Hacktreks in Germany
Life as usual in Hamburg
for you to disappear, I thought, and cunningly ducked beneath a
convenient bush by the theatre. They'll never see me here!
this. A well-fed, booze-faced bourgeois Australian 30 year-old male,
his greasy hair plastered thinly on his great forehead, easing himself
down-at about 11 p.m. on a Sunday night-onto his soft, receiving motherly
bed. This bed (an ancient mattress, some spotty, holey sheets, a stolen
pillow) sits in the corner of his small room facing the old black and
white TV to which he sits glued each night, soaking in the odd German
programmes. His room is neatly inserted on the fourth floor of a great
wall of typically 19th century European apartment buildings. To the
sides of it are his sweet, sweet flatmates, above quiet folk, below
a screaming ancient male (Herr Langer-"Ich habe ein Pistol, dreckige
Votze!"). my joint Yes, a fine setup. Our fat hero is enjoying the moments
of his typical sacrosanct post-boozing weekend Sunday night. A great
yellow cup of camomile tea is wedged between his fat fingers. He has
showered, he is at one with himself in his most relaxed mode. Life is
good. It is also April 31st, the eve of a day of import to the northern
Europeans but meaningless to our Anglo-Saxon hero (victim?). So I described
everything around me except outside the window? Well, this was Hamburg,
a wonderful, rich European city built almost entirely between 1880 and
1900 (or at least my stomping ground, the inner city, was). A city of
about a million on a great river delta, more bridges than Venice, the
"Door to the World" as Bosche say. My area, Sternschanze (meaning: a
star-shaped part of the city wall) was the hippest part of Germany's
As with all 19th century Bourgeois city quarters, it had become slumlike
between the wars and had only recently been heavily gentrified. My street,
Schulterblatt ("shoulderblade") was the epicentre of this, and the view
from my window was of the Rote Flora, or the "Red" Flora. This was (and
is) a 19th century theatre, quite a beautiful building, needless to
say, that had been inhabited by punks (a powerful Left-wing force in
Germany) in the 70s or 80s and they, with their heroin-addicted friends
(a shooting gallery is next door) inhabit it to this day. And amidst
a rapidly gentrifying area in an ultra-fancy rich city (traditional
thing to say-"Der Name sagt mir nichts"-meaning: "Your surname means
nothing to me.") the theatre sits in the eyes of the city like a great
festering pimple on the nose of a teenage girl at her debutante ball.
The locals, however, protect it with the manic obsession of a man living
a lie. The flag of Mao Tse-Tung proudly flies high above it- one symbol
for another. Anyway, so it's a symbol of their anti-Fascism, somewhat
questionable if you ask me.
Suddenly I hear a God-awful ruckus heading up Schulterblatt. I drag
myself up out my soggy sheets, hearing drums, trumpets, slogans chanted
-all that gay paraphernalia of "Anti-Fa" demonstrations- and I thought
Bloody hell, hope this bunch of queer ponces head their merry way as
I've got to be up at seven to get to my crap job. Sitting on my chilly
windowsill in my undies and a tee shirt I could see this great wave
of Balaclava-wearing 17-35 year-old "individuals" swell into what is
really a square in front of the Rote Flora, perfectly framed by my window.
And they stop. Oh crap, I think. Where were you fifty years ago, bunch
of ponces? Why can't I get some kip? And then the crowd settles in.
I guess there were thousands of them. And then, of course, with true
German efficiency, they start setting the scene for a riot. Young men
(teens, of which there were many) pulled things from God knows where
and very soon (within minutes) they had both ends of the square barricaded.
And then they set fire to these piles of timber (chairs, etc.). My God,
I thought, this looks like the business!
It was with a mixture of anger at having lost my Sunday night and childish
excited anticipation that I wriggled back into my weekend clothes. I
took my keys, ten marks, no ID, and slipped down the stairwell. Everyone
was awake with a sense of naked anticipation. Great fancy Bosch sods
were strolling to their windows and balconies, glasses of wine and cigarettes
elegantly held, their exquisite minimal apartments pouring out light
behind them. And only yards below, the dense crowd churned, smoke billowing
up and filling the square, industrious lads prying up the cobblestones.
Quite a sight in a town like this. So out the door I went and into the
crowd, needless to say. Most locals didn't do this but had the great
sense to watch the fun from their windows, like a great TV re-enactment
of some Civil War battle. But of course, yours truly couldn't resist.
But the atmosphere was initially disappointing; apart from the spectacle
of hooded youths standing around the fire, about the only fun to be
had was leering at the teenage girls (there was of course a certain
atmosphere-it was a bit like a sexed-up Eastern European village fair-the
fire, the beer, the maidens, the freaks).
So this is what all the fuss is about, I thought disappointedly. Also,
standing there alone, my courage waned considerably and I could also
view proceedings abstractly, and it all struck me as another pretentious
German "We are so cool" fest. Everyone it seemed either had a camera
and was living out their fantasies of being photojournalists in Baghdad
(!), or were Che Guevara for the evening. Sod this, I thought. I hadn't
even had a beer as I was hoping to salvage the remains of my pure Sunday
night. That was to change, however. Being a simple soul, I decided that
standing by the fire was the best option and did so for an hour or two.
I tried to make conversation with the other simpleton losers around
the fire to no avail. Although the village fair atmosphere continued,
it slowly became clear that a waiting game was developing. The fire
brigade had arrived and some old Hun in a funny hat had asked the louts
very politely if he might extinguish the burning barricade, at which
the yobbo louts laughed in his face (non-conformism in the fatherland
only emerges in very ugly ways).
The old fellow then turned and marched away (the scant police and firemen
were encamped out of striking range). He returned five minutes later
with a very neat little timber signpost with painted stripes saying
something like "Attention: Road Closed" and placed it in front of the
fire. And of course, no sooner was he gone but the sign went on the
fire. I actually saved it, charred, as a souvenir. I expect that it's
still in the attic of my old apartment house. The stupid German authorities
should have just quietly come up, half a dozen of them, staring down
those teenage louts and put out the fire. I would have helped them.
But of course their ways are different over there. So the fire burnt
on. And the crowd got uglier.
local police had charged us a couple of times-in formation, batons
whacking very effectively-but the crowd was way too large and you
could really see fear in their eyes. (I can picture one young policewoman's
eyes wide with terror even now-quite fetching really.) There were
rumours circulating that the main body of police assembled for the
May Day disturbances was in Berlin, 150 miles distant, and that
it was now high-tailing its way to us as Berlin was quiet. This
gave us an hour or two. The crowd, as I mentioned, was certainly
getting uglier. A café, accused of being Bourgeois, was completely
destroyed. I remember the owner, a normal guy, pleading with the
crowd from his apartment above the café and the nasty crowd sneering
at him as they justified their little orgy of self-righteous anger.
Separate crowds smashed up the supermarket (another Bourgeois institution,
no doubt) and the bank (fair target!). The police were at a distance
and the occasional foray that they made just angered them and the
crowd more. You could see the young bucks on each side enjoying
themselves tremendously and I felt both the police and the rioters
wanted no immediate solution. We were there standing off from each
other and enjoying it tremendously, and both sides knew that our
side would ultimately get pummelled.
And then the police arrived from Berlin. Awesome, thinks I, let's see
what this crowd can do. I was to be disappointed, yet again. As I was
enjoying myself I thought I'd get a beer, so I walked down to the off-license.
The main body of police were assembling just beyond it and by the time
my grubby little fingers had pushed the pfennigs across the counter,
the great snakelike column of police had started their march down Schulterblatt.
what a sight! God bless the Germans! At the front of the column
was a green Polizei bulldozer, followed by a nice green Polizei
Armoured Personnel Carrier, followed by two immense double-decker
water cannon trucks. And behind these cheery little wagons were
simply hundreds of policemen in riot gear, thundering their great
batons against their shields. Yes, it was quite a sight. But once
I'd got my beer I was on the wrong (boring) side of this great legion
of protectors, so I had to pick my way nimbly through them (very
politely), "Excuse me, sir. Nice boots. That's a big gun. etc" until
I got to the front and could run ahead to the fun. But although
I was only a minute late, the fun was over. The immense crowd had
somehow disappeared and all that was left was maybe half a dozen
of those young Balaclava boys. God almighty, what a let down! I
should have gone to bed afterall.
I thought, what the hell? There's probably a bit of fun to be had here.
I thought that maybe if I could put on a show against the APC I could
entice some of my Jerry friends out of the shadows to put on a decent
fight against the police (and then skulk off myself). So as there was
no shortage of bottles, I started scooping them up and throwing them
wonderful arcs through the air to explode in a beautiful shower of glass
over the APC. What fun. And would you believe I was the only person
on that street, fires still burning around me and the smoke hanging
thickly around the beautiful apartment buildings and ruined theatre.
It was a sight. I could hear the crowd groan in fear from their hiding
places and I could feel the great pent-up fury of the police ahead.
This moment probably only lasted 15 seconds but it was an eternity at
the time. The next thing I knew, the great searchlights of the water
cannons were swivelling around onto me! Oh my, I thought. This looks
bad. And then, BOOM! A fellow near me was completely knocked off his
feet by the thin, hard jet of water. Time for you to disappear, I thought,
and cunningly ducked beneath a convenient bush by the theatre. They'll
never see me here! The next moment, the great searchlight flicked on
and it was as if the bush became invisible and me the opposite. The
water cannon then hit me, knocking me against the wall with the force
of a medicine ball travelling at 50 miles an hour. Oh God, this is crazy,
try and get into the Red Flora. So I rolled out from my "hiding spot,"
covered in muck and soaking, and started to run full pace away. Of course,
Herr Kontroller in the water cannon wasn't letting me go that easily
(especially after how I'd treated his darling APC) and the jet hit me
full force in the back, pinning me like a fly against a steel railing.
I was stuck there for a full minute as this maniac drove that needle
of water into my back. And cheerily, the railing stabbed me in the side
so by the time the cannon was shut off, all I could do was stagger off
to the safety of the derelict theatre, clutching my bloody side. Bloody
That was that. The cops had won. The only street fighting that occurred
was between me and a tank with 300(?) police behind it. And I was stuck
oozing blood in a theatre with a bunch of long-haired lefty Bosch pansies.
What a crap Sunday night! Luckily I bumped into my friend Katrin and
she, calm as anything, walked me through the police cordon, as if we
were out for a Sunday evening stroll. Although I was soaked and bloody,
in that light it wasn't obvious and I snuck through just before the
sealed off the building. I then picked my way through the wreckage and
slowly climbed my stairs, had a really nice hot shower, and sank back
into the bed which I should never have left. The scene from my window
was that of a war zone, smouldering heaps of wreckage and police everywhere.
I sank into a crazy sleep to be reawakened at dawn as the police megaphoned
their demands to all the militant hippies in the theatre and then violently
stormed it, breaking arms and arresting erveryone. I barely noticed
that, though, as I was in a haze. I finally awoke a few hours after
that literally caked with blood. I couldn't walk without clutching my
side in agony for weeks. And that was that.
© Tom Fletcher June 2003
Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP
Stories in Hacktreks
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