World cities and citizens of the world

Posted on 28. January 2013

by Juliane Sarnes

juliane-sarnes-2012-2013-modifiedXenophobia in the Microcosm of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg – A comment on the „Swabian Invasion”

Yesterday, the Vice President of the Bundestag procured me with a really awkward moment. Living in the UK, I had not expected to be confronted with curious questions about the “Swabian Invasion of Berlin.” I left Germany a couple of years ago, following the classical pattern of going abroad for higher education and staying there for love. Whenever I mention my hometown in London people react with enthusiasm. Berlin is perceived as cool and interesting, an upcoming world city. But the anti-Swabian movement in the very trendy Prenzlauer Berg district fits in none of these categories!

Who are the Swabians and what are they invading?

In late 2012, Wolfgang Thierse fuelled the lingering conflict between “Original Berliners” and the newcomers from the southwest of Bavaria (Swabia). In two interviews with the daily Berliner Morgenpost and the weekly Spiegel he expressed his regret about the gentrification of his neighbourhood – in rather undiplomatic terms. Swabians, he stated, flocked into the city because Berlin was hip. But, once arrived, they set about to turn it into a haven of narrow-minded petty bourgeoisie such as Swabia. Especially the Swabian influence on the Berlin dialect annoyed him. Just imagine! In some bakery shops the Swabian vocabulary (Wecken) for “breakfast roll” can be heard now. Newcomers should adopt to local customs and call their bread-rolls “Schrippen!” Unfortunately, this is not only about using the “correct” terminology for pastries. The phenomenon of “Swabophobia”, mundane as it might appear, already manifests in death threats sprayed on exterior walls and burning prams. That’s not proper for a world city!

How to explain this to a Briton who cannot tell the difference between a German and another German? Especially if you are a product of the Tripartite (School)System, educated to cherish diversity and pluralism. I would love to have a chat with the Honorary President of the European Movement Germany – about European values! How can one call for a more integrated Europe if a few Swabians in the backyard cause such a stir? How shall we overcome much larger cultural differences if we cannot even overcome regionalism in the form of German Kleinstaaterei? THAT is narrow-minded, Herr Thierse!

What is typical Berlinese?

I love Berlin, too. But not only because of some specifically-named pastry. I love Berlin because it keeps reinventing itself. Berlin is cool because it is refreshingly daring. Berlin is interesting because this klecksographic construct of a city never strives to be something, but is always growing into something. Without continuous external influences, this process would be unthinkable. Let’s consider one of many examples: In the 17th century thousands of Calvinist Huguenots migrated to Berlin in search of religious freedom. How much poorer would the Berlin dialect be today without all the (berlinised) French expressions? How much of the French esprit is part of the proverbial Berlinese nonchalance? Nevertheless, “Original Berliners” back then were just as displeased with the changes as Herr Thierse is today. First they discriminated against them, calling them derogatory names like “Bohnenfresser” (beaners), and then they took to smashing their windows. Should Swabian Berliners, as an ethnic minority, appeal for asylum before it is too late?

Original or new Berliners? Swabians were there first!

Personally, I think the whole debate about autochthones and Berliners-by-choice is nothing short of embarrassing. But, since we are already debating, why not take a closer look at the matter? In 1736 the scholar Tobias Seiler writes in the “History of Bernau” (a small-town situated about 10km northeast of Berlin): “As we are examining the geography of old times, we behold that the oldest inhabitants of the Margraviate of Brandenburg… are indisputably the suevi.”– Okay. So what? “Howbeit, a sueve is a Swabian, the suevi did not originate in Swabia…“ But in the region around BERLIN. Thus, until „the fifthseculum after the birth of Christ“ (until the Migration Period) Swabians did not only rule over the district of Prenzlauer Berg but the entire area! According to Seiler, the Spree, the river that flows through Berlin, “to this hour carrieth evidence of aforementioned suevi in its Latin name.” Berlin was then known as “Colloniam ad Suevum” or sometimes “Sprevum” (Cologne upon Spree).

World cities and citizens of the world

In this light, who are the Original Berliners? Is the “Swabian Invasion” nothing but the remigration of autochthon economic refugees? I am not a historian and Seiler may be wrong. But I really think we should take off the magnifying spectacles now and consider the big picture! After all, there has always and everywhere been someone before someone else – settling, migrating, hanging about. Especially in Europe. Especially in Germany, its many neighbouring countries predestinating it for migrational through traffic. Above all, a world city needs citizens of the world. And this parochial debate demonstrates clearly that some Berliners, autochthon or not, are unfortunately far from being just that!