I’m sitting in a bar with a friend just a few hundred metres from a stretch of remaining Berlin Wall that flanks the river on this side of town. It’s late October, it’s well past dusk, and the rain that has consistently fallen since I arrived in this city is busy reflecting and animating the electric lights of surrounding buildings, passing cars, and the occasional glare of the overhead trains that intermittently rumble past our window. My first impression of this city is that it is hard, brutal, monochrome. Why then do I instantly feel comfortable here?
The bar is ambiguously lit, allowing each table complete anonymity amongst the dark corners of the room. I laughingly describe the décor as ’heroin chic’; it is stark and decaying. This isn’t my usual type of haunt but I do find comfort in it. The graffiti that has grown like wild ivy outside, consuming concrete and metal, appears to have spread its way in through the doorway and infected every aspect of the building with its imperative to communicate. It’s ugly; it’s unflinching; it’s reassuring. It says that Berlin is owned by its people, not by statesmen or sterile corporations.
* * * * * * * *
It’s no accident that I’ve chosen a window seat. The large sash windows, rotting and chipped, act as television, allowing me to eavesdrop on the streetlife beyond. Occasionally, my eyes are drawn away from my companion and onto the dealers outside, hooded and pushed against doorways by the driving rain and the need for discretion. Sometimes, my curiosity catches the eye of one of them. I’m not really looking at them but through them, taking in their escence rather than their person, but I’m obliged to look away in case I invite offence and our evening turns a different colour. To my mind, the scene seems simultaneously hostile and peaceful. ‘It is what it is,’ says the barman, shrugging his shoulders as he pours us another drink.
It’s not until close to midnight that the bar begins to fill up, mostly with groups of students and young professionals. The sound system is piping out early 80s electronica, exclusively British, and at low volume. Nobody is observing the smoking laws, not even the bar staff. It’s a small nod towards libertarianism but it’s one that doesn’t pass me by. I acknowledge the thickening smoke in the room as a breath of fresh air: it’s not about the act, its about the right to act. This attitude, it seems, is typical of a new liberal, progressive outlook amongst the young, here.
At the bar, I talk to a young digital media developer called Ole who moved from Münster a few years ago to work in the Capital. He is proud of the way that he sees politics shifting in Germany, and is eager to explain to me that such is the strength of feeling against the Far Right in Berlin that anti-nazi groups like Berlin Gegen Nazis (Berlin Against Nazis) march every week to ensure its voice remains heard and its message is successful. He tells me that the result has been a huge drop in local participant numbers for the right wing group, Wir Fur Deutschland (We for Germany), from 3000 in its earlier marches to 100 in its last. I later learn that Wir Fur Deutschland, which has been staging marches in Berlin since 2016, has announced that it no longer wishes to march here. The reasons given on its Facebook page are that it is fatigued by constantly marching in circles while failing to gain support, that its members are tired of being screamed at by anti-fascists, and that they feel they can’t compete against the growing tolerance towards refugees by the German young.
Ole is a participatory supporter of Berlin Gegen Nazis, which, he claims, has ‘helped march right-wingism both out of the city and out of any significant existence in Berlin.’ I’m a little sceptical of the magnitude of this claim, though I’m warmed by his drive and by his generosity of spirit. As he points out to me over our drinks, ‘The local mantra here amongst the young is that decency is worth nothing if it remains silent.’ He is keen to tell me that, over past months, Berlin has seen anti-racism marches of 70,000 and 240,000, while the fastest growing political party across Germany is the Greens, with its pro-immigration and pro-environmental stance. ‘Such is the political impact of millennial Germans,’ he says.
But there is another face to modern Germany. Just over twelve months ago, the AfD (Alternative for Germany) became the first far-right party to win itself a place in the German Federal Parliament since 1945, securing 12.5% of the vote. Ole frowns when I mention this, and asserts that this wasn’t so much the result of a shift in public ideology than of a campaign to stir up insecurities that had already been ignited, firstly by the Eurocrisis and later by the migrant influx of 2015 and 2016. ‘It was a campaign of emotion over substance,’ he tells me, his words resonating and reflecting my own thoughts about the Brexit campaign that has split my own country.
* * * * * * * *
There is a growing ambience in the bar as more people filter through the door. I tilt my seat slightly to the left so that I can study each cluster of clientele as they enter or leave. I embellish upon each of them a friendliness that reflects my current mood.
What strikes me most about this place is the conspicuous juxtaposition between the brutality of the landscape and the humanity of its people. There seems none of the civil coldness that one experiences when traveling through, say, London or New York (though I’m sure it exists). People aren’t afraid of eye contact here, and there seems to be kindness in the looks they give. I decide that this is representative of a meeting of minds, though I’m aware that this interpretation is quite probably indicative of my own naivety. People are people, as Depeche Mode is currently asserting quietly over the sound system.
Eventually, it’s our turn to leave the bar. As we say our goodbyes, Ole offers to put me in touch with a friend of his who, he says, is able to offer me a very different perspective on current German politics. Before I can respond, he is on his phone to her and is arranging for me to meet with her the next day outside the entrance to the train station on Warschauer Strasse. ‘Her name’s Lena,’ he tells me. ‘She will meet you at 11am.’
Cold drizzle fizzes over my face as we spill out onto the pavement and manouvre ourselves around the various groups of men and teens that fill the walkway. Some look like students while others are unmistakably involved in dealing whatever is currently the most marketable street drug. The dealers don’t bother us – perhaps they are well experienced in recognising who is and is not their target market.
The walk back to our hotel takes us over the iconic Oberbaumbrücke bridge, once crossable only by West German citizens. I think about this as I look over the river that once divided East and West Berlin at this section. I’m reminded of how dramatically things have changed. Tonight, we drink in West Berlin and sleep in the East.
We turn a corner onto Muehlenstrasse and walk alongside a section of Berlin Wall these days referred to as the East Side Gallery. This consists of 1.3 kilometres of murals and graffiti expressing German perspectives and sensibilities since the reunification of the country. We stop to take in Dmitri Vrubel’s ‘Fraternal Kiss’ in which the then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German president Erich Honecker are seen kissing above a slogan that translates as, ‘My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love’. I think of the numerous international political faces that could be superimposed onto this mural today.
* * * * * * * *
I meet Lena at the station entrance at exactly 11am the next morning. She is sat on the stone steps to the right of the main exit, her tightly cropped hair, jet black and elfin is the giveaway that Ole had set me up with. She is wearing a dark parka and faded Doc Martens boots – again, as Ole had predicted. Oddly, however, it is she who recognises me, as I approach.
She welcomes me quickly and leads me to a nearby café where she orders us both a coffee without asking for my preference. As her guest, I thank her for her kindness and follow her to a small circular table at the back of the room.
She removes her coat and I notice for the first time a flurry of tattoos covering both her hands and lower neckline. I’m about to comment on them but hold back, unsure of the etiquette. I want to ask if the apparent writing that runs the length of each of her fingers is Arabic and, if so, what it says and why she has chosen it.
After a few trivialities, Lena tells me that she is currently an undergraduate at the nearby BIC university, studying Engineering. More interesting to me, however, is the fact that she belongs to a far-right youth movement called Generation Identity. Instantly, she tells me that the group’s aim is to bring down liberalism and to rid Europe of non-European immigrants.
I’m quite taken aback by the confident ease with which she makes these statements; statements that would be considered shameful within my own social echo-chamber. As counter-intuitive as her words feel to me, I’m intrigued to understand the thinking behind them. ‘What is it you see wrong with liberalism?’ I ask. ‘Surely, liberalism promotes everything that is good and ideal about humanity. Tolerance, inclusivity, the sharing of understanding, of wisdom, of cultures? Of love? For me, liberalism cuts across our differences and looks towards what we have in common. Isn’t that a good thing?’
‘It is a broken philosophy,’ she tells me, by way of shutting me down. ‘Much like Marxism. The experiment of multiculturalism, of cosmopolitanism, has failed.’
‘Just because Marxism didn’t work doesn’t mean it couldn’t,’ I say, simply as a means of defence while I think of something more concrete to offer. I’m surprised by the fervancy with which she bats my words back at me. I’ve come across this rhetoric before, in a New York Times article in which Martin Sellner, the charismatic 29-year-old Austrian leader of Generation Identity claimed that “The utopia of multiculturalism was an experiment, but it has failed.”
‘In what way has it failed?’ I ask.
Lena’s use of language is very specific. Textbook specific. What I’m hearing is neo-nazi rhetoric re-branded. Lena doesn’t talk in terms of “Germany for the Germans” or “foreigners out”, she prefers to use the term “re-migration” as she describes sending those she sees as refusing to assimilate into the german culture back to their countries of origin. “Re-migration” is very much a Generation Identity term. ‘I consider myself an ethnoplurist,’ she tells me, quoting another of their terms. ‘I respect all cultures, but I believe that the way to preserve them is by keeping them separate. This way, culures aren’t diluted. This can only be done through borders.’
‘So, you believe that multiculturalism will dilute your culture? And, therefore, destroy it?’
‘It will. And it does,’ she tells me. ‘As well as stealing job opportunities from young Germans.’
Since the rise of the Brexit debate in the UK, I’ve heard these same arguments going round and round. ‘But, could you consider that borders are what creates the ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the first place?’ I offer. ‘That lack of intergration is precisely what leads to suspicions between cultures? Surely, people are just people, right? The girl in the hijab is no different to you. She cares about her family; she looks forward to hanging out with friends; she hopes to do well at school. She’s interested in which of her friends fancies which boy, and who’s listening to what music. Why is she so different to you?’
It’s clear that Lena finds my comparison offensive. She sits back in her chair and looks past me out of the window. ‘It’s you liberals who are undermining democracy,’ she says, shifting the conversation somewhat. ‘You are overstretching our welfare system with your open door policies, and allowing islamic fundamentalists into the country.’
‘Fundamentalism comes in a variety of colours,’ I say. ‘I mix with a lot of Muslims through my work and I can honestly say that I have learned a lot from them, and I’m a bigger and better person because of this. But I’m no less Welsh, or British, or athiest.’
‘Can you not see my point?’ she continues. ‘Can you not see that German identity is important to me? Who are we without our culture? And if our culture is allowed to be hijacked by Islam then who are we at all? What is our identity?’
I hesitate. ‘Look, I’m not trying to offend you.’ I move to sit forward in my chair, ‘But I’m not convinced that every Muslim you meet has aspirations to take over the world. No matter what the internet may claim.’
‘You’re mocking me.’ She frowns. ‘How can you be liberal and yet not be tolerant of my ideology?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I wouldn’t mock you. But I guarantee you that every aspect of Germanness that you hold dear is the result of multicuturalism over time. Through trade, settlement, mixing of cultures. And I’d say the same to people in my own country. I honestly believe that the worst thing for anybody’s culture is for it to be allowed to stagnate behind closed walls.’
‘We don’t want to become minorities in our own country,’ she says.
I want to tell her that I have travelled all over Europe and that the thing that strikes me is the strength of cultures that coexist within the Shengen region. Much of mainland Europe has no borders at all and yet still maintains a wonderful diversity of very defined cultures. Instead, I say, simply, ‘I don’t think either of us will change the other’s mind on this.’ I smile kindly and offer to pay for the coffees, but Lena won’t let me.
I like Lena. But I really don’t like her views. Moreover, I’m aware that Generation Identity, unlike the English Defence League, back home, is in danger of giving extremism a friendly face. This can’t be a good thing. At least the English Defence League looks as distasteful as it is.
After we have said our goodbyes and I make my way back to the hotel, one of her comments comes back to me: “How can you be liberal and yet not be tolerant of my ideology?” She’s right, of course. This is one of the apparent contradictions of liberalism. To what extent would I tolerate unregulated freedom of speech, for example? In my mind, freedoms come with responsibilities, but who draws the lines here? Who defines these responsibilities? And who defines the ethics behind them? In my bar, nobody would be allowed in wearing a football top or waving an England flag. We all set our own boundaries, our own borders.
These are the words I wish I’d said to Lena before we parted, if only to attempt to bridge a little of the gulf between us. Perhaps we could have been friends but, like Lena, I find that my own social echo-chamber offers comfort in reflecting back at me the world as I’d like to see it. I find her ideology as dangerous as she clearly finds mine.
* * * * * * * *
I’m sitting in a bar with a friend, just a few hundred metres from the Brandenburg Gate. It’s still raining. I guess this is what it does in Berlin in late October. It rains. The weather seems to have made a pact with the city, to dress it in colours that best reflect it. And grey is a good colour for a city like this; the right colour. There is a comfort in the graffitied gloom of the streets juxtaposed with the friendly glows of the café’s and bars and clubs that line them.
Behind my friend is a waitress who is clearly having a challenging time with a drunk, middle-aged businessman who seems to have taken a liking to her. ‘Help!’ she mouths, noticing me looking over at the spectacle. I call her name. Any name. I doubt she’s shared it with the businessman.
‘Entschuldigen Sie bitte,’ she says to the man and, swerving to avoid his hands, makes her way over to our table.
‘Danke,’ she says.
‘We have those in my country, too,’ I say, nodding in the direction from where she’s come.
She laughs. ‘Perhaps your country and mine are not so different.’
‘This is what I’ve been learning,’ I say.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
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