Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city is finally enforcing its ban on fake "soldiers" and other colorful characters in its city center. And it's a shame.
Twenty-five years after the Wall fell, soldiers will soon finally be banned from patrolling Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. Fake soldiers, that is.
To cash in on visitors' fascination with Berlin's period of division, street performers in thrift store-bought uniforms have been stomping around in Pariser Platz for years now, posing in tourist photos for tips. Dressed in both German Democratic Republic and U.S. Army uniforms (though the western side of the Brandenburg gate was actually in the British-occupied sector), they unfurl flags and will even provide an old East German visa stamp for a small fee.
These "soldiers" are not alone at the Gate of course. They're typically joined by living statues of anyone from Yoda to bears (the symbol of Berlin), making the square feel somewhat less like the solemn heart of a great city and somewhat more like the smoking area at a Cosplay convention.
Not anymore. The city has decided that this daily parade is sending out the wrong message to the world. With the Reichstag, the Chancellor's office and most of the German government just around the corner, the street performers have been deemed just a little too trashy, or at least undignified. As a representative of Visit Berlin put it: "we don’t need either Darth Vader or Mickey Mouse next to the Brandenburg Gate." Now the Berlin Ordnungsamt (the "Office of Order") is officially on their case, shooing performers away with threats of fines.
The reluctance of the Berlin powers-that-be to have central Berlin turned into some sort of EuroDisney Berlin Wall Experience is understandable. This is no carnival: these street performers can earn up to 250 Euros a day, and while the crackdown is new, their commercial activities are against city bylaws in place since the 1990s. Furthermore the area around the gate is under some pressure. Right now there is a bit of a battle brewing over who will get to use the parkland avenue behind the gate. On June 21, the area is double booked both for Berlin's pride parade and for a celebratory screening of a Germany-Ghana World Cup Match, which could make for an interesting combination.
But busy or not, personally I'm sorry to see the street performers go. They were one of the few humanizing aspects of a reconstructed part of Berlin that still feels arid and ersatz. Beyond the dour grandeur of the gate itself, the uptight new buildings around Pariser Platz have not yet been mellowed by use. At least the street performers made the place feel a little more lived in. As cities across Europe get more and more concerned with micromanaging daily activities in their core – Madrid’s mayor has even tried to ban city center protests – Berlin seems to be forgetting something. Allowing a tourist charade to take place in full view of parliament doesn't have to be seen as an insult. It can also be a tribute to that institution's humility.
Top image courtesy of Flickr user Karen Mardahl.