It was the decade of young rebels from the beginnings of the environmentalist movement in Germany to peace demonstrations in the East and the West. A study shows: Germans remember the 80s with a deep sense of nostalgia.
Remember the 1983 hit song “99 Luftballons” (also known for its English translation, “99 Red Balloons”) sung by German artist Nena? There was no escape from this iconic tune that year. From the Hofgarten in Bonn – the public gardens in Germany’s former capital, where tens of thousands had formed a human chain to demonstrate for peace that summer – to the airwaves reaching either side of the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War.
It was an era, when culture and politics could not have been any further removed from one another. This is exactly how many people remember those exciting days, the rebellious 1980s: an era that saw more political events unfolding in quick succession and thus affecting the world of art and subculture than any other post-war decade.
Study confirms: most Germans prefer the 80s
An online-survey conducted by the research center YouGov, which was carried out on behalf of the German news agency DPA, shows that the 80s are indeed still Germany’s favorite decade. When asked in which post-war decade Germans would like to live, 23 percent opted for the 1980s, followed by 18 percent who preferred the 1970s, and 13 percent who decided in favor of the 1990s and the 2010s, respectively. Only 9 percent gave preference to the 1960s, and a mere 5 percent to the 2000s, with the 1950s being the least preferred decade with only 4 percent.
The results of the study should hardly come as a surprise, as in the past few years a number of publications dealing with the subculture of the 80s became international bestsellers. There was also a great deal of hype around several exhibitions on art of the 80s. And more recently, German television, in cooperation with international broadcasters, showed a whole series on 1983 called “Deutschland ’83” featuring images of teenagers in torn jeans taking to the streets and revolting against their parents while listening to the musical stylings of the day called “Neue Deutsche Welle” (not to be confused with Deutsche Welle).
Berlin – the place to be in the 80s
In various surveys in the past few years, Berlin has repeatedly turned out to be among the world’s three favorite cities, particularly among young people.
This trend cannot be interpreted in isolation but has to be understood within the context of the remnants from the 1980s that are still dotted all across the city. Most visitors flock to the remains of the Wall that once divided Berlin. Many young people say that it is the main attraction of the city, as the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the few events to shed a positive light on Germany – especially since this event came about in a peaceful fashion and without a single shot being fired.
Protests, demonstrations and rallies
The years preceding the fall of the wall on November 9, 1989, were politically charged in a way that the world has not seen ever since. Young people organized major demonstrations in former East Germany, which then used to be called the German Democratic Republic (GDR), under the banner “Wir sind das Volk!” (translation: “we are the people”), campaigning for a peaceful and democratic new order.
Meanwhile in the former West Germany, people joined peace marches and human chains across the country in the early 1980s, protesting against the escalating arms race of the world’s superpowers.
Many also took part in demonstrations against the construction of nuclear power plants, with a now-iconic a yellow sticker attached to their jeans or leather jackets depicting the sun with a broad smile and feauring the words: “Nuclear power? No, thank you.”
In October 1983, 150,000 people took to the streets protesting NATO plans to station nuclear weapons in Western Europe and West Germany – among them the notorious Pershing II ballistic missiles. Despite the peace movement gaining considerable momentum and being actively backed by certain political heavyweights, including former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, the rockets still ended up being stationed in West Germany. It wasn’t before 1987 that the governments of the US and the then-Soviet Union agreed on a step-by-step disarmament process which saw the eventual departure of the Pershing II missiles from German soil.
Despite being defeated by NATO, German environmentalists and peace activists still managed to make considerable headway during the 80s:
In 1983, the Green Party moved into the Bundestag, the lower chamber of the German parliament. Their signature look consisting of handmade sweaters and worn-out sneakers on their feet was not only a matter of personal preference but a sign of defiance directed at other parliamentarians. One out of five Germans below the age of 24 voted for the newly established Green Party – or for other alternative movements – starting with provincial elections in the early 80s and gaining considerable momentum to last.
Later, during the political upheaval in the fall of 1989, parts of East Germany’s peace movement “Bündnis ’90” (translation: “Alliance for 1990”) joined the existing West German Green Party in time for the German Reunification. That’s why the party has since officially been known as “Bündnis 90/ Die Grünen” (translation: “Alliance for 90/the Greens”).
Sexual liberation – and AIDS
Germany also witnessed significant changes in attitudes towards homosexuality in the course of the 1980s. Sexual acts among men continued to be illegal in West Germany, whereas in East Germany, that prohibition was restricted to acts involving minors only. But beyond the question of legality, many homosexuals started to live their lifestyles quite openly in both German states. People could congregate in gay bars or night clubs without fear of persecution.
But that newly found freedom came under serious threat with the onset of the AIDS crisis. The first instance of the illness was recorded in 1981. It took three more years for HIV to be identified as being the cause of the disease. In both German states, broadcasters and schools initiated educational campaigns in a bid to combat the spread of the virus. In West Germany, almost 42,000 people got infected with HIV, with 5000 contracting AIDS by 1990. In contrast, only 133 East Germans got infected with the virus, with 27 dying of AIDS by 1990.
A new era of expression – beyond self-satisfied gallery art
Berlin, a divided city ruled under special military status, became a symbol for Germany’s transformation on many levels. Not only was it the frontline of the struggle to bring the two German states together again but it also became an unlikely island of peace amid warring world superpowers. With young men not qualifying for mandatory military conscription in West Berlin, the city became a safe haven for self-declared peaceniks and draft dodgers.
That spirit spilled over, affecing all layers of society as a departure from the sense of civil obendience of the 1950s and 60s. Anarchy and punk spread fast across Berlin, soon engulfing the world of art and culture, especially in districts that were located in close proximity to the Berlin Wall, such as Kreuzberg.
In Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne, groups of artists also tried to defy the avantgarde movement, joining anarchy and punk instead, and breaking the conventions of art, which at art galleries across Germany appeared to be in a self-satisfied deadlock at that time. These artists took to calling themselves “Die Jungen Wilden” (translation: “the young wild ones”), and their way of expression though art became known as their self-styled “Heftige Malerei” (translation: “fierce painting”). Once they had started to gain popular recognition, the mainstream art scene took to referring to them as “neo-expressionists.”
Meanwhile in East Berlin, districts such as Prenzlauer Berg became the new stomping grounds of “Die Jungen Wilden,” where derelict old buildings started to be repurposed, serving as studio spaces for anarchic creativity. This was long before the days when living in lofts and warehouses had become a mainstream trend.
Bring back 99 Red Balloons!
The spirit of those years can still be felt across Berlin – although its wildest days appear to be buried in the past. Yet it remains a stronghold of artistic expression that has spread its ideas around the world and continues to thrive in its own right as well.
The 80s, marked by the arms race of the Cold War, offered a conveniently simple worldview on ideas pertaining to who was the enemy that needed to be defeated; the world was an incredibly polarized place. Things have become much more complicated since. But the paradigm-shifiting event that closed the chapter on the 80s – the fall of the Berlin Wall – still makes people around world feel sentimental. Germans in particular still get teary-eyed to the lyrics of “Wind of Change” by the “Scorpions.”
Yet in other ways, certain things seem not to have changed much or appear to be going through a repeat of sorts. Against the backdrop of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the West is once more finding itself at odds with Russia, while Germany receives refugees in their hundreds of thousands in a way that is almost reminiscent of the German reunification, when – almost overnight – there were an extra 16 million mouths to feed in a country that was busy redefining itself culturally, politically, and artistically.
Thirty years on, the idea of human chains almost seems naive in a day and age when revolutions take place on social media, and yet appear to be not that far removed from the peaceful reality that many people crave. That’s why, perhaps, the bittersweet memory of “99 Red Balloons” remains as such a powerful image in Germany.