Thursday, January 3, 2013

Strangers in Berlin

Prenzlauer Berg is one of the most diverse districts in Berlin; folks from all over Germany live here, but also Americans, French, Vietnamese, Scandinavians, Irish, you name it. In our house alone there are (or were until recently) people from France, Cuba, Pakistan, Finland, Japan, Italy, Bulgaria, and the United States. Our street has an English café run by an Irishman, a Vietnamese grocery store, a French wine store, a pharmacy run by a Polish woman, and a bookstore run by a guy from Southern Germany, from a country called Baden Württemberg, a Suebian.

Not everybody likes this. Wolfgang Thierse, who lives at fashionable Kollwitzplatz, has come out to voice his dislike against Suebians. He sees them as strangers with strange habits — such as cleaning up on a regular basis —, also their food has strange names. In Berlin, a roll is called Schrippe, in Baden-Württemberg, its called Wecken. They also have kids, sometimes a lot of kids who don't wear polyester clothing, they like organic food, and cappuccino, and own laptops. In one word, truly disgusting. 

Thierse finds this alienating; he also complains that a lot of old Easterners had to move out, because rents skyrocketed. This is true; however, when the Wall fell, the area was rotten and half-empty, and I suspect most of them would by now be gone anyway. Not Thierse, though, he has done very well for himself, he is President of the Bundestag (or rather was, he was gently pushed out by his own party), where he made about $250.000 a year. Evidently, he likes the advantages of change, but not change.

Should a President of the Bundestag, who is supposed to represent all Germans, brand some of them with semi-racist remarks? Not really. Was Thierse born in Berlin? Not even close, he was born in Breslau and grew up in Thuringia. Then again, Thilo Sarrazin, another high ranking Social Democrat, has French ancestry, and he believes Berlin has too many Turkish and Arab immigrants. Other than Thierse, though, he does not believe they are too clean.

However, complaining about immigrants is nothing new to Berlin. The famed Weimar satirist Kurt Tucholsky — whose Berlin stories we will publish in spring — wrote about immigrants from Eastern Europe already in 1920 in his story The City's Face:

It was then, on August 1 [1914], that this new Berlin arose. Which...?  
First of all, a different one. That’s the main tune everyone’s singing today. “Father of mine! How you’ve changed!” For it’s no longer the same city, no longer the one through which the Kaiser paraded the exhausted, sweaty proletarian uniforms, through the enthusiastic and appropriately cordoned-off streets. It’s still called Berlin. But that’s no longer what it is. 
After a couple of wild months around New Year’s 1918—the only time anything resembling fresh air ever blew over Prussia, despite horrible mistakes, civil wars, all hell breaking loose, riots, and shoot-outs: fresh air (“Gee, thanks!” says the frugal citizen)—after that, Berlin developed quickly and logically. It has slipped ever further to the east. 
This colonial city had to endure a deluge of Eastern Jews, Poles, and Russians—had to take in the first swarm of elements trying their luck in the cultured West. These Easterners don’t, as that Teutonic nationalist Wulle suspects, spread Bolshevism—they are mostly its enemy. But they do change Berlin.

By Eva Schweitzer

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