From a divided city to a capital city : Berlin’s cultural policy frameworks between 1945 and 2015

by Dr. Janet Merkel
Lecturer in Culture and Creative Industries – City University London – School of Arts and Social Sciences – Department of Sociology – Center for Culture and the Creative Industries


Berlin’ cultural policy in the past 70 years provides an extreme case of cultural policy-making with multiple objectives that ranges from heteronomous cultural policies set out by the four Allies, who won World War II and took over de jure control of the city as an military occupied zone until 1990, to a city divided and formally belonging to two different German states in which both governments mobilized arts and culture to represent the superiority of their respective political system and highly subsidized it. After the Fall of the Wall in 1989 and the subsequent reunification, one cultural system almost disappeared overnight while the other claimed sole and exclusive interpretation of arts and culture in the city. In addition, there have been several different political levels engaged in the cultural policy processes throughout that history.

This paper aims to trace Berlin’s cultural policy development in the past 70 years und its main influence such as political, military and demographic factors that shaped the specific situation of Berlin. Berlin was very much influenced by the Allies and their cultural politics as well as the overall cold war situation that separated the city and its citizens and still hampers attempts to find a common identity (Lanz, 2013). In fact, much cultural politics in the city is about contested ideas of collective memory, the ‘cultural legitimacy of various historical layers of the city’s architecture’ (Molnar, 2010, p. 282) and finding a sense of identity for Berlin and a reunited Germany. The construction boom and the particular architectonical styles applied in the past 25 years are witnesses to these political struggles of representation and identity politics (Molnar, 2010; Tölle, 2010; Ward, 2004). This paper has chosen six different phases for Berlin’s cultural policy development since the end of World War II. Those phases are mainly derived from the dominant political-administrative frameworks, prevalent objectives and critical incidents that changed policies, major rationales and objectives for cultural policy in the city.

1 – After the war (1945 till 1948) : Heteronomous cultural policy by the Allies

After the Second World War, Berlin became a military occupied zone administered by the four Allies  until a German government acceptable to all parties could be established  and who shaped Berlin’s cultural policy agenda. Actually, culture was the first act in Berlin after the war: For example, the Russian commandant gave back theatres their permission to play on May 16, 1945, only eight days after the end of war. On May 18, there was the first concert, and a day later, already 30 cinemas re-opened. A week later was the first post-war theatre premiere. So the Russians have been very keen on getting culture back to the people, in a city that was destroyed to 40 percent, and the other three Allies followed shortly. There were art exhibitions as occasion for presenting art that was prohibited during the Nazi-regime; there was a ‘hunger for culture’ and an incredible cultural vitality in the city, which was very much supported by the Allies:

‘One of the miracles of this period was that, despite all of the unfortunate circumstances in the bombed-out cities, attempts were made to continue cultivating culture even while most concert halls, theatres, and cinemas were destroyed.’ (Erich Hartmann cited in Beal, 2006, p. 12)

In the beginning, all four Allies aligned with the main objectives of ‘denazification, demilitarization and democratization’, which was mainly conceived as the clearance of all Nazi art and the rehabilitation of classical modernism (from 1947 the Russians promoted socialist realism). Furthermore, the Allies were convinced that the Germans needed to be ‘re-educated’ in democratic behaviour in which arts and culture played a crucial instrumental role. The four Allies established a common cultural commission (Kommendatura) that controlled and regulated arts, culture and education in post-war Berlin and authorized permissions for re-openings of theatres or publishing houses and decided on the most urgent heritage preservations and museums renovations (see Janik, 2004):

‘To gain access to art supplies and have the right to exhibit, artists had to complete Fragebogen (political questionnaires, and only those exonerated (from the status of Nazis) received Erlaubnis (authorization) to be registered and work as artists. Analogous clearance was necessary to open galleries and deal in art, as well as to publish art journals, produce exhibitions brochures or posters, or even to issue invitations for art showings.’ (Goldstein, 2003, p. 284)

In addition, the four Allies began to establish their own cultural institutions and programming within their respective sectors: the UK opened the Britannia Centre Spandau and British Information Centre (1946), the US the America House (1946), the Soviet Union the House of Culture of Soviet Union (1947) and France La Maison de France (1950) at Kurfürstendamm. However, in 1946 political differences between the Allies became more and more pronounced and turned into a lasting division that two different regimes develop with two different cultural landscapes and that it will be difficult to call Berlin ‘one city’ anymore. The Berlin Blockade between 1948 and 1949 was a defining moment for the city in manifesting the division. However, on the western side, there was still hope for a reunification until 1971.

2 – From 1948 till early 1961 : Reconstructing West Berlin and East Berlin: The beginnings of a dual city

The monetary reform in 1948 and the Berlin Blockade 48/49 manifested Berlin’s division into two halves belonging to two different political-economic systems with two currencies long before the wall was constructed. This phase is characterized by major urban development projects in East Berlin (Stalinallee) and West Berlin (Hansaviertel) and a ‘cultural renaissance’ through the foundation and reconstruction of major cultural institutions: the three opera houses, the symphonic orchestras or the foundation of the Free University in 1948 in West Berlin, as a counterpart to the Friedrich Wilhelm University, Berlin’s prestigious university located in East Berlin that was renamed into Humboldt University in 1949. As most cultural institutions have been located in the former East due to the specific development of Berlin’s cultural geography since the mid-1900s, the Russian occupied zone had an advantage. For example, Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel established the Berliner Ensemble in 1949, the Maxim-Gorki-Theater as a theatre only for contemporary Russian plays was founded in 1953 and the Volksbühne at Rosenthaler Platz reopened in 1954. Already in 1947, a third opera was built in East Berlin, the Komische Oper. Together with the Berliner Ensemble it became the symbol for cultural renewal in East Berlin. As a reaction, West Berlin started to set up its own theatres, e.g. the Schiller Theater (1951), rebuilt the Berlin Opera and developed a new concert hall for the philharmonic orchestra at Potsdamer Platz (Grésillon, 2004, pp. 92-99)

With the ongoing political tensions between the Allies, on 23 May 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was founded in Germany’s western sectors. Berlin retained its special status as a military occupied zone and territory under Allied supervision (and kept that status until reunification on 3 October 1990). When the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was founded in the Soviet sector on 7 October 1949, East Berlin became its capital. From then on, the two halves of the city become intricately linked with the social systems of their respective state governments and have been massively subsidized as ‘showcases’ of their respective political-economic ideologies.

Two different institutional frameworks for cultural policy in East and West :

With the creation of two German states two very different policy frameworks for cultural policy developed in GDR and FRG. Berlin became a divided city embedded into two different political systems and cultural policy frameworks.

Cultural sovereignty of Länder or cultural federalism (Kulturhoheit) since 1949

The Federal Republic of Germany is constituted through regional states (Länder) who have significant power and who formulated the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) and thereby inaugurated the FRG in 1949. In Germany, municipalities have always been the places where cultural policy is made and implemented. Even though the major responsibility for cultural rests with the Länder because of the federal structure of the German political system and the cultural devolution principle (see Burns & Van der Will, 2003), it is the municipalities that contribute 44,2 percent while the regional states contribute 42,2 percent to the overall cultural budget of 9,1 billion Euro in 2009 (see Cultural Finance Report 2012 with data from 2009, Statistische Ämter des Bundes und der Länder, 2012). The responsibility for culture is part of local autonomy. Municipalities are required to provide a ‘basic cultural spectrum’ whereby every spending above the minimum requirements of cultural provision (e.g. libraries) is voluntary and varies drastically among cities. This rather vague notion of local cultural policy has come under additional criticism since it has been recognized that the public sector alone need not be the sole supplier of culture, but rather that economic and civic involvement needs to be encouraged (Deutscher Städtetag, 2008). Nevertheless, municipal cultural policy in Germany has a long tradition and is deeply rooted in educational values and the notion of art and cultural supporting individual and societal wellbeing (Wesner, 2010).

The national spending on culture amounted to 13,4 percent the overall budget in 2009. A national cultural policy framework only recently emerged due to two reasons: Firstly as a reaction to the need for more coordination and representation within the European Union‘s cultural policy programs. And secondly, with Berlin as the new German capital there was a growing need for coordination and to take over more responsibility in Berlin’s rich cultural infrastructure as the city alone struggled to maintain it on its own. While there is no national Ministry of Culture, the government appoints a Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media since 1998. The budget for cultural affairs on the national level rose continuously to 1,4 billion EUR in the last decade (Bundesregierung, 2016).

For the coordination of cultural and education policy in FRG, the federal states maintain a permanent conference of the Ministers of Culture (Ständige Konferenz der Kultusminister) and, thus, make FRG as a case of almost complete devolution of responsibilities to the regional state authorities (Burns & Van der Will, 2003, p. 136). However, the Allies played a highly influential role:

‘Following World War II, Western Allies prescribed a very narrow role for the government of the new Federal Republic of Germany in the field of cultural policy, mainly as a consequence of the National Socialists’ former abuse of culture and the arts. Following the restoration of the cultural infrastructure, cultural policy remained at first largely limited to the promotion of traditional art forms and cultural institutions. Not until the process of social modernisation got under way – accompanied by the youth and civic protest movements of the 1960s onward – did the scope of cultural policy broaden to include other, e.g. “socio-cultural”, areas of activity.’ (Blumenreich, 2013)

On 1 September 1950 in West Berlin a new constitution came into force. It defined West Berlin as a state of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Senate of Berlin as the executive body governing the city. By then, the Senate had 13 members who were appointed through parties in the Berlin parliament (Abgeordnetenhaus). However, as West Berlin was legally still under Allied control the representatives of West Berlin in the federal parliament and later in the European parliament had no voting power, but a merely advisory vote in those parliaments (see, for example, Taylor, 2006). After all big industries companies left the city, West Berlin was economically weak and 50 percent of its annual budget needed to be subsidized by FRG. In addition, the city received significant financial aid through the Marshall-Plan initiative of the US government that was used to reconstruct major cultural facilities and to construct new ones such as the Free University and the Kulturforum on Potsdamer Platz.

East Germany: arts and culture policy for new socialist identities

In the former German Democratic Republic, the responsibility for arts and culture was centrally headed by the Ministry of Culture (since 1954) and followed the model of the Soviet Union as an ‘engineer’ in arts policy whereby the state, the party and its organizations are the patrons of the arts (see Chartrand & McCaughey, 1989; Rueschemeyer, 2005, p. 126):

‘Cultural policy in the GDR was based on a concept of culture that encompassed the ‘humanistic heritage’ of classical art forms, on the one hand, and new forms of everyday culture, on the other. The ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), which exercised tight control in all parts of society, including most cultural activities, proposed that the ‘working class’ should be both participants and drivers of cultural life in the GDR. Particularly important were those activities organised by social and cultural associations as well as worker’s unions within larger companies, all of which were under state supervision. Such state-run companies, along with the national and local authorities, were the most important supporters of this type of ‘popular culture’. As a rule, the cultural work of all organisations was funded by the state and orchestrated by the SED.’ (Blumenreich, 2013)

Arts and cultural policy’s role was highly instrumental in GDR with no ‘art for art’s sake’ rationale and no Fundamental right of Freedom of the Arts, as for example West Germany’s Basic Law guaranteed.1 Rather the purpose of arts and culture was always seen in relation to something—whether education, youth development or the political project of communism and the creation of a new social order and as an instrument in the social transformation towards a new socialist society. ‘Cultural work’ was considered a form of social work for the development of ‘socialist identities and personalities’. In the name of ‘socialist culture’, arts and culture were centrally planned and the main objective was access, less excellence. Culture was per definition non-profit and artists were asked to produce work that reflects the day-to-day glories of socialism and should ‘speak to the people not an aesthetically educated elite’ (Rueschemeyer, 2005, p. 126). For example, the first prime minister Otto Grotewohl explained on the 5th plenum of the Central Committee of Socialist Unity Party (SED) on 17.03.1951:

‘Literature and visual arts are subordinated to politics. However, they will influence politics. The idea of arts has to follow the direction of the political struggle.’ (Grotewohl cited in Rueschemeyer, 2005, p. 126)

The strong orientation on labour and people led to many new cultural infrastructures and a network of institutions that organized cultural life in GDR, such as theatres in state-owned companies and the introduction of more than 160 Kulturhäuser (houses of culture or cultural houses) as socialising institutions in the districts (Grundmann, 2012). Those houses of culture were founded and financed by the government and administered and culturally governed by the unions. The clubs were seen as a crucial element in ‘cultural mass work’ and an alternative to churches, pubs (which were considered a form of capitalist proletarian culture) and families, as East German politicians saw the family eroding and wanted the state to take responsibility in educating its citizens (see von Richthofen, 2009). Characteristic for those club houses was the notion of ‘alcohol free conviviality’ as they wanted to distance themselves from ‘proletarian culture under capitalism’ that was very much associated with pubs as the main cultural and socializing intuitions among the working class. As a consequence, those cultural houses gathered most cultural associations for a great variety of cultural activity and practices.

A governmental arts commission, founded in 1952, was responsible for the political regulation of the arts as well as media. That commission declared ‘socialist realism’ as the official art form and provoke a lot protest among artists who rather wanted to keep within the modernist traditions. In late 1950, the government declared the ‘Bitterfelder Weg’, an arts education program for every worker in which ‘artists and writers were urged to increase their contact with workers both in the art that they produced and through programs set up to involve them in direct exchange with workers’ (Rueschemeyer, 1991, p. 37).

The responsibility for policies on arts, museums and exhibitions as well as important funding was allocated to Ministry of Culture (founded in 1954). Most important cultural institutions have been directly administered by the Ministry, for example: the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, Deutsche Theater, Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden as well as all arts schools in GDR. Political decisions concerning culture were made in the Politbureau (leadership gremium of Socialist Unity Party with discretionary power over government) and the secretariat of SED as well as the culture section of central committee of SED. The ministry of culture (1954) was responsible for the organization, coordination and legal frameworks of cultural life in East Germany. As the main patron of the art and culture, the ministry also exercised censorship. For example, most publishing houses and film productions were administered by it and, thus, were under tight governmental control.

Important actors in the cultural system were also the union for workers and the artist’s union (with a quasi-obligatory membership for every artist, ca. 80 percent of all artists have been members as it provided them with financial support, commissioned art works and negotiated contracts) (Rueschemeyer, 2005, p. 129ff). And both heads of those organization were members of the Central Committee (Rueschemeyer, 1991). Another important actor was the Kulturbund, an umbrella organization for cultural organisations, that sponsored and organized lectures and exhibitions, which usually took place in newly founded cultural houses. The Kulturbund has its roots in the 19th century and has been revived by intellectuals while they have been in exile during World War II. The first president of the Kulturbund was Johannes R. Becher who wrote the national anthem and later, in 1954, became the first minister of culture in GDR.

3 – 1961 till early 1970s: Keep West Berlin alive (‘a city in exil’) and East Berlin: central cultural planning and Berlin becoming a ‘Dual City’

During a period of extreme Cold War tension, the East German government decided on August 13, 1961 to build a wall to keep residents of East Berlin from defecting in droves to West Berlin. The Wall or the ‘antifascist protection wall’ as it was called in East Germany manifested the separation of Germany and its former capital. While the following years represent the most restrictive period in East Germany’s culture under the leadership of Ulbricht and his conviction that art serves the political ideology, West Germany’s and West Berlin’s societies experienced a cultural and political change with massive youth protests, the emergence of the student movement and the foundation of the extra parliamentary opposition (APO) that assembled artists, young people and students.

West Berlin

By the time the wall was constructed, more than 900 people living in West Berlin were employed by East German cultural institutions and travelled over the border everyday (Bradley, 2006, p. 140) – especially actors, musicians and directors in theatres and opera houses. It was estimated that 40 percent of East Berlin’s performing artists lived in West Berlin at that time. After the construction of the Wall on 13 August 1961 they were given a deadline till September 15 to decide where they want to settle (Bradley, 2006, p. 141). As the artists refused to decide the West Berlin Senate eventually stopped to convert their East German salaries anymore and ‘the artist are left practically on the street’. As many artists fled East Berlin then, more cultural institutions were founded in West Berlin and modelled after institutions in East Berlin. As a consequence of the physical separation and ‘islandisation’ of West Berlin, the political fear of people’s mass migration to West Germany grew. A stronger political focus on culture emerged as a solution to keep people in the city and the ‘capitalist island alive’. A major policy intervention was to lift the curfew in bars and clubs. As a consequence, a flourishing nightlife developed very much influenced by the Allies and their music styles. There were many clubs for jazz, rock’n’roll, beat music but also British and French clubs. And later, the city marketing began to advertise West Berlin as a 24/7 tourist destination with slogans such as ‘Berlin nonstop’ or ‘Berlin, continuously open’. Furthermore, the Senate promoted the construction of the Kulturforum near the former Potsdamer Platz as a counterpart to the prestigious cultural institutions around Unter den Linden in East Berlin. In 1963 the Berlin Philharmonie was inaugurated, in 1968 the Neue Nationalgalerie, built by Mies van der Rohe, and in 1978 the new Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek) was opened there.

East Berlin

In contrast, East Berlin in the 1960s constituted a very restrictive time for artists: ‘Since 1959, there were renewed efforts to bring artists into line with party expectations at a series of conferences. Amateur groups in the arts received greater attention and funding, inhibiting any sense of art’s autonomy that might be associated with professionalism.’ (Rueschemeyer, 1991, p. 37) Only in 1971, then General Secretary of the SED and Head of State Erich Honecker declared in a speech given to the Central Committee that ‘from the standpoint of socialism there could be no taboos in art and literature, neither in content nor in style’ (Rueschemeyer, 2005, p. 129). Honecker’s concession was responding to increasing pressures in the society for social and economic improvements as well as to the ongoing demands of artists and writers to acknowledge more than ‘socialist realism’ as forms of art. However, as Rueschemeyer (2005, p. 129) explains: ‘from that point on, artistic developments in the GDR reflected the continuing tensions between these demands and the self-defined needs of the state bureaucracies and ideologies’.

4 – From 1971 till 1989 : Berlin as two ‘cultural metropoles’

In the wake of Honecker’s assumption of power in GDR in 1971, a short phase of ‘cultural relaxation’ began for many progressive artists. Nevertheless, as it was still forbidden to criticize the political system or living conditions in East Germany, this lead to a severe crisis in 1976 when the government expulsed a famous singer and subsequently many artists choose to leave for West Germany. Despite the prevailing trope of ‘artistic isolation’ in East Germany in the literature, East German artist, as part of the intellectual elite had much exchange with West Germany, travelled a lot, have been part of international exhibitions and Biennales and well aware of developments in the western arts world through illicit but also official sources (see Eisman, 2015).

The ‘political relaxation’ and mutual recognition of the two German state in the early 1970s led to the Four Power Agreement on Berlin (September 1971) that confirmed the division of the city. The new Transit Agreement (May 1972) arranged access to and from West Berlin from West Germany, secured the right of West Berliners to visit East Berlin and East Germany, and secured the rights of East German citizens to visit West Germany, although only in cases of family emergency. The Basic Treaty with West Germany in 1973 recognized two German states, and the two countries pledged to respect one another’s sovereignty and subsequently both German states joined the United Nations. West Germany’s existing Hallstein Doctrine (whereby the Federal German government regarded it as an unfriendly act if third countries were to recognize the German Democratic Republic or maintain diplomatic relations with it) was abounded in favour of then chancellors Willi Brandt’s Ostpolitik (as the normalization of relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Eastern Europe, and in particular the German Democratic Republic).

In light of these developments, both city halves continued to positions themselves as cultural metropoles and intended to raise their cultural reputation and international profiles by constructing new institutions and advancing urban planning projects. East Berlin unveiled the new TV Tower on Alexanderplatz, right in the center of the city. New neighbourhoods (Marzahn, later Hellersdorf) were constructed on the eastern peripheries to display the achievements of serial social housing architecture. And the legendary ‘Palace of the Republic’ was inaugurated, a new cultural centre where the old Prussian Royal Palace (symbolically destroyed by first East German government) used to be and intended for the national parliament as well as for the production of TV Shows, arts shows and entertainment (see Staiger, 2009).2

‘This “people’s palace” was only secondarily a government building. It housed the insignificant national parliament as well as infrequent official gatherings such as party congresses, but mainly the building was used for popular entertainment: concerts in its main hall, plus a theatre, bowling alley and several restaurants and bars, all affordable and open to the public.’(Ladd, 2002, p. 93)

In 1983 the new Friedrichstadtpalast was opened, a 2000-seat theatre for dance and revue shows with its own ballet ensemble. At the same time both cities breeded alternative scenes that were tolerated – and in the case of West Berlin were sometimes publicly supported following an integrative approach in cultural policy that tried to combine support for cultural institutions with some project funding for new independent and non-institutionalised artistic initiatives. For example, the Senate funded critical off-theatre groups such as the Schaubühne or Grips Theatre and later funded their own houses as West Berlin became a laboratory of alternative cultures, social and political groups (see, for example, Vasudevan, 2015) through its peculiar population mix of:

‘ (… ) turkish working migrants, students, young men who did not want to serve in the federal army (West Berlin, one of the most heavily militarized places in the Western world, was de-militarized for Germans; so the owner of a West Berlin identity card did not have to serve). With a “Personalausweis” (the identity card for Federal Germany) one would be left alone in West Berlin, but could not travel to West Germany until the age of 29. It is obvious that some kind of folklore had to develop there, and that it had to consist of exactly all those strange rhythms of living. Kreuzberg, SO 36, became the home of all those who wanted to try ‘”alternative” life-styles, it became the meeting point for gallery owners and writers, the foundation place for the “Alternative List”, Berlin’s more radical Green Party, and of the tageszeitung, a left-wing daily. It became the starting point for the squatting of empty houses. Investors cared little about houses and streets “back there”.’ (Schloer, 2006, p. 99)3

West Berlin’s particular approach in cultural policy-making with a strong focus on the institutionalized cultural infrastructure such as Theater des Westens and the German Opera Berlin was accompanied by an overall shift in municipal cultural policy-making towards a stronger socio-cultural understanding of cultural policy (for example, popular music was supported and the Berlin Senate had a music studio to record and then helped with distribution). The ‘new cultural policy’-paradigm emerged in the 1970s as part of a general democratisation process to expanded notions of culture to encompass everyday activities. The arts were to be made accessible to all members of society if at all possible. In the 1970s, the call for ‘culture for everyone’ (Hoffmann, 1979) and for a ‘civil right to culture’ led to a tremendous expansion of cultural activities, the further development of cultural institutions and the emergence of numerous new fields of cultural endeavour financed by increasing public expenditure. This new policy paradigm was mainly supported by the West Berlin boroughs and did not affect much the cultural policy-making on the Senate Level. For example, at the same time, the number of artists and artists groups without affiliations to established cultural institutions (the so-called ‘Freie Szene’) grew in the city but, with only a few exceptions, lacked the sustained support of the Cultural Senate.

East Berlin became a home for many artists who did not wanted to follow official arts policy and started to build up autonomous galleries or reading groups in their flats or ateliers that ‘were more experimental and not officially sponsored’ (Rueschemeyer, 2005, p. 131). Most of these activities were concentrated in Prenzlauer Berg – a neighbourhood that similar to Kreuzberg’s redevelopment plans should have been demolished and build with new socialist high rises as on the outskirts of East Berlin. As a consequence, housing was easy available in this neighbourhood and attracted many artists to establish their cultural niche there (see for example Häussermann, Holm, & Zunzer, 2002).

In the 1980s the internal contradictions within both cities become more visible, expressed and finally unbearable: East Berlin saw a growing protest by its people and West Berlin felt suffocated by the status of an island and was in fact losing more inhabitants than ever (between 1960 and 1985 it went from 2,2 million to 1,8 million (Grésillon, 2004, p. 109). In 1987 both cities celebrated 750th anniversary and used culture to show it but both its citizens were tired and fed up with the economic deprivation and political situation that was covered up by ‘cultural myths’ (Grésillon, 2004, pp. 108-111). For example, in 1988 West Berlin hosted the European Capital of Culture (E-88, it was renamed for West Berlin as the European City of Culture to not provoke the East German government) as an attempt to show the contemporary cultural competence of West Berlin and to position the city in ‘the heart of Europe’ (Rennen, 2007, chapter 8) despite the ‘provincialism’ of its art’s scene, its isolated geopolitical location and the financial life-support through the West German government. However, this situation changed was going to drastically change with the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989 and the reunification of Berlin and Germany.

5 – From 1990 till early 2000s : Berlin as ‘Weltstadt’ with global ambitions, critical reconstruction and the death of East-German socio-culture

With the German reunification on October 3, 1990, Berlin became one city again and was later declared as Germany’s new capital. As a consequence of almost 40-years as a ‘divided city’, Berlin’s two halves had a massive publicly funded cultural infrastructure with many cultural institutions twice: For example, the Berlin State Opera (Staatsoper Unter den Linden) and Deutsche Oper Berlin, Museums Island and Kulturforum, Old National Gallery and New National Gallery, Museum of German History and German Historical Museum, Volksbühne (1914) and Freie Volksbühne (1954/1963) a well as the Academy of Arts of GDR and Academy of the Arts in West Berlin and two state libraries. As the city underwent massive social, economic, and political change since the 1990s, its cultural landscape significantly changed too.

Among politicians there was a ‘gold rush’ mentality of a high anticipated population growth and ideas were promoted that depicted Berlin as becoming a ‘global city’, a new metropolis between East and Western Europe (see Colomb, 2012b). Large-scale urban renewal projects such as the Potsdamer Platz, Friedrichstrasse and the new governmental quarter on the former death stripe have been initiated to give back Berlin a middle that united the form and later on publicly funded redevelopment programs in East Berlin’s inner city neighbourhoods like Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain (see Bernt, Grell, & Holm, 2013). Berlin as the new capital, East Berlin and East Germany was integrated into West Berlin through a ‘transfer of personnel, structures and instruments from West to East’ and created a feeling of “colonialization” by Western bureaucrats and elites’ (Bernt et al., 2013, p. 15). At the Millennium, the political transformation led to a new administrative reform that turned the former 23 boroughs into 12. Economically, Berlin was characterised by a phase of strong de-industrialization after 1990. The collapse of East and West Berlin’s state-subsidized economies let to a loss of more than 250.000 jobs with traditional industries between 1991-2001 resulting in high unemployment rates around 20 percent and with Berlin becoming on of the poorest cities in Germany with significant below the average incomes (Häussermann & Strom, 1994). Only with the recent economic growth, these numbers have been significantly lower with unemployment rates around 10 percent in 2015. The reunification also stimulated massive out and inward migration flows — almost half of the population exchanged within the last 20 years with most Berliner moving into the newly developed suburban settlements in Brandenburg where more than 100.000 homes were built in the 1990s alone (Bernt et al., 2013, p. 22).

The cultural atmosphere in the city resembled the chaotic appeal of a society and a city in transition, Berlin was often describes as a ‘wild west land’ (Bunssen, 2002; Stahl, 2008). Because of its excessive supply of abandoned space, Berlin became a unique opportunity structure for cultural experiments and innovations. Berlin was full of ‘voids’ – holes, wastelands, brown field sites and vacant plots, particularly in inner city area due to the decline of the industrial base as well as the lack of redevelopment under the East German government. There was an ‘emptiness that asked for definition and identity’ (Cupers & Miessen, 2002, p. 64) and the concept of the ‘void’ has become associated with Berlins cultural scene. The development of the city’s dynamic music subcultures and vivid cultural scenes has been indissociable from this availability of such vacant and abandoned places and has given rise to a varied form of temporary artistic and cultural uses (Becker, Landbrecht, & Schäfer, 2010; Colomb, 2012a; SenStadt, 2007). With the reunification, the cultural geography of Berlin, and, in particular, its sub-cultural geography, shifted to the eastern neighbourhoods in the inner city (Bader & Scharenberg, 2010; Grésillon, 2004). Take for example the electronic music scene in the mid-1990’s: It had its centre between Friedrichstrasse and by then the construction site of Potsdamer Platz in empty buildings on the former death stripe. With the famous E-Werk, the Tresor and the WMF in short walk distance from each other, there were three clubs that manifested Berlin’s international fame for electronic club music (Scharenberg & Bader, 2005), and that had a strong root in the subcultural scenes of West Berlin.

However, dramatic cuts in public subsidies with the omissions of national subsidies for Berlin let to comprehensive structural reforms and many cultural institutions had to be restructured and quasi-privatized or became public foundations to enable economic as well as artistic autonomy (Zalfen, 2007). There were constant debates about the extensive public funding for culture in Berlin and the necessity to consolidate in the ‘New Berlin’ that eventually led to abatements of public funding and to a closure of several theatres (Schillertheater (1992), Freie Volksbühne (1992), Metropol-Theater (1994)) and museums too (for example, the East Berlin Museum for German History was closed in 1990 and its collection was incorporated into the 1987 founded German Historical Museum now residing in the Zeughaus, the oldest building on Unter den Linden). Immediately after reunification, most of the cultural houses and cultural facilities in state-owned companies in East Berlin were already closed. The budget cuts also led to administrative reforms that resulted in a 70 percent loss of personal in the cultural administration in the Senate as well as in the borough’s administrations. The financial pressures and structural problems in the renewal of the cultural infrastructure also led to turbulent political times in the Cultural Senate – especially around the millennium several Senators broke down over these challenges and left the office. Only since the election of the red-red coalition between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Left Party (Die Linke) in 2001 some political continuity was established in cultural policy as this coalition governed for a decade.

6 – From the 2000s till today : Berlin’s consolidation as a ‘global’ Cultural Capital and Creative City

Since the turn of the millennium, Berlin with its comparatively low rents and living conditions saw a high influx of artists and creative industries business which has been reflected in the growing economic importance of Culture and Creative Industries (SenWTF, 2014) that became marketed as the ‘Creative City Berlin’ (Colomb, 2012b). However, Berlin as a ‘Creative City’ was imagined, marketed and supported by economic development and rather less by cultural policy-makers who concentrated on consolidating the high arts cultural infrastructure under the given budget cuts and household constraints. Since the election in 2006, the city has no discrete Senate for Culture anymore and was integrated into the Mayor’s office as the Senate Chancellery for Cultural Affairs with the mayor being at the same time the Senator of Cultural Affairs.

Cultural policy as multi-level governance in Berlin

Berlin’s current cultural policy framework is an example of multi-level governance as Berlin integrates the municipal, the federal state and the national level across its cultural policy field. Berlin is a ‘city-state’, which simultaneously makes it a municipality as well as a federal state. Therefore, the three important pillars of funding are the boroughs, the federal state level (referred to as the Senate or Land), and the national level. Berlin’s twelve boroughs are administrative districts that work under the principle of local autonomy but do not have the same status of a legal entity as a municipality. They fulfil local administrative tasks, are led by district mayors, have their own cultural affairs offices and enjoy a certain degree of independence in their expenditures but receive their financial means through allocations from the Senate. The twelve boroughs are responsible for providing the basic cultural infrastructure such as local libraries, music- and adult education schools, municipal galleries, sports facilities, cultural education and empowerment projects for children and youth development. Almost 50 percent of their budgets (120 million EUR for 2015) are bound to voluntary socio-cultural purposes and are referred to as ‘district-related cultural work’, for example projects supporting specific social or ethnic groups in the borough, its local history or facilitating civic involvement. This decentralized form of cultural policy in the boroughs fulfils important tasks with respect to the quality of life, social cohesion, equal opportunities and contributes significantly to Berlin’s overall cultural diversity. However, precisely these voluntary provisions are constantly endangered by the Senate’s financial cuts and constitute a source of public contestation over the value of cultural funding in the boroughs and the relevance of socio-cultural objectives in cultural policy debates.

In contrast to the boroughs, the Senate is the strategic level of cultural policy-making defining the overall objectives of cultural policy in Berlin, providing the main funding for artists and cultural groups and being responsible for supporting Berlin’s ‘cultural beacons’ such as the major museums, theatres, opera houses, orchestras, concert halls and several public foundations – more than 70 institutions receive funding on a sustained basis. The budget for cultural support reached 430 million Euros in 2015 (Senatskanzlei, 2015b). Almost half of it (200 million Euros) goes into support for the performing arts with the three opera houses, the Berlin State Ballet and 23 public theatres. Around 20 million Euros are allocated for artistic production across the different art sectors. Here, for example, theatre groups can apply for different types of structural funding (from individual projects to institutional support). However, only one percent of the overall budget (approximately 5 million Euros) is used to support visual artists and their projects. More than a quarter of this is going into maintaining the city’s atelier program with 875 rent-subsidized studios and atelier flats in the city. The major objectives of Berlin’s cultural policy agenda can be summarized as supporting excellence in arts and artistic production and cultural vitality of the city, safeguarding lively heritage (historical buildings and architectural design), developing cultural participation and inclusion (different entry prices), providing cultural education (through libraries, music schools etc) and facilitating cultural diversity (opening up of funding and institutions for migrants).

The national German government supports cultural projects that are either of importance to Berlin as the country’s capital or have an international impact. In 1999 a ‘capital-culture-treaty’ (Hauptstadtkulturvertrag) between the federal government and Berlin was adopted, clearly stating responsibilities for culture that arise from Berlin’s capital city status and its function in national representation that amounts to 399 million Euro in 2015 for cultural spending in the capital (Bundesregierung, 2014). To support artistic production and the promotion of artistic projects with significance beyond Berlin and Germany the ‘capital culture fund’ (Hauptstadtkulturfonds) was set up to promote artists. With an annual budget of 10 Million Euros, the ‘capital culture fund’, has nearly the same annual budget as Berlin’s own current artist and project funding. Most governmental support goes into cultural infrastructure as many institutions have become part of umbrella organizations such as Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz) or the Berlin Opera Foundation (‘Stiftung Oper in Berlin’ that combines five independent institutions – Deutsche Oper Berlin, Komische Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Staatsballett Berlin and ‘Bühnenservice’ (Stage Services Company) that funds fully or partially these institutions. The national government also supports the Academy of the Arts, the Jewish Museum, the Martin-Gropius-Bau, the House of the World’s Cultures (Haus der Kulturen der Welt) and the ‘Berliner Festspiele’. In addition, the national government provides financial support for capital investments such as the reconstruction or major renovation projects (e.g., Museum Island, for the State Opera, the Berlin state library and the current construction of the Humboldt-Forum).

Unlike in Paris or London, the primary responsibility for Berlin’s cultural policy and the support of the cultural infrastructure lies with the Senate, not the national government. Nevertheless, this specific structure results in shared responsibilities with the boroughs and the federal government and gives rise to constant struggles around different sets of ideas on what is of cultural value to whom and what makes objectives for cultural policy in the city. Berlin’s dire financial state (due to the cutback of governmental subsidies in the 1990s, the poor economic performance and the city’s deficit of more than 60 billion Euro as a consequence of the ‘Berlin banking scandal’ in 2001) is an additional cause for major debates about these responsibilities and leaves cultural policy as one of the city’s most contested policy field. Furthermore, Berlin is highly dependent on funding from European Union’s structure and investments funds such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Cohesion Fund (CF) that are often used within the boroughs to support artistic projects, maintain workspaces or stimulate the professional development of artists. Overall, the public spending on culture is significantly less than in the 1990s but still amounts to almost one Billion Euro in 2015 for national, regional and municipal spending taken together.

Following Jeremy Ahearne’s (2009) suggestion of implicit and explicit cultural policy-making, there are important decisions made in other Senate departments that affect the cultural development and the cultural policy field. The Senate Department for Economics, Technology and Research is mainly responsible for the support and promotion of culture and creative industries. Until now, there is no creative industries policy in the field of cultural policy despite the reports on culture and creative industries as being coordinated between those two departments. The Senate Department for Labour, Integration and Women’s Affairs coordinates initiatives in the field of cultural diversity and facilitates intercultural projects. The Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment is responsible for administering temporary uses in vacant buildings and, thus, provides the necessary spaces for cultural activities, supports the public art program at new constructions, cares for the build heritage and still holds 236 rent-subsidized artist studios, in addition to the 875 studios the Chancellery for Cultural Affairs is supporting (see Senatskanzlei, 2011). Furthermore, the Senate Department for Finance controls the Liegenschaftsfonds – a pool of vacant public properties that are tendered for sale but in light of the growing workspace shortage could also be held back for cultural or temporary uses. Unfortunately, in the last decade the funds policy’ had been to sell to the highest bidder fast and not ask potential buyers for a convincing concept or oblige particular uses. Only after a rising protest from arts groups and other Senate departments this policy has changed now.

Contemporary Challenges for Cultural Policy in Berlin

The contemporary Berlin offers a rich cultural landscape with more than 175 museums, 56 theatres, 421 art galleries, 94 cinemas, 88 public libraries, 33 film festivals, 5 arts schools and more than 1000 events in visual arts and 500 events in the performing arts every week (see, for example, the data on Berlin in the World Cities Culture Report 2013, Mayor of London, 2013). There are more than 5000 visual artists4 living in the city and more than 10 percent of Berlin’s working population work in the different sectors of the culture and creative industries. However, due to massive real estate investments, the public sale of properties, the recent economic growth and the high inward migration (in the last two years Berlin gained a net migration plus of almost 100.000 people) the cost of living has risen dramatically in Berlin and there are less and less suitable spaces for artistic work and performances available (Rapp, 2012). This situation is aggravated as less than two percent of the cultural budget is spent on project funding and thus, supporting the economically vulnerable non-institutionalized forms of art production. This prevailing lack of attention and support for independent arts producers has created widespread protest among artist groups on the Senate’s cultural policy in the last five years. For example, there are more than 150 project spaces for self-organized artistic practice whose annual budget constitutes less than 5.000 Euros and who until 2013 received no official recognition and support by the Senate for Cultural Affairs (due to their continuous bargaining efforts a price scheme was introduced in 2013 to support seven spaces a year with 30.000 Euros). Furthermore, a widespread coalition across arts sectors (Coalition of the Free Scene, see Berlin Visit, 2014) was formed to campaign for the introduction of a ‘City Tax’ for culture as an additional funding instrument for non-institutionalized arts production. This suggestion eventually passed legislation in 2014. As a result, every tourist who spends a night in a hotel in Berlin now contributes one Euro per night for the support of the city’s cultural infrastructure. However, culture here is understood in a broad sense as encompassing sports, tourism and cultural activities. Furthermore, the parliament decided to only use everything above the threshold of 25 million Euros for these three purposes (the 25 million will be used to repay the city’s debt). So far the tax exceeds all expectations and in 2015 alone generated more than 34 million Euros and thus, three million Euros for additional arts funding was redistributed as annual work stipends of 8.000 Euros for 150 artists (Senatskanzlei, 2015a).

Nevertheless, despite this success, the city still faces the continuing rise of rents, a growing social housing crisis and has still to cope with its massive debt that prevents major investments and significant budget changes (see Bernt et al., 2013). Artists fear the further loss of crucial workspaces in the inner city areas. The cultural geography has already significantly shifted towards the periphery of Berlin’s inner city. For example, there are hardly any music clubs and venues left in the central boroughs due to the rezoning of mixed use areas into housing areas. New artistic groups have to go further and further out to find suitable work and performance spaces, similar to developments in other major cities in Europe.

A second challenge provides the cultural engagement of the national government as a constant political struggle. The crucial question here is whether in a federal republic the capital should really play a significant role and thus, if Berlin should receive special funding support for culture or if Berlin should be responsible for its cultural infrastructure alone. The capital culture treaty is up for negotiations in 2017 and, so far, the national government’s commitment is constantly under attack from other federal states. Of course, the national funding is very much welcomed by the financially strained Senate who cannot cope with the maintenance and necessary renovations of its cultural institutions (for example, the ongoing renovation of the Berlin State Opera already reached 400 million Euros despite initial cost estimations of 250 million Euros). Nevertheless, most of the national support is uncontested from the Berlin government and the city does not elaborate its own conceptual ideas on how the national government could provide for Berlin’s cultural infrastructure in a more coordinated and collaborative approach with the city government. For example, currently, the national government finances the construction of the Humboldt Forum, a new prestigious cultural institution on the site of the former East German Palace of the Republic but without a comprehensive idea of how this facility will fit into the existing cultural infrastructure in the city.5

The current social and economic instrumentalism in arts policy provides another challenge. As in many cities and countries around the world, Berlin’s cultural policy-makers have introduced stronger social and economic principles in justifications for cultural support and culture is more often seen as an economic engine and tourist attraction. This is also reflected in more short term project funding instead of sustainable funding for independent artists, a stronger focus on festivals and the visual representation of Berlin through culture for the attraction of business and tourists. Thus, a stronger focus on cultural consumption and education through audience development emerged and undermines the funding principles for artistic excellence.

A fourth challenge lies in the ongoing efforts to recreate a united city, after more than 40 years of political and physical division, while, at the same time, having to deal with remnants of the past (e.g. the German empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazism, Cold War separation) that have left their marks on the city’s material and symbolic infrastructure. Former national borders during the Cold War have also meant cultural boundaries that still prevail between the Eastern and the Western part of the city, even despite the dramatic in- and outward migration, as well as high rates of intra-urban mobility. Berlin still has two city centres, which stand as symbols for the dual cultural structure in the city, and date back to before the Second World War, although they were intensified through subsidisation during the period of division (Grésillon, 1999). They also exemplify two distinct cities with their own peculiarities that have evolved, and still live on, in daily practices for many citizens. Since reunification, there have been several attempts to invent new images and a common identity for a united ‘New Berlin’. Mostly because of its unique geopolitical position Berlin had been envisioned by its political elite as a new center of Central Europe, a gateway to the East, a European Metropolis or a Global City (Molnar, 2010). This repositioning of Berlin, however, came within an existing structure of a polycentric city system in Germany, a growing ‘Europe of the Regions’, and a more globally connected world. While globalization processes gave cities a new strategic importance (Sassen, 2001), Berlin lacked the economic infrastructure to gain the necessary ‘connectivity’. Only in cultural terms Berlin has gained worldwide recognition and been able to attract a global art and culture crowd. Therefore, culture has not only become important for Berlin, it has an existential meaning as the most important asset. This was reflected not only in the last coalition agreement between the ruling parties where Berlin was designated as Germany’s one true metropole but is also reflected in the city’s place-making strategies (see Colomb, 2012b). However, cultural policy remains the smallest policy field with constant budget struggles and is not well coordinated with economic development and urban planning.


Twenty-five years after the reunification, Berlin is still very much ‘under construction’ and struggles to find its place within a reunited Germany and a more globalized world. Especially for cultural policy the last twenty-five years have been characterised by major transformations: Two separate cultural and political-administrative infrastructures needed to be combined, the city gained back the major responsibility for culture from the influence of the Allies and major institutions underwent reconstruction, organizational changes and financial restructuring. At the same time, Berlin became attractive for artists from all over the world and now represents a ‘global art center’ (Skórska & Kloosterman, 2012) despite the prevailing weak economic situation for a capital city. While the future of these high arts institutions is secured, it is the independent art scenes and the diverse sub-cultural scenes in the city that increasingly struggle to make a living in Berlin. Yet, it’s those dynamic and experimental groups that provided Berlin’s fertile ground for the status of a ‘Creative City’ and ‘Cultural Capital’ since reunification and who now fear not being part of the city’s future. Finding a way to accommodate Berlin’s rising living costs with the needs of artists provides one of the contemporary challenges for cultural policy.

Until now, in the Berlin’s cultural policy agenda, the development of major cultural institutions was prioritized and accomplished at the expense of more diverse cultural offerings in the boroughs (which were partially filled with independent arts groups and their offerings). The boroughs have seen severe financial cuts and struggle to maintain their basic cultural infrastructure with the allocations from the Senate. Many libraries, municipal galleries and music schools had to close down in the last decade and many artists workspaces are in danger of being sold to investors as the boroughs cannot support them anymore. Thus, a stronger focus on a diverse and decentralized cultural infrastructure is needed that leads away from the high arts provision in the inner city and facilitates more the cultural development of whole Berlin and acknowledges its growing ethnically diverse population.



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1 See the Basic Law Article 5 Paragraph 1: ‘every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures, and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed. There shall be no censorship.’ and Article 5 Paragraph 3: ‘Arts and sciences, research and teaching shall be free.’ See (Deutscher Bundestag, 2012)

2 The Palace of the Republic was demolished in 2006 under suspicious claims of asbestos and will be replaced by the Humboldt Forum built as a replica of the former Prussian Royal Palace. The Humboldt Forum is Europe’s biggest cultural infrastructure currently under construction and will be ‘dedicated to bringing the cultures of the world into discourse’ (Staiger, 2009).

3 In 1962, the West Berlin government announced a program of urban modernization in which most of the historic housing stock in Kreuzberg should be replaced with modernist apartment blocks in line with the contemporary ideal of modern urban planning. For example, the housing blocks around Kottbuser Tor are testament to those planning ideas. However, due to rising protests from squatter movements and financial problem those plans have not been implemented. Instead in 1979, the International Building Exhibition Berlin was initiated in which the urban renewal followed two new distinct strategies: ‘careful urban renewal’ and ‘critical reconstruction’.

4 The concrete numbers for visual artists fluctuate between different sources. The Senate for Cultural Affairs documents 5.000 visual artists while the latest Creative Industries Report from 2014 reports 1914 (Regierender Bürgermeister, 2011; SenWTF, 2014). The Coalition of the Independent Arts operates with an overall number of more than 40.000 artists (Berlin Visit, 2014).

5 Critics of this project have heavily discussed the doubtful symbolic of the reconstruction of the former Prussian Palace on such a crucial inner city site and the ideas of exhibiting art works from the ethnological collections that are currently not on display and that were ‘collected’ during colonialist expansions of the Prussian Monarchy in the late 19th century.

[french translation]


Citer ce billet
chmc1 (2016, 5 décembre). From a divided city to a capital city : Berlin’s cultural policy frameworks between 1945 and 2015. Politiques de la culture. Consulté le 18 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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