Schwarzwohnen

From Global Informality Project
Jump to: navigation, search
Schwarzwohnen
Informal practice commonly found in German Democratic Republic
GDR map.png
Map of German Democratic Republic, where Schwarzwohnen commonly takes place.
GDR flag.png
Flag of German Democratic Republic.
Entry written by Udo Grashoff.
Udo Grashoff is affiliated to School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

Original Text: Udo Grashoff, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Schwarzwohnen referred to illegal flat occupation in the German Democratic Republic. The literal meaning is ‘black (i.e. illegal) living’. The term denoted the undermining of the state allocation of housing by unsanctioned occupation, and thus effectively meant ‘squatting’ in the context of the East German communist regime.

A small minority of flat occupants rejected the term Schwarzwohnen because of the similar term Schwarzfahren, which means fare dodging on public transport. Nevertheless, Schwarzwohnen was widely used in the GDR by Schwarzwohner (those illegally occupying the accommodation) and administration staff as well [1]. Besides Schwarzwohnen, other denominations were Leben im Abriss (living in teardown) and Wohnungsbesetzung (flat occupation). The latter term predominated in East Berlin, probably due to the proximity to the Hausbesetzerbewegung (squatter movement) in West Berlin. Also, in some parts of the GDR the term Erhaltungswohnen (maintenance habitation) was in use.

Despite the fact that Schwarzwohnen emerged at about the same time as the squatting movement in Western European countries such as Netherlands, Denmark and West Germany (1960s/early 1970s)[2], there were significant differences between the two concepts. Schwarzwohnen was closely linked to the forced administration of habitation in the post-war period (although a precursory term, Schwarzmieter, can be traced back to the first years of Weimar Republic[3]). From the 1950s the post-war emergency measure of forced administration of flats became permanent in the GDR (Wohnraumlenkungsverordnung, 1955 and 1967).

Photograph of an occupied flat in Rostock in the 1980s. This image is used to depict the informal practice of Schwarzwohnen. Artist: Cornelia Ogilvie

Living in a flat without state permission was considered an administrative offence in the GDR, because the state claimed the right to entirely determine the allocation of flats. In contrast, most Schwarzwohner had no sense of guilt in view of the inefficiency of the housing administration. From the late 1960s, the phenomenon of Schwarzwohnen could be observed in several East German towns with more than 100,000 inhabitants such as Berlin, Dresden, Halle, Jena, Leipzig, Rostock and Schwerin. The vacancy of flats was a consequence of the GDR’s extensive house-building programme. While new districts were built at the periphery, many town centres were left to decay. Schwarzwohnen occurred almost exclusively in older buildings. The living conditions in run-down flats under the roof or in the basement were poor. Students who lived ‘in teardown’ sometimes compared their situation to living in a shanty town. Single young people in particular had almost no chance to be allocated a flat. A large number of young Christians and students practised Schwarzwohnen, but it was not limited to the youth. Divorced wives (including the future German chancellor Angela Merkel), shift workers, families with children and even pensioners illegally occupied flats as well.

In contrast with squatters in Western Europe, in most cases Schwarzwohnen was not carried out as a collective but an individual action. The main concern was to live in one’s own four walls. Schwarzwohnen was a tacit practice. Attaching a banner at the facade would have caused the immediate end of the illegal housing. As long as the dictatorship was intact, there were no public campaigns, no squatter organisations or informal networks. Most of the occupations were not politically motivated either.

Another photograph of the same occupied flat in Rostock in the 1980s. This image is also used to depict the informal practice of Schwarzwohnen. Artist: Cornelia Ogilvie

Nevertheless, Schwarzwohnen provided a niche for the cultural opposition. Literary clubs, illegal art exhibitions, rehearsals of Punk and New Wave bands, parties and gatherings of opposition groups (foundation of the green network ‘Arche’, for instance) took place here. Moreover, in the last two years of the GDR’s existence, illegal cafés and bars were opened in illegally occupied flats.

As flats in the GDR were cheap, Schwarzwohnen was not a means of saving money. Indeed, most of the Schwarzwohner paid rent, often anonymously. In private houses there was often an (illegal) agreement with the owner. After some time had passed, many Schwarzwohner would try to obtain legal residency for the flat they occupied. Chances to obtain permission to stay in the occupied flat were reasonable. Random samples range from 50 to 86 per cent [4]. Even though Schwarzwohnen was punishable by moderate fines, the state administration was limited in its power by the civil code, which allowed evictions only when other living space was available to the occupant. In addition, sometimes putting cases of Schwarzwohnen on an official footing was actually in the authorities’ interests. The run-down flats could hardly be allocated officially, and the government lacked the means to refurbish them due to the shortage economy. In such cases, legalisation could not only solve a housing problem but also enable provisional repair to take place at no charge to the state. At the same time, several Schwarzwohner experienced the apparent neglect as a chance to assume responsibility for the dwelling.

Schwarzwohnen can be quantified only partly. For the East German capital it is possible to calculate the number of illegal flat occupiers due to occasional state checks. In the late 1970s and in the 1980s, a total number of several thousand Wohnungsbesetzer in East Berlin is realistic. In the Prenzlauer Berg district alone there were 1270 unofficially occupied flats in 1987. According to another statistic from Rostock the number of Schwarzwohner totalled 700 at the beginning of 1990[5].

Due to the unofficial character of Schwarzwohnen, oral history is the most effective method for researching this practice[6][7][8]. With regard to official sources, the files of the communal housing administration are the most revealing. These files document grievances of the persons concerned, impositions of fines and decisions about the further occupation of the flats. In contrast, the Ministry of State Security was rather indifferent.

The mere fact that Schwarzwohnen was possible to some extent highlights the scope for action within grey zones of authority, and the feasibility of compromises between the state and society in the East German dictatorship. The experience of a weak administration encouraged many Schwarzwohner to subvert the state’s claim to power in other areas as well, and it is no coincidence that many of them played an active role during the 1989 ‘peaceful revolution’[9].

Notes

  1. Udo Grashoff: Schwarzwohnen. Die Unterwanderung der staatlichen Wohnraumlenkung in der DDR, vr unipress, Goettingen 2011
  2. Squatting Europe Kollective (ed.): Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles, Minor Compositions, Wivenhoe/New York/Port Watson 2013
  3. Karl Christian Fuehrer: Mieter, Hausbesitzer, Staat und Wohnungsmarkt. Wohnungsmangel und Wohnungszwangsbewirtschaftung in Deutschland 1914–1960, Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart 1995
  4. Udo Grashoff: Schwarzwohnen. Die Unterwanderung der staatlichen Wohnraumlenkung in der DDR, vr unipress, Goettingen 2011
  5. Udo Grashoff: Leben im Abriss. Schwarzwohnen in Halle an der Saale, Hasenverlag, Halle 2011
  6. Barbara Felsmann/Annett Groeschner (eds.): Durchgangszimmer Prenzlauer Berg. Eine Berliner Kuenstlersozialgeschichte der 1970er und 1980er Jahre in Selbstauskuenften, Lukas Verlag, 2nd edition, Berlin 2012
  7. Udo Grashoff: Leben im Abriss. Schwarzwohnen in Halle an der Saale, Hasenverlag, Halle 2011
  8. Udo Grashoff: Schwarzwohnen. Die Unterwanderung der staatlichen Wohnraumlenkung in der DDR, vr unipress, Goettingen 2011
  9. Udo Grashoff: Schwarzwohnen. Die Unterwanderung der staatlichen Wohnraumlenkung in der DDR, vr unipress, Goettingen 2011