How one Glass of Whisky Changed the Way Berliners Partied Forever

In broad daylight on a Sunday in Berlin, whether you’re having brunch with a friend or sat on your couch, the chances are that you’ll get a tempting invite to go to Berghain. Whether you walk into a club freshly showered, or are reaching the last leg of your weekend marathon with Friday confetti still in your hair, the possibility is yours to turn a night out into a four-day weekend. The reason why Berlin has become a party playground all falls down to the legendary Heinz Zellermeyer; the man who managed to drop the city’s curfew law over a glass of whiskey.

Clubs in Berlin can be open for days at a time, the equivalent of a festival anywhere else in the world. The beginning or final destination could be anywhere from Kater Blau’s SASOMO – Saturdaysundaymonday – to Sisyphos’ ‘Freitag bis Montag ohne Stopp’ which have three to four night weekend benders. You have the choice to decide when your night in the city ends and most clubs are furnished in a way to tempt you in staying. There is always a means of escaping the techno sweatbox within the very confines of the club itself. Old comfortable couches, a fireplace in the courtyard and breakfast bars serving fresh Muesli made with love after sunrise. Club Mate, one of Berlin’s famed hipster, caffeine-infused drinks, is even available to keep you going once the thought of alcohol starts to churn your stomach.

It is due to the work of Heinz Zellermeyer that we have to thank for this, a man Tresor’s Dimitri Hegemann paid due respect to in a recent Facebook post.

‘Ravers, punks and police (they also like to have a drink now and then), all you dancing freaks and night owls; you should at least once mutter into your glass the following: ‘Thank you very much Heinz Zellermayer’.

Zellermayer, who always thought the curfew was ridiculous, was a legendary hotelier and influential politician. After the Second World War, Zellermayer and his sister Ilsa stood in front of a half-ruined, formerly occupied, building – their father’s ‘Hotel am Steinplatz’ – with no financial means to change its destitute state. Thanks to Zellermayer’s drive, that all changed and it eventually became a nucleus from which his hotel empire was born. Having held an honorary position in the hotel and restaurant industry, Zellermayer opened the Schultheiß-Bräuhaus by the Kurfürstendamm in 1952. Always politically active, Zellermeyer then went on to work as a German CDU parliamentarian for several decades. Politics and hotels aside, Zellermeyer is best known for his remarkable act of bravery which from July 1949 resulted in bars and clubs no longer having to close and paved the way for Berlin’s reputation as a city with no limits.

1948 Berlin was a city occupied by the four allies, sub-divided into its respective sectors. The British, French, Russian and American officials were not only geographically divided, but also politically, with the result that, as in many cases, they couldn’t even agree on a curfew for the city. Competition between the east and west affected all areas of life so that the debate over gastronomical opening times was not sufficiently trivial to be precluded from the Cold War power struggle.

Historian Wilfried Rott, explains that once the Russians invaded Berlin, they stealthily increased their food and beverage opening times by one hour from 21h to 22h with a view to attract and intoxicate West Berliners, whose intoxication would make them more susceptible to communist ideology. The western response was, of course, to increase their curfew to 23h creating a battle over the drinkers that reached its climax at 24h.

Zellermeyer saw this battle as a window of opportunity to push for an outright abolition. After the blockade, his efforts were not only owed to a population whose city was reduced to an island, but also to his own hotel employees who were struggling for their life. He pitched the idea to the British and French who wanted none of it. Instead he turned to the Americans, after being tipped off that US Colonel Frank Howley was never averse to a whiskey. “So I went to him, we drank a whiskey, he had security concerns, we drank another whisky.”

“Without him nightlife in Berlin would be as dull as it is in Bonn and as expensive as in London"

“Unrest doesn’t result from people being allowed to drink but when the innkeeper is forced to kick boozers out of their bar because of the curfew,” suggested Zellermeyer convincingly. Howley had another reason to warm to the idea: unlimited opening hours would be a concrete example of American freedom and liberalism, abstract ideas lost in rhetoric that could be physically experienced round the clock every night.

In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung, Zellermeyer explains, “I proposed that we could initially try it out for 14 days. I said, if it doesn’t work, then we wouldn’t, which he found OK…In the same day I let all the gastronomers know that there would not be a curfew today. I also called the President of the Police, Johannes Stumm, whom I knew well. He said that he didn’t yet receive anything written on the matter. So I said, I’m sorry but everyone already knows, and quickly hung up.”

The test never ended and from one day to the next the lack of curfew became the norm, transforming Berlin back into the party haven in once was during the roaring 1920s, making it distinct from all other German, and even most European, cities. In the words of Tresor’s Dimitri Hegemann, “without him nightlife in Berlin would be as dull as it is in Bonn and as expensive as in London."

Zellermayer’s actions make him as famous as the Great Train Robbery’s Ronnie Biggs. His actions even extended to that of the ever-beloved German ‘Späti’. When the government announced that it would enforce closing times for Spätis on Sundays and public holidays, the idea of regulated opening and closing times caused a public out-cry which led to a 300,000 signature petition against the motion. Although it was never legal for Spätis to be open then in the first place, they silently followed the footsteps of clubs to broaden the array of food and beverage available in the city’s early hours.

And remember the smoking ban? Yeah right. Inga Höltmann for the Tagesspiegel, who believes that putting Berlin in the same sentence as curfew is a misnomer, writing, “Do we really want a curfew for a city which has an emblem that looks like an oversized discoball?”