Last Stand for the Far-Left Berlin Commune Fights the Property Developers

The Köpi in Berlin is famous as one of the last remaining remnants of the city's squat culture from the early 1990s. The building, which is in a desirable location, has now been sold to a property developer -- but the residents aren't giving up without a fight.

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The Köpi in Berlin's Mitte district is a symbol of the city's far-left scene.
Sabine Sauer / DER SPIEGEL

The Köpi in Berlin's Mitte district is a symbol of the city's far-left scene.

They sat down together just like every week, but this time the mood was different: nervous, tense, but also a bit agitated. "It was as if we had just survived a battle," said one of the people who attended the meeting two weekends ago.

The war comparison image is not that far-fetched. Nine cars and many trash containers had been set on fire in Berlin the night before. There had been an enormous police presence on the streets and more than 50 people were arrested. The tabloid Bild described it as an "anarchist war" right in the middle of Berlin's trendy Mitte district.

The demonstration -- the topic of discussion at the meeting the next day -- was about "autonomous free space." Its purpose was to protest against the victory march of capitalism ("Smash Capitalism" was one of the slogans) that is changing the face of the cash-strapped German capital -- slowly, but visibly, especially in the former East Berlin districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.

The location of the meeting was not without significance. The group had convened in the "Aquarium" meeting room in the building known as the Köpi, located at Köpenicker Strasse 137 in Berlin's Mitte district. The Köpi is one of the self-defined "free spaces" that the violent protests had been all about.

In 1990, it was one of the first buildings to be occupied by squatters in former East Berlin. Today, it is the most important radical left-wing residential project in the former city of squatters. The building has even been featured on postcards, thanks to a slogan painted in giant white letters on the outside wall: "There are no borders between peoples, only between the top and the bottom."

Architecturally speaking, the Köpi is the surviving rear section and two side wings of a typical Berlin residential building with inner courtyards from the beginning of the 20th century. From the outside, it is in terrible condition. Next to the main building, the Köpi also has a lot for trailer homes and tents.

But for residents and the large contingent of sympathizers with the radical left-wing movement, the Köpi is more than just a run-down old building. It is a symbol, a sort of last refuge for alternative lifestyles.

The Köpi is self-organizing and run on communal principles. The plenary session every Sunday is the main administrative body. Participation is strictly limited to Köpi residents and representatives of the many cultural projects and bars that have found a home in the commune. Outsiders are barred from the meeting and mobile phones are prohibited -- for fear of surveillance by the domestic intelligence agencies, which keep a close eye on far-left activities in Germany.

On the day after the demonstration, there was a roll call of sorts to see if any of the Köpi's residents had been among those arrested. It appeared that this was not the case, and the demonstration was chalked up as a success. The slogan "Köpi stays" featured on many of the placards the protestors were carrying, and a few young sympathizers had even dressed up as "Köpi Knights," complete with helmets and shields.

The Köpi slogan has never been more topical. Since the spring, defending free space has taken on a very concrete meaning, namely preventing forcible eviction. The Köpi and two adjacent properties were auctioned off in a forced sale in May, under dubious circumstances and to an even more dubious buyer.

Since then, officials at the State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) have observed increasing levels of violence within the Berlin anarchist community. During the course of the year, 111 cars -- from Minis to luxury sedans -- have been torched, many of them company cars owned by industrial giants like Siemens or the German national railway company Deutsche Bahn. The authorities are convinced the perpetrators were members of the radical left-wing community.

Since the night of rioting in Mitte, security officials in Berlin have issued dire warnings that the city could face the sort of violent unrest that plagued Copenhagen in December 2006 and March 2007 after police evicted the occupants of the Ungdomshuset left-wing youth center. Many members of Berlin's radical left-wing community who had traveled to Copenhagen were among those arrested. The demonstration two weekends ago was held on the one-year anniversary of the first Copenhagen riot.

The fear of violence erupting on a similar scale in Berlin is not unfounded. In the past few days, Berlin's left-wing radicals have invited like-minded groups from throughout Europe to come to the city. They plan to hold an action week and a street festival at the Köpi around May 31 of next year, the date the property is to be handed over to the new owner -- empty, clean and complete with all sets of keys.

In May 2007, the presumed investor appeared in public for the first time, coming to the administrative court in Mitte, right on time for the auction. A tall man with a noticeable gap in his front teeth, he arrived with bodyguards and introduced himself to the court clerk as Besnik Fichtner, managing director of a company with the futuristic-sounding name Plutonium 114.

Fichtner, a former floor tiler from Kosovo, seemed unimpressed by the catcalls and attempts to intimidate him by the roughly 70 Köpi residents who had managed to get into the courtroom. The property was eventually sold to the company Fichtner represents for €835,000. This is roughly half the property's market value -- in other words, a steal for Fichtner. He also bought the two adjacent properties for a total of €900,000.

The eviction notice that was recently posted on the bulletin board in the hallway at the Köpi makes no mention of Plutonium 114. Instead, the documents are signed by a company calling itself Joles GmbH, headquartered in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. "Once all apartments currently occupied by tenants have been cleared," the eviction notice reads, the "construction work" will begin. Everyone knows that "construction work" in this case means only one thing: demolition.

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