What started as a celebration by a few techno music fans in 1989 has since mushroomed into the world's biggest rave party.
To many young Europeans, the annual Love Parade has become as symbolic of the German capital as the Berlin Wall was to previous generations. The raucous annual processions draw more than a million people and have spawned offshoots in several cities around the world.
But this year, the fate of the greatest party this side of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro - and the tens of millions of dollars in revenues it generates - has been put in doubt by a small group of environmentalists opposed to the mess paraders leave behind for cleanup at taxpayer expense. Local activists put in an application for marching rights on the same day and route, scooping parade organizers.
The bureaucratic mixup has turned the city, which in the decade since German unification has scrupulously cultivated an image of easygoing coolness, into a national laughingstock. The weekly Der Spiegel called the rave "the latest victim of Berlin's mixture of nitpicking and megalomania."
In past years, local environmentalists watched with dismay as revelers trampled their way through Berlin's central park, the Tiergarten. The former hunting grounds of Prussian kings, the park was deemed the safest location in terms of crowd control. Yet in their wake, the partying masses inevitably altered the landscaping, leaving behind mountains of garbage and churning up trails of ravaged vegetation.
"If the Love Parade took an alternative route, I'd say it was a great success," says Hans-Heiner Steffenhagen, the retired accountant whose initiative to "Save the Tiergarten" has been granted permission to demonstrate in the park on the second Saturday in July - the same place and time usually reserved by ravers.
Love Parade organizers are not about to let a handful of environmentalists crash their gargantuan party, though. Because they have already advertised the event for July 14, and the Tiergarten is a natural location for mass gatherings, the ravemeisters are remaining stubborn. On Tuesday, parade spokesman Enric Nitzsche said at a press conference, held in a dark Berlin techno club, that "if the Love Parade doesn't take place there [in the Tiergarten], it won't take place at all in Berlin."
Ironically, the proponents of touchy-feely youth culture are counting on tradition and commerce to save this year's Love Parade. Techno - the thumping electronic tunes created by Berlin DJs - can rightfully be called a music form indigenous to the city. By dint of precedent, parade planners are counting on broad-based support. "The Love Parade grew up here and should take place here," says Mr. Nitzsche.
Politicians are intent on keeping the parade in the capital. A leading member of the environmental-oriented Green party was quoted as saying, "The rave must go on!" Even the most strait-laced Berlin politicians understand the value of the city's youth-friendly image propagated by the Love Parade. Cities around the world, from Cape Town and Tel Aviv to Moscow and Mexico City, are consulting with Berlin's techno maestros to hold their own parades.
More important, perhaps, city leaders know the event's financial value: some $115 million for hotel owners, club managers, and tour operators. The broadcast rights for the parade are worth nearly $1 million, and the city government also makes a net profit through tax revenues.
Yet the commercial aspect of the event is another gripe for environmentalists, and others opposed to the Love Parade. The current fiasco came about because parade organizers have consistently registered the rave as a political demonstration, thereby leaving security and cleanup costs to the city - but also running the risk that another group, such as Mr. Steffenhagen's environmentalists, could reserve the same spot.
"Of course I'm also annoyed that the Berlin taxpayer has to cover the costs, and that the organizers of the Love Parade don't pay a single pfennig because they can hide under the cloak of a political demonstration," says Steffenhagen. Pressed to describe the political nature of the Love Parade, Nitzsche sounds less than convincing, vaguely explaining that it does not promote one specific issue but rather the more general message of tolerance and nonviolence.
Some commentators have suggested that there is nothing inherently wrong with having a block party of global dimensions, but the city should finally give the event an official status and require parade organizers to share responsibilities.
This year, however, it's too late to make such arrangements. Love Parade organizers have decided not to challenge the environmentalist party-poopers in court and are poring over a compromise solution with city officials. A decision is expected before Easter.
Changing the date could cause a logistical nightmare for authorities, who fear that hundreds of thousands of youthful ravers would descend on the city anyway - without the necessary security and sanitary preparations. Parade planners are showing a willingness to alter the route of the procession.
A columnist for a Berlin daily has proposed the most elegant solution yet: Rather than challenge anybody, the revelers should simply join the environmentalists' demonstration and make it their own.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor