Cautious occupiers and restrained bureaucrats ...

8th Nov 2017

Cautious occupiers and restrained bureaucrats: Schwarzwohnen in the German Democratic Republic. Somewhat different from squatting

A new paper by Udo Grashoff is now available online.

This paper is part of a forthcoming Special Issue entitled: Transcending (in)formal urbanism 



Throughout the history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), thousands of East Germans lived in flats occupied without state permission. What factors enabled and what practices shaped both the emergence and the persistence of informal housing in an East European dictatorship? The socialist authorities did not tolerate informality but contrary to the totalitarian rhetoric of state and party officials, local bureaucrats endeavoured to transform the grey zone of unauthorised housing dubbed ‘Schwarzwohnen’ into black (illegal) or white (legal). The high frequency of legalisation highlights the relative autonomy of these ‘social gatekeepers’. A partial identity of interests between informal occupiers of flats (Schwarzwohner) and the state led to the blurring of boundaries between formal and informal practices. A substantial proportion of Schwarzwohner, however, had little or no contact with authorities, which is indicative of a partly dysfunctional dictatorship. At the same time, Schwarzwohnen developed several unique features different from the squatting of buildings in the Global North-West and from informal settlements in the Global South, most notably a far-reaching compliance with the law which sometimes included unsolicited rent payments. In addition, Schwarzwohner used specific tactics to achieve legalisation such as ‘consentful contention’. The effect of the informality was ambiguous as it undermined the state’s authority but alleviated the housing shortage and thus (unintentionally) stabilised the state at the same time. Schwarzwohnen vanished with the GDR but has been partly revitalised by the ‘Guardian House’ scheme in several East German cities.


You can access and read the full paper here

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