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A container with the slogan “The middle against the right” has been placed in front of a Tønsberg store in the centre of Berlin. This brand of clothes is ill-famed as Neo-Nazi street gear. A left-wing attack with paint bombs explains the red spots over and next to the window.



What does Berlin have to do with radicalisation and polarisation? It has some of the most ethnically mixed areas in Germany, is not divided by that infamous wall any more and aspires to become one of the prime pluralist cities in Europe. The issue here are far-right extremists, allegedly becoming more active, more professional and more radical, especially in certain stronghold areas. Not despite but because this situation is so different from our other case cities did we want to know whether and how this specific condition plays out materially, both as mirror and mediator.

One of the unique characteristics of the Berlin case is that the ideal future most people envisage is not one of mixing and sharing among the contending groups as, for example, in Belfast. In Berlin, the amicable mingling of, say, Vietnamese immigrants with neo-nazis somehow seems not just unachievable but undesirable. Isn’t the real goal to eradicate the latters’ mindset? Besides, some of the districts with the highest electoral and activist support for far-right extremists are ethnically somewhat, but not massively, mixed. Thus, mixing obviously does not automatically generate mutual understanding and harmony.

Typical for the situation in Berlin is also the multiplicity of societal poles, which is important to bear in mind when we talk about polarisation.

1)    Far-right extremists in different guises: Neo-nazis at different degrees of professionalisation, politicians, supporters and voters of certain parties, silent followers, xenophobic opportunists, disappointed losers of the German reunification, teenagers under peer pressure, rock bands etc.

2)    Another very outspoken group is the Antifa (anti-fashist) movement, which consists predominantly of activists from the (extreme) left of the political spectrum. They, too, have very little means to shape the urban environment and often employ similar strategies as their opponents to leave their mark in the public realm.

3)    The state, mainly the authorities at the Bezirk level (Berlin consists of 12 Bezirke), private developers and housing corporations exert the strongest influence on the shape of the urban environment. Therefore, even the most notorious far-right strongholds areas look rather normal.

4)    Civil society includes all people who are not in favour of far-right ideologies but can range from active opponents (just short of Antifa) to those who care very little as long as they are not personally affected by all the trouble. The former help remove right-wing stickers, demonstrate the presence of alternative opinions (e.g. through small “stumbling stones” in the pavement), or publicly display counter arguments (e.g. the container with anti-nazi arguments in front of a Tønsberg store). The latter might, for example, be legitimately concerned about their shop, especially if it is located in a disreputed area. They do not want to disgruntle any potential customer and hence could not agree on an initiative against violence from the right, but simply against violence in general.

Basically none of these groups – except the state and private developers – has the power for large-scale interventions in the urban environment. And since Berlin is not, for example, segregated into right-wing and immigrant neighbourhoods – another uniqueness of this case – no one needs to erect high walls between them. The signs of polarisation and radicalisation therefore are not as visible or tangible as in other cities and mainly consist of small, makeshift, cheap and spontaneous artefacts  like stickers, posters and graffiti whose effect is mostly based on their symbolic meaning. Their intended effect of intimidating others, declaring an area as racially pure, demarcating and claiming territory can be very real nevertheless.

We focussed on the Bezirk of Lichtenberg and especially on the area around the Weitlingstrasse, because it is particularly ill famed as a far-right hotspot in terms of election results, the number of propaganda offences and registered acts of far-right violence. The dubious reputation of this area known as Weitlingkiez is not a recent phenomenon. Already in the former GDR (“East Germany”) far-right activists chose to settle in this area which culminated in the squatting of a whole house at the south end of Weitlingstrasse by a group of neo-nazis and was one of the main seeds for the current situation.

Some argue that the living conditions in the form of massive residential high-rises are partly to blame for the problem. The housing stock in the Weitlingkiez, however, consists mainly of 3 to 4 storey burgher houses from the late 19th century, most of which have been renovated after the German reunification. The range of artefacts, small and large, with a mirroring and mediating effect, did not differ much between these different types of residential settings.

The German law and its enforcement authorities usually try to crack down on the public display of illegal symbols. This leads to a game of coded messages, which can often only be deciphered by initiated peers. 18, the first and eighth letter of the alphabet, for example, represents Adolf Hitler, 88 stands for Heil Hitler, “C4 for Reds” is a call to kill political enemies with a particular plastic explosive. All of this comes with the massive danger of over-interpretation. One pub with the name 88, for example, has nothing to do with neo-nazis. Or, what does it signify if people display 14 German flags in their backyard? A significant related problem is the voyeurism of the media, which searches and broadcasts the most drastic exemplars of far-right displays without providing nuanced context, thus further ruining the reputation of an area to the detriment of its citizens and retailers.