Bearing in mind he is one of Berlin’s most colorful characters, Heinz Buschkowsky's official farewell was less than spectacular.
The retiring mayor of the trendy and multicultural borough of Neukölln, in office for 15 years, was politely seen off by his colleagues with a bouquet and warm round of applause.
No song, dance, cream cake or brass band, as would have been fitting. Instead, district representatives quickly returned to scrutinizing the finer points of Neukölln’s planned cycle paths. Mr. Buschkowsky was left standing in a doorway fidgeting with his smart phone. Happy trails, Heinz.
Perhaps they may lay on a more glitzy leaving do on his last day. But either way, the 66-year-old had the last word in his short farewell speech: “Where Neukölln is, that's up front.”
It was a proud statement. The transformation of Neukölln from dimly-lit working-class backwater to chic, multicultural superstardom has been remarkable. Today, the borough bustles with trendy bars, Turkish cafes, retro cinemas and the hippest of Berlin's hipsters.
“Multiculturalism has failed,” was his taboo-breaking cry on talk shows.
But whether the transformation is down to the mayor or simply a happy accident is a point of great contention in the city.
Mr. Buschkowsky stood first of all for himself. He is clever, vain and popular – even courageous. When he felt his party, the centre-left Social Democrats, began drifting too far to the left on immigration, he railed against its denial of reality.
“Multiculturalism has failed,” was his taboo-breaking cry on talk shows. As leader of a borough with one of Germany’s highest Muslim populations, it had impact and credibility. He seemed to agree with the much-maligned view, by the left at least, that Germany's post-war immigration policy was in ruins.
“Multiculturalism has failed.” The statement sounded nasty, but it was clearly directed. Not against foreigners, but against those who made pronouncements from the pristine perspective of social pedagogy and cultural relativism, those who considered Berlin's gritty, day-to-day life to be nothing other than an ongoing carnival of cultures.
Mr. Buschkowsky not only marketed himself better with his television presence and well-worded arguments, he also identified pitfalls and always linked up with the social-democratic mainstream before things got dangerous.
This inevitably split opinions within the party. Heinz, it was murmured, is sometimes a little “special,” but, hey, the voters seem to like it.
Not only the voters. He tells of Turkish and Arab kids who come up to him in the streets and offer to “knock” his enemies. Mr. Buschkowsky, once a working-class child himself, has the credibility of those who have worked their way up from modest circumstances.
His driver is Turkish, and he is to be believed when he says that this isn't a PR stunt but a matter of the heart.
Mr. Buschkowsky has been angered that in recent months his name has been cited by many supporters of Pegida, a right-wing, anti-immigration movement that has taken parts of Germany by storm in the past few months.
Once again he was called on to clarify his position, whereupon he leapfrogged most members of the ruling centre-right Christian Democrat Union in his views. People mustn’t label all Pegida followers as Nazis, he said, but instead must take their fears seriously, and at least not demonstrate against them.
He added that he was for more integration, not less, and for that reason wanted to have nothing to do with Pegida. This didn’t stop him being challenged to an “anti-racist snowball fight” by radical leftists at a Berlin Christmas market.
People mustn’t label all Pegida followers as Nazis, he said, but instead must take their fears seriously.
It’s not just radicals that have attacked him. Barbara John, a member of the CDU who for many years was tasked by the Berlin Senate with looking after foreigners, has called Mr. Buschkowsky’s most successful book, Neukölln Is Everywhere, a “dime novel with fatal consequences.”
She blamed the book, which laid bare Berlin’s failure to integrate its immigrants and suggested this was the case all over Europe, for a rise in hostility toward foreigners. It also indirectly granted social acceptance to positions that Mr. Buschkowsky himself doesn't adhere to, she added.
The book is indeed often blunt. Sometimes the mayor’s admonitions are directed to Muslims in general, sometimes only to fundamentalists; social and cultural problems are mixed with those of religion.
The proposed solutions get less space. They are familiar and, for the most part, politically unrealizable: compulsory preschools, comprehensive full-day schools, better cooperation between federal and state governments to free up money for investment.
While in office, Mr. Buschkowsky was repeatedly criticized for badmouthing the district instead of emphasizing the undeniable successes of integration policies.
In fact, it seems as if his successes have long been forgotten. These include the wonderful transformation of the Rütli School, once thought a lost cause but now a highly regarded model campus.
Mr. Buschkowsky’s “district mothers,” Muslim women who, with his support, looked after problematic families were another success story.
Basically, Mr. Buschkowsky was an expert in low-noise administrative action. He was not a tribune of the people, not a politician happy on the campaign trail, but actually rather a stiff politician.
His place was in his office — even if in recent weeks he did rather over-emphasize the 80-hour workweek that he felt he had been burdened with for decades.
This may now have caught up with him. Despite his current term not being due to expire until 2016, the mayor unexpectedly threw in the towel last week blaming deteriorating health. But before he quit he fulfilled an important leadership task: preparing a successor.
Franziska Giffey, previously Neukölln’s councilor for education, is held in high esteem across party lines. In a newspaper interview a few days ago, Mr. Buschkowsky summarized the relevant facts about his successor: “She is qualified, she is young and she looks better than me.”
In any case, he won’t be putting himself out to pasture. He will be regularly chipping in with advice for Ms. Giffey through his new newspaper column in the tabloid Bild, and may even write another book.
No theme is on the horizon. Because, he remarked, he has said everything worth saying about immigration and integration.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]