Urban Tribes: Subcultures and Political Conflict in West Berlin, 1945-1991

Article excerpt

Introduction: Juvenile Delinquency in a New Republics

THROUGHOUT THE POSTWAR PERIOD, CONCEPTS OF JUVENILE DELINQUENCY HAVE influenced how state institutions and established political elites have responded to emerging immigrant and non-immigrant subcultures in West Berlin. The rise of such groups as the Halbstarken, the Rockers, or parts of the peace movement seemed to confirm a widely held view among senior West German politicians and media commentators that the rapid growth of such milieus was a product of youth disaffection (Kurme 2007, 12-13). From the early 1950s onwards, an increasingly ideologically diverse range of social milieus defined themselves against a putative cultural "mainstream" and exhibited behavior that drew upon popular concepts of youth "rebellion" and "revolt." Whether it was drunken rock 'n' roll fans confronting the police in the Schwabing riots of 1958 or earnest students protesting against nuclear rearmament in the early 1960s, organizations and social networks that remained at a cultural distance from the main political parties, business federations, or trade unions were heavily dominated by a younger demographic that had not been old enough to fight in the Second World War (Thomas 2003, 40-42). Even though a significant number of people from the war and prewar generations were also involved in such subcultural milieus, by the mid-1960s a discourse of youth and renewal--which was designed to attack established political parties, often portrayed as still compromised by the moral failures of the National Socialist era--had become a well-established component of West German and West Berlin political life (Weinhauer 2011, 214).

Parallel and connected to this proliferation of emerging subcultures, fraught debates about the moral degeneration of youth became a significant aspect of postwar West German political discourse. In the process, media and political commentaries often blurred the boundaries between the violent actions of relatively apolitical youth milieus and increasingly assertive students and apprentices who were prepared to challenge established socioeconomic structures from both left- and right-wing ideological perspectives. With senior CDU/CSU (1) and SPD (2) party leaders such as Franz Josef Strauss or Herbert Wehner often willing to equate the growing political turmoil in the 1960s with the political violence of the Weimar period, the use of a long-established language of juvenile delinquency helped to stigmatize these emerging subcultures as a criminal threat to the stability and prosperity of the Federal Republic (Stremmel 2007, 29-30).

This article will examine how existing discourses on juvenile delinquency affected the responses of security services, government agencies, and political elites to the emergence of immigrant and non-immigrant subcultures in West Berlin from the mid 1940s to the early 1990s. Not only were both Berlins a particular focus of Cold War conflict during this period, but they also saw accelerated forms of social fragmentation with a proliferation of distinct politicized subcultures in key city districts (Lang 1998, 120-21). Moreover, a unique feature of these particular dynamics in Berlin, a city split into separate political entities, was that two rival state structures were confronted with remarkably similar social processes.

Concepts of Juvenile Delinquency and the Emergence of Politicized Subcultures in a Divided Berlin

One of the most intriguing aspects of the relationship between discourses on juvenile delinquency and state responses to the emergence of politicized subcultures is the extent to which it played a key role both in the liberal-democratic "island" of West Berlin and in the socialist authoritarian context of East Berlin. Indeed, one of the underlying paradoxes of this period in the development of East and West Germany is the extent to which both politicized and apolitical subcultures that were decried by political elites as manifestations of juvenile immaturity managed to establish long-lasting social and economic structures. …