Berlingo: "The Wall in the Mind"

When I started writing this blog in 2011, Berlin was a city that was all about finding itself, finding the right way of being 'authentically Berlin'.  Every organizer of every event seemed to be clamouring to prove they had that original, underground Berlin spirit.  Droves of people were coming here to find a piece of the Wall, some 1960's clothes or anything else that wasn't nailed down that they could drag back and display like a trophy of the unrefined, undefined Cold War landscape that was vanishing as they watched.  Every weekend I'd see them clawing oversized 1980s jackets off the rails of Humana and scurrying furtively through the streets schlepping musty chunks of GDR furniture like packrats, afraid to run out of supplies.  Supplies of character. 

"See?" I could just hear these droves of new Berliners declaring: "Even the chair I'm sitting on is a one-off that was hand-tooled out of old bed posts by an impoverished citizen of East Germany!  It's that authentic!"  The subtext being that they themselves were that authentic, too.  The city of Berlin seemed to be one big metaphor for the identity crisis that everyone here was having as they left behind their old world, and tried to replace it with a better kind of old world. The one that they imagined existed here.

Now, people seem to be finally trying to create a new Berlin instead, creating an authentic character for the city instead of scrambling to buy up whatever's left of the old one.  Hallelujah, amen to that. But why now?

Maybe that's because a series of recent events have put the Berlin's position on the world stage into a much larger perspective than before, reminding the people here that it still has a role to play.  And that, by extension, so do they.

First, there was the NSA scandal, which inadvertently exposed Germany's complicity in spying on its own citizens.  After all, the NSA's European headquarters were located right here, in Germany.
Then there was the brutal suppression of a massive protest by refugees who were squatting in Kreuzberg.   It veered into the realm of Cold War era 'disappearing' act, in which media was blacked out and refugees whisked off in vans, never to be seen again. Treated much like terrorists, all that these squatters wanted was for their complaints about the German refugee system to be heard.

A few German MPs admit that the refugee system needs revision but rather than debate the subject, their colleagues have resorted to tactics that the Stasi would have been proud of.  A whopping 900 police arrived at the Ohlauer Strasse squat in early July to evict 200 unarmed squatters.  The cops formed a cordon through which media was forbidden to move, snatching freedom of the press away as arbitrarily as a parent snatching candy from a bad child.  Fights and protests ensued and the commotion caused by it all helped turn the situation around, in the end.  A number of refugees were able to stay in the school, although no actual refugee system reform seems to be on the horizon yet.

I do suspect quite a few of Kreuzberg's trendy hipsters must have been shocked to see what the friendly, hands-off German government is capable of doing when it thinks the world isn't looking.  Basically, that's the same sh*t that any government does.

One Italian friend of mine recently described Berliners as "living inside a bubble".  Her words reminded me of the German expression: "the Wall inside the mind".  It's true that many people here continue to live their lives behind a wall, or bubble, of ignorance... whether they be expats who refuse to mix with the locals, or locals who refuse to glance at the refugees sleeping in parks.  Even after the Berlin Wall has come down, it seems, the simplistic urge to "solve" a problem by screening it off from view remains.  It's intriguing, and worrying, to think that this tendency could be the thing that unites the new Berliners with the old. 


  1. Great article great bit of writing and like the bf said much of this can be applied to East London where we are.

    1. Hey Ian, thanks (again) for the helpful feedback! Yeah, last time I was in Hackney I did notice the same sorts of people floating around. one city looks so much like the other, these days!


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