Posted by: Hackney Tours | January 29, 2010

Berlin car burners not so hot on history

A welcome splash of colour on a grey winter's day.

"We are all staying," says the squat banner just off Friedrichshain's Rigaer Strasse.

“Refugees welcome, tourists f*** off,” said the massive banner dominating the courtyard. This is the less than subtle sign outside the Subversiv squat bar, just off Brunnenstrasse in Berlin’s fashionable Mitte district.

I had just crossed the road from the bar at 183 Brunnenstrasse where a couple of young Lithuanian guys who lived in this long established squat were happy to chat about communal living as they served me a large beer for a single Euro.

If the streets of Central and Eastern Europe are that much colder than their London counterparts, then the bars and cafes seem to be that much warmer. The window in the door was steamed up with condensation as I opened it, exposing myself to a wall of heat and sound from the informal gig that was climaxing inside. At the bar, the atmosphere was distinctly frosty.

Was I, clearly in my 30s, too old? Was I too touristy or ‘square’ in my distinctly mainstream Berghaus jacket? A sullen barmaid served me with the minimum level of speech possible; while her expression shouted contempt. Shrugging it off, I settled into a leather armchair just as the band laid down their instruments, took a bow and joined the drinkers.

Berlin is famed for its alternative scene and the creativity that comes from eschewing commerce, living cheaply, working less and using that free time productively. Some squats, like Yorck59 utilise that excess energy to run creches and workshops. There are anarchist libraries in Friedrichshain, free cinemas in Mitte and stimulating debates in Kreuzberg. But there is a darker side to this disdain for authority and the formal structures of the state.

Car burnings have become increasingly common in Berlin; to the point where there is a website where you can keep up to date with who’s burning what, and where.

Some of these attacks exemplify the stereotypical clash of societal archetypes: black clad ‘anarchists’ on the margins set fire to SUV’s or luxury saloons of ‘greedy capitalists’. Or at least that’s the thinking; no-one’s quite sure who is behind it, in an evolving city of immigrants where anonymity is easily found in post-Wall empty spaces and parallel communities.

The default word for a journalist when writing about these matters would be ‘shadowy’. It has been hazarded that some of the attacks are simply bored teenagers jumping on a bandwagon of rebellious pyromania; this theory has been fuelled by the fact that – while DHL vans have been hit because of the company’s involvement in warzone logistics – some of the targeted vehicles have been modest saloon cars.

Berlin knows all too well the physical effects of polarisation. It has suffocated under the inevitable consequences that arise from extreme modes of thinking.

From the violence of 1919 to the Nazi clampdown that ended the Weimar era and all that came after, fascists and communists have wanted to impose their own ‘right way’ of doing things on a more moderate population. Today, with liberty very much on offer again, Berlin is still attracting radicals.

Like so many of the walls outside, the inside of Subversiv bore messages that paid no mind to concepts like advocacy or made any attempt at subtlety. “Smash Capitalism,” – a slogan now so ubiquitous and empty of meaning that it has no power to shock – said one poster. Trying even harder was “F***-off Mitte,”; translated into several languages, it was a reference to the gentrification of this part of the city centre (Mitte means middle or centre).

Smash, break, destroy; the lexicon of the ideologically bellicose was everywhere I looked. If you subscribe to constant sum theory, you can dismiss this as merely the Yin to the dark Yang that lurks outside the city; in places where it pays to be white and not to attract attention and where a clash or principles can lead to more than a strained atmosphere at the dinner table.

But all I could see were keen new recruits for the party Party, clambering over unread history books to sign up for the next crusade.

Earlier that week I met a woman in Friedrichshain’s squat-mecca Rigaer Strasse. A poster highlighting DHL’s role in Afghanistan was stuck to the wooden fence of the illegal trailer park opposite the flat she had just left. I asked her about the squatting scene, and what she thought about all the posturing that so often goes with the urban politics.

After establishing her liberal credentials – she approved of the trailer camp her balcony overlooked – she said she thought many of the angrier young men and women were just striking a pose.

“It’d be okay if they took some of these alternative ideas and made less drastic – but longer lasting – changes to their lives. But for some of them it’s just a phase. They’ll leave and become lawyers or business people or whatever.”

I love the alternative scene in Berlin. I like the fact that loud voices affirm there is more than one way to live your life; that you can say ‘no’ to the painting by numbers one-size-fits-all consumer society. But the irony of calling for freedom and tolerance, while using violence to impose your value system on others, seems sadly lost on some.

If owning a small hatchback is a crime in Berlin, then despite a new twist on the rhetoric or a new design for the wrapper, depressingly old patterns in human nature are repeating themselves.

Of course, in Berlin the prism of the past insinuates itself into more narratives than it should, daring commentators to make crass comparisons or draw overly dramatic conclusions. Burning a few cars does not equate with the burning of books on these very same streets.

But both find their roots in a righteous anger that seeks to dictate its worldview to those who are ignorant or ‘lack consciousness’.

A kissing couple landed heavily on my armrest, oblivious or unconcerned by my own arm and the beer it was connected to. I felt suddenly weary. It was time to leave the realm of the renegades and head back to the Karl Marx Allee flat I was staying in.

Squatters in yuppified Mitte, and a moderate in a Stalinist showpiece; we had all found a space in Berlin to lay down our contradictions for the night and sleep.

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