Swabian Invasion? Scorn for Eastern Berlin's Well-Heeled Newcomers

By Matthew Tempest

Newcomers from all over Germany have been flocking to Berlin since reunification in 1990. One politician argues that too many people from southern Germany's Swabia region have been landing in the fast-gentrifying Prenzlauer Berg district. As a former East Berliner, Wolfgang Thierse half-jokes that he's part of an "endangered species" in the neighborhood. 

A witty warning that you are entering the Berlin district of "Swabylon" Zoom
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A witty warning that you are entering the Berlin district of "Swabylon"

Few things can stoke the emotions of Berliners as quickly as dropping the word "gentrification". It's never far from people's tongues here in the German capital city. This week the question is whether wealthy southwest Germans -- aka people from the Swabia region -- are driving out residents of the former east in Prenzlauer Berg, a formerly working-class neighborhood.

According to disgruntled locals, they bring with them not just their large salaries and ability to pay higher rents, but also their conservative small town ways -- and, worst of all, their local nicknames for such prized Berlin specialities as the humble white bread roll.

Some grafitti in Prenzlauer Berg now pokes fun of the Swabian invasion, from brutal messages like "Shoot Swabians" or "Swabians Out!" to the more picaresque -- a doctored road sign of a workman digging a grave for Swabians, or a bicycle sign with a "Welcome to Schwabylon" sticker. Of course, in Berlin, the bark often tends to be bigger than the bite.

At the center of this week's debate is Wolfgang Thierse, a long-time neighborhood resident who moved in long before the Wall fell and who also happens to be the vice president of Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag. Thierse made the outspoken comments in an interview with the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper that ran over the weekend.

It was supposed to be a general discussion to commemorate his retirement from parliament after years of public service. Instead, it reopened the can of worms that is the mutual resentment between the impoverished capital -- with its politicians and artists but also huge unemployment problem -- and the richer regions, especially those in the southwest, who heavily cross subsidize the capital.

Berlin, a city-state, is more than €60 billion ($80 billion) in debt, and receives around €3 billion a year in cross subsidies from the richer German states, most of which are in the south. Swabia is a region taking in parts of Bavaria and Baden-Würrtemberg.

In the interview, Thierse poked fun at his new neighbors, much of it tongue-in-cheek.

'An Endangered Species'

He estimated that 90 percent of Prenzlauer Berg's residents were new arrivals since unification in 1990. The neighborhood's spacious apartment blocks, wealth of green spaces and proximity to the city center have made a magnet for well-heeled new residents and transformed it into a yuppie heaven and epicenter of the "yummy mummy" phenomenon. The downside to all this is that, over the past two decades, rents have risen steadily, making the neighborhood unaffordable to many of its original inhabitants.

In remarks that appeared to be half-serious, Thierse -- who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years -- called himself "an endangered species."

"The positive side of the changes, is that literally everything looks nice now," he said.

But he then thundered, "I get angry when I'm in the bakers, and there are no Schrippen (the Berlin slang for white rolls) only Weckern (the Swabian term)."

"And its exactly the same for plum cake," he went on, which the relative newcomers call Pflumendatschi (a Swabian term.)

"That makes me really the last defender of the Berlin dialect."

Thierse added: "I hope the Swabians realize they are now in Berlin. And not in their little towns, with their spring cleaning. They come here because it's all so colorful and adventurous and lively, but after a while, they want to make it like it is back home. You can't have both."

It may all sound very humourous, but the Swabians aren't interpreting it as such. Still, Thierse is by no means a lone voice, with other residents chipping in to voice similar concerns about people from a famously austere but prosperous region whose most famous expression has to do with saving money to build a house.

'Homogenized and Boring'

"I understand Thierse's position," said Katja Strowbawa, a 34-year-old architecture historian who lives in Prenzlauer Berg but is originally from the eastern state of Thuringia. "Maybe it's not just a Swabian thing but that Prenzlauer Berg has become quite homogenized and boring and reminds me more of SoHo in New York or posh districts in London." She says a lot of people from well-to-do parts of the world, and not just Germany, have moved to the neighborhood and expect their new surroundings to work like their old ones -- namely that they should remain proper, orderly, clean and staid.

"There is something wrong with moving somewhere and then imposing your ideas on the place rather than adopting some existing ones and mixing them with yours," she says. "I came to Berlin to live the Berlin lifestyle, not the Stuttgart or Munich or some village-in-the woods one. It's not much fun going out here anymore, it's mainly wine bars, playgrounds, toy shops and yoga places, all of which isn't exactly cool funky and exciting."

Noting the recent die out of nightclubs in the trendy discrict, she added:"It's utterly stupid that people buying a flat next to a music club complain about the loud music and have the club shut because they obviously weren't expecting the noise. They are in the process of making Prenzlauer Berg a boring place and destroying just the thing they came for."

Defending fellow Swabians, Hannah, a 24-year old film student from Baden-Würrtemburg, responded: "I don't think Germans should disparage fellow Germans, wherever they are from. Especially not those footing the bills. "However, I've always called it a Schrippe in the bakery!"

Thierse's fellow politicians haven't been so charitable about the interview either.

Dirk Niebel, the development minister, told the newsweekly Focus: "The Swabians in Berlin fit in with modern Germany better than a pious gray beard" (Thierse sports a grey beard and is Catholic). And Green Party co-chair Cem Özdemir added: "The Berliners have much to thank Swabians for, rather than sniping at them like Mr. Thierse."

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