Berlin, as anyone who has been in the city for annual May 1 demonstrations knows, is certainly no stranger to excessive left-wing protests. The soul-searching aftermath -- with questions about police brutality inevitably overshadowing the rocks thrown by would-be revolutionaries -- has likewise become something of a ritual.
But with leftist violence seemingly on the rise , the tit-for-tat has taken on a slightly more ominous dimension. And on Monday -- following a weekend protest which saw a policeman pull his gun on protestors trying to break in to the defunct Tempelhof Airport in the heart of Berlin -- the debate has erupted anew.
"On May 1 this year ... we were surprised by the amount of violence right from the beginning," Ehrhart Körting, the interior minister of the city-state of Berlin, told the daily Morgenpost on Sunday. "We will make sure that we avoid such surprises in the future.... The duty of the police is to take decisive action when the law is broken."
Police arrested a total of 102 people on Saturday as thousands of demonstrators attempted to break through the fence surrounding Tempelhof, an area equivalent to 525 football fields. Organizers say 5,000 left-wing activists showed up for the event -- ostensibly an effort to encourage the city to transform the airport premises into a commons open to all. Police said there were 2,000 protestors; twenty-one officers were injured.
On Monday, though, the debate centered on the robust police response to the demonstration, which was advertised with the English-language slogan "Squat Tempelhof." There were more than 1,500 officers on duty on Saturday, spaced out along the razor-wire-topped fence surrounding the airport. Small groups of protesters repeatedly tried to scale or cut through the barrier, resulting in several altercations with police.
In one incident, a policeman dressed in civilian clothes detained a man near the fence. When a small group of demonstrators attempted to free the man, the policeman pulled his gun, though kept it aimed at the ground, in a successful effort to ward off the approaching crowd. Pictures of the incident rapidly became the iconic image of the day.
The organizers of "Squat Tempelhof" accused police of "massive violence against demonstrators." A number of left-wing politicians in Berlin likewise criticized the size and vigour of the police presence, which included the deployment of batons, pepper spray and water cannon. Christian Ströbele, a federal parliamentarian with the Greens, said that there were situations in which the police "caused a completely unnecessary escalation.... Some incidents were appalling."
Conservative politicians with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, for their part, repeated criticisms alleging that Berlin's governing coalition, which pairs the center-left Social Democrats with the far-left Left Party, has not done enough to combat recent leftist violence in the city. The left-wing scene, the party said in a statement, "feels particularly safe and is tending increasingly towards violence" as a result of the Berlin government.
This year has seen a particularly intense rash of arson attacks against expensive cars and company vehicles allegedly perpetrated by the far left. June has proven particularly violent, with well over a dozen cars going up in flames this month.
Indeed, as the debate heats up, it is increasingly resembling political conflicts from Berlin's past. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Cold War city was wracked by leftist protests, punctuated by the 1967 shooting death of the unarmed protester Benno Ohnesorg by a Berlin policeman. One year later, the student leader Rudi Dutschke was shot on the streets of West Berlin and ultimately died 11 years later from head injuries sustained in the attack.
Berlin this year has seen numerous police injured in battles with left-wing extremists. On May 1, some 400 officers were injured. A week ago, authorities charged two young men with attempted murder in conjunction with the riots. The two allegedly threw Molotov cocktails filled with gasoline at Berlin riot police.