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.
They’re claiming the act as a protest against gentrification.
For every raid on a Berlin squat, we will cause €1 million of criminal damage—that’s the threat made by left-wing extremists in Berlin this winter, after a series of police raids on the city’s “occupied houses,” as squats are known locally.
In the past seven days, the extremists proved true to their claim, starting what could be the most destructive single anti-gentrification action any city in Europe has yet seen. On Saturday, a gang of 40 masked vandals smashed up 28 cars in the area near central Potsdamer Platz, leaving some of them in flames. Attacks continued the following night in the southwestern district of Neukolln, when at least 20 more cars were damaged and shop windows smashed in.
A note claiming responsibility for the attacks appeared this week on Indymedia, from a group calling itself the Klaus Jürgen Rattay Commandos (so named after a West Berlin squatter killed by police in 1981). The letter cited gentrification concerns, which the two neighborhoods were clearly chosen to illustrate. While Potsdamer Platz is a newly redeveloped higher-income district, Neukolln is a working-class area currently undergoing rapid social change.
The attacks have caused widespread anger in the city. But if Berlin’s recent history is anything to go by, this could be just the beginning.
That’s because Germany’s capital has witnessed several widespread epidemics of car burnings in the past. Since 2008, not a year has gone by without at least 215 cars being set alight in Berlin. The worst year was 2011, when 403 cars in total were burned. According to Berlin police, most of these attacks were just products of opportunistic pyromania. They have nonetheless isolated within this wider number a category of burnings that they believe had political motivation. This category reached its peak in 2009, with a toll of 145 attacks. The supposed political motivation behind them: gentrification angst.
As formerly low-income Berlin neighborhoods have attracted wealthier residents, there has been a widespread ripple of fear from many Berliners who worry that, despite rent-calming measures and some subsidized provision for people on low incomes, they will soon be priced out of their homes. This general fear has been tapped into by a small group of vandals, who have acted out their anger by attacking expensive cars parked in gentrifying areas.
When the craze began in 2007 and 2008, Berlin’s police were widely castigated for their perceived inaction. Then-Police Chief Dieter Glitsch became notorious for saying to car owners: “Don’t park your Porsche in [gentrifying] Kreuzberg.”
The truth is that such attacks are extremely hard to prevent. The vandals’ weapon of choice is a disposable tinfoil barbecue set of a sort that many German stores sell for use as summer grills in the park. With their coals coated in fire-lighting fluid, these sets stay lit easily but can sit under a car for at least a few minutes before the vehicle catches alight. Typically working late at night in empty streets, the vandals have ample time to get away before anyone notices the fire.
But while the attacks are difficult to stop, as an effective anti-gentrification measure, they’re also worse than useless. The public at large is generally disgusted by the burnings, which not only destroy property but also put residents and passers-by at risk. In a city where there is still widespread sympathy for peaceable squatters—a term that doesn’t fit this whole group, as some actually have quasi-official status and pay some rent—the attacks only galvanize support for the police and create suspicion of people who most likely have no connection to the vandalism.
If the attacks continue over the year, rents will not fall and neighborhoods will not de-gentrify. But overall Berliners will feel a little less safe.