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Rio Reiser & the Rauch Haus: Squatters occupy the Bethanien

Powerful stories from Berlin

Künstlerhaus Bethanien
© Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Foto: Georg Schroeder

He was the voice of a generation and a cult figure of left-wing resistance. His band "Ton Steine Scherben" was the first German rock band to openly criticize the system - and to live it. In the 1970s, the Rauch-Haus song became the anthem of the squatter scene in all major cities in Germany - and showed: With courage and music, power relations can be challenged. 

It is voices like Rio Reiser's that also bring attention to the non-official side and ensure that new ideas are considered and other models are tried out. Would Bethanien be a public art quarter today without the commitment and songs of "Ton Steine Scherben" and their frontman Rio Reiser?

"Break what breaks you" - "Macht kaputt, was euch kaputt macht"

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"Our music is aggressive because young people with whom we want to come into contact must first be moved emotionally before they pay attention. Otherwise they wouldn't even listen to us," the "Scherben" were quoted by Peter Winkler in the B.Z. Berlin on February 16, 1971, after they had released - self-published, of course - the first single "Macht kaputt, was euch kaputt macht". Rio Reiser and his "Scherben" don't want to be bought, to remain authentic. They want to show that there are values that go beyond capitalism and the pursuit of profit to create other possibilities and paths for the next generations.  

In this way, they speak from the heart of many young Berliners, students as well as young people in teaching professions: First in the context of actions and performances of the theater group around Rio Reiser, then with political rock, or agitrock, as the Scherben themselves call their musical style. In their lyrics, the band says, they would simply write down conversations "that were held in real life on the street, in pubs or at the workplace," thus directly addressing young people's problems instead of disguising them. In fact, discussions often ensue after the band's concerts - and increasingly more.

"Der Mariannenplatz war blau, so viele Bullen waren da"

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The young people wanted to be heard, organized themselves and took to the streets. In December 1971, 300 demonstrators gathered on Berlin's Mariannenplatz. Riots broke out. The young people threw stones, the police used batons and tear gas, although both groups denied being the first to become violent. 

Nevertheless, the following day there was no more fighting, but discussion: Youth city councilor Erwin Beck talks to the squatters and demonstrators on site. They demand an alternative to the non-functioning youth homes, a self-managed house and financial support for the "Trebegänger", who are to find accommodation in the former Bethanien Hospital. Since the city council only wants to make one floor available for the "model experiment," but the young people are demanding an entire floor, negotiations are proving difficult.

„Ihr kriegt uns hier nicht raus. Das ist unser Haus.“

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The Bethanien, or "Rauch Haus" continues to be occupied. For the first time, a teach-in on the death of Georg von Rauch at the TU Berlin has called for an occupation. Von Rauch, who had been active in the student movement of the 1960s and had made a name for himself as a radical anarchist with the "Wielandkommune," had been shot dead in a confrontation with the police on December 4, 1971, thus becoming a martyr of the leftist scene. When Bethanien was evacuated on April 19, 1972, Rio Reiser dedicated his Rauch-Haus song to it.

Although the young people had to move out, other groups in the city began to campaign for the preservation of the Bethanien. With its protests against the demolition plans, the Association of German Architects succeeds in getting the building listed as a historic monument.

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In 1973, artists' groups and the Berufsverband Bildender Künstler Berlin (Berlin Professional Association of Visual Artists) campaign for Bethanien as a center for culture and social affairs. The Künstlerhaus Bethanien opens. In 2010, this initiative moves to Kohlfurter Straße in Kreuzberg, but Bethanien remains a meeting place and center for art, culture and socio-political exchange. Currently, around two dozen social and cultural initiatives are active, including Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien with its exhibition spaces.

Rio Reiser and his Scherben move to Fresenhagen near the Danish border. There in the countryside, the band continues to live together as a commune, and now devotes itself in song lyrics and plays less to the political slogans of the early days and more to private, personal themes. 

The story of the Bethanien

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  • The history of Bethany itself goes back to 1845. Donated by King Frederick William IV, the "romantic on Prussia's throne," it is planned as a diaconal institution with 500 beds, a training school for nurses and an attached orphanage. In the 19th century, Bethanien was located on the city limits, surrounded by gardens and rye fields. 50 years later, it is already in the middle of the city, which has now grown from 365,000 to 1.7 million inhabitants.
  • During the Third Reich, the management of the house opposes the demand that leadership positions in the house be given to party members. In 1941 the seminar house was confiscated. 
  • In 1948/49 Theodor Fontane worked in the pharmacy of Bethanien Hospital. You can still visit it today.
  • Between 1950 and 1951, the south wing, which was bombed during the Allied air raids, is renovated, but in the course of the construction of the Berlin Wall, the location of the hospital shifts directly to the sector border, loses many patients from the eastern part of the city and is insolvent from 1966.

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Sources: 
archiv.squat.net/rauchhaus/index.html
Wünsch, Silke: „König von Deutschland: Warum Rio Reiser eine deutsche Ikone ist“, Deutsche Welle, 8. Januar 2020
dw.com/de/könig-von-deutchland-warum-rio-reiser-eine-deutsche-ikone-ist/a-5193123

Josefine Köhn-Haskins

Josefine

ist in München aufgewachsen, hat dort studiert und bei der SZ volontiert. Auf der Suche nach neuen Abenteuern entdeckte sie erst New York, dann Miami und berichtete als Trendscout und Korrespondentin für verschiedene Publikationen. Ihr Zuhause fand sie dann aber in Berlin. Fasziniert von den vielen Facetten der Stadt ist sie kreuz und quer in den Kiezen unterwegs und beschäftigt sich gerne mit Zukunftsideen und Smart City Konzepten für ein innovatives Berlin.