As an immigrant of a certain type, one often converses with, discusses, and reads about other so-called ex-patriates. It is easy to feel like the world revolves around you, which must be why it is equally easy to assume that we – the largely English-speaking, temporary immigrant lot – are at the heart of the gentrification debate in Berlin.
There is no shortage of talk about how we do not (or will not) learn German, how we move into traditionally poorer neighborhoods and contribute to rising rents, and how we waltz into corner cafes demanding a ‘latte macchiato’ rather than the German classic, the Milchkaffee.
Amidst this somewhat self-centered form of self-reflection, one can forget about the other supposed perpetrator of Berlin’s slow-but-certain waves of gentrification: well-educated, relatively affluent Southern Germans. Over the last five years, Schwaben have been demonized as the root of the often careless economic change that has drenched the city in ferocious discussion – and not only for the Schwaben bourgeoisie lifestyle.
Schwaben, named after the linguistically distinct region of Swabia in Southern Germany from which many stem, are charged with distorting a society built by and for bohemian creatives, political rebels, manual laborers, and struggling entrepreneurs. With their higher salaries and more capitalist-friendly values, they are blamed for the displacement higher rents and a more polished aesthetic have caused.
Slowly but surely, Schwaben have begun to represent a crisis of ownership – that is, posing the question as to who has the right to live in, and politically inhabit, the city of Berlin. This is a crisis acted out between markets, long-standing neighborhoods, and symbolic gestures.
Emblematic of such is the vandalism of two famous Berlin statues: one Schwabe splattered with Currywurst (the iconic dish of Berlin); one Berlinerin splattered with Spätzle (the icon dish of Swabia), as pictured below.
The cheese-smeared face of a Swabian icon is just one small part of a culture war between imagined identities and exaggerated actors, i.e. the alternative Berliner vs. the bit-too-swanky Schwabe.
The worst part in this so-called Spätzlekrieg or “Spätzel war”, however, is the escalation from humorous prodding to line-crossing slogans. Parallels between Nazi-Germany’s persecution of Jews, particularly in the insignia of Kristallnacht, can now be found across the city.
For a city so rife with history, how can it be that its memory is this short?
Sprayed on storefronts around some of Berlin’s gentrifying neighborhoods are the words Kauf nicht bei Schwab’n, “Don’t buy from Swabians” – a direct application of the tags that appeared across storefronts on the eve of Germany’s collective and calculated persecution of its Jewish population, as pictured above in this image from Kristallnacht.
Schwabenhass, hatred of Swabians, may be a problem of discrimination and unjust intimidation, but it is not necessarily as extreme as this graffiti and its historical parallel might suggest. Like the Neo-Nazi presence in Berlin, this overt and unapologetic display of Schwabenhass can be said to belong less to ordinary Berliners and more to a minority of enraged individuals sending a provocative message. Most Berliners would find the use of Nazi tags in such a culture war distasteful.
Nevertheless, as Germany’s 2010 scandal of right-wing terror illustrates, compounded by a few but powerful anti-refugee demonstrations in small towns across Germany since 2013, even the slightest bit of rage and misplaced language should be taken seriously and treated with caution. For the rhetoric used to explain socioeconomic change – and thus to locate its presumed perpetrators – can be more powerful than law or policy in determining public opinion.
In an effort to understand and tame this condiment-covered beast of a crisis between Berlin and the incoming Swabians, allow me to attempt to deconstruct the baseline of this antagonism. Hatred does not come out of the mist of Neverland, nor do Swabians. So, who are they really, and why are they now the object of aggressive criticism?
The imagined community of Swabia has come to represent an ideological and historical tension that emerged around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and has lingered ever since.
This period between 1989 and 1990/91 is what Germans refer to as die Wende, the big shift, in which a reunited Germany faced the fusion of a strict socialist economic system with an Americanized capitalist machine (to put it simply). Demonstrative of this ‘big shift’ is Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz: once the concrete and heavily guarded ‘death strip’ between the Eastern and Western Wall, the militarized lots were quickly unleashed to predominately American investors immediately following the fall of the Wall, allowing for the inexpensive construction of sky-scrapers – among them business complexes, luxury lofts, and 5-star hotels.
In other parts of East Berlin and across East Germany, changes were more subtle but equally significant. Bananas became available in the East, a variety of pickles now filled the shelves, and automobiles appeared in models other than the Trabi.
The effects of this rapid transformation from a planned economy to a free-market economy were not as rosy as this example of an options-based consumerism might imply. High rates of unemployment, closure of factories and schools, dissolution of livelihoods and promised pensions sent ripples through the former East. For the many residents subject to these unanticipated changes, longing for the old days – a phenomenon known as Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) – became a prevalent response to the BRD’s (reunified Federal German Republic) sweeping policies. Contrasts were drawn and enemies were created: Feindbilder, as they say in German.
Representative of much of this change and the trauma and tumult that resulted are the cities of Frankfurt and Stuttgart. These are Germany’s financial capitals, where men and women in Western business attire can be seen entering America-styled sky-scrapers. And they have come to embody many of the differences between East vs. West and the displacement the latter enacted on the former.
As a product of German history, these cities and their residents have also come to embody the animosities and frustrations of geographic and ideological division. High-rise glass structures and the minions that occupy them now act as stand-in’s for a struggle with society marked by uncertainty and change. Schwaben have inadvertently imported such a struggle to the streets of Berlin.
The tensions between market-induced change and struggling communities are particularly palpable in Berlin as a reunited city familiar with economic hardship and with a particularly strong class consciousness (that is, working-class movement – see the work of Berthold Brecht for more on that point).
It is also currently the poorest capital relative to its country’s GDP within the EU, hence former mayor Klaus Wowereit’s tagline Berlin ist arm aber sexy, “poor but sexy”. Despite flashy art galleries and the Berlin Fashion Week, there is a significant number of residents on welfare, children struggling to acquire adequate nutrition, and financial debacles like a severely unfinished airport and inadequate educational institutions. This paints quite an un-sexy picture, in contrast to the Glanz of, say, Munich.
Berlin remains a city struggling to remake itself and accommodate newcomers, the immigrants (Gastarbeiter) of yore, and Urberliner (old time residents), all while keeping its precarious budget afloat. Problems abound in the process, including the false assignment of priorities, such as a focus on temporary media projects that provide snaz for short-term residents but do nothing to fix long-term structural problems.
However, gentrification is sometimes more a filler than a fixer – a signifier with a vague signified. It is the buzzword seeping through the city like the yellow fog through T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, drawing many rapid and unfair conclusions in response to complex problems.
Swabians may in fact distort real estate value, but no one group can be charged with single-handedly transforming quaint alternative neighborhoods into Stuttgart-look-alikes, let alone Berlin into a money-making machine for the affluent.
In any case, Berlin has taken measures just this year to remedy some of the displacement a rapidly changing economy and demography have caused: Rent controls took effect in June of 2015, and they have already shown positive results in making intercity living more affordable.
But the problems of uncontrolled markets and post-GDR reconstruction will not fix themselves, nor will they be solved by aggressive prejudice or hatred toward a supposed enemy, created, after all, for the purpose of simply needing one. A little dialogue, historical perspective, and vigilance toward language and actors are in order. Maybe even a conversation with one of these Schwaben.
After all, Spätzle is eaten almost everywhere in Germany. Even in Berlin.