Our student ambassador, Thea, reports on her Silvester experience in Berlin!
New Year’s Eve in Berlin can be startling for anyone who subscribes to the stereotype of the orderly, law-abiding German citizen. Perhaps because it’s only legal to set off fireworks on December 31st and January 1st, Berliners go all-out, cramming a year’s worth of explosives into less than twenty-four hours. There are probably still some rules governing exactly where and how residents are permitted to set off their fireworks, but you wouldn’t know it from the scenes on the streets, which have drawn complaints from pensioners for whom the explosions are an unwelcome reminder of the war. Ambulances and fire brigades are put on high alert, visibility reduces to mere metres as smoke fills the sky, and every year brings a renewed round of hand-wringing about unregulated explosives illegally imported from eastern Europe. The Oxford-based friends who visited me during my year abroad in 2014 weren’t convinced they would make it back to the UK with all their limbs still attached.
German officials, meanwhile, see things somewhat differently. The firework-related concern this year had nothing to do with the startling number of explosives being let off in the streets – rather, after November’s Paris terror attacks, the authorities were worried about the prospect of a similar assault on the official festivities at the Brandenburg Gate. Revellers on the ‘party mile’ between the Gate and the Victory Column were searched at the entrance and forbidden from carrying rucksacks and large bags, while the nearby Tiergarten was fully fenced off for the first time, after being searched for unsanctioned explosives.
My Berliner friends were not so much sanguine about as entirely disinterested in the possibility of a terror attack, dismissing the Brandenburg Gate party as an irrelevance attended only by tourists. Why would you want to go to a state-sanctioned celebration full of bad music and extortionately-priced Currywurst when you could be out on the streets with your own fireworks? As usual, the true spirit of Berlin – a mixture of drink, drugs and good-natured lawlessness – wasn’t to be found anywhere near its officially-controlled centre.
Several hours – and pints – later, I found myself rushing from the bar we’d taken up residence in to Hermannstraße, the main road of the trendy Neukölln district, in time for midnight to strike. The sky was misty gold from all the smoke, strangers were embracing, and the explosions were so loud that I couldn’t even hear my friends wishing me a happy New Year. We strolled along Hermannstraße to take it all in, dodging the firecrackers thrown into the road and under the feet of passers-by, ducking explosions that gave the impression that the sky was falling in, and pausing briefly to film a photo booth that appeared to be on fire. Turning back towards our bar, I was just in time to witness a man light a rocket from (what looked like) the joint he was smoking.
While my first experience of a Berlin New Year terrified me, my second made me a convert. Sure, I wouldn’t want to drive one of the taxis that Berliners seem to take as targets for their rockets and firecrackers, but successfully wandering the explosion-filled streets without injury didn’t just make me feel happy about the new year: it made me feel immortal. If I had to venture a hypothesis about the psychological underpinnings of the apocalyptic New Year’s celebrations, I’d say it has something to with Berlin’s crisis-ridden history. For a city that has consistently embodied the notion of a party at the end of the world, what better way to celebrate continued survival than this deliberate, strangely life-affirming collective chaos?
Thea, OGN Student Ambassador