Gentrification of Berlin stirs protests with neo-Nazi tinge

From the Vancouver Sun.

Campaign against wealthy Swabians buying in blue-collar neighbourhood uses Nazi imagery

The gentrification of rundown city neighbourhoods is a matter of anxiety and outrage worldwide just as in Vancouver. But in Berlin what started as a joke has developed into a bitter campaign with neo-Nazi overtones.

In the German capital’s working-class Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood, an influx of affluent Swabians from the country’s south scooping up relatively cheap housing in what was once one of the grimmer areas of grim East Berlin has sparked fierce resistance.

The district’s residents, proud of their blue-collar heritage in the old communist East Germany, have taken to hard-edged mocking of the southerners from Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg states for their distinct dialect, frugal habits and bourgeois ways.

Swabians have long been the target of jokes in Germany because of their accents and reputation for humourlessness.

Berliners, however, have in recent years had to face the inconvenient truth that it was the parsimonious Swabian states that played a major role in financing the revival of Berlin after reunification in 1989.

But in Germany, and especially in Berlin where the Nazis in the 1930s set in motion their schemes for the genocide of Jews, homosexuals, Roma and other distinct groups, the singling out of any culture for attack rings alarm bells.

The campaign against the Swabians started in January and at first it seemed to be more of a joke than anything.

A group using the name “Free Swabylon” called for an autonomous Swabian district in Berlin and backed up its demand by decorating a statue of early 20th century artist Kathe Kollwitz, known for her sympathetic depictions of the poor and downtrodden, with those well-known Swabian traditional egg noodles, spaetzle.

However, what local newspapers quickly dubbed “the spaetzle wars” swiftly took on a sharper tone.

What has startled Berlin’s municipal councillors and federal politicians is that the graffiti being spray-painted on the district’s walls with ever-increasing regularity draws on instantly recognizable Nazi imagery for its attacks on the Swabians.

Some of the messages use the exact phrases the Nazis’ used in their propaganda against the Jews and other targeted groups.

“Graffiti of this kind is no trivial offence,” Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, told the newspaper Berliner Zeitung. Police will do all they can to track down those responsible, he said.

Sensitivities are heightened because in Munich, the Nazis’ base before gaining national power, there is a high-profile trial of a group of neo-Nazis.

The five people are accused of murdering, over seven years, eight men from among Germany’s community of three million immigrant Turks, a Greek man and a German policewoman.

Those warning bells about reviving group hatred clang even louder when mainstream politicians appear to jump on the bandwagon of social rifts.

Earlier this year Wolfgang Thierse, who as well as being a longtime resident of Prenzlauer Berg is vice-president of Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, told a local newspaper, the Berliner Morgenpost, that he felt like an endangered species in his own neighbourhood.

His complaint was that the Swabian new arrivals had begun to change the culture of the district to reflect the customs of their home states.

“I hope the Swabians realize they are now in Berlin and not in their little towns with their spring cleaning,” Thierse told the newspaper.

“They come here because it is so colourful and adventurous and lively,” he continued. “But after a while, they want to make it like it is back home. You can’t have both.”

The influx of people into Berlin, especially Swabians, began soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That immigration from Swabia has intensified in the past decade and the magazine Der Spiegel says Prenzlauer Berg in particular has been transformed “from communist workers’ district to posh family enclave, complete with yoga studios, preschools and organic cafes.”

At first after the fall of the wall, Berlin became a magnet for artists of all stripes eager to take part in the joyous project of creating a new entity out of the city’s previously divided parts.

Indeed, one of the great symbols of the creative zeal of the rejoining, the so-called “East Side Gallery” where artists painted on the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, is also a subject of anti-gentrification outrage.

A controversial investor plans a luxury apartment complex where part of the 1.3-kilometre-long “East Side Gallery” runs along what was known as the “death strip” between East and West Berlin.

Dismantling the wall had to be halted early in March after several angry protests by demonstrators wanting the wall saved and the development killed.

But then, late in the month and early one morning work, crews protected by about 250 policemen took down the sections of the wall impeding the development.

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