How a whiskey-fueled meeting in 1949 led to Berlin’s famed techno scene

by | Sep 23, 2022 | Top Stories

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From left: Philippa, 23, from Sydney, Australia; Laura, 23, from Melbourne; and Isabella, 23, from Sydney wait in line to enter Tresor, one of Germany’s popular nightclubs for electronic music, in Berlin in the early morning hours of Sept. 4.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

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Jacobia Dahm for NPR

BERLIN, Germany — On a recent Sunday morning, hundreds of people, most dressed in all black, lined up outside Berghain, the Berlin techno club made almost mythic by its selective door policy. Among those hoping to gain entry was Chris Koestlin, a Berlin photographer who goes out clubbing at least once a month. When bars and clubs in Berlin shut down for the first time in 70 years during the pandemic, he says, it tore at the fabric of the city. “For a lot of people, especially in Berlin, clubbing is not like, ‘Oh, I want to go party. I want to get wasted,'” he said. “It’s more like a lifestyle, more like a hobby to go out and dance and connect with people.”

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Tresor, one of Berlin’s longest-running clubs, is located inside a former power plant and houses three dance floors with a combined capacity of 1,500 people.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

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Jacobia Dahm for NPR

A key factor of Berlin’s scene: The clubs never have to close their doors. Many stay open the entire weekend, leading some ravers to arrive on Friday night and leave Sunday morning. The roots of Berlin’s no-curfew culture can be traced to the start of the Cold War, when negotiations over a bottle of whiskey led to the abolition of a postwar curfew — and set the stage for Berlin’s becoming one of the world’s hottest destinations for techno music.

The whiskey meeting that changed everything Following World War II, a divided Berlin kept a strict nighttime curfew, to the annoyance of residents, especially those looking for libations. By 1949, some had had enough. “After four years, people wanted to hang out, go out again. People wanted to have a drink,” said Dimitri Hegemann, the founder and owner of Tresor, one of Berlin’s longest-running clubs.

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Dimitri Hegemann, 68, the founder and owner of Tresor, inside Kraftwerk, the former power plant that now showcases exhibitions and cultural events as well as the club, on Aug. 31.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

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In West Berlin, controlled by Western allies, bars shut their doors at 9 p.m. In the Soviet-controlled East, the closing time was 10 p.m. Tired of the East receiving those final-hour dollars, West Berlin moved its curfew one hour later. In response, the East pushed its back another hour. The tit for tat became something of a curfew standoff. A hotelier named Heinz Zellermayer had enough of it. He grabbed a bottle of whiskey and made his case to Brig. Gen. Frank Howley, the commandant over the American sector of West Berlin. “They need the hours of the night the way we need our dear bread,” Zellermayer is remembered to have said, according to a biography of the family written by his sister, Ilse Eliza Zellermayer. “Mayhem only comes when the bartender has to say ‘closing time,'” the hotel owner insisted. Zellermayer said nixing the curfew would be good for the economy and that the freedom of no curfew was an expression of Western values. Howley was persuaded, as was his French counterpart. The pitch was rejected by the British, however, who worried about pubgoers getting too rowdy. No matter. In June 1949, by a 2-1 vote, West Berlin’s curfew was forever scrapped. Zellermayer quickly shared the news. “He called all the bars 10 minutes later. And from that day on, Berlin enjoys the young night every day,” Hegemann said. Once the Berlin Wall fell, the former East Berlin adopted the West’s lack of curfew.

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Long lines outside KitKatClub, a popular club in Berlin, on Sept. 3. Koepenicker Street in Kreuzberg is home to two of the city’s most famous clubs, KitKatClub and Tresor, and on many weekends the tail ends of both lines meet.

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Recounting the pivotal meeting, a Berlin Club Commission report says, “History does not record how much of the whiskey was actually consumed,” yet “in the decades that followed, the myth of Berlin as the city that never sleeps began to take shape.” With no curfew, Berlin draws “techno tourists” and their money Zellermayer, who died in 2011, is now something of a folk hero among Berlin club owners. Hegemann, the Tresor owner, has thrown events celebrating his famous whiskey meeting. Some have even dubbed Zellermayer the “ubermeister” of Berlin’s bar and club scene. But others say Zellermayer does not receive the credit he deserves for the 1949 negotiations. “What it meant for the city itself, and as an attraction for the city, is not really recognized today,” said Knut Hoffmeister, a Berlin filmmaker who has focused on this chapter of Germany’s history. Hoffmeister used to run the Global Hangover Guide, a publication dedicated to the consumption of alcohol. In 1999, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the meeting that ended Berlin’s curfew, he arranged for a limousine to pick up Zellermayer. Before he got in, Hoffmeister handed him a bottle of champagne. He then took Zellermayer to the Brandenburg Gate and snapped a photograph of him holding a sign commemorating a half-century of no closing time.

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Heinz Zellermayer in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1999 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the meeting that ended Berlin’s curfew.

Knut Hoffmeister

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Knut Hoffmeister

“He gave back the night to the people,” Hoffmeister said. “It was a revolutionary deed, absolutely.” It is also a deed that set in motion a powerful economic driver for the city. Other cities, of course, have clubs that rage on into the morning, or underground scenes where just about anything goes. But Ben Gook, a cultural studies lecturer at the University of Melbourne who studies Berlin’s techno scene, say …

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