Safe Haven Sweet Home, Berlin

Berlin is a city of misfits, exiles and revolutionaries. According to an Australian writer who investigated the the capital’s colorful appeal, it's because historic factors have created an unusually free atmosphere.
The courtyard of a squat in Berlin's Mitte district. Planners in the nineteenth century believed courtyards where people could meet increased social cohesion.

 

Berlin has long attracted wanderers from around the world — from socialists Karl Marx and Rosa Luxembourg, to Czech modernist Franz Kafka and American punk rocker Iggy Pop.

For more than a century, they came to the German capital to develop their work, their art and their passion. And they’re still arriving – explorers and exiles, migrants and asylum seekers.

“The city has this mystique,” said Stuart Braun, the Australian author of “City of Exiles,” a history of Berlin published last year. “It’s a place to escape to. People go there because they feel they can do their thing.”

The city has this mystique. It’s a place to escape to. People go there because they feel they can do their thing. Stuart Braun,, author of “City of Exiles”

In other major cities like Paris, London, Sydney or Melbourne, people perhaps felt like they were under surveillance, but not so in Berlin.

“Berlin was an island,” said the author. “People were dissidents who arrived and became squatters and shaped life here.”

Mr. Braun wrote his book in an attempt to understand why people felt the same in the 1920s as in the 1990s. He wanted to uncover the source of the city’s attraction.

Much has been said, written and sung about Berlin’s appeal. For Mr. Braun, the answer is partly bricks and mortar: Berlin was a safe haven for the poor.

Low-cost housing gave people freedom at more levels of society, thanks to policies that date to the nineteenth century, he said in an interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition.

Tenements built in the 1870s, many of which are still standing, went up in a wave of industrialization. Berlin became one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, as people flocked from East Prussia, Poland and Ukraine to find work in the factories.

Housing policies were shaped to encourage social cohesion. Planners insisted, for instance, that doctors and factory owners lived in one part of houses, while poorer, less educated workers lived in the back.

Mr. Braun said this spirit of social cohesion continues in Berlin today.

“Compare it to London, Sydney or Melbourne, (where) there’s massive speculation on the housing market,” he said. “In Berlin, tenants have rights. In England, housing is about wealth creation. But in Berlin, in areas like Kotbusser Tor where rents are rising, they put together a referendum.”

Mr. Braun noted that a lot of money left Berlin during the war years. Larger companies moved and set up in the south. Financial businesses shifted to Frankfurt. “Nowadays, the city doesn’t take anything for granted,” he said.

The trauma of the Second World War has also turned out to be a source of strength, he added.

“Its ongoing renewal was necessitated by destruction during the war, and the division of the city post-war,” Mr. Braun said. “Berlin remained borderless.”

That freedom of spirit continues today, he said.

“There’s less threat of becoming too established. A key dynamic is Berlin’s constant flux: It’s really fluid, the movement of people and ideas. No one really owns the city,” Mr. Braun explained.

Affordability and sense of self-determination continue to attract people, too.

“When I do readings, people express frustration with the city they live in,” the author said. “In London, they talk about the crazy development and what that means for their lives and work, while Berlin is affordable.”

In Australia, Mr. Braun said, a multitude of regulations and prohibitions frustrate people. But in Berlin, people feel they’re treated like adults.

Berlin, meantime, is attracting young artists who find it easier to get visas. They come from New York, Sydney or London — cities that seem like fortresses to them, Mr. Braun said.

Looking ahead, he predicted Berlin will become more “stratified, more hierarchical” and rents will rise. “But there’ll be enough resistance,” the author said. “I’m very optimistic.”

The traditional form of housing — tenements built around a central courtyard where people can gather — strengthens the city’s sense of community, Mr. Braun said.

 

Scene from a popular bridge in Kreuzberg where people from the diverse neighborhood often mingle.

 

People arriving in Berlin today are still exiles, even if they are fleeing different things.

“It’s a kind of displacement, post 9-11,” he said. “Certain kinds of people are dissatisfied with government, war, mass surveillance — the digital exiles.”

Today most people arriving in Berlin are fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East or North Africa. As politicians debate if and how to accommodate them, Mr. Braun said he has a positive outlook.

“As people keep coming, keep creating their own world, they only have each other,” he said. “They don’t have an establishment, or a stratified sense of class. Anyone can create their own reality and feel at home.”

Some people compare today’s refugee influx to earlier migrant situations, like “guest workers” from Turkey after World War II, or the Palestinian diaspora since the 1970s.

“I’m not trying to romanticize it: You need a lot of proactive policies,” he said. “But Berlin in particular is an easy, open city. People feel welcome.”

He compared Germany’s open-door policy towards asylum-seekers with detention camps in Australia, where refugees are sent back to where they came from. And he praised how long Berlin had allowed a camp set up by refugees to remain in the heart of the city several years ago.

Mr. Braun said the Berlin’s rootlessness would also enable the latest arrivals to integrate and find a sense of community.

“People feel they can belong, that it’s a place for them,” he said. “Hopefully policies will allow people to integrate in a way that’s organic, and everyone can benefit.”

 

Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]