for police to demand identification and search the bags of anyone in the region without cause. This is a violation of the residents’ civil rights against unreasonable search, but the Interior Minister justified the policy by rallying the public against the ‘leftist terrorists’ in the area. The street was often patrolled by undercover cops and by fascist agitators who would occasionally attack people and house projects. In 2016 a molotov was thrown into the ground floor by fascists, and other houses on Rigaerstrasse have been similarly attacked. This trend of right wing agitators instigating violence on the street, while police and the Minitstry of the Interior continue to stoke hatred of the residents continues today.

The eviction of Liebig34

On October 9th, early in the morning, Liebig34 was forcibly evicted by police armed with guns, tanks, riot gear, and infiltration equipment. Police forces from Bavaria and Lower Saxony were called in to support the eviction, leading to 2000 police officers being present for the eviction of the 53 residents who remained in the house as symbolic protesters against the destruction of what little ‘Freiraum’, or ‘free space’, remains in Berlin.

Cynically, the Berlin Police union hosted a sausage grill at the eviction for the officers, and tweeted, ‘You’re evicting Liebig34. We are here for your energy [to get through it].’ Regional German police forces are frequently found to be deeply linked with the far right. This year a police chief was found to have had multiple swastikas and a photo of Adolf Hitler in his office. Members of the Berlin police were exposed as being members of a white-nationalist chat group where they shared racist and neo-nazi messages. The police unions constantly downplay issues of right wing extremism among their members, and the Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, has denied structural issues of any kind of bias among the police. For the police officers, their unions, and Horst Seehofer, the eviction was a celebration of the victory of their right wing oppression of the radical left.

The evening of the eviction, members of the left scene held a ‘Tag X’ (day X) demo, a name given to demonstrations that occur as a direct response to an injustice. For the Tag X demo, roughly 1,500 protestors marched through a Berlin central shopping district, accompanied by over 2000 police. The protest was made of a broad coalition of individuals representing different groups and political ideas on the left. Although in Berlin there is tension within left political scenes, this demonstration was a display of left anticapitalist unity against the eviction of Liebig34. During the demonstration windows of major brands were broken, cars destroyed and lit on fire, fireworks were lobbed at police, and the demonstrators huddled to push back against physical assault. A handful were arrested and assaulted by police. However, the march reached the end point, with cheers from many neighbours and smoke flares and fireworks from other house projects showing solidarity. In a poll by the Tagesspiegel newspaper, 70% of the roughly 11,000 Berlin based respondents said they did not support the eviction of Liebig34.

The demonstration in Hackescher Markt, Berlin against the eviction of Liebig34
The demonstration in Hackescher Markt, Berlin against the eviction of Liebig34

Most media coverage of the eviction and demonstrations was negative, however. News crews were invited into the house to photograph, almost certainly breaking privacy laws. Photos from inside were shared by news agencies who mocked the quality of life of the residents. This sparked a trend online where many members of the Junge Liberale, Germany’s Liberal party youth group, shared pictures of Liebig34, calling it a ‘shithole’. A meme circulated showing Liebig34 on the left, and a mansion on the right, with the caption, ‘How communists live. How capitalists live.’

Moving forward

Liebig34 is a very powerful example of a systemic issue in Berlin; the forced removal of non-corporate space in the inner city. Though there is a very strong scene and resistance movement, the losses recently have been piling up. Morale is currently low as it seems the only chance to keep these spaces is if the city buys them, or ‘right of first refusal’ is given to the residents if they can afford to buy the building. This puts the more radical and marginalised spaces at the biggest risk, as they don’t have the government support or the money to use these means. Köpi, a house project in Kreuzberg, is currently facing eviction, and losing it would be a huge blow to the subculture of Berlin. A subculture that the Social Democrat-led city government loves to market as something that makes Berlin interesting and cosmopolitan.

Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen march through Berlin advocating for the disappropriation of the city’s largest private landlord.
Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen march through Berlin advocating for the disappropriation of the city’s largest private landlord

Renters organisations, neighbourhood collectives, and political movements will continue to fight against the neoliberal capitalist transformation of Berlin. ‘Five houses’ is a collective made up of the residents of houses that have been sold to international property speculators. They are part of a scene of tenant resistance, giving solidarity and support to many other similar collectives. Organisations like these have won some battles, such as the resistance of the sale of LeineOder to Pears Global. Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen (Expropriate ‘German Living’), are a group campaigning to nationalise Berlin’s largest private landlord, ‘Deutsche Wohnen’. They host large marches and other demonstrations, as well as lobby politically for the nationalisation of housing in Berlin, combined with strong rent limits, and other tenants rights laws.

Liebig34 is gone, but it’s still at the centre of a social burning point and national conversation in Germany. Berlin will never stop resisting capitalism, using every means possible to fight back against privatisation.

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