Xenophobia in Berlin

In the last months and years, the morale towards new residents and visitors steadily plummeted in popular neighbourhoods such as Kreuzberg or Neukölln. It grew to a noticeable tension a long time ago and has already become an unbearable condition that tempered much of what made this city and these neighbourhoods interesting and inviting in the first place. I always knew and appreciated Berlin as the liberal-minded city, born and chosen home that it once was – and still is. However, times have changed and a significant number of its residents are legitimately concerned about gentrification, changing neighbourhoods and rising rents. But some of them hold resentments against the people they think were responsible of this change: those who moved to Berlin, who came from other parts of the country, the continent and the world, and also those, who visit Berlin to discover the city, its culture, its sights and its parties.

You thought, this issue was an old hat in Kreuzberg and Neukölln? Well, you’re absolutely right. It’s nothing new to these parts of the city. But you just committed that it is an even more alarming problem. Because these people are utterly wrong, it’s not the visitors and new residents to blame. It is a simple and alarming observation, that so many people not only agree with these accusations but also spread them in the community, that so many people fail to understand the mechanics of this development, that terrifies me the most.

It might not happen to you on a frequent basis that you become a witness or victim of such harassment. But it has become an everyday matter to the streets that we share with each other. Just yesterday, when I walked through my Kiez, I had a peculiar encounter of such an unpleasant kind. To give you a better picture, I do not look like a typical Kreuzberger: I neither look like a survivor of the neighbourhood’s 70s and 80s heyday, nor a resident of Turkish decent, nor a full bearded Chino hipster, nor a British easyJet tourist down to party all weekend long. I like to wear shirts and welt-sewn shoes, I feel comfortable in a suit or a nice coat and just as much I sometimes visually stand out from the nice and decent people I chat with at the bakery or at the Turkish market, I appreciate the freedom we all have to dress and live we deem it right for us. But to some of my neighbours, this freedom is to much too agree on, it’s a stigma they use to determine who is a rightful resident and who is not. As I stood there by the streetlight and took out my smartphone, an obviously drunk guy approached me to slam it down and loudly insulted me as an incoming dumbass, as someone nobody would like here, as a gentrificator. Even though I didn’t know this guy, he didn’t know anything about me apart from what I looked like, and that I spoke to him in Berlin dialect, he was still sure that I was responsible for the gentrification of the Kiez we both live in.

Encounters such as this happen to me fairly often, both in Kreuzberg and Neukölln and, back when I lived in Friedrichshain, there as well. I have been called a yuppie and a snob, a gentrificator and a intruder; even though none of these annoying people knew anything about me. But don’t get me wrong – I don’t complain about the terrible, terrible offences I had, but I will complain about this perverted worldview all the more, a worldview a growing number of people seem to have. Gentrification is a serious problem and a big challenge for every growing city. It threatens their residents and their lifestyles, it forces changes that only few benefit from. It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety. Nobody will contest this and nobody will likely belittle the often harsh conditions gentrification leaves the people with. I will not question these fears and sorrows, but what I question is the alarming reaction that has been triggered: nothing short of a hunt on visitors and new residents, along with all its ghastly details.

For several reasons, I think I can observe from a good perspective. I was born and raised in Berlin and lived here for almost all of my life. I do not earn much and I am lucky enough to live in one of the few last cheap apartments of Kreuzberg. I watched Friedrichshain’s rapid change to a more upscale, but also less vivid neighbourhood from my own front house window. Having moved to Kreuzberg, gentrification threatens me as much as my neighbours, but still, I cannot understand the resentments and actions some of them resort to. “Touristen fisten” and “Yuppies out” are only two of the pervasive graffiti you can see on the walls. The T-shirt slogan “Du bist kein Berliner” is already part of our everyday life. Loutish behaviour towards Friday’s international party crowd at Schlesisches Tor is just another expression of the growing anger one can regularly observe here. First accounts of WGs that offer their spare rooms only to native Germans or Berliners are surfacing. A tense climate of reservations, clichés and harassments has developed. Kreuzberg and Neukölln have become places of xenophobia.


But it’s wrong. This hostility toward strangers is based on the assumption that they were responsible for raising rents and the subsequent cultural losses. That artists and students were savaging the Kiezes, rapidly upgrading and gentrifying them, until better off people would come and take their apartments over. This accusation is so obviously wrong that it’s astonishing how deeply rooted it is in so many minds. All of these people just like to live the way they want to and how they can afford it, whether they’re interested in cheap housing, the Kiez or a good living standard. But it’s also not the landlords to blame. Even if it’s counterintuitive when you stand on the other side, it’s perfectly fine for them take the better deal. As long as one agrees on the capitalist system, this is just the most natural and rightful thing to do. However, as much as I talked with people about gentrification, appallingly few located the problem beyond the landlords, rather on the city’s responsibility. Though it’s such a simple matter, many people somehow fail to understand that it’s neither the residents nor the landlords but a lack of regulation to be held responsible of what one might call uncontrollable gentrification. Housing is a market like everyone else and unless we don’t criticise this condition, we will not be able to rightfully criticise those who play by its rules. I would not call for an entire communisation, but for more regulation and most certainly, against the shameful harassment of foreigners who came here to discover the many beautiful things Berlin has to offer.

Some people do still not agree with me, some have heard it all. They will still accuse new residents and visitors of having brought a change into their community that they don’t feel comfortable with. They will insist on a personal and universal responsibility to honour and submit to local customs. They will see themselves as the original residents, those who, by their long time of living there, are entitled to set the rules of the community, to shape its cultural and neighbourly boundaries. They will not allow anybody to take part in the shaping and nurture of the community that everyone is part of. (Ironically, some of them will proudly praise the freedom this very community gave them once they were the newcomers, either by having moved or being born here.) But what they ultimately fail to recognize is the very small-minded provincialism which led them to believe that there was an inherent difference between old-established and incoming residents. Their xenophobia denies them the right to take part in the community just as xenophobia on a national scale discriminates unwanted foreigners. It’s the same worldview, the same way of thinking and, most important, the same way of judging. There’s no difference to the right-wing parties’ concept of “Überfremdung” and it’s a shame that none of them even noticed, even though most of them would likely not see themselves as rightists.

Kreuzberg and Neukölln have become places of xenophobia. This is not how I got to know and how I appreciated them. They were once open-minded and hospitable neighbourhoods. That has changed. I am ashamed.

Post scriptum: As several mails and comments reach me from people who planned to travel to Berlin, I’d like to take the chance and address your concerns. Most people will welcome you here or simply just don’t care about your presence. Berlin is still one of the world’s safest cities of this size and it is very unlikely that any harm would be done to you. If anything happens, somebody would insult you in a lowered voice. Don’t let this discourage you to visit Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Berlin in general. We – the FindingBerlin crew and basically everyone we know, everyone who is part of why we and so many other people love this city – would always invite you to come here and to share this place with you. As I wrote in the comments section, the issue addressed here is a development possibly only noticeable to the people who have lived here for a while. However, a stitch in time saves the nine and all I can hope for is to shed some light on this issue and maybe even spark off a discussion among our readers who live here so they can forge an opinion on their own, with the help of the comments below or their own friends and peers. If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me via the comment section or the mail shown below!

12 thoughts on “Xenophobia in Berlin

  1. I am really sad about this. As a “pure tourist” I have always thought I`d be welcome: I support local businesses and respectably get to learn about other countries, history and cultures. Now, having already booked two weeks in Berlin for next summer (and the first week we are staying with a friend at Kreuzberg), I feel somethings is ruined for me. So, they don`t want us there? Do I have to worry that when I am out with my kids we get angry looks or get shout at? I know that this atmosphere is getting more and more usual in the city I love the most and visit frequently, but I feel like I should start travelling somewhere else, find a new favourite city..

  2. Most visitors will not have any bad experiences and get to know Kreuzberg and Neukölln in a most pleasant way. No harm is done. But there’s a tension slowly rising that is just significant enough that those who live here will feel it. A typical incidence would be an insult muttered in lowered voice, any further aggression is unlikely. However, a stitch in time saves nine! I am worried about how these things could have developed, so I wanted to express my concerns and, in my best hopes, spark off a discussion among our readers who might have similar or other opinions on this topic.

  3. Good article!! As I was born and raised in North Rhine-Westphalia, I’m pretty much used to such animosity. However I assume the whole thing starts yet, considering the actual ideology of kiez-life and the aspirations and requirements that come with it.
    In fact the common idealization of Berlin as a conglomerate of many ‘urban villages’, presupposes the desire for a certain kind of provincialism. We long for a neighborly community with its warm-hearted atmosphere while at the same time demanding a broad range of modern facilities and heterogeneity. These are opposing needs that just seem hard to reconcile. Especially due to the fact that current zeitgeist (and a decent marketing strategy) seems to be all about ‘local’ branding, ‘handmade’ production, ‘homemade’ food etc. plainly commercializing our longing for authenticity and fellowship.
    Anyway, as you put it, blaming those shortcomings on tourists or even on landlords so-called “Miethaie” (who act according to the laws of capitalism, but obviously didn’t invent them), is simply undeserving and won’t solve the problem.

  4. That’s basically awesome, I’m having the hardest blast at the moment. Absolutely terrific, North Rhine-Westphalia is that close to Mordor?

  5. Jessica really pointed out the gist of the matter.
    As a newcomer Berliner you might find yourself in a weird pickle these days: You see old smalltown fellas that blame you for losin your roots emphasizing that you were no Berliner but an original hometown boy, (btw: my state in the hometown has always been the one of a newcomer too! hillbillys do not forget where you come from, berlin hillbillys neither) and the original Berliner blames you for ruining everything he loves in his kiez – in fact everything he secretly hates in his kiez. And why let things get complicated – tadaaaaa you re Berlins public enemy no 1.
    The term xenophobia is totally appropriate in this context, not to mention the antisemitic cliche “Miethai”.

  6. ” it’s neither the res­id­ents nor the land­lords but a lack of reg­u­la­tion”

    Yes and not only, the local government didn’t just deregulate the market, with no regard for the city’s history, it also sold off a lot of its own property, including social housing, and now they come up with *genius* plans like building 4800 new homes all around the Tempelhofer Feld, because of “Wohnungsnot”, just a few years after opening up the former airport as a park and making it one of the city’s most loved public spaces.

    And everywhere you look where they’ve already allowed new buildings within spaces in the city area, it’s almost always “luxury” homes – where “luxury” usually means bathrooms that look fancy by comparison to the kind of unrenovated 60’s and 70’s bathrooms you still find in many Altbaus, or to the cheaply “renovated” kind from the 80’s and 90’s – and a lot of them are for sale, not for rent. So they’ve openly allowed massive speculation, none of which goes to solve the “Wohnungsnot” problem, but that’s the keyword you’ll hear when they plan to sell off some more public space to property investors.

    A lot of people still prefer to blame the “newcomers” anyway, because it’s easier, I guess. Up to a certain degree, I can understand some of the animosity, especially against say younger groups of tourists behaving in ways that can be annoying, loud, like the weekend clubbers and pub crawls groups and that sort of thing. Still, people exaggerate even things like that, it’s not like Berlin has turned into Ibiza! I guess Berlin has just had less time to get used to a much more massive influx of visitors than it used to have. And when everything gets lumped in together – tourist and new stable residents, including Germans from other parts of the country – it can get really ridiculous. It’s also useless, it’s not political engagement or action or protest, it’s just resentment that leads to nothing. Such a waste of energies that could have been directed to the actual targets…

  7. I think the main problem is that this natural change in the cities structure and its residents just happened a lot faster that it did in any other city of the size/role.
    After all, humans are creatures of habit, so it’s also natural that they’ll hate it at first and blame everyone for it.

    Imagine you’re living in a social-housing situation in a rather unkempt part of Kreuzberg in the 70s. Turkish families move in and you’ll blame them for ruining your neigborhood, because there are all burglars and dealers and sexist patriarchs.You’ll slowly start to feel comfortable again once you’ve discovered Döner. Then the wall is down. Urgh the Ossis, surely they’ll take away your job. The early 2000s. You’re starting to notice a weirdly high amount of non-addicted looking young people in your district. 2005: the Altbau next to your place is suddenly white instead of that homely and familiar charcoal grey. Surely rent prices will rise by the hour. 2009: The neigbour across your flat moves to Pallasstraße and a WG moves in. You hate that the 24h noise of your neighbours Turkish radio program is exchanged for loud Electro.
    And so on.

  8. “As long as one agrees on the cap­it­al­ist sys­tem, this is just the most nat­ural and right­ful thing to do.”

    You probably forgot that a lot of Berliners, especially in Kreuzberg & Neukölln, don’t.

    I think you got the whole Xenophobia-thing wrong. New residents are not disliked just because they come from somewhere else. The problem is that they are willing to pay prices (especially for renting) which might be OK for them because they come from London, Paris, Tel Aviv or Barcelona, but are just too much for Berlin.
    And frankly I don’t give a fuck about whose responsibility this really is. I didn’t vote for the politicians who aren’t regulating the markets.
    So what more can I do than to ask newcomers not to pay these outrageous prices? But they still do, while some Berliners don’t find housing for months!

    To me it’s not about being entitled to anything or stuff like that. If I’m going to some Third World country and buy/rent everything for prices that are just plain ridiculous to locals, I wouldn’t be surprised if I won’t make many friends…

  9. It’s really interesting to read this article having just fled NYC for Berlin myself this month. Today, I was shocked and so saddened to hear people from all over the world lamenting over how much Berlin has changed and lost over the last 5 years. This outrage over gentrification, SOARING rents (sorry Berlin, you have no idea what expensive or unaffordable means) and disappearance of culture is happening all over the world, in every city, some more than others. But honestly, is it the government’s fault or is it our responsibility? Berlin still has a huge arts scene and a huge counter culture scene. And the most creative, open-minded people are coming here. I don’t know what the answer is… but somehow I feel like it’s up to the kids to stay exactly how Mattias describes – open and liberal and working together. If that means pressuring and scrutinizing government, fine. If that means supporting each other’s art and making as much of it as we can, fine. But we cannot hate each other. Everyone is a “gentrifier” somewhere. And everything changes. It’s so much smarter to teach each other how to best uphold “New York” or “Berlin” values, etc and to help each other… the world needs our generation. United we can stand… divided we are just more pegs in someone else’s system.

  10. Having been asked several times why I come to Germany to destroy it and having been called scum, and having heard comparisons made to the problems faced by German people having to put up with so many people from other countries in the 1920s/early 1930s, I’d say its the same old, same old. Sadly. The people that had to listed to this then of course are no longer there.

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