“Berlin – In Love with Failure”
Die Zeit magazine, November 2017
Below is the full text of a cover story called Berlin – In Love with Failure from Germany’s answer to the New York Times Magazine, with annotations by me about important references that would otherwise be unrecognizable. It’s about the city’s relentless decades-long propensity for failure, dysfunction, and underachievement, which is completely unknown outside Germany but which Germans consider common knowledge, like saying Los Angeles is sunny. When the city council wanted a new marketing slogan for Berlin and commissioned a PR firm to survey Berliners’ thoughts about the city’s true spirit, the consensus was, as some respondents put it, “overheated aimlessness”, “the juvenile delinquent in the back of the school bus” and “let the other German cities be the achievers”.
The closest American comparison would be New York in the 70s and 80s. It’s visible in big things, little things, government, society, business, culture, from the mayor down to the oddly (to American eyes) abundant Romanian pickpockets. German media report on it almost every day. It’s one thing they all agree on and surveys show that most Germans do too, the only disagreement being that Berliners are proud of the failure and the rest of the country finds it an embarrassment.
We are not just talking about police blotter material and tabloid scandals, but systemic institutional and social failure at just about all levels and sectors. The article is targeted to people who are already familiar with the situation and that’s where my annotations come in.
Let’s start with the magazine’s cover. It was completely blank apart from the words “There should be a nice headline here.”
Inside, the title page said “If it was up to Berlin, not even the title page would be ready. A leisurely excoriation of the capital.”
The newspaper’s front page had a parody of the bear from the city’s coat of arms.
My annotations are in brackets.
In Love with Failure
Berlin’s list of shortcomings goes on and on. Garbage and debts are piling up, the administration is a mess, and the long-awaited new airport may never open. Many residents feel despised by the city’s ruling politicians. And yet so many people love the place, the authors of this article included. How can that be? [I will jump right and point out the article has exactly two sentences on why people love the place.]
On Berlin’s main boulevard, Unter den Linden, a red carpet has been rolled out behind battered crash barriers. Guests of honor are expected at the city’s oldest opera house, the Staatsoper. The restoration of this rococo building dragged on for over seven years, with costs doubling to more than 477 million dollars (400 million euros) in the process. A investigative committee charged with digging deep into the swampy ground on which the opera house is built found only a combination of nonchalance and fatalism typical of Berlin: Well, okay, so it’s going to cost a bit more, but what can you do? It’s fate!
On October 3, which is celebrated as the Day of German Unity, work on the building was due to be finished at last, in time for the reopening celebrations. But the reopening turned out to be only a prelude: Just a few days later, the opera house had to close again. There was still technical work to be done, and various kinds of clearances from city agencies to be acquired, fire safety among them. Unfortunately, the premiere scheduled for the opening night had to be canceled, too. The composer was sick. A tragedy, Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, served as a last-minute stand-in for the stand-in, And so, that night, the gold-leaf auditorium rang with a sort of secret anthem for Berlin: “All that is transient is merest semblance / Here, the deficient becomes reality” resonating precisely 0.7 seconds longer than before, one of things that 477 million dollars in renovations will get you.
This is Berlin. What’s going on here?
No one who steps outside Berlin’s federal government district can fail to notice the overflowing garbage cans, the dog mess on the sidewalk, the neglected parks and the dead rats. The city’s registrars don’t issue birth certificates until long after birth [causing low-income families to lose state assistance because they missed deadlines for submitting paperwork], couples planning to marry set up camp outside the town halls at dawn, dead people can’t be buried because the authorities are overburdened. It can take 38 days to get a death certificate. In Pankow, a last-minute courier handed over the papers during a memorial service in a cemetery chapel. Appropriately enough, the unresponsive software used by the records offices is called Autista. The company that produced it insists that it works everywhere else, just not in Berlin.
Predictably, the national elections last fall didn’t go off without hiccups in Berlin either. Forty-six janitors refused to work on a Sunday outside their normal hours (which would be compensated by time off) and unlock schools that were to be used as polling stations. The all-clear came only two days before the elections. “Voting will be possible” is a headline you wouldn’t see anywhere in Germany but in Berlin. And it actually proved to be somewhat premature. Long after all the results had come through from the rest of the country, the Berliners were still counting. Because of “software problems.” One district didn’t get their results in until the early morning [which is absolutely unheard of in Germany, where results are normally final, or very nearly so, a few hours after polls close. The original article didn’t bother to explain this, because Germans can’t conceive of election races taking more than a few hours to be called.]
Thousands of legal proceedings have been suspended in Berlin, because the judiciary can’t deal with the backlog and the statutes of limitations have expired. More than a few suspects have been released because their time in pre-trial custody had reached its legal limit. According to the head of the Berlin Bar Association, “There is no longer a functioning legal system in Berlin.”
So what’s wrong with Berlin? It seems to be in love with failure. But that doesn’t stop more and more people from falling in love with Berlin. Take us, for example. One of us is a columnist, the other the editor-in-chief of the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel (Daily Mirror). We’ve been living here for decades, observing and writing about the day-to-day madness and the city’s various shortcomings. More often than not, these are the result of organized incompetence. In Berlin, it takes three years to get a zebra crossing painted [the Green Party exerts considerable effort and fanfare to organize citizen groups and protests just to get single zebra crossings painted; citywide pedestrian safety planning being out of the question], four years to put up a traffic light, seven years to renovate an opera house. The Pergamon building site on Museum Island has become a permanent building site, a monument to itself, four years behind schedule and well over budget. The doubling of costs seems to be more or less mandatory in this town. The main source of trouble apparently is a historical pump that is getting in the way of the underground work. [Just as historical fort foundations contributed to the Staatsoper’s eye-popping delays and cost overruns. Is this the first time anyone has ever renovated anything in Germany?] Attempts to build an airport have been going on for eleven years. The planned opening was canceled five years ago; we still have our invitations. Now they say 2019 might be the year – if all goes well. But when does anything ever go well in Berlin?
[The new Berlin airport is perhaps the largest construction debacle in the industrialized West. Rumors abound that after 26 years of planning and construction, it will have to be torn down and rebuilt before ever opening. In 2012 the opening, already years behind schedule, was cancelled with just three weeks notice, after plane tickets had been sold, personnel hired (but I suppose not trained -?) restaurant food ordered and highway detours announced. At the very least it will open ten years behind schedule and 300% over budget, at $11 billion and growing, and is virtually being entirely rebuilt in place piece by piece, as every month it turns out that ever more wiring systems, walls, doors, escalators, smoke detectors have to be ripped out, completely redesigned, and rebuilt. All the flight information monitors had to be replaced because they had to be kept on and lived out their normal operating life. For six years now, with no end in sight, empty airport trains have been running daily and eight housekeepers have been cleaning an empty hotel which can’t be used until the airport opens.]
Perhaps we could even put up with the city’s inability to build an airport or renovate an opera house, if only the little everyday things went smoothly, registering a new car, for example. But that sort of thing can drag on for weeks. Car dealers can’t shift the models they’ve sold, because the buyers can’t take them off the lot until they’re registered.
Building new housing, a matter of some urgency in Berlin [ironic understatement – Berlin has the world’s fastest-rising rents and has a housing crisis rivaling San Francisco], has become a process that is as long and drawn out as the airport project. Nowhere are the waiting times longer, schools more dilapidated, building sites more chaotic, responsibilities more nebulous than here in the capital. Midwives caution heavily pregnant women against visiting Berlin – there’s not enough doctors and hospital beds. Housing available to rent or buy is hardly to be found, while Berlin politicians regularly rail against greedy private investors. The Housing Commissioner says “We’re up to our necks in capitalism. That’s the problem.” But it’s not like things were all that great here under socialism, either. So what’s the solution? The Board of Commissioners was asked by an opposition party whether it shares the Housing Commissioner’s own view on capitalism, and received the answer: “The board has not yet formed a final opinion on this fundamental problem.” Sounds like that is something else we’re going to have to wait patiently for.
Many Berliners feel that the powers-that-be are contemptuous of them and their humble needs. These powers appear to have higher aims than managing birth certificates and garbage cans. The trouble is that nobody knows what those aims might be, although the Interior Secretary was heard to propose “get high and abolish the BfV” [equivalent of the FBI] when he thought no one was within earshot.
The contempt is by now mutual. Last summer, the filter lane on the Potsdamer Bridge, near Potsdamer Platz, was closed to all vehicles except buses, because of road work. Drivers were asked to follow an inconvenient diversion. Many of them simply ignored the signs. Road signs in Berlin tend to have a decorative function at best. On the one hand, reductions in the police force in the name of austerity have hobbled its ability to address such issues. On the other hand, public anger continues to mount because Berlin no longer seems to have any coordination among its countless construction sites. Conspiracy theories are rampant: Is it all due to sadists, or the Green Party [who are in the ruling coalition along with the far-left and center-left parties, with 30% of the seats in the city assembly] – or both? After several serious accidents, the junction was turned into a kind of Fort Alamo and manned round the clock by armed policemen to ensure that the restrictions were adhered to.
Nothing has been done, however, to enforce the ban on riding bicycles on the sidewalk, a rule which exists only on paper. Alas, the same is true of parking on cycling paths. A peeved cyclist who reported illegally parked cars to the police was accused by the public order office of “systematic and thus unlawful traffic surveillance.” Complaints made by “amateur sheriffs,” he was told, are “not classified as complaints.” Such matters are, apparently, the “responsibility of the state.” But where is the state?
Last year, the Pierre Boulez Saal, a magnificent new concert hall, was opened within the Barenboim-Said Academy. Since then, negotiating the street where it is located on concert evenings has been fraught with danger, because of illegally parked cars. Academy director and former state minister for culture, Michael Naumann, put in an urgent request for a no-parking zone, but his application was rejected out of hand. The administrative assistant processing it informed him that “due to other scheduled commitments,” it was not possible for her “to assess applications at short notice.” Furthermore, “the assessment procedure alone requires several months.” When Naumann complained, another administrative assistant pointed out to him that “the implementation of a no-parking zone would hardly prevent instances of illegal parking.” Calling on “years of observation,” he said he considered it “highly unlikely” that such parking restrictions would be taken seriously. This capitulatory statement ends with the reprimand: “You are kindly asked not to blame the misconduct you have observed on the traffic authorities.”
In light of this, an external observer can, perhaps, begin to understand why a “Five-Day Crackdown on Berlin’s Parking Offenders” is considered newsworthy by the local papers.
One thing Berlin certainly is not, however, is Germany’s speeding capital. (Research studies have bestowed that title on Hamburg.) Because of the high volume of traffic, speeding is only possible here in the small hours of the morning. [A reference to Germany’s deadly street racing epidemic, with fatalities annually and which in recent years moved from the suburbs to the city centers ever since the introduction of Whatsapp message groups that allow racers to quickly notify one another of police presence.]
When it comes to aggression and anarchy, though, Berlin is unrivalled. A teacher writes: “For reasons of safety we have had to withdraw our school crossing guards today. The police officer in charge is no longer willing or able to assume responsibility for the children.”
For some time now, it has been possible to submit online complaints to the public order office. A digital traffic light tells you whether a complaint is being processed. Most of them are stuck on amber, even weeks after submission. Some use the online system for public denunciation – you can see the name and address, for example, of a family who “have had an unregistered dog for at least five years, who doesn’t get walked enough!” For once, the office reports the case “closed” – they forwarded it to the tax department.
The complaints are often about garbage. So…much…garbage. People here just put it out on the sidewalk. If that’s against the law, so what? Here’s a list of the garbage complained about in the Neukölln district in the course of one normal day: household junk, vacuum parts, glass, shopping cart, couch, cobblestones, metal, building rubble, household garbage, insulation wool, computer, couch, plastic, tins of paint, packaging material, microwave, mattress, folding bed, pieces of wood, washing machine, furniture, clothes, insulation panels, fridge, rugs, crates, cardboard boxes, car tires, baby bath, polystyrene panels, drying rack, chair parts, electrical parts, bag, wooden bookcase, garbage bags, wooden boards, sofa, cupboard, bedframe, desk, bin liners, electrical junk . . . and the list goes on.
And those are only the things people have bothered to complain about. The mayor of Berlin-Neukölln has begun to stave off the avalanche of trash by putting up signs saying “Dumping Prohibited.” Residents are astonished by this message. The mayor says the local council is trying out “all realistic possibilities” of tackling the problem.
Certain deficiencies are not only accepted as inevitable; they are redefined as events. When the city council can’t get the drug dealing in Görlitzer Park under control, it announces, in politically correct fashion: “We will have to adapt to the continued existence of the dealing. No one group should be regarded as the root cause of the problem. People currently using the park should not be forced out.” The dealers are now de facto part of the official recreational program. They warn cyclists to slow down, and request ID from the more youthful-looking of their customers. In Berlin’s 24/7 liquor stores [most of which are flagrantly and with impunity flaunting the laws against opening 24 hours and any time on Sundays with rare exceptions], you can buy extra long “Görlitzer Park” rolling papers for the original Kreuzberg joint. If nothing else, the local supply chain seems to be in good working order: The papers are produced by a company in Berlin..
To be fair, though, no one should write about the collapse of Berlin’s statehood without mentioning two facts.
First of all, almost every problem to be observed in Berlin is also to be found in other big German cities. The construction of Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie concert hall, for instance – like that of Berlin’s Staatsoper – dragged on for years and cost nearly 10 times more than planned, close to a billion dollars. In Stuttgart, the new underground train station, for which the tree-covered city center park was bulldozed, is so many years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget that even German Rail, which is building it, has said they never should have built it in the first place. Police fired water cannons at children protesting it. In Cologne, the city archives collapsed into a hole in the ground when they were digging a new subway tunnel, destroying two thousand years of documents. Berlin’s problems, though, tend to be more severe and more frequent – and the situation is not improving.
Secondly, pointing the finger at specific parties or individual politicians is not particularly productive. No matter who’s been in power in Berlin – and plenty of people have tried – there have never been tangible improvements. Berlin is a bit like a shared apartment where the sink’s full of dirty dishes: Every evening there are long debates about who’s to blame, but nobody ever washes up.
And yet people come here in droves: the young, the beautiful, the bold, and the colorful, tourists, start-up entrepreneurs, adventurers, and retirees. Berlin is the home of the homeless. The appeal of the city rests on solid foundations that are not easily shaken: the unique mix of cultural offerings, the lakes in and around town and the charms of the surrounding countryside [this is true of most European cities so it’s not valid as a special appeal of Berlin], the beautiful period apartments (expensive these days, but still cheaper than Paris or London), the nightlife, the intellectual openness, the pan-European flair, the aura. The aura is the last thing to die – in that respect, Berlin is like an aging actor. Night after night, tourists saunter through the bar districts in search of adventure. The British stag nights in Berlin are legendary; the Brits can’t believe how cheap the alcohol is.
Tourists are viewed as a “considerable economic factor.” In Berlin, this means: One does not like them. In order to tackle the concentration of tourists in certain districts, the Senate Department for Economics has come up with a typically Berlin solution: an app called “Going Local.” This is designed to keep tourists away from the traditional attractions and “pub miles,” and lure them into further-flung parts of the city, such as Spandau, or Marzahn [both notorious in Berlin as ugly, hardscrabble, boring suburbs where the white supremacist party gets 25% of the vote]. One spokesperson said: “Berlin has so much to offer; there’s no need for everyone to go to the same places at the same time.” Imagine an app persuading tourists in Paris to forget about the Eiffel Tower and Saint Germain, and take the metro into the banlieues, the famously dangerous, disenfranchised North African-dominated suburban housing projects on which the city seems to have given up.
In Berlin, the banlieue is called Hellersdorf. A new teacher starting out here was greeted by his colleagues with the cheering information: “The majority of your students will grow up to be criminal or unemployed, or end up on the streets.” The streets bear traces of the Berlin education system: “All Cops are Basdarts,” someone has sprayed on a wall in Charlottenburg – not an allusion to a new form of darts favored by the police, but a sad reflection on English teaching in Berlin schools. The council, in case you were wondering, refuses to have the graffiti removed. An email to a resident explains why: “Since the writing you quote is framed in very general terms and does not insult any individual by name, there is probably no need to take action.” For Berlin authorities, taking action is, it would seem, the worst nightmare.
Eleven years ago, the “Institute for School Quality” was set up at Berlin’s Free University and has since developed all manner of evaluation methods. This hasn’t stopped Berlin from coming last every time in Germany’s school league tables. Nowhere else in Germany is the average primary-school student so bad at writing or arithmetic, nowhere else are there so many school drop-outs, nowhere else does a student’s social background have such a marked influence on his or her performance in school. The number of classes skipped is also record-breakingly high in Berlin: Thousands of children, it seems, hardly bother to turn up to school at all. School attendance is compulsory, but, like so much in Berlin, that’s no more than a nice theory. At the same time, as if by magic, students’ grades get better every year. Educational policy has helped things along by constantly lowering requirements.
When it comes to the state of school buildings, no one is doing anything. Berlin’s schools are not only ugly, but dangerous. The inspection report of a school in Pankow states that the school has no emergency escape route, no smoke alarms on the lower stories, and staircases that are too narrow for a speedy evacuation. The council said it is “going to take compensatory measures” – in Berlin, that’s a synonym for “hot air.” [Several schools recently admitted they had no records concerning their fire inspections – but only after newspapers had asked for them after two people died in fire in a spa that hadn’t had an inspection in 35 years. ]
The local councils say they’re understaffed and blame the commissioners. The commissioners says the local councils don’t know how to handle money. All anyone can say is: It’s not us. A little pragmatism is desperately needed in Berlin, but people are suspicious of professionalism. A city council member from the Green Party resigned after the party accused him of “excessive competence and appropriateness” in his work. This was not a problem, however, for the Interior Commissioner whom the Police Commissioner praised for “not messing around where he shouldn’t be.” Berlin gets $4.5 billion in subsidies from the richer German states every year, which is not just more than any other city but more than any other German state. This amounts to just under 40% of all the subsidies paid by the richer states to the poorer states ones. [The city of Berlin is its own state, as though Washington D.C. were a full-fledge state just like the other 50.]
What on earth’s going on here? When people talk about Berlin, they often quote the most famous words ever said about Berlin in German: “Berlin is a city damned always to become and never to be.” You can’t exactly call it praise. Damned Berlin? Damned by whom and for what reason?
The quotation isn’t exactly hot off the press; it’s the final sentence of a book published in 1910, Karl Scheffler’s Berlin: the Fate of a City. Scheffler was born in Hamburg in 1869 and moved to the capital in his early twenties – like so many of today’s Berliners, he refused to live anywhere else. He was to become one of the city’s most influential art critics and the editor-in-chief of the specialist journal Kunst und Künstler (Art and Artists). He fiercely defended Impressionism against the conservatives, but disliked the avant-garde of the Weimar Republic. When the Nazis came to power, he was sidelined as an inveterate bourgeois and withdrew to a life of silence on Lake Constance.
Scheffler’s Berlin book does not make for comfortable reading for Berliners. No one writing today (ourselves included) takes the liberty of writing about the city with quite as much hatred or malice. Scheffler can also get very personal: “One sometimes feels as if the entire male population consisted exclusively of contractors and builders. Dilettantish and dithering to an extreme, local politics has shown no signs of freedom or greatness; it has never done what it wanted, but always what it had to do. The city has been built by a mob of greedy, slow-witted, and brutish speculators; it is inhospitable, hubristic, and ugly.” And so on. But Scheffler liked living in Berlin.
The city gets you in its grip, there’s no escape – even beyond the grave. When a Berlin family recently wrote to cancel the gas contract of a deceased member, enclosing a copy of the death certificate, the old Berlin company Gasag sent a letter to the deceased customer, assuring him: “In your new home, too, we are glad to be at your service.”
Anyone who lives in Berlin will know that opening hours are at best approximate. Typical notices seen during normal working hours include “Court closed due to heating failure” or, for stores, “Closed. We already had enough customers today”. When subway lines close for repairs, odds are good that the streets where the replacement bus service should be running are also closed for repairs. In these situations the transit authority announces, “Passengers should avoid the replacement bus service.” The escalators at the Brandenburg Gate station – the city’s symbol, more or less every tourist’s first stop – have been out of service on average six months per year ever since it opened in 2008. Official explanation: “At the moment, the escalator mechanisms do not meet the necessary standards for capacity and durability” or in other words, it’s broken because it’s broken. Other escalators and elevators have been out of service for years on end. Once in a while a new sign will show up on which someone with a sense of humor at the transit authority has provided a new completion date. Official explanation: “Planning difficulties were encountered during elevator replacement, followed by further needs for technical investigations.”
The high sickness rate of the Berlin authorities is legendary. In the Neukölln district, the average is 34 days of absence a year; in Marzahn Hellersdorf, it’s over 42. Among those who don’t work for the bureaucracy, the average is only ten days a year. A single mother who inquired about an application she had made for state assistance three months earlier was told, “Everyone here is sick. If things aren’t moving fast enough for you, why don’t you come and help us out?”
What kind of people put themselves through this, day in, day out? The eminent former foreign minister (and former taxi driver) Joschka Fischer says, “The Berlin authorities are not something you can ever get used to. But as a city, Berlin is incredible. I don’t want to leave.” Most people feel the same. And when the governing mayor, Michael Müller, declares, “The city largely works very well,” the Berliners say: “Well, at least the man has a sense of humor.”
For a taste of the way Berliners see themselves, just go to one of the agencies recruiting extras for movies and television. “Wanted: an ugly family for the afternoon show of a renowned TV channel,” one agency posted. Since it was immediately inundated with applications, the ad was removed only a few hours later. Another ad, recruiting “freaks and punks,” “weird and wacky characters who’ve seen a bit of life,” and “women, men, and babies with crazy tattoos” for a film about the end of the world, also elicited an enormous response.
Roughly speaking, Berliners fall into two categories. There are those who don’t want to stand out. They’re the ones who call their children Alexander or Marie, currently the most common names in the capital. Then there are the ones who are desperate to stand out. A glance at the records shows us that they call their boys Heavenly, Beloved, Sunday, Winono, Prince-Glorieux, Wealth, Lord, Desire, Good, Excellent, Wildwind, Sturmius, Rebelle, Sittich (parakeet), Sturmhart (stormhard), Ulysses, Legolas, Rochus, and Evidence. Their girls, meanwhile, have to get through life bearing names like Summer-Juli (Summer-July), Himmelblau (sky blue), Shaked, Cinderella, Peace, Dudu, Parfaite, Poppy, Goodness, Gala, Berlin, Aphrodite, Purity, Victory, Karma, Oceania, and Rocket. All approved and registered. The next generation of eccentrics is guaranteed.
Where do they all come from? Scheffler’s core theory is that Berlin is a city of “settlers” – or colonizers, the German term is ambiguous, at least in Scheffler’s use – by which he means that people come here – and have been coming for centuries – to seek their fortune. They are gold diggers, conquerors, and pioneers. They use the city – maybe they are fascinated by it – but they don’t love it. Berlin is their means to an end. It brings work, and maybe fame and wealth. But Berlin has no inner core, no identity, no sure sense of self, like Paris or London or even Munich. According to Scheffler, Berlin attracts “energetic, strong-willed, ravening people with a thirst for freedom; the sons without any inheritance, the oppressed, the dispossessed, and those who didn’t have the best reputation back home. And finally, the great mass of exiles.” Those who come to Berlin aren’t those who have made it but rather, those who are on the make.Your typical New-Berliner is struggling to gain a foothold, fighting for himself and his future. The city is merely his playing field. He gives nothing in return.
Such verdicts are always unfair; they cannot hold true in every case. But anyone reading Scheffler will see what connects the Turkish people who came to Berlin in the 1960s and 1970s, the Huguenots, the eastern European Jews, the Polish workers, the draft dodgers in the years of the Berlin Wall [the city was so depopulated that the draft was waived for residents, all jobs had annual bonuses just for working in Berlin and anyone who moved to Berlin from the main part of West Germany got free plane and train tickets to go home for visits], the Vietnamese of East Berlin, the left-wing rebels from southern Germany, the start-up entrepreneurs, the young Americans, Brits, and Spaniards, the artists, musicians, and bons vivants, the recent refugees, older refugees from Russia and Silesia, and the government officials from Bonn [capital of West Germany until reunification]. In one way or another, all these people were – or are – settlers or colonizers or a little of both. There is a chance that over time they will come together and form a new and fully realized urban community. But Berlin has never had that much time. The East Berliners form the largest cohort of settlers, although they have always lived here, unlike the young Americans and Swabians [new arrivals from the state of Swabia in southwest Germany, widely mocked for being the most aggressively bourgeois and hip of the bourgeois hip gentrifiers]. But many of them feel homeless even so. The East Berliners’ feeling of being overrun and colonized by the West is astonishingly prevalent, even among those who weren’t even born yet when the Wall came down in 1989.. It has been passed down from generation to generation like Turkish customs among immigrants from Anatolia. Germany’s Left Party does much to keep this feeling alive. “I’m from the East” is still a standard phrase of introduction. In 1910, people would have said: “I’m from Silesia.”
So where are the people who think of themselves as true Berliners?
The bus drivers are said to be genuine Berliners. They have that particular Berlin sense of humor. Asked, “Are you Tegel?” they will reply: “No, I’m the bus driver.” Woe betide anyone who attempts to pay for a 2.90 ticket with a 5 euro bill: “What do you think I am, a bank?” Genuine Berliners are also to be found on the city’s flea markets. A woman who wants to know the price of an axe is asked: “Planning to do your husband in? Sixteen euros – well worth it, isn’t it?” Unfortunately, Berliners often have trouble knowing when to stop. Advertisements for council jobs in the borough of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg state ominously: “Excellent conflict-handling skills are essential.”
There are also real Berliners in the police. In 2017 the Berlin police were expelled from Hamburg, where they had been posted to provide security for the G20 summit, for drunk and disorderly conduct, including public sex and the very same kind of vandalism they were there to prevent. Shortly afterward, they had faux insignia patches made where the bear in the Berlin coat of arms is shown copulating, drinking beer, spilling it and urinating. No disciplinary actions were taken. Nor were they for the police academy student who, to the delight of his fellow students, starred in the pornographic film Dick Bingo 8, because, the authorities claimed, “he had not harmed the department’s reputation”.
It is often said that Berlin no longer has a substantial middle class of the kind so crucial to the makeup of other global cities [wouldn’t it be more accurate to say cities, period, and not just “global” ones?]. Berlin’s Jews and most of the city’s intellectuals were murdered or driven out by the Nazis. After the war, entrepreneurs had it hard in East Berlin because of the Communists, and they had it hard in the West of the city because its island status made it economically unattractive. If Scheffler’s analysis is correct, Berlin never had a middle class – or only a rudimentary one. Home was always somewhere else. Berlin was just the place where one happened to be.
Sometimes, in other cities, urban society was forged over the centuries by religion. It was a bond that continued to hold even when belief began to wane. But Berlin has always been indifferent towards religion. That was one reason why it has attracted settlers. Scheffler believes that the void this left was filled by Prussian militarism. Rituals were created not by religious ceremonies, but by military drill and parades. The Prussians invented universal conscription – every man a soldier, the city one big garrison. This militarism was discredited in 1945, so that eventually it too, passed away. Berlin had no patrician class to speak of, no merchant dynasties. Even the aristocracy was less fully realized than elsewhere, the Prussian kings saw to that. So what held the city together?
Berlin was a city of clerks. The princes needed hardworking and obedient clerks, and Berlin was highly successful at producing the necessary type and mindset. The Prussian clerk did as he was told. He hated having to take responsibility but could meticulously carry out clear orders without doing much thinking of his own – ideal Nazi material, and later, in East Germany, ideal official Socialist Party material. We should not, however, be unjust to the Prussian clerk. A smoothly running, conscientious administration is a wonderful thing, so long as it isn’t murderers or ideologues who are giving the instructions. But a clerk does need instructions.
The mentality of the petty clerk seems to have survived the disasters in Berlin’s history better than anything else – it is alive to this day, and it dominates. You are aware of it when bureaucrats haul themselves out of the general chaos and start measuring pub tables to see if they can find one that’s protruding two inches too far onto the sidewalk. You are aware of it, too, in the ICC conference center, a colossal building that’s stood empty for years, kept alive like a brain-dead patient at a cost of five million euros a year. This life-support operation ticks along smoothly; the carpets are regularly vacuumed. But no one is able to make a decision about it, let alone get anything done. The city council doesn’t have the money to redevelop it, nor does it have any idea what a redevelopment could look like. A consulting firm has advised selling it to a private investor. The Social Democrats (SPD) are against the idea. So what to do next? The senate would like to spend five million euros on exploring the different kinds of “interest” in this building, in order to find an investor that the SPD will probably reject. The clerks are helpless. They need someone to come and give them instructions, but there’s no king these days. And God is silent, as always.
The petty-clerk mentality is also noticeable every time news of the latest catastrophe comes in from the shambolic new BER Airport construction site. Everyone automatically ducks. Now and then, someone is fired, but it hasn’t made any difference. It’s hard to say who is ultimately responsible for the mess [Not true. The answer is, former mayor Klaus Wowereit and his circles and successors, who made the decision to build the airport without a general contractor overseeing the whole project. In other words, Berlin quite literally went into the airport-building business. This is the same Wowereit who oversaw the selling-off of 200,000 public housing units at fire-sale prices to global investors who soon made 1,000 percent profits, yet was and still is much loved by Berliners.] Everyone hides behind the growing piles of documents and points to somebody else. The construction of the airport, with its end still nowhere in sight, is coming to be seen as a kind of natural disaster. Nothing to be done. Presumably the work will be completed at some point, but when it happens, it will be down to chance as much as anything else. If you build for a thousand years, you get there eventually, even in Berlin.
A few months ago, the mayor of Berlin traveled to Los Angeles with a large delegation for the US premiere of Babylon Berlin, a highly acclaimed TV-series directed by Tom Tykwer, celebrating the good old myth of 1920s Berlin. Müller held a short, off-the-cuff speech in the legendary Universal Theater. “I hope you become a taste of Berlin!” he exclaimed, which may not have been perfect English (the German verb “bekommen” means “to get”), but it won him a round of applause and he made a likeable impression. The next day he flew back, landed in Tegel, the airport that the senate plans to close when BER finally opens, even though a majority of Berliners have voted to keep it. Tegel is regarded as one of the few Berlin institutions that runs more or less smoothly. More or less – Mayor Müller had to wait for an hour at the baggage claim before the first suitcases appeared. Those labeled “Priority” came last, of course. Müller became a taste of Berlin.
Another remnant of a once functioning city are Berlin’s public toilets. Only 24 percent of them are out of order, which is pretty good going for Berlin. For 25 years, a company called Wall has been the operator of 170 hi-tech toilets, largely financed by advertising, The costs for the city were practically zero. [Before privatization, there were far more public toilets perhaps 600 or so.] Now, however, the contract has been canceled, because it turns out that Wall is a capitalist company and is making money. Berlin’s administration has decided to pocket that money itself. Simultaneously, it wants to usher in a new era in emancipatory toilet politics. The administration is working (presumably frantically) on a “toilet concept.” The new bathrooms are to be fair to all genders, which is to say that women, too, are finally to be able to pee standing up. But the purchase of these state-of-the-art unisex urinals has yet to happen and the clock is ticking: At the end of 2018, Wall will have to take down its toilet cabins. If things turn out the way they usually do, come 2019, Berlin will be a European metropolis with impeccable moral credentials, but no public toilets.
None of this, of course, stops Berlin from being a great city, a global city, a place where everyone can do their thing, a city of the arts, of freedom and pleasure. All that may sound a bit trite, but it’s true. But for some time now Berlin has been living off its capital [figuratively speaking, because in literal terms it’s in its 70th straight year of insolvency and the administration survives on federal handouts] and its aura, with nothing fundamentally new surfacing. There is no discernible ambition of any kind, and if anything new ever does happen, invariably some kind of private initiative is pushing it. Not that that’s a bad sign. Civic enterprise is something that Scheffler felt was painfully absent from the old Berlin.
One group is planning to make the river Spree a place to swim in [not true – the plan is not for swimming in the Spree, it’s for building a swimming pool in the Spree], which would turn Berlin into one big beach bar. After a long struggle, the City Palace is being rebuilt [in fact it’s a populist-nationalist Disneyland and global embarrassment; see the New York Times’ coverage] Every week a new interesting restaurant opens [sheer lies – Berlin is a hopeless provincial food backwater], or a gallery, or some wacky business. At the same time, though, new initiatives tend to attract controversy in Berlin. They are always greeted by opposition, mistrust, or at least indifference. Exhausted by itself and its day-to-day existence, the city has forgotten how to muster enthusiasm for anything new. It wants everything to stay the way it is. But that doesn’t work anymore either.
What does work, and works exceedingly well, are the grand narratives about the past: the collapse of the Wall, the Berlin Blockade, 1968, Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and, of course, the mother of all myths, the roaring twenties of Cabaret,now on television in the form of Babylon Berlin. Stresemann famously said that the Germany of those days was “dancing on a volcano.” Today, Berlin is dancing on garbage bags and paperwork. But one thing is certain: Any attempt to build the Tower of Babylon here would fail at an early stage, probably because of fire safety concerns.
The German Economic Institute recently calculated the “wealth effect” of Europe’s capitals on their respective countries. If Athens were removed from the GDP of Greece, every Greek would be 20 percent poorer. France without Paris would be 15 percent down. The same goes for the Czech Republic without Prague. Even Italy would be almost two percent poorer without Rome, despite the permanent crises shaking up that city, and strong competition from Milan and Turin. Berlin is different: It is the only European capital whose complete disappearance would increase the GDP of its country.
Lorenz Maroldt, Harald Martenstein