Berlin and German Politics

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.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

9 thoughts on “Xenophobia Posing as Social Activism in Berlin

  • This is appalling. I hadn’t heard about the ‘Kauft nicht bei Schwaben’ graffiti. I like your last sentence. PLLP.

  • Xenophobia is a dangerous thing, no doubt about that. But I find it difficult to conflate the murderous anti-semitism of the Nazis with the xenophobia of the extreme left wing anti-gentrification movement (where idiotic and history-oblivious slogans like “kauft nicht bei Schwaben” are coming from). And then to contrast this political splinter group with those hordes of elderly, well-off German pensioners demanding their Schweineschnitzel in Mallorca. Completely different story.

    • In reply to Heb Mo:

      I do think that we need to stand guard against xenophobia wherever we find it, however initially innocuous, whether it comes from the extreme left or extreme right. I do think that Germany has a special responsibility, given its history, to keep careful watch over the potential of extremism. It’s not to conflate what the Nazis did with what these groups are doing (today’s political splinter groups are not murdering anyone), but to recognise that the Nazis profited from prejudices which at first glance may have seemed banal and socially acceptable during their rise from being a fringe group in the 20s, for example. Certainly Berlin’s public officials are also drawing the link to the Nazi boycott, and that is why there was such a public outcry against the graffiti.

      As for your final point, if you reread you will notice that the article does not compare German tourists in Mallorca to left-wing activists, but rather contrasts the effects of foreign tourism in Berlin and that of German tourism in foreign places. Yes, it’s completely different story, but that’s the point.

      • DL commented on 13/06/2013:

        I am actually pretty disgusted by your last sentence “… rising xenophobia, against tourists, expats and fellow Germans, is unmistakeably an alarming extension of that history”. So surprised to read that. Do you really believe it or is it a form of populism? It scares me how light-hearted someone can say things like that. Have you not noticed how many open minded and tolerant people there are who never want the holocaust (and all its murder and hate happening during WW2) to happen again?

        Joseph replied on 27/07/2013:

        I think you would agree with me that the risk of the Holocaust happening again in today’s Germany is rather unlikely (and, as a professional historian I might add pedantically that *nothing* ever happens again). But since the Holocaust did happen in this country, and was committed primarily by Germans and the German government, Germany has a special responsibility to keep careful watch over any form of rising xenophobia, however banal this xenophobia might initially seem on the surface. I am not asserting that Berliners desire to exterminate one another (which sounds like a ludicrous interpretation to me) but rather that in a place where radicalised prejudice and extermination happened, there is a special responsibility to react to even small acts of hatred (especially when formulated in the language of the 1933 Boycott).

        It is neither light-hearted, nor populistic––nor anti-German for that matter–– to say that the recent troubling events in Berlin should be looked at with reference to a longer history of prejudice. In fact, that very history is a helpful warning about what happens when we use the language of exclusion, that threatens diversity, to advance political agendas and defend ethnically-based notions of citizenship (which is arguably a very real continuity, also legally entrenched, from the Nazi period in today’s Germany, despite the 2000 citizenship reform). I think that referencing and awareness is quite the opposite of disgusting (as you put it in a note that could not be fully posted here because it was so inelegantly ad-hominem).

        I might add that it’s precisely because Germany has this awareness that acts of intolerance––which of course happen wherever you go in the world–––are met here with a such a strong public outcry. This watchfulness is one of the reasons which I like Germany so much. I feel, for the most part, very lucky to live in a country where a painful awareness of where prejudice can lead is so much a part of the public debate. Indeed, Berlin’s own public figures came out very strongly drawing the same historical parallels to the April boycott and the destruction of Berlin’s diversity that I do in my article, not because they are anti-German, but because they are German.

  • It’s not racist against Germans to suppose that ‘Kauf nicht bei Schwaben’ echos ‘Kauf nicht bei Juden’. It’s also not unreasonable to assume, as many writers in the Berlin press and indeed the city government did, that it does so intentionally. That’s why so many people here got upset about it. There is a difference between *equating* the two statements and their contexts (which JP doesn’t do), and *asserting that they are connected, that they have a commonality* (which they are, and do, by definition if we allow that one echoes the other).

    No-one in his/her right mind would suggest that current anti-foreigner or anti-immigrant sentiment is the same as, or even in the smallest sense as pernicious as, the Nazi regime was. I would say, however that they do have a commonality. (Again, it’s important to distinguish *equating* from *asserting a connection*, because this confusion is centrally important to the debate: relatively benign political actions can have commonalities with horrifying, brutal ones, without being *equivalent* to them. It would be a mistake, for example, to suggest because Stalin spied on his citizens, and most industrialised countries today do as well–most notoriously the USA–that the governments of today’s industrialised nations are *equal* to Stalin’s government.) The commonality is that the current pseudo-left reaction to newcomers is motivated by the fears about the loss of some fantasy of ‘authenticity’, fears that a ‘pure’ state of the city is threatened by new arrivals. This fantasy accompanies (and in some cases is probably more important than) very real, justified economic anxieties accompanying gentrification. And I don’t see any real difference between this anxiety and the anxiety of a small-town dweller who thinks his/her town is threatened by the arrival of strangers.

  • Is it not extremely likely that the people behind this graffiti were fully aware of its historical resonance; in a faux-provocative, idiotic, hipsterish way?

    • Hi Dermot, I think it’s quite possible that it was an infantile act without much historical awareness, but since we don’t know the intention, we can only react to the effect… Best wishes, Joseph

  • I feel there are 2 distinct issues Mr Pearsons reply is trying to address: 1) that the anti tourist and anti foreigner statements are clearly xenophobic acts. 2) It’s a tedious fact that every negative thing Germans do gets tied to WWII & the Holocaust.

    In some ways they’re separate issues – the Holocaust can’t be compared to any petty act of bigotry because it was just so sprawling, efficient and organized. In another sense, you could say that ALL petty bigotries have the potential to explode into genocidal events, when there’s enough willpower behind them. But that’s an unlikely extreme.

    So both the author and Pearson make a fair point, and I think they are equally right and wrong. Hating on the tourists just cos they are easy to spot is a dangerous tendency, but dismissing that hate simply because Germany recognizes its racism more quickly than other nations may in the same situation, is also a mistake.

    Personally, what I find to be a more disturbing twist to this story is the fact that Berlin’s supposed left-wingers are implicated in the hate… And it’s not just a rumour. I’m an activist and have experienced it myself – a few people in the scene have truly despicable attitudes about English speakers and tourists; they are rude, dismissive and snide remarks about all of us, as if every foreigner belongs to a sinister movement of “gentrifiers” who have come here to ruin their crusty utopia. And these are the same people wear ‘No Borders’ badges and agitate against Frontex! Their logic is f@cked, but what takes my breath away is how entitled they are in their assumptions about the outside world. It’s like they’ve never been there before and assume that Germans – Berliners, really – are somehow better and less destructive when they travel. Worse still, this small minority of lefties seems to think that Berlin alone has an activist underground. It’s hard not to equate that to an unchallenged assumption of cultural supremacy now.

    But I have to stress that the nasty left wing poseurs described above ARE a minority… The trouble is that their attitude can, and does, infect other Germans who are happy to lay blame for everything at the feet of the foreigners.

  • The sentence at the start of the above comment should read “the author and DL” not “the author & Pearson”!!

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