Anarchism in Berlin: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Can Berlin’s “rebel culture” survive in the midst of an inexorable march toward gentrification?  It may be a tough order, though anarchists and others are basking in victory after internet giant Google abandoned efforts to open a company “campus” in the trendy neighborhood of Kreuzberg.  The corporation would not say whether a recent anti-Google campaign had affected the firm’s decision, though activists believe their struggle has paid off.  For years, gentrification has been gathering pace in Berlin amidst rising rents, and Google became a symbol of the city’s tech bubble which threatens to displace leftists, Bohemians, and other ethnic minorities.

Now that the counter-culture has gained a respite, perhaps it’s an opportune moment to reflect on Berlin’s rebel culture and next steps.  Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, Berlin’s twin neighborhood of Freidrichshain-Kreuzberg may seem like either alternative utopia or radicalism gone very much awry.  As an idealist, I am inclined to give offbeat urban exploration and experimentation the benefit of the doubt.  However, during a recent trip to Berlin, I tried to detach myself somewhat from my political ideals in an effort to cultivate a more objective and unvarnished view on the local counter-culture.

From graffiti to street art to anarchist centers to vegans to revolutionary stores to housing collectives, Berlin certainly doesn’t disappoint, but what does it all add up to?  During my stay, I purposefully chose to stay in a hotel in Friedrichshain in East Berlin, home to youthful, party-going foreigners.  Walking around the neighborhood, I noticed that a large portion of the area had been plastered in graffiti, particularly around Boxhaganer Platz which attracted a crowd of vegan-friendly hipsters.  At times, it was difficult to come across a single doorway that was not completely scrawled over in graffiti.  Normally I would be turned off by such displays, but for some reason Friedrichshain’s wacky, offbeat and downright eclectic graffiti scene gradually got under my skin.

Boxhagener Platz

In nearby Kreuzberg, I noticed how graffiti blended in with the overall atmosphere including trendy bookstores and anarchists who leave their mark — literally — on many doorways, painting their trademark red and black colors.  Though complete urban utopia cannot be said to exist, as I walked around Kreuzberg I began to think that I could certainly live in the neighborhood and feel perfectly happy since the area combines many essential qualities that I value in a living environment.  Take, for example, the international bent of the neighborhood which came into clearer focus when I passed by a shop selling “stateless espresso” in the name of the Mapuche Indians of South America.

Stateless Mapuche Espesso

Friedrichshain: From Graffiti to Zapatistas to Rojava

Though Boxhagener Platz was a little unseemly, the place wasn’t overly filthy and the air was relatively clean with few cars clogging the street.  I even saw a number of families riding bicycles in the area, which forced me to rethink my previous preconceptions and clichés about graffiti and its role in the urban fabric.  As if to underscore graffiti’s “coolness factor,” Friedrichshain also boasts spray painting stores where aspiring artists purchase their materials in the hope of honing their craft.

Though certainly impressive, I wondered whether Friedrichshain’s offbeat street art had actually encouraged the rise of real and lasting housing collectives as opposed to the usual unappealing dives which eventually succumb to internal pressures of one sort or another.  Judging from my walk around the neighborhood, Friedrichshain is a truly mixed bag.  Passing in front of one housing collective, I could not help but feel impressed with the rebellious and internationalist bent on display, ranging from anti-fascist plaques to posters supporting the Kurdish revolution of Rojava in northern Syria.

On the other hand, certain housing collectives looked like they were in need of structural repair — a fact which I am sure was not lost on potential housing recruits.  I can’t say, for example, that I was taken with the Liebig Collective, an anarcho-feminist housing collective, whose building looked decrepit.  To be sure, the place sported an anarchist reading room and a library full of left-wing publications, and I was struck by weird decorations on the exterior of the building, ranging from pseudo-Hindu motifs to balaclava-clad Zapatista rebels.  Judging from some uncomplimentary blog posts, Liebig is prone to some of the most petty and bitter left factionalism one can imagine, which has even degenerated into internecine violence.

Yellow Submarine House

The real coup de grace, however, came later as I came across perhaps the wildest and most memorable housing collective Friedrichshain has to offer.  The building sported political messaging ranging from support of the ZAD utopian squatter settlement in France to criticism of bull fighting to anti-fascist slogans.  Such messaging, however, was accompanied by amusing and mysterious symbolism, proving that leftists can indeed cultivate a sense of humor.  On the façade of the building, residents had painted a variety of motifs, ranging from a Mexican skull reminiscent of Day of the Dead, to Nepalese-style Buddhist idols to gaily-colored dinosaurs.  In an echo of the 1960s counter-culture, a yellow submarine peaked out from underneath a crazed and demonic-looking doctor.

Yellow submarine peaks out from under the balcony

Eager to hear more about this quirky, odd-looking place, I spoke to some house residents about their experiences.  Bibi Glindemann is living proof that street art and radical housing can indeed work in tandem: for twenty seven years, she has lived with the same people who have come to form part of her family.  Her son, who is half African, hangs a Ghanaian flag from the balcony.  Glindemann does not define herself as anarchist per se, but rather as a “humanist.”  Though she certainly voiced praise of her own building, Glindemann didn’t “sugar coat” the overall experience, noting that navigating the social aspects of communal living every day can be challenging, just like any relationship.

During our discussion, I also detected a note of wariness toward other housing collectives in the neighborhood.  To be sure, she remarked, everyone knows each other in the area but “it is said that Liebig Collective is dangerous, and we have very different ideas as far as housing is concerned.”  In spite of Friedrichshain’s “cool factor,” Glindemann admitted there was no love lost between her cooperative and a neighboring building which was more affluent.  “We don’t like each other very much,” she explained.

Catalonian in Berlin

Glindemann’s neighbor, Marta Cuello, has been living in the housing collective for five years.  A Catalonian who migrated to Berlin in search of alternative-style politics, Cuello was glad to be free of some of the more “macho and sexist” aspects of Spanish society, noting that Germany, while far from perfect, is a lot better when it comes to gender relations.  On the other hand, just because Berlin is progressive on such questions doesn’t mean the city or even the alternative leftist scene is somehow “anti-family.”

In a rebuff to some of the usual stereotypes, Cuello told me there was a very “familial” atmosphere in her house and some parents were even raising infants and children there.  When I explained that in New York, many families had historically been fearful of graffiti, Cuello remarked that in Berlin it was a little different.  “I don’t know about the future,” she said, “and whether families will continue to want to live in these neighborhoods, but there is a lot of social mixing here and some folks think it’s ‘cool’ to live in a neighborhood with anarchists painting murals.”

Cuello remarked that residents in her home had made an effort to join forces with other neighboring collectives though such outreach had not always born fruit.  “Each building has its own quirks,” she remarked, “with some promoting a community model while others are more politically oriented.”  For Cuello, an eminently social person, the collective had worked out well, though the Catalonian conceded her house probably isn’t suitable for everyone.

“A lot of times people are intrigued by life here,” she told me, “but the reality is that you have to share with more than 30 people every single day.”  Not everyone, she added, enjoys sharing the house refrigerator and kitchen facilities.  In accordance with house policy, new recruits are encouraged to live on premises for one week as a trial balloon.  “People quickly get a sense of whether this is for them or not,” the Catalonian explained.

Judging from my conversation with Cuello, life in Friedrichshain is quite cosmopolitan and diverse.  Though most residents living in her house are German, Cuello added that some are foreigners who work in a variety of occupations ranging from teaching to carpentry to other forms of manual labor.  Even with all these cultural and social differences, the house seems to function relatively well, with each resident contributing to a separate “work shift” in order to keep the place clean and orderly.

Welcome to Revolutionary Store

Feeling encouraged by my discussions with Glindemann and Cuello, I walked onward to Kreuzberg, where a man approached me trying to sell drugs.  Though somewhat unsavory, I did not feel particularly threatened and nearby my mood improved somewhat as I came upon the gaily-decorated M99 store selling clothing, books and other items in the service of “revolutionary needs.”  Mulling about the shop, I spotted an incongruous sight: the anarchist owner of the premises, Hans-Georg Lindenau and his assistant were frying sausages in a saucepan in the middle of a crowded aisle of merchandise.

Though M99 has served its radical clientele for more than 30 years, the authorities have been less than pleased with the store, raiding the establishment dozens of times in an unsuccessful search for illegal items which would have forced the shop’s closure.  If that were not enough, M99 has also faced the threat of gentrification and eviction, though fortunately local activists have rallied to the shop owner’s defense and this has prompted the city to delay any decision on the matter.  Lindenau, a veteran of the squatters’ movement, has said he’s frequently woken up by tourists moving in and out of Airbnb flats on top of his store.  In a very real sense, it would seem, M99 has become a symbol of resistance against the rising tide of gentrification.

Jogger in front of the revolutionary store

From Cooperatives to Barter to Biking Culture

Cooperatives, and specifically housing cooperatives, form another crucial pillar of the local Berlin counter-culture.  Indeed, though the squatting movement has subsided in the city, such impulses have given rise to a vibrant housing cooperative scene.  Take, for example, my yellow submarine house, which belongs to a larger cooperative comprising some seven buildings.   Such housing arrangements keep rents low, which has certainly become a social and economic imperative in an era of skyrocketing prices and gentrification.  The cooperative spirit has even spread to the countryside, where urban foragers assist farmers on weekends and receive produce in exchange for their efforts.  Underscoring such interest in rural farming, the yellow submarine house sports a permaculture shop on the ground floor.

The offbeat counter-culture has spurred the rise of a veritable “parallel economy” outside of the capitalist system.  I was particularly interested, for example, to spot passers-by trading in and bartering goods at Kreuzberg’s so-called “Transition Town.”  However, underground services reach even further, encompassing everything from yoga to bike repair workshops to improvised leftist cinemas to anarchist libraries, all of which are usually provided for free or on the basis of a barter system.  “We have all these types of groups on the internet,” Glindemann explained, “where you can share stuff that you might only need to use twice in your lifetime, so you don’t therefore have to purchase or own it.”

From Tree Houses to Turks to Refugio Center

In addition to the anarchist subculture, Kreuzberg also boasts refugee centers and a substantial Turkish community with its own bookstores and pastry shops.  What really stood out for me, however, were a mosque and minaret located just a short stone’s throw away from the radical counter-culture.  At times, this Turkish and rebel culture almost seemed to exist in a kind of mutual symbiosis, as the case of Osman Kalin demonstrates.  A Turkish migrant who died just this year, Kalin lived in a tree house north of Kreuzberg — literally.  As I sauntered through the area, I came upon Kalin’s house which provided an incongruous site in the middle of Berlin’s concrete jungle.

In 1982, the Turk planted a garden here, right near the Berlin wall within East German territory but located next to Kreuzberg, a neighborhood which formed part of West Berlin during the Cold War.  In fact, the wall divided Kalin’s property and passed right through his garden, which meant that technically, the Turk inhabited a kind of no man’s land beyond the reach of local authorities.  Needless to say, the Turkish migrant defended his small parcel from anyone who tried to take his land away.  In the aftermath of Kalin’s recent death, his family has been looking after the plot and on the side of the house I spotted a plaque honoring the memory of this innovative urban pioneer.

Turkish tree house

More recently, Berlin has welcomed migrants from Syria and elsewhere, and the city even hosts an annual “Carnival of Cultures” which celebrates immigrant communities.  I was particularly impressed by the Refugio center, which is run by the local Catholic Church.  With a meeting hall, cafe and inviting lobby, Refugio would seem to be an attractive living space for most anyone, let alone migrants seeking a better life.  Organizers claim the center has successfully promoted social integration, and currently the facility is home to approximately 40 people hailing from Syria to Somalia to Afghanistan.  Residents have their own quarters but also plan many aspects of their lives together on a communal basis.

From Turks to Cross-Cultural Coalitions

Such facilities certainly fulfill a vital need, though I wondered whether migrants and radicals would ever form a political alliance and thereby become a potent force to be reckoned with in Berlin.  Though gentrification has sometimes pitted different groups against each other, certain cities have proved that indeed radicals and immigrants can spearhead important political and social change.  Consider for instance the case of Exarcheia in Athens, where anarchists and migrants have set up an entirely autonomous neighborhood in the midst of the urban milieu.

To be sure, there have been some fruitful exchanges between the Turkish community and local activists.  Take, for example, Bizim Kiez, a group which came together in 2015 in defense of a family-owned Turkish grocery store.  Though organizers managed to have the owner’s eviction order canceled, eventually proprietor Bizim Bakkal was obliged to give up the store due to health problems which he claimed were linked to the fight with his landlord.  Despite such setbacks, the phrase “Bizim bleibt,” or “Bizim stays” became a unifying cry for the wider struggle against extreme gentrification.  On the other hand, some observers paint a somewhat more complex picture: back at the yellow submarine house, Cuello remarked “I don’t think there’s much of a connection between anarchists and Turks.”

Katia Hermann is an independent art historian, curator and writer who recently put together a photo exhibit dealing with Berlin’s graffiti past.  Speaking at a local cafe in Kreuzberg, she told me that many long-time Turkish residents have come to appreciate alternative-style graffiti and indeed it’s not uncommon to see Turkish kids romping around in graffiti-plastered playgrounds.  Whether there’s a more comprehensive political overlap, however, is somewhat dubious.  On the one hand, the curator told me, the Turks “live here in the city amid all this freedom,” but on the other hand many voted for authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan via absentee ballot in the recent Turkish presidential election, suggesting a rather split and contradictory identity.

From Bohemia to Tech Bubble

If they ever hope to fend off extreme gentrification, ethnic minorities and radicals will have to overcome their differences while pushing for change.  Reportedly, a whopping 85% of Berlin residents rent their apartments and on average, Kreuzberg rents have remained the highest within the city.  It’s not clear how long renters can hold out against gentrification, since incomes in Berlin remain somewhat low.  Walking near my hotel one day, I came upon a crowd of demonstrators protesting the rising cost of rent.  Such demonstrations have become something of a fixture on the local political landscape, and steep rent increases have coincided with the arrival of new corporate behemoths.  “There are Scandinavian companies which now buy up entire streets and whole buildings all over the city,” Glindemann exclaimed.

The problem, she added, was that Berlin sold off a lot of valuable real estate in the early 1990s during the era of economic globalization.  At that time, the city was shrinking in population and safeguarding Berlin’s housing stock wasn’t such a big priority.  Curator Hermann added that many people from all over Europe had migrated to Berlin in recent years after hearing about the city’s mythical cool mystique.  “Property owners realized they could charge more than they would normally charge Berliners,” she remarked, “who are poorer than outsiders.”   With Berlin’s cachet soaring, tech moguls have sought to appropriate radical chic and Kreuzberg’s edgy graffiti style.  Call it the inevitable “gentrification cycle”: strolling around, I came upon “Kreuzberg Factory,” an industrial warehouse housing trendy and youthful start-ups.  Outside the building, the owners had parked a trailer which had been covered in black and white graffiti.

From Kreuzberg Factory to Google

Kreuzberg Factory, a “co-working space,” had ambitious plans to develop a partnership with Google in up-and-coming Kreuzberg tech hubs.  But in the midst of the tech bubble and edgy warehouses, neighborhood activists sought to prevent Google from opening up its own local “campus.”  Indeed, Kreuzberg residents waged a David vs. Goliath, guerrilla-style battle against tech giants whose arrival would encourage an increase in the cost of living, and anti-Google graffiti and banners dotted the entire neighborhood.  Some banners were totally offbeat, like one which hung from the rafters sporting Pac-Man who was crunching through and devouring affordable housing.

Leading the anti-Google charge was Kalabal!k anarchist library, which I passed during my tour of Kreuzberg.  Outside, the place was covered in political propaganda, and walking into a quiet interior courtyard, I spotted graffiti stencils promoting transgender rights.  In response to Google, Kalabal!K held so-called “Anti-Google Cafe” sessions every two weeks.  Needless to say, such combative political centers have not escaped the attention of local authorities, and recently the police raided Kalabal!K, allegedly in search of two men wanted in connection with G20 protests in Hamburg.

Escalating Tensions

Developments like these underscore flaring tensions over the gentrification battle and growing wariness within the anarchist sub-culture toward outsiders.  Such tensions were placed on vivid display for me as I came upon the historic Köpi squat on the outskirts of Kreuzberg.  From the outside, the place had been walled off and projected a distinctly uninviting and unwelcoming air.  Not knowing any better, I started to take photos on my cell phone before I saw a sign which warned visitors to avoid snapshots.

Spotting a young man tending to his bicycle, I tried to engage him in friendly conversation but got only a diffident stare in response.  Moving into an interior courtyard, I found myself in the middle of tall buildings covered in graffiti while off to the side was a lot full of trailer homes.  Like the Liebig collective in Friedrichshain, the housing looked run down and I wondered if structures might actually collapse.  Near the main entrance, a sign warned visitors to guard their valuables and beware of pickpockets.

Though I can’t say I warmed up to Köpi, perhaps such paranoia isn’t so surprising in light of the history.  For years, the housing collective has been hosting anti-capitalist meetings designed to counteract gentrification.  Like Kalabal!K, Köpi’s political activities placed the center on the radar of the local authorities, who have raided the premises and filmed residents’ rooms while making off with posters, fliers and stickers.  As a result, outsiders are banned from meetings and mobile phones are prohibited for fear of surveillance by government spies.  In addition to such problems with the authorities, Köpi has been enmeshed in ongoing disputes with dubious property developers intent on evicting residents.

Violent Tactics Amid “War Footing”

Whether Köpi represents a viable or even desirable political model is certainly up for debate.  To its champions, the center holds key symbolic value for its resistance against the inexorable march of capitalist gentrification.  Operated under communal principles, Köpi hosts a bar as well as a cinema in the basement.  United in their desire to preserve the center, residents are nonetheless somewhat split on the matter of tactics and how best to preserve the anarchist sub-culture.

Reportedly, one faction is prone to threatening property developers, and believes the only reason the center has survived as long as it has is because residents are considered “unpredictable.”  Ominously, some local anarchists refer to themselves as “metropolitan guerrillas” and have embraced violent tactics.  They have meanwhile issued manifestos advising others to “hit where they do not expect you.”

Such activists literally seem to be on a “war footing” against gentrification and affluent folk who have the bad fortune of naively sauntering into their territory.  Specifically, anarchists torch fancy cars and security vehicles, a strategy which is somewhat bizarrely hailed as “a useful tool of communication.”  In one instance, anarchists attacked a construction site owned by a luxury developer, torching equipment and vehicles in the process.

Debating Anarchist Tactics

In a never ending tit-for-tat, anarchists have also attacked police stations and government buildings in retaliation for the authorities shutting down their urban squats.  Some laconic observers note that the situation tends to escalate on May 1st “when nothing short of a full blown war breaks out on the streets of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg.”  Reportedly, Berlin’s police are at a loss as to how to control the situation and lack sufficient resources to protect city streets from the approximately 1,100 militant activists.

One may certainly criticize anarchists on a tactical level, but the question remains how to best stave off the effects of extreme gentrification.  Some residents have come up with some outlandish and extreme ideas, such as a so-called “uglification strategy” in which locals walk around wearing ripped vests while hanging food from their balconies  so as to discourage outsiders.   One web site even advises Berliners to avoid repairing broken windows while inscribing foreign-sounding names on doorbells.

In a departure from anarchist keepers of the flame, other local activists have taken a slightly more nuanced approach toward gentrification.  Some members of Bizim Kiez, the group which has sought to protect local ethnic businesses in Berlin, say they’re not entirely against the tech scene but rather seek to promote the growth of start-ups which genuinely serve social needs.

Courting Political Support

Meanwhile, other residents point to the need of forging political coalitions with sympathetic local officials.  Speaking to Cuello at the yellow submarine house, the Catalonian remarked, “It’s not just up to us to halt gentrification, but also the municipal authorities.  Measures must be adopted an above all, prices need to be controlled.”  Fortunately, Berlin has its share of leftist politicians who may give activists the benefit of the doubt when it comes to halting rapacious real estate interests.  Indeed, the city has crafted a new rent control law and cracked down on Airbnb, though many residents still feel local politicians aren’t doing enough to fight gentrification.

Some members of Berlin’s Green Party have expressed support for tech companies, but want firms to address local concerns and needs.  Others argue for broad and comprehensive enforcement of the so-called “right of first purchase law.”  Such an initiative is designed to buy up properties coming to the end of their lease so as to keep them affordable.  Under the new measure, the city has moved in to save some apartment blocks in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg from being sold. Such initiatives have their limitations, however, as the system of rent caps has many exceptions and landlords frequently just ignore the provisions.

So-called milieuschutz laws, on the other hand, are regarded as more effective, since they prevent landlords from conducting expensive renovations that drive up rents.  There are dozens of such milieuschutz zones in Berlin, but landlords may still try to kick out tenants and thereby convert apartments into lucrative condos.

Preserving The Counter-Culture

With all of these shortcomings, it’s an open question as to how best to preserve Berlin’s counter-culture.  Hoping to gain further insight into such issues, I met up with Stefan Liebich, a member of the Bundestag representing the Die Linke Party.  He agreed that politicians must try to find a solution to the housing crisis jointly with local activists.  The problem, he explained, is that Berlin has too few apartments and its housing is more suitable to richer residents hailing from abroad.

Liebich added that his party, as well as the Greens and Social Democrats, were building a lot of state-owned housing and authorities were working with activists “even if they’re not employing tactics which are strictly legal.”  At the same time, Liebich decried vandalism and squatters who occupy state-owned housing, though he sympathized with those who occupied vacant housing whose owners were holding out for higher rents.  In some Scandinavian countries, he added, there are laws on the books stipulating that you can occupy a house which has been empty for over five years.  And while Germany doesn’t have similar laws, Liebich stated that he wouldn’t be opposed to such measures.

Roadmap to Utopia

Amidst the recent victory over Google, Berlin’s counter-culture has been given a slight reprieve.  It’s a symbolic and important victory against gentrification, but now organizers must figure out how best to consolidate such gains while crafting their own long-term “roadmap to utopia.”  Extending the network of housing cooperatives, barter schemes and the like while spearheading more cross-cultural alliances certainly makes sense.  The reality, however, is that many will be put off by Berlin’s anarchist sub-culture which at times lacks something to be desired.

On the other hand, let’s be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”: for all its problems, Berlin’s underground political scene has demonstrated resiliency and a degree of effectiveness when fighting off gentrification, which is more than one can say for many other western cities.  In the long-term, assuming of course that radicals manage to fend off such external forces and gain further breathing space, they might want to consider where the anarchist dream has gone right in Berlin and where it has gone awry.

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