A place to escape

In DDR times the Mocca-Milchbar, today Café Albert, was a place to getaway from the ubiquitous gray. A place that remains special to this day.

The merest hint of spring is enough to fill the tables on Café Albert’s terrace. A majority of the cafés guests have no idea of its historical significance. It was one of the main meeting spots for East Germany’s rebels and was (allegedly) the only place to get hold of cannabis. But that is just a rumor. What we can be certain of is that there were 167 seats spread over two levels and that the ambience could be described as “socialist cool”. Plastic chairs scraped irritatingly on stone flooring and the serving staff was notoriously uncommunicative.

Nevertheless: owing to a lack of real alternatives, this is where critical spirits gathered. Of course, they were under constant surveillance from the state security service, the Stasi. As reported by one of the cafés employees in 1967: “Five distinct groups have formed this year in the Milch-Mocca-Eisbar. (…) The young people in the main group, which is made up of approximately 30 people, tend to wear their hair long. Almost all of them wear Parka coats (hoods, sewn on patches. (…) It is to be assumed that most of these young people are either unwilling to learn or have a poor work ethic.” Another report contained words like “work-shy” and “slackers”. In between serving milkshakes, the spy claimed to have seen enough to report that “… almost all of these young people have a negative attitude towards social conditions in the DDR.”

mem-film.de - photocase.de
image courtesy of mem-film.de / photocase.de

What a shame that so many of these slandered young people were the offspring of acclaimed artists, actors and scientists. The Stasi thought nothing of informing the parents of the children’s behavior and the feedback they got wasn’t always in keeping with the state’s wishes: there were a number of parents, particularly those who were important to the DDR, who protested against the interference. And protested at the highest levels. The result: surveillance at the Mocca Bar continued and the files became ever thicker, but there was a strange kind of vacuum around the place, as the authorities took no action against the bustling activity at the café. At the same time as students in Paris and West Berlin were developing a taste for protest, East Berlin’s Mocca Bar in the 1960s was little more than a refuge from the restrictions of everyday life. And the Stasi was keeping an eye on things: “Parties during the summer of 1967: 9”. As in the West, the line between political protest and individual rebellion was a fluid one. Those who met at the “Mokke” accepted the long queues in return for the taste of freedom with like-minded fellow travellers. And to be admired by visitors who had travelled up from Halle and Suhl. The regulars always sat at the most visible tables with a clear view of the door. It never made sense to look for your friends on the first floor: none of the regulars were ever upstairs. The same went for the tables at the back, on the right, under the stairs. This corner was always blocked off with a barrier: “reserved”. But this had more to do with a widespread problem found in most socialist cafés and restaurants: staff was hard to come by.

For those living in the DDR’s provinces, Berliners were snobs who had more of everything than they really needed. But ice cream was something for everyone: and nowhere was it as good as here, nowhere was it such good value. Three scoops of ice cream cost 95 Pfennigs and a Raspberry Cream Shake was just 1.05 Marks. The “Turkish” ice cream sundae was unrivalled, with a generous sprinkling of brittle praline over the scoops of coffee and chocolate ice cream for 1.55 Marks. The ice cream parlor closed with the collapse of the DDR. It stayed closed for years and even suffered two fires in the intervening years. Now, in 2015, spring is in the air. The first few customers are already soaking up the sun on Café Albert’s terrace. Life is beautiful. The cafés guests park their luxury cars directly outside or in the spaces in the middle of the street. All where the guests can keep an eye on them from the cafés expansive front windows. Whenever I stroll past the Mocca Bar, I can’t help but remember their first year, which makes me all the more happy that my first experiences of this Allee came after the Wall fell. I know how things once were.