Nightlife and nightclubs are firmly anchored in the German cultural landscape. Nevertheless, the future of German nightclubs is precarious, as shown in particular by the impact of the measures taken to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of nightclubs’ deep historical roots in Germany’s social and cultural life, it’s clear that times of crisis call for more, not less, governmental and societal promotion of German club culture.
March 2021 saw the publication of the illustrated book Hush - Berlin Club Culture in Times of Silence, a photographic review of Berlin nightclubs during the pandemic lockdown in 2020–2021. The photos show a visual paradox: instead of exuberant parties, as expected in a publication on nightlife, empty dance floors and the deserted entrances of popular clubs in Berlin’s downtown area appear. The images make clear that the nightclub lives in its protagonists, without whom it is just a backdrop without content.
In supplementary interviews in Hush, people involved in nightlife describe the problematic nature of Germany’s COVID-19 policy and the nightclub’s status as “the last link in the chain” in terms of funding measures and other government support. This omission is surprising because nightlife—especially in the German capital, Berlin—has become a fundamental part of city marketing and plays a crucial role in the local economic landscape. During the lockdown in 2020–2021, numerous protest marches took place in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany; protesters demanded a reduction of the pandemic measures to revive this cultural and social milieu and return the benefits of nightlife to German cities.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the importance of German nightclubs as meeting places and spaces for social interaction. Culture is not merely expressed and performed in these places, but it is also explored and expanded. Nightclubs are an elementary part of cultural life in Germany, but little assistance is offered by the state to maintain their operation, especially in times of crisis.
Given the pivotal role nightclubs hold in German cultural life, should the right to party be a human right? What are the reasons for promoting German club culture more and understanding it as an elementary cultural component?
The legal basis: For the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, the fundamental rights of citizens were restricted in the context of the containment of the COVID-19 pandemic. The measures had to pass a theoretical stress test, which examines the appropriateness, expected success, and reasonableness of the restrictions. Reasonableness, in particular, is a controversial issue that can be assessed differently depending on, e.g., age and social affiliation: opinions varied widely, especially on the permanent closure of nightclubs, particularly in the German state of Berlin. The primary purposes of nightclubs, such as the consumption of alcohol and music and collective dancing, were often invoked. However, nightlife venues also fulfill other functions.
Club culture as a fundamental right? The freedom of the arts is protected under Article 5, paragraph 5 of the German Basic Law and thus constitutes a fundamental right. Since 2020, the German initiative Kultur ins Grundgesetz (Culture into the Basic Law) has been campaigning for this section of German legislation to be more than just lip service regarding freedom and the arts, advocating that promoting and participating in cultural activities should form a basic right. Nightclubs would also benefit from this recognition. An important step in this direction was taken by the Senate of Berlin in November 2020, which recognized nightclubs in the German capital as official cultural venues like opera houses and theaters and no longer simply places of entertainment.
Club culture as a cultural constant of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: Already in the year 1931, at the end of the epoch of the Weimar Republic, the German author Konrad Haemmerling published the morality tale Ein Führer durch das lasterhafte Berlin (A Guide through Depraved Berlin) under his alias Curt Moreck. Moreck describes the rising expansion of Berlin’s nightlife at this time, which was popular not only because of the introduction of the 40-hour work week and the resulting increase in the amount of free time available to the citizens but also because of performances of international artists like Josephine Baker. After closures caused by Nazi politics and the aftermath of World War II, the first discotheques opened in France and England in the 1950s—Germany followed later in the decade, playing music from records instead of a live band. Since then, the nightclub has been a constant in the German cultural landscape, not only providing a nucleus for DJs, visual artists, and fashion trends but also featured artistically in literature and film. Examples include Rainald Goetz’s novella Rave and the movie Magical Mystery or: The Return of Karl Schmidt, which shows the euphoric beginnings of the techno scene in Germany.
The nightclub as an intercultural meeting place: In the 1990s, a techno scene emerged in German nightclubs, where people partied together regardless of social status, education, and cultural background. This scene was considered a social equalizer: citizens of the former GDR and West Germany came together on the dance floors and celebrated their own definition of reunification. In the following years, venues became more and more internationalized. Clubs like the Robert Johnson in Offenbach and Berlin’s Sisyphos have continued to serve as melting pots of different nationalities, languages, and sexual orientations, both in the DJ booth and on the dance floor.
Nightclubs as social places of modernity: There are differences between a symposium in ancient Greece and a rave in Berlin’s techno club Berghain in the twenty-first century, but perhaps not significant ones. The music, the proceedings, and the social milieux of the participants have changed over the centuries, as have the venues. What has remained the same is the goal of intellectual diversion, networking, gathering with like-minded people, and listening to music. The nightclub of the present day can be understood as a social meeting place meant not only for consumption but also for celebrating and negotiating zeitgeist—the cultural, intellectual, and social climate of the time.
Many clubs around the world have extended their opening hours in recent decades, and parties take place during the day or for several days in a row, like the SASOMO event series at the Berlin club Kater Blau (an abbreviation of the days they are open: Saturday, Sunday, Monday). “Nightlife” is thus increasingly becoming a fluid term that no longer refers only to events after dark on weekends—it includes Mondays during daylight hours and is embedded in the everyday life of metropolitan areas.
We can no longer look at nightclubs as mere entertainment venues. The needs that these social and political sites serve were decidedly made more clear by the COVID-19 pandemic. Full recognition of these nightlife venues and their functions for social life is necessary to ensure continued operation in the future, particularly in times of gentrification and real estate shortages. Nightclubs are essential places for social gatherings and the establishment and continuation of youth and cultural movements, which often find refuge only in nightlife.