by Ares Kalandides
A funny story – and photo – hit the news some days ago: Käthe Kollwitz’s statue in Berlin covered with “Spätzle” – a particular type of noodles, a local speciality from the Swabia area in Germany. There was something very heartbreaking about poor soiled Käthe, the sculptress who gave her name to the small park in Prenzlauer Berg, as she sat there patiently bearing her lost dignity. But there was something much more threatening in the whole story that needs explanation.
Only a month ago, the German SPD (social-democrat) politician Wolfgang Thierse complained about the outsiders who flooded his neighbourhood and brought with them their odd ways and language, refusing to integrate. No, he was not talking about Turkish immigrants (the usual xenophobic rhetoric), but about Swabians – i.e Germans from the Stuttgart area. I am not sure exactly when the story about Swabians invading Prenzlauer Berg started, but it must have been somewhere around 2005, at the same time as gentrification became one of the favourite words of the media when reporting on Berlin. We’ve since seen demonstrations against Swabians, posters urging them to go away – even graffiti “Kill Swabians”. Thus, Spätzle against Käthe becomes a kind of symbolic war between Swabian invaders and native Berliners.
Prenzlauer Berg, and in particular the neighbourhood around Kollwitzplatz, had long been the media darling when wanting to demonstrate the rapid – some would say dramatic – changes in the city, though recently it had been replaced by horror stories about the district of Neukölln. That is until Thierse made Prenzlauer Berg fashionable again overnight. Following the privatisation and property restitution vogue after 1990 a huge sum of public and private investment in urban renewal turned the place into one of the most expensive areas in Berlin, driving out many of the former inhabitants. Most of them could simply not afford the new rents that have now reached absurdly high levels. Also, some claim to have left because they did not feel at home any longer with all the newcomers. According to the newest saga, the newcomers are Swabians, depicted as hard-working, order-loving, savings-cherishing miserly petit bourgeois. In reality what people are saying is that the rich have come to replace the poor.
I find this language shift astonishing, not to say dangerous: instead of talking about class (I don’t care if in the Marxian or Weberian tradition) we talk about origin. It’s not the rich versus the poor, it’s the Swabians against the Berliners. This goes part and parcel with a general de-politicization of public discourse that avoids by all means the most poignant terms of political economy while on the other hand stretching to the unbearable the most fashionable (and vague) neologisms: gentrification, creative class etc. Yet what we see in Prenzlauer Berg, and indeed in Berlin and beyond, is a class war: The poor are simply being displaced by an affluent middle class. The fact that parts of an impoverished middle class now join the urban poor conceals the fact that the gap between winners and losers is growing, while redistribution instruments are being dismantled.
The “noodles for Käthe” was after all just a symbolic action answering to those who’ve often aired their anger against ‘the others’ invading their space. By diverting the focus from a “rich vs. poor” to an “insiders vs. outsiders” those latter ones got themselves trapped in an exclusive, localistic and reactionary position, discrediting their (probably correct) concerns. Class is not a dirty word. And it is probably still a very useful one to explain what is going on around us today.
Update 22th Jan: I rewrote the first sentence of the beginning of the last paragraph, because in its first version it was not clear.