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How Berlin's techno scene came to define the post-wall city and earn UNESCO cultural heritage status — with a little help from Detroit

Nathan Rennolds   

How Berlin's techno scene came to define the post-wall city and earn UNESCO cultural heritage status — with a little help from Detroit
  • Berlin's techno scene was recently added to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list in Germany.
  • The German capital is renowned for its intense, hedonistic clubbing scene.

It is an almost hypnotic experience visiting a techno club in Berlin.

Hours, even days, can slip by in a shadowy rush of flashing lights, curling smoke, and trance-inducing rhythms.

It is a fierce blend of anonymity and hedonism that has undeniably shaped the city over the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

The impact on Berlin's identity has been so significant that it has now received official recognition, with the city's techno scene recently added to UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage list in Germany.

To mark that moment, Business Insider has taken a look at how techno has come to define the capital.

Origins

When Dimitri Hegemann first entered the space that was to become the original site of Tresor, now one of Berlin's most iconic techno clubs, he was silent.

Just the dim glow of a few cigarette lighters illuminated the cavernous vault of a former Jewish-owned bank that had remained untouched since 1945.

The year was 1991, and Berliners were still basking in a newfound freedom following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The new era had ushered in a wave of creative energy, and people were eager for change in all aspects of society, Hegemann told Business Insider.

In the world of music, the opportunity for change presented itself in the raw, wordless beats of Detroit techno pioneers such as Jeff Mills and Juan Atkins and Berlin's dark, abandoned buildings.

"It was the beginning of this new musical epoch," Hegemann said.

By the end of the decade, techno had taken the capital by storm, with the city's Love Parade, a former annual techno festival, attracting 1.5 million people in 1999.

And by 2017, Berlin's nighttime economy was booming, with clubs helping generate almost 1.5 billion euros (around $1.6 billion as of April 2024) in revenue for the city, a Berlin Clubcommission report found.

While clubs like Tresor and later Berghain bolstered the city's economy, they also provided a refuge for young people looking to express themselves and push their sensory limits after years of repression.

The clubs also acted as "incubators" for creators to foster new ideas, setting the stage for a cultural rebirth that helped transform Berlin into a young, vibrant hub of artists, students, and other creatives, Hegemann told BI.

"It changed the DNA of Berlin," he said.

Polish-born Jennifer Kucza, who has lived in Berlin for many years, told the BBC that the techno scene has become "a haven for those who don't necessarily see themselves being represented in the more traditional facets of the city's identity."

"Those involved in the scene have by now reached a status of somewhat of a subculture, with their belonging being reflected not only in the music but also a certain visual identity, lifestyle, and even attitude," she added.

The scene has also played its part in making Berlin one of the most LGBTQ+-friendly cities in the world.

"Thanks mainly to the queer scene, events are often places of free self-expression, which many perceive as 'safe spaces,'" Rave The Planet, a nonprofit that spearheaded the campaign to get the Berlin techno scene recognized by UNESCO, noted in its application form. "Barriers related to clothing, origin, age, mindset, language, gender, sexual orientation, and income tend to fade away."

Berlin today

While the core of these ideas remains, gentrification and rising rents have taken their toll on the city's creative power.

Berliners enjoyed cheap rents following the fall of the Wall, as the city's population growth did not meet officials' expectations, and a housing surplus persisted for many years.

However, that trend has reversed in recent years, with Berlin registering 3.87 million residents in June 2023, according to the city's official website. That was up from around 3.6 million at the end of 2018.

As demand for property increased, rents in the capital soared, with the seven years to 2023 seeing a 44% rise in prices — and only a 30% rise in the average wage, Reuters previously reported, citing federal and local data.

The increased demand has also brought inevitable pressure from real estate investors, which, alongside the high rental costs, has led to the closure of several beloved venues, such as Griessmuehle and Farbfernseher.

The problems facing clubs are so severe that Germans even have a word for it — "Clubsterben" — meaning "club death."

The techno scene's addition to the UNESCO cultural heritage list will hence come as a welcome boost to those fighting to preserve the city's clubbing heritage, helping venues access additional government funding and protection under planning laws.

Lutz Leichsenring, a board member at the Clubcommission, told BI that the recognition was a "milestone for Berlin techno producers, artists, club operators and event organizers."

"Our gratitude goes in particular to bands like Kraftwerk and African-American DJs and producers like Underground Resistance from Detroit, who made a significant contribution to the creation and spread of techno culture," he said.

"Our joy is hard to put into words," Rave The Planet added in a statement following the news. "This recognition marks a significant milestone for the entire electronic music culture and has implications far beyond the borders of Berlin."



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