Nazi Slogans Has Berlin's Gentrification Feud Gone too Far?
It may have begun as a joke, but with the adoption of slogans used by the Nazis, an ongoing feud pitting long-time Berliners against newer residents from southern Germany may have crossed a line.
On Monday morning, residents of Berlin's central Mitte district awoke to find a memorial bearing a bust of the 19th-century German philosopher Georg Hegel smeared with ketchup and currywurst, a local fast-food specialty, under a banner reading "Expatriate Swabians." This probably didn't come as a big surprise, however, given that in the past year, graffitied messages like "Shoot Swabians" and "Swabians Out" have become commonplace in the city -- particularly in the former working-class neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in what was once East Berlin.
Germans from the southwestern region of Swabia -- with their hefty savings accounts and distinct accents -- have become the unfortunate poster children for the city's rapid gentrification. Proudly rough-around-the-edges Berliners like to complain that the well-heeled arrivals from the south are bourgeois and pedantic types who are not only causing rents to spike, but molding the German capital in their own provincial image.
An anonymous group claimed responsibility online for defacing the bust of Hegel, who hailed from Stuttgart, Swabia's largest city. "The Swabians have until December 31, 2013 to leave the transitional quarter. They will be expatriated from Berlin and sent to the south," reads their website.
Though most of the intimations of the "Expatriate Swabians" group and those like it are probably meant to be tongue-in-cheek, many feel the mock-nativism is in poor taste -- especially in Berlin, where mass pogroms were carried out by the Nazis only a few generations ago. Berlin's interior minister, Frank Henkel, called the most recent incident "tasteless" and "unspeakable." On Tuesday, he told the mass-circulation daily Bild: "If anybody doesn't fit into Berlin, then it is not the Swabians, but these intolerant factions."
It Began as a Joke
The act is the latest in a series of incidents -- often referred to as the "Spätzle Wars" in the local press -- that at first seemed like harmless pranks. In January, a group known by the name of "Free Swabylon" splattered spätzle -- a traditional Swabian egg noodle dish -- on a statue of the artist Käthe Kollwitz and called for an autonomous Swabian district in Berlin.
A few days earlier, Wolfgang Thierse, a long-time Prenzlauer Berg resident as well as the vice president of Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, had commented to a local newspaper that he felt he'd become an "endangered species" in his neighborhood and complained that many local bakeries now use the Swabian terms for various pastries, instead of the Berlin ones.
"I hope the Swabians realize they are now in Berlin, and not in their little towns with their spring cleaning," he told the Berliner Morgenpost. "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."
But in recent months, the so-called "Swabian hate" has grown increasingly aggressive, as graffiti has adopted the tone -- and, in some cases, the exact wording -- that was used by the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews and other targeted groups in the run-up to the Holocaust. One recent piece of graffiti reads, "Swabians, piss off," with the double "S" resembling the Nazi's SS insignia. In early May, "Don't buy from the Swabians" ("Kauf nicht bei Schwaben") was spray-painted on the side of a Prenzlauer Berg building, an incitement to boycott that directly mirrors the slogan affixed to Jewish businesses in 1933 after Hitler came to power. Both phrases were followed with "TSH," supposedly an acronym for "Total Swabian Hate."
Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, told the daily Berliner Zeitung earlier this month that the graffiti was an "unthinkable action" for which there was "no justification." And Interior Minister Henkel pointed out that the act is especially insensitive because there is a synagogue on the same street. "Graffiti of this kind is no trivial offense," he said. "The police will do everything they can to find the person responsible."
"Its never good to trivialize the Shoah and the Third Reich by using the words and phrases related to that time," says Ralf Melzer, an expert on right-wing extremism at Berlin's Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. "But especially here in Berlin, where the Final Solution was planned and organized. It harms and insults the relatives of the victims." Serious or not, he adds, this kind of glib referencing is normally frowned upon, if not unprecedented, in Berlin.
"From time to time, you hear politicians use wording similar to the Nazis in other contexts or apply the word 'Holocaust' inappropriately, and so forth," says Melzer. But he can't think of another instance in which the language of the Third Reich was thrown around in such a cavalier fashion, he adds.
As early as the 1970s, Berliners have had a habit of mocking newcomers from southern parts of Germany -- especially Swabians, who were easily identifiable by their accent and idiosyncratic dialect. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Wall, derision grew as the younger generation flocked to the city from other parts of the country to take part in the wild parties and experimental arts scenes for which Berlin had become known.
In the past decade, as Berlin's international profile has continuously grown, resentment against the influx of new residents has intensified, with locals complaining that the city is being overly gentrified, sanitized and sapped of its character. An extreme case is Prenzlauer Berg, which transformed in less than two decades from communist workers' district to ragged bohemian playground to posh family enclave, complete with yoga studios, preschools and organic cafes. For all the claims that Swabian hate is just a bit of good-natured taunting, the sentiment is grounded in the real anger of long-time residents being priced out of their homes.
'A Real Social Dimension'
"Maybe the intention is to make a joke, but I'm not so sure," says Melzer. "I think this is actual resentment against a group. It's a very diffuse kind of feeling, but there is a real social dimension in that housing prices are getting higher, the neighborhood is changing, it's getting more chic. But you have to see that this is quite a normal phenomenon. Neighborhoods change. This has to be handled in another way -- not by stigmatizing a whole group, be it the Danish or the Swabians. It's a pity that things like this happen, and it's not good for the atmosphere in the city."
The focus on Swabians, in particular, has hit a nerve because it taps into deeper cultural and geographical animosities rooting back to reunification, when a bankrupt Berlin turned to the wealthier German federal states for support.
Today, the city-state of Berlin is more than 60 billion ($80 billion) in debt and receives around 3 billion a year in cross subsidies from the richer German states, such as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, the two states straddled by Swabia. Some see the anti-Swabian acrimony as particularly hard to swallow, given the fact that Berlin owes much of its current incarnation as a dynamic creative capital to the fact that its southern neighbors foot the bill.
And for that matter, as Melzer points out, you could just as easily blame new residents from Bavaria, Brandenburg or Italy.
"I would say that to some extent, it's an artificial conflict," he says. "There's a real basis, but you can't blame individuals. And bringing this into context with the Holocaust and the Nazi era is not only completely inappropriate -- but also counterproductive for people who want to keep prices low in their neighborhoods."