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?
Strolling around Alexanderplatz one cold but sunny afternoon, I was surprised at just how trashy it is: concrete brutalist Communist buildings surround a vast grey pedestrian area, from which long walkways lead to mediocre fast food restaurants and mid-range department stores. It’s a place that feels at the same time hectic, provincial and empty; its trashiness resembles that of New York’s Times Square, minus the bustle of theatregoers. Even the urban tribes—techno kids, goths in black leather trenchcoats, tramps, tourists—seem to be just passing through. And why would one want to linger? One can ascend the TV tower and have cake at the revolving restaurant on top of it. Or one can visit a recently built mall that looks like a giant concrete liverwurst imported from Baku. Such are your choices for spending an afternoon on Alexanderplatz. Only an optimist on steroids could imagine that this platz could become a social hub or even a grand European square where one dawdles instead of rushing off, while averting one’s gaze from the unwelcome onslaught on one’s senses.
It would be glib to assume that the recent string of violent attacks could have been fostered only by the general sense of misery that clings to the place. More pressing is the question as to whether there’s a specifically German angle to this violence.
New figures have been released that suggest there’s been another rise of neo-Nazi tendencies: a report from the respected Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that one sixth of East Germans support far-Right views, and that nearly 40 per cent of them have xenophobic opinions.
It must be stressed that the incidents on Alexanderplatz were not racially motivated, but were, as far as one can tell, random acts of street violence. And yet maybe the same loss of certainty that punctures the general sense of security also feeds the proclivity to lean to the far-Right.
What is Angela Merkel doing? Of course, law-and-order policies in Berlin, like other Länder, do not fall within her remit. On a national level her government has been active in combating far-Right tendencies, for example by continuing to push for a ban on the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party. However, if she wants to win the next election in a country that already regards the capital suspiciously as a sponge for federal subsidies and a stain on the spotless reputation of the prosperous regions in the south, she ought to be concerned that the face of Berlin remains appealingly gloomy rather than becoming downright ugly.