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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Alec Empire: The Musical Riot of German Reunification

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

Founder of the Atari Teenage Riot collective, Alec Empire is a key figure in Berlin in the 1990s. A political actor in a context of renewal of German identities.


The 1990s: Berlin Reinvents Itself

Alec Empire is a true performer.

Alec Empire is a true performer and a character of dark charisma. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the East German state opened up a troubled period in Berlin, where possibilities multiplied. Some, such as the American intellectual Francis Fukuyama, proclaimed the 'end of history' and the complete victory of liberal democracy. For others, the absence of an ideological counterweight to the capitalist model suggested an unacceptable risk of political status quo and cultural stagnation.


Until then, West Berlin, as a territorial enclave, cultivated difference and rebellion. Its culture was primarily political: it occupied public space and, if it did not seek to politically educate individuals, especially young people, it at least strived to create identity strongholds. This counterculture was intertwined with the rhythms of punk and industrial music, squats, demonstrations, and autonomous parties.


Already the oppositions between alternatives and radicals were apparent, with the latter accusing the former of renouncing political commitment and accepting a lifestyle that was ultimately 'conformist'. The 'end of history' accelerated the ongoing split and many migrated to the former East Berlin. New centers of protest emerged, offering places for collective experimentation. The counterculture retained its punk attributes and merged them with electronic music, which had been democratizing since the end of the 1980s.


However, the swiftness and supposed inevitability of historical events burdened the movement, which became radicalized in its most avant-garde cultural forms. Thus, in 1992, the group Atari Teenage Riot (ATR) was founded.


Alec Empire and Political Anchoring


One of the founding members of the group is Alexander Wilke-Steinhof, who goes by the stage name Alec Empire. Born in 1972 in West Berlin, he grew up in a highly politicized family environment, anchored in the left and the anti-fascist struggle. In the 1980s, he discovered a musical vocation that became the vehicle for his political commitment. Disappointed by rap music, which he considered commercially corrupt, and punk music, which he found outdated, he gravitated towards the rave party scene and adopted the policies of urban reappropriation advocated by the autonomous movement.


Thus, ATR should be seen as a political tool, with its foundation primarily a reaction to the emergence of an extreme right-wing scene in former East Germany, particularly in Berlin. In a sense, the art group evolved into a political organization.


A Violent and Radical Soundsystem

Atari Teenege Riot advocates antifascism.

Alec Empire promotes autonomy and antifascism. He stands in cultural opposition to the Love Parade phenomenon, accusing it of spreading the illusion of consensus and peaceful coexistence that is unattainable as long as the capitalist system exists. Instead of the bright, vibrant sounds of the Love Parade, he prefers harsh sounds and brutal, violent language, where the punk roots are enhanced by the industrial contribution.


The musical act isn't intended to induce trance, but to arouse revolt and political commitment. On the fringes of the autonomous parties, the group produced several albums until its dissolution in 2000. Their vehement songs, calling for the destruction of Germany, advocating violent responses to injustice, and reviving the symbols of the armed urban guerrilla groups of the 1970s, propelled them to the forefront of the autonomous scene and gained them international fame.


The German authorities reacted on several occasions, notably by censoring their 1996 album, 'The Future of War', which condemned the racism of the reunified state. On May 1, 1999, the group contributed to the urban riots through its music, which witnessed serious clashes between the police and autonomous protesters. In fact, it was a real last stand for a band that embodied the radical Berlin of the early 1990s.


The Future No Longer Exists


Alec Empire is at the forefront of Digital Hardcore, a style that fuses punk and electro, for which he sets the musical and militant foundations. He proposes a political program that engraves the riot in music.


However, it would be a mistake to assume that the collective he founded was a broad social phenomenon. Its political influence was minor and confined to small circles. It would also be incorrect to think that ATR intended to replace traditional political action, at least that of the anarchist, autonomous, or anti-fascist traditions.


Alec Empire called for resistance, anger, and violence against the state, fascism, and bourgeois conformism, but simultaneously had a very lucid approach to the feasibility and success of a more general upheaval of society. More than a rejection of the future, it was the absence of a future that he denounced. The current he initiated could only exist within a certain timeframe, necessarily limited.


Artists Facing Historical Upheaval

Alec Empire claims to be an anarcho-syndicalist.

Periods of significant upheaval often provoke a surge of creative energy in their early stages. Certain artists and thinkers, previously constrained by conventional and 'normal' systems of representation, seize the opportunity of an event, a period of effervescence, to advance their works and writings. They become fellow travelers of a movement from which they draw inspiration, and which they influence in return. The relationship is dialectical.


This phenomenon appears regularly in history. In 1917, many Surrealists and Constructivists joined the ranks of the Russian Revolution. The decolonial and democratic rights struggles of the 1960s created a favorable context for the cultural liberation movement. One could even draw a parallel between the great explorations and the Renaissance's third period.


These historical interludes are intense but also brief. As the window of opportunity closes, the cultural emulation fades and disappears.


Against a Certain Idea of German Reunification


The collective founded by Alec Empire also fits within a specific historical dynamic, that of German reunification. However, the relationship is antagonistic because Alec Empire opposes the movement. His perspective is extremely pessimistic, as he considers this newfound national unity to be one of the worst possibilities, an ideological defeat in every respect.


As such, Alec Empire is a product of a dying world, an old world to which the 'end of history' was proclaimed. The art form could only intensify. Beyond the message he conveyed and the intrinsic quality of his music, he serves as an excellent indicator of a troubled historical period and, despite himself, stands as one of the faces resisting a particular vision of German reunification. Afterward, he pursued a solo DJ career with some success and attempted a second iteration of ATR, but it failed to ignite the fervor of the 1990s."

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