Xenophobia Posing as Social Activism in Berlin
Berlin woke up the over the weekend to an attack on a business on Rykestraße. A business was defaced with the graffito: “Kauft nicht bei Schwabn”. Don’t buy from Schwaben. It’s an attack that has provoked bad memories of the Jewish boycott 80 years ago in 1933.
Schwaben are Germans from the South-West, the area around Stuttgart. Their image: Schwaben are rich. Schwaben are preppy. Schwaben are gentrifiers. Schwaben are responsible for turning Prenzlauer Berg into the Latte-Macchiato-Kiez. Schwaben breed like rabbits. Schwaben have funny accents so they are conspicuous, easy to pick out, and easy to blame. They aren’t the only group ubiquitously targeted: hipsters and tourists fall into same grab bag of scapegoats.
Mayor Wowereit replied angrily to the attack: that the city won’t tolerate this ‘unspeakable act’. It’s not just the anniversary of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, but also the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. It’s not lost on anyone that this attack urging a boycott happened on Rykestraße, where one of Berlin’s few surviving synagogues stands, a warning against those who hate others because they are different and perceived as rich.
My French friend returns from washing her hands in the toilets of a Kreuzberg restaurant. She is upset. Above the mirror was a sticker telling tourists to go home. She is a new Berliner and an anthropologist. She asks, ‘Why did I move to a city that tells foreigners to leave?’
I’m looking at an apartment for sale with an American friend in Kreuzkölln. We walk around the dingy overpriced flat and I ask the property agent who is actually buying apartments in the neighbourhood that is quickly gentrifying. The perception is that it’s just foreigners driving the rising rents.
‘Germans, almost exclusively Germans’ he tells me, and I am surprised because there is a visible increase of foreigners in the neighbourhood. But this also makes sense: if German companies are buying up flats and converting them into holiday apartments, their occupants come from abroad, and they are the ones blamed, not the German owners––who are perhaps local Ur-Berliners––or those who manage the property. Tourists are the visible arrivistes. The fight against tourists then becomes, mistakenly, the fight against gentrification.
One of the most conspicuous issues in May Day demos this year was the fight against rising rents. Take a look at the words projected (pictured above) on a building near Oranienstr. during the street festival saying: “Wir sind doch hier, nicht auf Urlaub”: We are still here, and not on holiday.
The right approach to combat the alarming trend––of the availability of cheap housing being eroded by the increasing number of holiday apartments–– is to launch challenges in the arena of public policy and to agitate for controls over how housing is used. Please don’t blame the clueless tourists who come here curious to learn about Berlin on vacation. It’s xenophobia masquerading as social activism.
My French friend shakes her head over lunch as we talk about this: “It’s not like Germans don’t travel. Look at what they’ve done to Mallorca. Or dozens of other previously beautiful Mediterranean islands. And then they lash out at the comparatively intelligent independent tourism of Spaniards and Italians coming to Berlin? I think there should be a travel ban on these Berliners going abroad if they are so inhospitable at home!’
The best things about the new Berlin is how cosmopolitan it is becoming. It’s looking increasingly like this is something we will have to fight for. Many of the new arrivals are young and arty, without much money, often unemployed in their home countries. They are hardly classic gentrifiers, but they are visibly and audibly different in a changing city, and increasingly subject to harassment.
The city of Berlin is now remembering Kristallnacht with a city-wide exhibition called Zertstörte Vielfalt , where the faces and biographies of those who fled or were murdered by the Nazi regime are posted on cylindrical markers. The exhibition means ‘destroyed diversity’: and the rising xenophobia, against tourists, expats and fellow Germans, is unmistakeably an alarming extension of that history.