Few cities are as hyped for their cosmopolitanism more than Berlin. Home to a bewildering array of nationalities, it caters to fantasies of a fully globalised space that could be designated capital of a world without borders.
But behind the facade of worldliness is a city that remains very much a part of Germany. From the diverse backgrounds of Berlin’s residence to its typically neoliberal service-only economy, it is just Germany in transition, not Germany as it once was.
Nonetheless, Berlin is everything that the country’s far-right hates about today’s Europe. This is the world that the conniving globalists have wrought, not that of the sovereign nation that would exist if Germany were simply a product of its indigenous citizenry.
Chalk it up to its fate as a militarised city-state formed out of the ashes of the Third Reich during the Cold War, isolated from the rest of the country, if not the world.
The only people who would deign to live here then were losers. Hence its residents’ origins in the Global South, their persistent poverty, and lack of integration with the rest of Germany. Increasingly derided as welfare tourists and jihadists, Berliners are at best voyeurs who, after taking public handouts and assaulting local women, ought to return home, where they best belong.
Never mind that this version of Berlin is what defines the city today. Yes, the seat of the federal government is here, and it is the country’s cultural capital. But without these minorities, the city would collapse and forcing them to leave would amount to genocide.
This is the logic of the new German nationalism, and it’s not restricted to Berlin. This is what would happen if the populists got their way.
A new Germany is undoubtedly being created from the country’s globalisation, one which bears little resemblance to the blonde haired and blue eyed Heimat yearned for by Alternative für Deutschland. It may not produce another Goethe or Mozart again, but repetition is boring and racist. An Afrodeutsche renaissance man (or woman) is simply a matter of time.
Whatever emerges as Germany from this will be of equal value, not just to those who will create it, but for the world, as well. Perhaps that’s what’s so frustrating to the far right and what drives their obsession with migration. Their country increasingly has more in common with the rest of the world, not less. They might end up like these Arabs arriving in their country one day, and flood Norway.
If only today’s Nazis could think through their identity crises like that and figure out why it’s better to be less isolated than alone. Diversity has no bearing on the country’s affluence, or its citizens right to be who they want to be. The fear that it means that opposite, that Germans will somehow lose their wealth and their identity through exposure to Islam, is an anxiety without rational foundation.
If anything, the fantasy bespeaks a reluctance to share, that somehow gets distorted by nationalist narratives into a fear of being overtaken and subsumed by someone else’s skin colour or religion or class. Such concerns are best confined to a hole like Chemnitz, and its paranoid insularity than to the capital of one of the richest and most cosmopolitan countries in the world.
The photographs in this edition of Aperture Priorities speak directly to this pathology. The subjects are mostly foreign, and residents, if not citizens, with scant resources, who live in Souciant’s home neighbourhood, Neukölln, the former American sector during the Cold War, in southeastern Berlin.
Ground zero for the refugee crisis and a frequent site of extremist attacks on migrants and minorities, every trip down the street is an exercise in ethnography. For journalists, photographers or any manner of sociologist or anthropologist, the borough is a 24-hour field study and has been for decades.
You just have to open your eyes, without any preconceptions, and accept Neukölln for what it is: actually existing Germany, not some Sound of Music fairytale that even skinheads can’t relate to.
Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author.