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December 2012

What's in a city? Hailed once again as the secret capital of Europe, Berlin lives off its gloomy, glamorous darkness. British, Spanish, Israeli and Italian tourists flock the streets, eager to experience a combination of shabby continental chic, dilapidated Communist-era buildings, a youthful art scene, cheap beer and a revamped city centre. Just which of these they are most attracted by is hard to tell from a Berliner's point of view, for the main argument—that there's something of a 1920s vibe to the place—only seems to hold true when applied to the notoriously slow, unreliable and crowded overground S-bahn trains crawling through the city.

Be that as it may, the real connection between today's Merkel-Berlin and the roaring capital of the Weimar Republic may be more grim: Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, about the descent into the underworld of a small-time criminal, Franz Biberkopf. Set in the working-class neighbourhoods surrounding the Alexanderplatz area, then and now in the heart of the city, the novel depicts Berlin as a grim and gritty yet appealing Moloch. Think of Döblin as Dickens's shy, witty and slightly prim German cousin whose writing style sometimes resembles that of James Joyce. He helped to adapt the novel for the cinema in 1931. Much later, in 1980, Rainer Werner Fassbinder turned it into a second, 15-hour film, re-establishing that late 1920s image of Berlin. Last month, however, it seemed as if this fictional account had become reality—and an even more violent one.

In one week, Berlin experienced a string of violent incidents. Normally the crime rate is low compared to some other German cities, and even less conspicuous when compared to figures from the US. (Though Berlin actually has a slightly higher murder rate than London.) And yet, a brutal attack on Alexanderplatz led to the death of a 20-year-old. He was set upon, apparently without provocation, late one Saturday night; his attackers continued stamping on his head after knocking him down. A few days earlier, in the same area, a 23-year-old was shot.

In comparison to street violence in other capitals of Europe these incidents might not raise many eyebrows and a cynic might add that they are a sign that Berlin is finally catching up with what it means to be a metropolis. But the question remains: what triggers such violence?

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