Reviews Exploring modern urbanity through the public-private dichotomy. The case of a divided Berlin

At the Edge of the Wall: Public and Private Spheres in Divided Berlin, Hanno Hochmuth, (Berghahn Books: New York, 2021), 358 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:3, pp 73-75
Published on on October 25, 2021

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Hanno Hochmuth is an influential researcher in the fields of contemporary urban and public history. In At the Edge of the Wall, he examines the interrelationship between the private and public spheres in two of the major working-class inner city areas of Berlin. Focusing on the period of the Berlin Wall (1961—1990), Hochmuth uses a comparative approach, exploring both the divergencies and entanglements of two districts that were split by this dividing wall — Friedrichshain in the east, and Kreuzberg in the west.
The book is centered on an important spatial and cultural divide in Berlin. This divide is, however, not the physical wall dividing the two districts as well as the rest of Berlin — but the divide between the private and public spheres. Hochmuth’s point of departure is a conceptualization of urbanization as constituted to a significant extent by the very expansion of the public-private sphere demarcation. In non-urban social modes, the private and the public are intertwined, too thinly separated socially and spatially to constitute separate spheres. Modern urban space introduces this defining limit and thus the separate social spheres: “The division between a public and a private sphere is a hallmark of the ‘bourgeois’ century”, writes Hochmuth (p. 72). Although Hochmuth draws from established theoreticians in his conceptualization of urbanization, particularly Hans Paul Bahrdt and Jürgen Habermas (p. 6–16), he displays a notable ingenuity in the way he systematically understands urban history through this lens, making original and cohesive analyses of a varied empirical field. Clearly, this approach is set to carry a wider relevance way beyond the empirical boundaries of this book. The book will be of interest to urban historians investigating any type of modern urban space, but especially those interested in post-socialist postwar urbanities in Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea area.

The theoretical framework is coupled with a micro-historical investigation drawing from an impressively rich set of empirical sources: interviews with contemporary inhabitants, files from municipal authorities, fictional films, local surveys and photographic documentations, address books, letters and complaints to authorities, news journals, and more. Hochmuth covers the two neighboring districts as he analyzes three main pieces of the city’s social fabric: housing, religion, and entertainment.
Regarding housing, Hochmuth shows how the postwar construction boom came to offer tenants in both areas an unpreceded level of private space with the gradual emergence of large-scale modern housing. Kreuzberg’s public space was claimed by a dynamic counterculture with radical demands for the protection of the qualities of both private and public life. In Friedrichshain, on the other hand, the authoritarian discipline of the dictatorship severely infringed upon possibilities for similar public experiments and upheavals. The practice of squatting, for instance, was often tolerated but never allowed to take a collective public form, such as the political squatting movement with its own subcultural expressions in Kreuzberg.
The author outlines a similar pattern regarding religion and two prominent protestant churches in each area. The Samaritan church in Friedrichshain arranged gatherings and musical events like the popular “blues masses”. These events provided a significant part of a demarcated semi-countercultural sphere, a surrogate public sphere, not quite reaching the point of a public sphere based on free public deliberations. Yet it provided some space for social activities beyond the state-controlled public territory. According to Hochmuth, it offered “the freedom and communicative spaces for dissident activities to unfold” (p.206). It played a meaningful part in fostering the political space that would bring about a revolutionary change in 1989. Nevertheless, it was never the hot bastion for subversive bottom-up democratic deliberations that existed in Kreuzberg, where St. Martha’s church became a center for activism and critical debates about urban renewal.

Hochmuth’s book investigates the historical entanglements of East and West Berlin. The author situates the book in a research field that has come to emphasize an intertwinement of the history of the divided city, despite the obvious physical and political barriers (p.18). An important conclusion of the book is, however, that these entanglements appear to be less pronounced than the author had expected based on previous research. Moreover, this entanglement has been markedly asymmetric: While the inhabitants of Friedrichshain were affected by the increasing appearance of Kreuzberg’s individualism and private lifestyles, inspiration in the opposite direction was much more limited. This is linked to Hochmuth’s analysis of the poorly researched area of urban entertainment culture. The author shows that much of the public entertainment culture retreated to the private sphere, especially through the advance of audiovisual mass media. The availability of mass media from the West affected the culture and private imaginations in the East. In other ways, Hochmuth shows that there were some significant similarities between the two areas. Entertainment cultures tended to evade any top-down ambitions to overtly politicize them in both the West and the East. Urban festivals and bar culture remained distinctly popular rather than politically arranged events, despite efforts to the contrary.
Again, the bar scene in Kreuzberg tended to be entwined with a more dynamic counter-public sphere where urban development and direction could be affected. Resistance to a large-scale transformation of the old stone city centers and its possible displacement of the local working class and its cultural sense of self was effectively organized through local initiatives, resulting in a cautious urban renewal — slightly more accommodating to local cultural desires than what the authorities originally planned. In Friedrichshain, too, there was a significant, albeit less vociferous, discontentment with the modernist planning, bulldozing the old dense stone city. Accordingly, Friedrichshain gave way to a more complex reconstruction rather than a more unmitigated demolition as the authorities pursued increasing construction of prefabricated large-scale housing but were kept in check by local resistance.
After the unification of Berlin, neoliberal policies increasingly permeated the city. Hochmuth shows how the struggles for preservation of buildings, inhabitants, and culture could be exploited to opposing ends and incorporated into a neoliberal logic. In the symbolic upgrade of these working-class areas, the protagonists of the vibrant and attractive counterculture, of Kreuzberg especially, could be of service. Increasingly, they came to play the role of the creative urban pioneers that are so emblematic in the early phases of gentrification. The historical counterculture became part of the gentrification and subsequent displacement and homogenization of Kreuzberg as well as Friedrichshain after their unification. One of Hochmuth’s aims with the book is to illuminate the historical roots of this present-day gentrification and privatization of public space. The book provides a fascinating thick description of the cultural background to these processes. The nuances of the contemporary mechanisms and dynamics around these problems are arguably less elaborated. Hochmuth emphasizes the cultural aspect as a cause behind contemporary gentrification, the subversive culture of the 1960s and 1970s being turned to the advantage of financial profit. There is a kind of soft polemic against theories that emphasize more economic mechanisms behind gentrification, though they are scarcely discussed at length. Gentrification’s main theoretician Neil Smith, for instance, is never cited. It could also be discussed whether it is helpful to presume a strict dichotomy between cultural and economic mechanisms, rather than exploring their overlaps and interconnections.

While Hochmuth does describe the vigorous resistance to gentrification and privatization as historically rooted in the very same counterculture, it is mainly theorized as cultural force inadvertently facilitating gentrification. Gentrification is viewed as a quite organic process rather than something socially produced. A more thorough discussion of possible internal contradictions and fissures between the different socioeconomic segments inside this countercultural milieu would be interesting. I am left uncertain as to whether a more complex and ambiguous, yet equally valid, genealogy of the causes, actors, and processes involved could be constructed. Furthermore, while Hochmuth repeatedly describes the imagined picture of Kreuzberg’s bohemian culture and history as highly mythologized, he views the cultural force behind subsequent gentrification as more obvious, direct and unmediated. In this context, a discussion regarding the use of history and historiographical concepts such as myth and nostalgia might have been interesting and productive. To what extent was the actual culture of Kreuzberg the driving force behind this gentrification process, as opposed to a production of myths and imaginations in a place-making process mediated by political and economic interests? It seems to be a complex and yet unsettled matter.
At the Edge of the Wall is principally a historiography of the dynamics of the private and public sphere in the time when Berlin was divided, and it also offers a valuable background to analogous present-day problems. Furthermore, it provides a rich account of the dual history of cultural change and economic restructuring in post-socialist Europe. The methodological and theoretical framework is fascinating and productive. The book will be of interest to students and researchers in the field of urban history in post-socialist Europe as well anyone engaged in modern urban historical research in general. It will be interesting to see how it might come to influence future studies of public and private spheres in urban history.≈


1 Neil Smith, The new urban frontier: gentrification and
the revanchist city, (Routledge: London, 1996).
2 See Hochmuth, 6, 127, 240, 242, 246, 307.

  • by Samuel Faber

    PhD-Candidate in History at Stockholm University. His research is focused on modern urban history and the neoliberalization of housing policies in Sweden and Denmark.

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At the Edge of the Wall: Public and Private Spheres in Divided Berlin, Hanno Hochmuth, (Berghahn Books: New York, 2021), 358 pages.