Poverty in Germany and its links to ethnic populism – a reportage by Lorenzo Monfregola
This reportage was written a few months before the German elections of 24.09.17 and was originally published in Italian in the magazine Il Tascabile. Tony Crawford collaborated on the English version.
Cindy from Marzahn is definitely overweight. Corkscrew curls bleached blonde, heavy make-up and a shocking pink plush jogging suit. Cindy has a typical American starlet name because she comes from the outer east side of Berlin. Under the influence of mass culture, Americanized names seem to be in vogue in that part of town. At least, that’s the German media’s stereotype of a neighborhood like Marzahn: too much TV, not much money, concrete high-rises, neo-Nazis and teenage mothers.
Cindy has appeared on television and in theaters all over the country for years, gathering millions of fans and detractors. Her jokes have always represented a kind of white-trash desperate housewife: welfare, television, impossible diets, low-life boyfriends, more welfare and more television.
Then, in June of 2016, Ilka Bessin, the actress who created Cindy and brought her to life, announced she was going to hang up the pink jogging suit. Bessin, whose life before stardom was not much different from that of her character, said in quitting that the interpenetration between Ilka and Cindy had become unworkable. “One day, at an evening show,” Bessin recounted in an interview, “I said we East Germans of all people should know how important it is to welcome refugees. Only one person in the audience applauded.”
Three months after Cindy’s retirement from the stage, legislative elections came around again in the city-state of Berlin. The right-wing populist and anti-immigrant party Alternative für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany”, AfD), running in its very first elections, drew 14.2% of the vote. The borough of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, Cindy’s high-density homeland, gave AfD its highest percentage in the city: 23.6%. In certain electoral districts in the borough, the populists handily broke the 30% barrier.
Berlin became one of AfD’s loudly proclaimed self-affirmations. The populists had already made inroads in two of the five big states of Germany’s formerly communist East, taking 20.8% of the vote in Mecklenburg-Eastern Pomerania two weeks before Berlin, and 24.3% in Saxony-Anhalt in March.
For defenders of the uncompromisingly tolerant and anti-racist attitude of German institutions, these results rapidly lent currency to a certain reading of reality. In this reading, the Germans of the former GDR, somewhat disparagingly called Ossis, are one of the driving forces of the new xenophobia in Germany.
The Outskirts of the Outskirts
One of Cindy from Marzahn’s jokes that I remember best is this one: “Five million Germans are unemployed – two million of them live in my neighborhood.” And it’s not even a joke; it’s a sociological analysis.
But the neighborhood Cindy was talking about is something much more complex and heterogeneous. One part of Marzahn today is a modest but mainly peaceful area, with parks, shopping malls, well-kept little houses and a panoramic cable car. Even the famous Plattenbau, the concrete pre-fab tower estate built in the communist 1970s and 80s, is livable for the most part. No broken windows in sight, no garbage in the gutters, no “no-go areas”. Of course apartments in Marzahn are much cheaper, and Berliners who can’t keep up with the cost of living in the central boroughs, driven upwards by the incoming colonists of Europe’s new cosmopolitan middle class, continue to migrate to the periphery.
But to find Cindy’s Marzahn, you have to go to the edges of the borough – to the outskirts of the outskirts. You have to go north to Marzahn Nord, for example. Although this area has been targeted by special development and support programs for the past twenty years, there are no gardens, no cable car, no cafés full of people. In fact, when you look at it, there’s practically nothing in Marzahn Nord.
The district is easy to get to: just catch a Berlin tram or subway train heading northeast, and ride to the end of the line. One of these last stops is Ahrensfelde, a place name to which the transport company has appended Stadtgrenze, “city limits”: the countryside that begins a few yards further on lies in the state of Brandenburg. Marzahn Nord isn’t even a suburb or a banlieue; it’s something different. The streets are clean, but so clean they look empty; everything is orderly, but so orderly that it looks frozen. It all seems as if laid under a cold blanket of silent restraint. Disadvantage is visible in the faces and bodies of various people: the clothes of inferior quality, the faces aged from nicotine, the teeth poorly cared for, the obesity of those who don’t live next door to chic vegan bars selling organic smoothies.
The borough council classifies apartments by three standards: good, median, and simple. One hundred percent of the apartments in Marzahn Nord fall in the third category.
The People of Welfare
The first time I come to Marzahn Nord, I get off the tram at the edge of Marzahn-Hellersdorf’s electoral district 103, where more than 35% of the voters backed AfD. It’s a small district, but the party showed similar results in neighboring districts, usurping the lead from Die Linke (“The Left”), the far-left party that for years has harvested the votes of those nostalgic for the old East Germany.
Janine, 23, is a local Die Linke activist who wants to tell me something about the lives of the twenty-five thousand people living in this part of the neighborhood. To meet her, I walk down a desolate but not decayed boulevard where everything speaks of poverty, but in a tone that is cool, organized, sedate – irremediably German.
Janine is waiting for me in a little cafe-bar and I realize right away that it’s going to take a lot to convince her that I’m not here just to write about Nazi-Communist-xenophobe Ossis. “Lots of citizens can be drawn into feeding the propaganda,” she explains, “but the people who live here are mainly working people, and if they’re not working, they’re working on getting ahead.” Then Janine shows me an official statistic excerpted from a recent study carried out by the borough council: 36.5% of the inhabitants of Marzahn Nord between the ages of 0 and 65 years live on long-term unemployment benefits, commonly known as Hartz IV. That’s one person out of three. Hartz IV is a support payment against poverty, assured by the constitutional right to subsistence. A person who is poor – no income, no property and nothing in the bank – is entitled to Hartz IV. At the moment, counting minors, there are about six million people who get by thanks to this subsidy. About four and a half million of them are German citizens; the other one and a half million are foreigners residing in Germany.
To understand this neighborhood, Janine tells me, I have to look at the figures on children: 58.2% of those under 15 in Marzahn Nord live in families that receive Hartz IV, and 61.2% of children under six years old. “This is a significant trend,” Janine says, “because too often, dependence on welfare becomes practically hereditary in families where the parents’ social isolation or resignation doesn’t stimulate the kids to emancipate themselves.” I ask Janine why the overall unemployment rate is so low: just 11.6%. That’s twice the German average, but still low. Janine then explains to me what a lot of people already know: the employment statistics in Germany are doctored; all a person has to do to be counted as employed is to be enrolled, however temporarily, in an occupational reentry program. The result is that a portion of the allegedly employed Germans continue to receive the Hartz IV benefit, and to stand in line in front of the Job Centers, the government employment offices that administer the subsidies.
The name Hartz IV was originally that of an epoch-making piece of legislation, the thorough reform of the German social welfare system undertaken in 2005 as part of the Schröder government’s “Agenda 2010”. The Hartz IV benefit is a monthly payment of about 800 euros for a single person, half of which is intended to pay for low-cost housing. Hartz IV has had such an impact on the German society that the quasi-official Duden dictionary has incorporated the term Hartzer in the language, meaning a person who receives welfare, usually for a long period. Receiving unemployment benefits for a certain time is fairly common in Germany, and can be a crucial support for those making a fresh start (or a first start) in life. The problem arises when state support becomes a kind of limbo that gets harder and harder to escape. In Marzahn Nord, about 90% of those on Hartz IV have been receiving it for more than two years.
A People for the Populists?
The support for the “identitary right” – a new euphemism for what used to be called nationalist groups – among those who are unemployed or have low incomes is just one aspect of a process that is much more heterogeneous. Concentrating on this political current, as I have decided to do, is a consciously arbitrary choice, in Marzahn Nord as anywhere else in Germany. Up to now, the German AfD has won votes from the poor and the rich, from the uneducated and the more cultivated, and is the result of a short circuit in the Germans’ relation to their own historical taboos.
The fact remains, however, that in many regions AfD has been the party most favored by working-class voters. Not only that, but, according to a survey published soon after the Berlin elections by the national daily Die Welt, AfD also received an absolute majority of unemployed people’s votes. The unemployed and welfare recipients are also among the demographic categories that are ordinarily least likely to vote at all, and it seems as though the populists have once again taken advantage of this tendency, bringing an army of former abstainers to the polls.
The real question at this point is how so many people in disadvantaged situations ever placed their confidence in a party whose economic platform calls for welfare cuts and further privatization in the health care sector. But the most important reason has been made abundantly clear: AfD has ethnicized such social policy demands. During the refugee crisis of 2015–2016, some Germans were receptive to the suggestions of an “identitary” campaign against Angela Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik, the policy of welcoming refugees – a campaign that rapidly took on the outlines of an anti-establishment protest, of a social backlash, for those who felt undervalued in their country.
In early 2016, Marzahn was one of the areas where the greatest numbers of refugee shelters were planned or had been opened: fertile ground for the extreme right, including the openly subversive currents. All of Germany saw the photos of skinheads, organized by the far-right NPD, the “National-Democratic Party”, demonstrating against the shelters in Marzahn.
“Italian, Not Arab? You Can Stay”
I meet Thomas a few kilometers south of where I talked to Janine, in a little park surrounded by a few old, well-kept residential buildings. Thomas was active for years in the NPD, eventually taking on a leading role at the local level. But Thomas is out of the party now. “What the NPD says in public has nothing to do with what it really wants,” he says. “They’re really dreaming of a return to the Third Reich, things like deporting all foreigners and sterilizing the handicapped.”
Now Thomas runs, together with other tenants in his building, a little wooden bungalow that serves as a recreation center. “We’re doing important work. There’s a little café with very low prices. And here we have things to play with: there are board games for winter, but today’s a nice day and the kids can play games in the park. Many parents don’t want to or don’t have time to take their children out to play, but thanks to this place, and to us supervising, they can. That way the kids aren’t in front of the TV all day.”
While the children play, a group of women and men enjoy coffee, cigarettes, and french fries with ketchup and mayonnaise. I sit down to talk with them, although for the first few minutes I’m not particularly welcome.
“Who are you? Are you writing for a newspaper? Forget it, you all write bullshit.”
“Maybe not you, but then they won’t publish you; they don’t publish you if you don’t write their bullshit.”
“What? Italian? And what are you doing here? Are you lost?”
“You don’t look Italian to me. You talk kind of like a Czech. Or are you Polish?”
“Well, Italian is okay, anyway, you can stay.”
“Maybe we can cook something nice, what do you say?”
“What do you mean you don’t know how to cook? See, I knew you weren’t Italian.” They laugh. I laugh too.
It doesn’t take much to start a conversation about foreigners. Because talking about foreigners also means talking about the local people’s demands. The two themes are remarkably interwoven. All you have to do is refrain from making a stern face at the speaker’s first words to hear opinions that, until recently, would have been buried in the intricate system of taboos that is still in force in Germany.
The group talk to me, but they also begin discussing among themselves, earnestly, as if this were the opportunity they’d been waiting for. “Two years ago there was no more money for us. You tell me why it’s there now for these refugees – why? That’s not a racist question, is it?”
“I work a lot in security, I’ve done security downtown where they give the money to the refugees: it’s hard to look at them standing in line, getting their money with no trouble at all. It’s not fair. It’s not right.”
“On TV, wherever you look: refugees, refugees, refugees, every day, all day long.”
“What? What do you mean there hasn’t been violence? Sure, they tried to rape two girls in Pankow. Didn’t you see that on Facebook? It was posted – yes it was! It was posted on Facebook, just yesterday.”
After quite a bit of conversation, I try asking whether anyone voted AfD. From the looks of it, though, no one here votes at all. But Nicko, a very sturdy man with a rather high shave who scowled at me at first, says, “Politicians make me sick. They’re all the same, all of them, the AfD too. But at least if the AfD get a chance, they’ll get rid of all these Mollucken.” By Mollucken he means, not visitors from the Maluku Islands, but foreigners in general – understood as savages. It’s an even more derogatory variation on Kanaken, a term that used to be applied mainly to Mediterranean immigrants – Turks, Italians, Spaniards. Nicko is thirty and a truck driver. He explains that one problem, in his opinion, is the Poles who compete with him for jobs, crossing the intra-EU border into Germany and working for peanuts. But in the end, he says, the real mess is the Muslims, whether those who’ve been here a long time or those who have just arrived. “It’s not racism. Take the Vietnamese: they’ve been here for years, they don’t bother anyone and nobody has anything against the Vietnamese.” The Muslims, on the other hand – they should stop letting them into Germany; the others say so too. “You’re Italian, you can stay; if you were an Arab I’d throw you out,” Nicko repeats, laughing.
An older woman who has been quiet up to now says to me softly, “The immigrants get the same amount as my unemployment, if not more. Without doing a thing. I’ve had to fill out my forms for years, and if I forget to check a box or to declare ten euros that my sister gave me, they treat me like a thief … Sometimes I think I should put on a veil like an Arab and go to the Job Center dressed like that: maybe they’d treat me better.”
I go talk to Thomas again because I want to ask him too what he thinks about the AfD surge in Marzahn Nord. He tells me what almost everyone in this area will repeat: it’s a strong protest vote. At the time of our conversation, in spring of 2017, the AfD is internally divided and is dropping in the opinion polls. But even if the decline should prove fatal, a taboo has been broken and German politics will never be quite the same. I also ask Thomas what would happen if this populist protest were to spread one day, however far in the future, to the majority of voters. Thomas thinks for a moment, as if he had never considered the possibility. Then he answers, “Well, then we’d have a new NSDAP in Germany,” referring to the Hitler dictatorship’s National Socialist party.
“You mean, a Nazi party in government in Germany?” I ask.
“Yes. Because, after all, that’s what the AfD is …”
The Losers of the New Germany
I look up the data on the forms of support offered to refugees and immigrants in Germany. It varies; the situation is complicated. In general, those who live in a refugee shelter or are in the process of getting on their feet in the society receive an amount of support, including cash and services, that is equal to or less than the benefits available to German citizens (or to foreigners who have lived in Germany for years). Nonetheless, there is – evidently – a fear of having to share the right to subsistence and access to the unskilled job market with the new arrivals. And it comes as no surprise that this fear of foreign competition is most entrenched in the weakest areas of the country, most of all in the former East Germany.
One of the most complete studies on poverty in Germany, published in 2005, details how the German welfare state, while guaranteeing an enviable level of social welfare to a secure middle class, also institutionalized a parallel system of poverty. The study was conducted by a large team of sociologists led by the professors Franz Schultheis and Kristina Schulz, whose goal was to create a work after the model of Pierre Bourdieu, applying the techniques and the style of his The Weight of the World to German society. The title of their book, Gesellschaft mit begrenzter Haftung (“society with limited liability”), is taken from the German term for limited-liability companies, abbreviated GmbH. The title also summarizes the process of liberalization in eastern Germany which brought with it a massive de-industrialization, cushioned by the mass distribution of welfare in the new states.
I get in touch with Professor Schultheis, who teaches today at the University of Geneva, to ask him how he sees the subject of that study twelve years later. “Things have changed from a cultural point of view,” he explains. “At the time, we were dealing with a generation that was still directly connected to the experience of the GDR, whereas today there is a generation of young people who have assimilated the culture of the West, who have grown up with the euro and are familiar with the welfare state.” But this doesn’t mean the new, eastern states have caught up with those of old West Germany: “Today, the former GDR is split between those who have succeeded in becoming part of the new Germany and those who feel they are, for all intents and purposes, second-class citizens.”
That feeling of defeat corresponds to precarious social or employment situations and to lower pay scales compared with western regions, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the grand reforms that rang in the new millennium. As Schultheis reminds me, “Agenda 2010 certainly lowered the unemployment rate, but it left a number of structural problems on the table. There is one thing we cannot deny: the model of Germany’s success rests on a broad class of poor people. As we speak, we are updating our study in preparation for a Greek translation, which will spread the word in Greece too that there is another face of Germany.”
“Enough to Make You Vomit”
The Job Center in Marzahn-Hellersdorf is located in a nine-story office building on Allee der Kosmonauten, the boulevard that the GDR dedicated to the space-travelling “heroes of socialism”. The line there fluctuates, depending on the day, between long, very long, and interminably long.
People wait in front of the entrance in silence, some of them carrying a folder. Their folders contain the documents to be presented to the demanding employees of the labor office. Receiving benefits in Germany requires an absolute, almost fundamentalist transparency of the applicant’s financial status. Every cent that goes through the recipient’s hands has to be declared and, above all, the legally enshrined principle of “helping those who help themselves” must be enforced. In all these folders, every person around me has collected documents to prove they have been trying to get off unemployment – by sending off a certain number of job applications each month or participating in the vocational training programs assigned them by the Job Center. When I have almost arrived at the reception desk, I give up my place in line to a man of about fifty whose folder depicts Spiderman jumping from a skyscraper. He thanks me with a smile, betraying an old-fashioned upbringing. Before I leave the line, I notice a young woman, very thin, with platinum blonde hair and multicolored leggings. She is debating with the employee at one of the desks where the day’s visitors are sorted. I can’t make out what they’re saying: the employee is speaking very softly and shaking his head slightly. After a few seconds, the woman turns away, her face red with rage, shouting, “Es ist zum Kotzen! Es ist zum Kotzen!” That means “It’s enough to make you vomit,” although “vomit” is not the right word; kotzen is much more vulgar.
A moment later, I find the woman outside the building fiddling with her telephone. I approach her and ask what happened. “This time I’m going to tear the place apart; there’ll be nothing left in there!” The woman’s problem is that she didn’t show up for an appointment that the Job Center had assigned her. It wasn’t the first time, and now her benefit is going to be cut as a “sanction”. Today the young woman wanted to go upstairs and talk to the caseworker who manages her file, but they didn’t let her in. “In the end they’ll give me vouchers for my grocery shopping. They gave me them once before, a few years ago. Do you know how ashamed you feel when you pay the cashier at Lidl with meal vouchers?” The Job Center issues vouchers that are good for food purchases to ensure the subsistence of those recipients whose money benefits have been cut. The sanction is not often imposed, but applicants who have incurred it once are more prone to suffer it a second and a third time.
Relations between the welfare recipients and the Job Center caseworkers are a delicate subject. As a rule, a given caseworker is assigned a given recipient for no more than three months, but there are exceptions, especially when unemployment benefits overlap with other social services. The Job Center employees are subject to a kind of systematic stress, whether because the Labor Office is constantly evaluating their ability to develop each “client” (they really call them that), or because their discussions with the “clients” can become very bitter. There are always new cases of verbal or outright physical aggression against the employees. For good or ill, the caseworker often has to make an individual decision on the merits of a particular case, while at the same time continuing to act as a personification of the welfare state and its principle of “helping those who help themselves”. This principle can grow into a kind of total control of the citizen’s life, especially when unemployment becomes a long-term condition. The longer a person receives benefits, the more the state wants to know about his or her habits, physical and mental health, and view of society, at the risk of pathologizing social disadvantage.
When you talk with the inhabitants of Marzahn Nord, the word you hear most often is “shame”. Not from those, of course, who have a satisfactory job and manage to live their lives with more than dignity, such as the many people who don’t receive benefits and feel themselves part of a symbolic upper middle class in the borough, although they live far from Berlin’s cosmopolitan city center. Shame afflicts rather the many others, those who feel they must have failed in a society which, in principle, is supposed to offer every opportunity imaginable.
Schamland (“Shameland”) is the title of a book by the sociologist Stefan Selke. When I ask him why he chose shame as the theme of his book, he explains, “We’re talking about being poor in a rich country. About people who are, as some would say, ‘too rich to die and too poor to live.’ What does being poor mean? It’s easy enough to define a minimum economic situation from a normative point of view. But there is also a dividing line on a more practical level: being able or unable to afford the standard of living of the society in which you live. The critical point that we never think enough about is the symbolic aspect of poverty. In Germany, this symbolism is apparent in the language – for example, in the stigma associated with the word ‘Hartzer’, the verbal expression of a process that marginalizes a segment of the population. Obviously this symbolic dimension can’t be resolved simply by giving everyone five euros more, because it’s mainly the result of a specific ideology.”
An ideology which, according to Professor Selke, is not accidental in the organization of German society. “There exists a concept which consists of punishment by shame. It can become a system of social discipline that operates at no cost, so to speak, in which people are induced to forms of self-regulation by internalizing a rhetoric of guilt. In recent years, a mutation has been taking place: it has become normal again to point fingers at people and call them ‘lazy’ or ‘undeserving’ … But in fact, this is a way of not seeing the reality of the world we live in today, in which anyone’s livelihood can crash from one minute to the next. We would rather give each person all the blame for his or her misfortunes than admit that all of us are walking on very thin ice.”
“Get Your Ass in Gear”
At the Marzahn Nord neighborhood management office, I meet Victoria, an extremely polite city employee who shows me a map of all the social initiatives and structures in the district. As I look at the map, I am more and more persuaded that there are three types of Germans living in Marzahn Nord. The first are not particularly affected by the various social disadvantages, although they may have a certain symbolic resentment against the Federal Republic of Germany. The second type have a continuous, visceral, physical relationship with the republic, since they get money from it for their food and shelter. The third type of Germans in Marzahn Nord constitute a small army of social workers: the eager public servants of that same republic who administer its many opportunities, but who also propagate, more or less consciously, its ideological underpinnings. How well this third type of Germans will be able to communicate and interact with the first two is the crucial question for the future of neighborhoods like Marzahn Nord, and for relations between the institutions and the more discontented and marginalized segments of the population.
From what I have seen, communication and interaction seem to be working quite well in certain youth centers. The Betonia youth center in Marzahn Nord is full of kids when I arrive. Some of them are listening to music, some are playing ping-pong, others are making sandwiches. Christopher, one of the youth workers, shows me around the center, which is managed by a private association with state and municipal funding: “It’s very important for the kids to be able to come here. A lot of them don’t like being at home, and if they couldn’t come here, I can’t imagine many other places where they could spend the afternoon; not here in the neighborhood anyway.”
In a big room I talk to some of the kids while the stereo’s speakers discharge German rap at full volume. The children’s dreams for the future are somehow all the same: one wants to be a football player and another a baker; one wants to be a cop and another a robber. There’s a girl who wants to be a singer and a boy who hasn’t the faintest idea what he’ll be doing tomorrow morning. Some of the adolescents answer jokingly that, when they grow up, they want to draw Hartz IV. I ask them what they think Hartz IV is. Two girls who are putting nail polish on their fingernails give me the answer I could find anywhere in the German media: “Hartz IV is what the kids get whose parents are too lazy to work.” “That’s right!” another boy shouts. I look around. If the statistics on Marzahn Nord are accurate, about two out of three children live in families receiving Hartz IV. Some of them must be here right now.
A little later, I make the acquaintance of Paul and Max, aged 23 and 24. They have been coming to Betonia since they were small, and they still come here today. “Coming here has been very important to me. There’s always someone you can talk to when you have a problem,” Paul explains. “Even now, instead of hanging around the house when I’m not working, I come here. This place helped me get my ass in gear. In this neighborhood the important thing is to get your ass in gear. Sooner or later you find you can either sit on your ass or you can get it in gear. I’ve had a lot of different jobs. Now I’m working as an armed guard at the airport.” Paul talks with great self-confidence, enunciating the words. “Outsiders who come here have certain prejudices about Marzahn. But I have my prejudices too. About Neukölln, for example.” Neukölln is a large, more central borough of Berlin with a dynamic ethnic mixture. “They’re always rioting; to celebrate New Years’ Eve they set a car on fire there. If that happened here, it would be on the front page of all the newspapers.”
When I explain that I came to Marzahn Nord to find out the truth behind the stereotypes – including political ones – the other young man, Max, has something to say about them. “The refugee shelter here hasn’t been burned down. Nothing like that ever happened here. Sure, there are some far-right-wingers here too; maybe because they got beat up by some foreigner when they were little.” In spite of his tough words, Max speaks with a gentle voice, and smiles. I ask him what he thinks of the AfD’s popularity. “Look, that doesn’t have to mean the people are right-wing extremists; on the contrary, that has nothing to do with it. I mean, who am I supposed to vote for? Merkel? Forget it. No one here has any use for her; you can forget it. The Social Democrats? Well, same for them: I can’t see what good it would do. The people are frustrated; the CDU and the SPD have been in government for twenty years. So many people around here are tired of earning less while everything costs more and more. Some vote for the far left, but others wouldn’t be caught dead voting for Die Linke because to them Die Linke is still the SED” – the party that ruled the old East German state – “so forget that.”
A few days later, I take the No. 16 tram again. While I’m waiting to get to the last stop, I read the umpteenth article about the electoral campaign of the Social Democrat Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament who now wants to topple Angela Merkel – although, after a brief surge in the opinion polls, he is currently the underdog, and Foreign Policy has christened Merkel “The Forever Chancellor”. Schulz too must have visited a few places like Marzahn Nord, since his favorite topics have suddenly become equality, defending social rights, and protecting less fortunate citizens. Schulz has promised an improbable dismantling of Agenda 2010, which, like it or not, was a cornerstone of the German economy’s recovery and its present competitiveness.
It is not clear whether, in the long term, the political establishment’s rediscovery of social issues will be able to combat the ethnicization of the most disgruntled Germans’ demands. It may work in the next elections, but then again the problems may be just beginning. Now there are not only a million new arrivals in Germany, but also an immigrant community whose integration is far from being achieved (or, according to some, far from being achievable). Beyond opposing rhetoric, beyond neo-Nazi resentments, beyond the facile post-third-world utopias, it’s not clear how the encounter between the white German proletariat and the migrants will go.
But Matthias, a thickset man in his fifties whom I met several times in Marzahn Nord, is convinced he has an idea how that encounter should take place. For years, Matthias has been the director of the Playground Initiative, an association that manages two well-equipped sites and organizes many activities for Marzahn’s youngest inhabitants, creating frequent opportunities to bring together the local children and those of refugees in the receiving centers.
Matthias has invited me to one of the recreation days he organizes. It all takes place on one of the two playgrounds where there is a little artificial pond, a campfire, a neat round hut that houses the kitchen, and a brick oven. When I arrive, the lawn is swarming with children: some are playing volleyball; some are riding a pair of ponies that must have come from somewhere; some are jumping on a big trampoline. Some of the local girls and some of the Kurdish girls have baked pizzas. “Do you know how many parents didn’t want to let their children come in the beginning? A lot. Then, after the first few times, they understand that the refugees are people like them, and everything gets easier,” Matthias explains.
The children play in groups; they’re not completely mixed; you can still see groups of Middle Eastern kids and groups of German kids. The atmosphere is joyful. Matthias talks untiringly about his next projects, describing practical problems, satisfying results, conflicts in the neighborhood. Finally, he tells me an anecdote: “One time last winter, we managed to put on an event and bring various refugee mothers with their children and also a group of mothers who live in a housing estate over there, people who are very hostile to immigrants. Those are blocks where a lot of members of the Russian-German community live, an ethnic subgroup that holds a special grudge against the Muslims; they can’t stand them at all.” A lot of those mothers, or their husbands, had stood in the front row at the demonstrations against opening the refugee shelters. “But when they met the Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi moms here, they all talked together, and it came out that the floors of the prefabs at the shelter were very cold and the children always had cold feet. And in the end the people from the neighborhood donated a number of pairs of wool socks for the refugee children. When I saw some of these people again, I asked them whether they had changed their ideas at all about the people in the reception center. They said it had nothing to do with changing their ideas. It was about the children.”
Lorenzo Monfregola is a freelance journalist