Was ist ein Berliner?

In June 1963, John F. Kennedy famously stood on the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg in West Berlin and declared “Ich bin ein Berliner”. It was a defiant response to the construction of the Berlin Wall two years earlier and the Soviet Union’s increasingly isolationist policy in East Berlin. It was also grammatically incorrect, resulting in him effectively declaring himself a donut, but no-one seemed to mind. It was the sentiment that counted; the rallying cry of support for a divided city and the assertion that “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.”

Kennedy’s speech came at a time when over a decade of immigration had helped the country back to its feet, driving the Wirtschaftswunder that saw West Germany establish itself among the world’s biggest economic powers. The fall of the Wall in 1989 heralded the start of second wave, this time of young artists and entrepreneurs looking to build new lives on the fertile ground of the old East. Idealists from all over the world took Kennedy’s statement at face value, flooding in and turning the city into the hotbed of political, commercial and cultural activity it is today.

Now, almost fifty years after the President’s historical address, some inhabitants of Germany’s capital are beginning to wonder if the idea hasn’t been taken too far. Two nights ago, I returned home to find a poster plastered on the front door of my building, advertising a meeting to discuss noise problems in the neighbourhood. On it was a photograph of a graffiti slogan: “Zündet Touristen an – und alle ham’s warm.” Set fire to tourists – then everyone can keep warm. The sentiment displays a typically dry Berlin sense of humour, yet it also highlights a serious opinion held by many in the city, and not one I was hearing for the first time.

As the scar of the Wall has healed and Berlin has once more taken its place among Europe’s elite cities, tourism has increased exponentially. However, this is only part of the perceived problem. Due to the nature of Berlin’s allure – one based less on the typical historical sights and more on the alternative and affordable “arm aber sexy”  lifestyle – many visitors decide to stay longer than expected, or return more permanently at a later date. The borders between tourism and residency become blurred, and it is not uncommon to hear complaints of Langzeittouristen – long-term tourists – from natives faced with the city’s modern, mutlicultural identity.

Tourists, and particularly Langzeittouristen, are becoming the bogeymen of modern Berlin. Tales are told of loud, drunken party-makers from foreign lands, terrorising locals with their enthusiasm for life and leaving a trail of litter and rent increases in their wake. But while these stereotypes are (at least partly) true, none of the city’s social problems can be attributed solely to outsiders. Besides, what is an outsider, in the context of Berlin? Who gets to decide what constitutes a Berliner, and on what grounds?

The starting point often appears to be language. This is understandable: language is our primary means of self-expression, and thus a key part of our identities. Speaking a different language marks you out as different. Most people, upon hearing a language in their proximity other than the local tongue, will automatically turn their heads to the outsiders and begin wondering what their origins and motives for being here are. Natural tribal instinct tells us they don’t belong.

But things aren’t that simple in Berlin. The majority of those I know here speak more than one language. Berlin as we know it would not exist without the input and imagination of workers from all over the world. Moreover, many foreigners, like myself, have been living here for a number of years, working and paying taxes. The word “Langzeittourist” implies a tourist who has outstayed their welcome, but in a system where many Germans my age are still at university, who is making the greater contribution to society?

However, there is also another, more crucial issue with this line of argument: in Berlin, it is redundant to use language as a means of defining who belongs and who doesn’t. Why? Because almost nobody actually comes from Berlin. I have many German friends here, yet only two that I can think of are Urberliner – born and bred in the capital. The rest came here from nearby Brandenburg, Bavaria, the Black Forest or other far-flung corners of the country, usually at roughly the same age as I did and for many of the same reasons. The city is exciting, vibrant and different; there is something for everyone, and it is nigh-on impossible to run out of things to do. The constant flow of new and different visitors and inhabitants means that the city always has something new and different to offer. We all contribute, and we all benefit.

In the end, what makes us Berliners is not where we come from, but where we wound up. That’s the way this city has always been, and long may it continue.

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7 Responses to Was ist ein Berliner?

  1. Mark says:

    *doughnut, you doughnut…

    Aside from that, really interesting – I’m enjoying these. Though presumably if the incomers had taken JFK’s statement at face value, they would all be deep-fried dessert pastry products by now

  2. kolyma42 says:

    He was American, I took the American spelling. When it’s not a Berlin thing it tends to be an American one, so in this case I think the American spelling fits better. Thanks for the comment though! I’m trying to update as often as possible, when I have something interesting to write about 🙂

  3. Mark says:

    Having already established his lack of ability with grammar, I’d have thought it best not to rely on his spelling

  4. Jezikowski says:

    The wall fell (or rather, was torn down) in 1989 if I am not mistaken? Reunification was 1990. Apart from that a pleasant read on a snowy evening in Cologne.

  5. Welsh penguin says:

    As I, a Cymro in Berlin, said to my Bosnian g/f a couple of years ago: ‘there should be no law against machine-gunning Spanish and Italian tourists in Alexanderpaltz, as long as you tidy the bodies away’: I was on my way to see my Brazilian friends, where two Koreans and a Mexican were also waiting for me…

  6. Pingback: Speaking Globish | Of Words and Worlds

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