The surprising history behind Berlin's techno club scene All-night clubs in the German capital have long drawn "techno tourists." That might never have happened had a hotelier failed to negotiate the end of the city's curfew following World War II.

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

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Berlin is famous for a round-the-clock club scene that draws tourists from all over. It might never have been possible but for a frustrated hotel owner at the beginning of the Cold War and a bottle of whiskey. NPR's Bobby Allyn shares that slice of history from Berlin.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Going to a Berlin club is like entering a different world. Inside the city's most famous club, Berghain, the techno music literally shakes your body. Smoke machines, cigarettes and throbbing strobe lights make you feel like you're hallucinating.


ALLYN: People are dancing, wearing sunglasses. Sometimes that's the only thing they're wearing. Outside, the line can stretch for five hours or longer on some days, and if the bouncer doesn't like your vibe, too bad. You'll be denied at the door. Chris Cosslin (ph) was waiting in line on a recent morning, hoping he'd get in.

CHRIS COSSLIN: For a lot of people, especially in Berlin, clubbing is not like, oh, I want to go party and want to get wasted. It's more like a lifestyle, more like a hobby to go out and dance and connect with people.

ALLYN: One key ingredient of this lifestyle - Berlin has no curfew, meaning clubs and bars can stay open all night or for many days in a row without closing.

COSSLIN: You can literally spend days in the club, get food - I see people who brush their teeth there.

ALLYN: The no curfew law has a backstory, and it dates to 1949. Berlin was divided. The western half was controlled by European and American allies. The east was occupied by the Soviet Union. And there was a standoff. East Berlin kept pushing back the closing time of its bars so that they stayed open longer than those in the west. So if West Berlin had last call at 9 p.m., the east would say, all right, we're making ours 10 p.m.

KNUT HOFMEISTER: The idea was they want to lure the Western Berliners into the eastern part and then infiltrate them with communism (laughter).

ALLYN: That's Knut Hofmeister. He's a Berlin filmmaker who's examined this chapter of German history. Communism persuasion may have been part of the reason for the extended bar hours, but the east was also eager for the extra business. One hotel owner in the west had enough. His name was Heinz Zellermayer.

HOFMEISTER: He made the suggestion, we abolish closing time - no closing time in West Berlin at all.

ALLYN: Zellermayer made this pitch to the three leaders running West Berlin after the war. The British said no. They worried about pubgoers getting too rowdy. But the Americans and the French were persuaded by Zellermayer, who, legend has it, made his case over a bottle of whiskey. Part of his argument was ending the curfew was an act of freedom, a testament to Western values. And it worked. By a 2 to 1 vote, West Berlin's curfew was abolished. Here's Dimitri Hagemann, who founded Tresor, one of the longest-running clubs in Berlin.

DIMITRI HEGEMANN: He got off the bus 10 minutes later, and from that day on, you know, Berlin enjoys a young night every day. And after the wall came down, this was one of the most important points that this new night culture could start, you know?

ALLYN: Zellermayer, who died in 2011, isn't widely known but is something of a folk hero among Berlin club owners like Hegemann. Some even call Zellermayer the ubermeister of Berlin's bar and club scene. According to the Berlin Club Commission, so-called techno tourism draws more than 3 million people to the city every year.

HEGEMANN: It became a real attraction for the city, and also, it was - became an economic force. And the nighttime economy started.

ALLYN: The relentless pulse of Berlin's club scene, though, met its match in the global pandemic. It forced all-night businesses to close for the first time in more than 70 years. But generous government subsidies kept the venues afloat. They've since reopened, and club owners and partiers say enthusiasm is higher than ever, which is welcome news to Hegemann, whose club Tresor recently celebrated its 31st anniversary. He says the city's lack of curfew has led to creative and business collaborations.

HEGEMANN: The best ideas are born after 3:30 in the morning, you know? That's true.

ALLYN: He says it's not just hedonism and escapism, but clubs have become idea incubators.

HEGEMANN: People come together. We met and said, hey; we want to join this movement to do something. Maybe we open tomorrow a gallery or coffee shop or something like that. So I think techno has changed Berlin, has changed Europe, has changed the world.

ALLYN: None of it would have been possible, Hegemann says, if clubs had to close their doors at 2 a.m. Bobby Allyn, NPR News, Berlin.


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