Most people who have spent time in Germany know that Berlin looks shockingly different from the rest of the country. Quite frankly, with its combination of graffiti-soaked buildings, Gothic churches, Turkish markets, abandoned airports, grungy nightclubs, and space-race Soviet architecture, Berlin doesn’t resemble any single place anywhere. In a country famous for its high expectations, Germany’s capital has long served as both a political center and something of a cultural safe zone for the country’s social misfits, its poor, its non-conformists, and it’s more avant garde artists. This has been the case since the kingdom of Prussia—long before the never-closing nightclubs of today, the synthesizer scene of the 70’s, or even the cabaret culture of the 20’s. Berlin has essentially always been a strange city that has attracted strange people. But now more than ever, Berlin isn’t attracting misfits from just around Germany, but indeed the whole world.
Guest worker programs in the seventies all the way up through modern day refugee crises have attracted hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East and North Africa. They have gone on to create some of Berlin’s most famous culinary achievements (Döner for one) and bring major popularity to Germany’s hip hop scene. Many Russians also have made Berlin their home before, during, and after the days of the Cold War (Vladimir Putin, due to his time as a KGB officer in Dresden, speaks fluent German). Skyrocketing real estate prices today in the likes of nearby London and Paris draw many of Britain and France’s youth away from their home countries to pursue realistic rents and more dynamic nightlife. Highly educated Spaniards, Italians, and Portuguese leave the financial woes of their homes to find more lucrative work in Germany’s economy. Americans, Australians, Canadians, and anyone else who speaks English fluently flood Berlin’s many language institutes, hostels, and bars with job applications, as well as hopes of turning an extended holiday into a new career. Bountiful universities, as well as cheap real estate, has helped facilitate a slew of tech start-ups popping up all over town, as well as a surge of international students coming out of everywhere from Chile to India.
Bit of everything
But can the city handle it? In a time when a highly resilient German economy has turned Berlin into something of an unofficial Brussels, as far as many cash-strapped European economies are concerned, Germany’s new role as the Eurozone’s most vital economic and political power makes Berlin’s romanticized disarray seem not only a bit dated, but rather unsustainable. As money pours into the city, a rapid race towards globalization is also met by negative attitudes from the city’s still very German majority. Art communes such as Tacheles have been forced to close. Parts of the Berlin wall are being torn down in order to make way for luxury condos. Many East Germans can’t afford to live in the inner city anymore. There is a potent atmosphere of encroachment.
In a country where the birthrate is below replacement level and in a city that until 1989 had half of its population unable to travel outside of Eastern Europe, many argue that any sense of local culture is getting snuffed out as Berlin overflows with ever more expats. The city’s “poor but sexy” tourist slogan also hit its limits when too many of the people moving into town merely want access to low rent and night clubs that stay open for days. Berlin like the rest of Germany also suffers a notable amount of racial violence coming from both ethnic non-Germans and white neo-Nazi gangs.
In Germany, where you can be born within its borders and still not be a legal citizen, not to mention where a great deal of ethic genocide once took place, a question lingers as to what one defines as “German”. Is German a nationality? A language? Is it a culture? Can one really call it an ethnic group? There is still no real consensus on the matter, either in academia or everyday life.
And the party continues…
In an effort to improve integration, there does exist the slogan “Be Berlinternational,” an ad campaign promoting integration among the nearly 190 different nationalities that now make Berlin their home. Its focus is to negate racism by celebrating cultural diversity, which has given it a lot of positive publicity. And although diversity celebration is certainly a plus, it does at times appear inauthentic when public institutions in Berlin and indeed the rest of Germany still reflect a great deal of inequality. Strict visa laws make finding work difficult for non EU members, and where many first-world children from North America will at worst have to go backpacking elsewhere after a few months, the reality for many political refugees is far more harsh. They face both unemployment, police arrest, deportation and being culturally ostracized. Recent protests that tried to block a raid by German police on a building containing refugees demonstrates that not all Berlinternationals are yet created equal.
In Berlin, all of this is also coinciding with rising prices due to mass gentrification, a new international airport that is years behind schedule and already billions of euros over-budget, as well as a major unemployment problem that disproportionately affects Berlin’s Turkish population. It’s not to say that any of Berlin’s ideas, aims or new arrivals are not worth celebrating. There is nothing wrong with internationalism. It’s fundamentally a good thing. But people are also currently playing cultural and economic catch up with the changing times. Growing pains is an understatement. On the bright side, like a 70’s San Francisco, it’s got a killer music scene, plenty of political clout, loads of creative capital, and runaways from all over the world. A lot of amazing things might be just around the corner, but in the short-term a lot of problems are going to need addressing. After going through a hell of a 20th century, 21st century Berlin’s invitingly volatile aura has never been more accessible. With new access comes rapid change. But this city is no stranger to that.