Berlin, the City Without Tomorrow

Berlin's image as a place of freedom and the absence of closing time


Text: Sven von Thülen

Berlin, the city without tomorrow. The very hub of globalized club culture. The place of dreams for nonconformists, creatives, and insomniacs. In no other German city is the nightlife so imbued with significance and mythology. Especially in the 30 years since the Wall came down.

But Berlin had a special status long before that, politically, socially, and culturally. It was always a magnet and a place of refuge for anyone wanting to escape the constraints of provincial, petty bourgeois life. Or the German army. An essential element in Berlin's image of itself as a place where freedom is a way of life is the absence of closing time.

Clubbing scene, Stadt ohne Morgen (2019) by Charlot van HeeswijkClubcommission

On June 21, 1949, appropriately enough the summer equinox, the concept of closing time was abolished in what was then West Berlin. The fact that the historic circumstances that led to its abolition have long since become the stuff of legend is only fitting.

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, there was a strict nighttime curfew in the city, which was then divided into four sectors. Originally imposed by the Soviets in East Berlin, the western part of the city soon followed suit. In the years that followed, the Soviets and the western Allies conducted a war of attrition around the curfew and the cross-sector drinking tourism that arose from it.

Clubbing scene, Stadt ohne Morgen (2019) by Charlot van HeeswijkClubcommission

Whenever closing time was pushed back in the eastern part of the city, so that the pubs and bars stayed open longer there, the west followed suit soon afterward. That went on for a while, until it all became too much for Heinz Zellermeyer. The Berlin-born restaurateur and hotelier, who had founded a trade association for pubs in the bombed-out city immediately after the war, started campaigning for an end to the curfew in West Berlin.

After his first few attempts foundered, he armed himself with a bottle of whiskey and paid a visit to the Commander of the US-American sector, Frank L. Howley, to persuade him that doing away with closing time in Berlin would be a good idea, politically and economically. 

History does not record how much of the whiskey was actually consumed, but legend has it that the bottle was nearly empty by the time Howley finally signaled his agreement. The curfew was lifted. Nights became longer. In the decades that followed, the myth of Berlin as the city that never sleeps began to take shape.

Dusk in Berlin scene, Stadt ohne Morgen (2019) by Charlot van HeeswijkClubcommission

On the other side of the Wall, bars officially still had to close at midnight (during the week) or 1 a.m. (at weekends), but special permits and so-called night discotheques ensured that people could party and drink until the small hours in the eastern sector, too.

With the fall of the Wall in November 1989, 40 years after the curfew was abolished, a historic and politically unique situation arose in Berlin. Again. In the eastern part of the city there were unused spaces and buildings everywhere, just waiting to be filled with new life. For a short time, East Berlin became a Temporary Autonomous Zone. It seemed that anything was possible. The fact that the city's municipal authorities and administrative offices took years to reorganize themselves after the Big Bang of reunification played into the hands of a whole generation of creatives, visionaries, ravers, and artists.

Nowhere is the dynamism that can develop in the absence of closing time more clearly seen than in the club culture that has been the beating heart of the city since the Wall came down. It enabled a unique club and cultural landscape to develop that has, more than ever, become an important part of Berlin's identity—and vital material for the city's marketing campaigns. None of that would have been possible with a curfew.

Dawn in Berlin scene, Stadt ohne Morgen (2019) by Charlot van HeeswijkClubcommission

Nevertheless, in recent years, the arguments about closing time have kept flaring up again. The success story of Berlin's nighttime economy has its dark side, too. The era of unlimited inner-city freedom is over. 

The city is growing, the property market is overheated. The interests of investors and local residents, together with increased economic pressure and a frenzy of regulation from official bodies, are all helping to make the air thinner for night clubs. The authorities in some districts would like to have a curfew back.

Dawn in Berlin scene, Stadt ohne Morgen (2019) by Charlot van HeeswijkClubcommission

It would make their work easier, instead of them having to go to the trouble of making decisions on a case-by-case basis and reaching agreements with club-owners and local residents. The reintroduction of a curfew would be one more step in the Munichization of the city.

Dawn in Berlin scene, Stadt ohne Morgen (2019) by Charlot van HeeswijkClubcommission

The clock must not be turned back.

Movie poster, Stadt ohne Morgen (2019) by Charlot van HeeswijkClubcommission

STADT OHNE MORGEN Documentary (2019) by Charlot van HeeswijkClubcommission

Credits: All media
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