Skinheads used to be a common site on Karl-Marx-Straße. Every so often you’d see them strolling down the street in their green flight jackets and white laced combat boots throwing menacing looks at passersby.
The last time I can remember hearing about them in my neighbourhood was five years ago, when, in Brussels for work, my wife called me to tell me she’d been stopped by one, walking their pit bull on Richardstraße. The skin asked to see her passport, in English.
“He’s been patrolling the area lately, sometimes with a hot skinhead girl in tow,” Jennifer said. “It’s like they’re trying to reclaim Neukölln from the foreigners,” she said, in reference to herself, an American Jewess, and our then-largely Turkish neighbours.
The reproach was discomfiting, not just because of the assumption it made, but the fact that the skin knew to speak to her in English. Though an unofficial language of the city, already veterans of the local bureaucracy, Jennifer knew the default remained to ask such questions in German first, English later, if they could speak it at all.
Did he know something about her already? Not ones to indulge conspiracy theory, we were still unnerved by the presumption. Right after we had first moved to Berlin, in April 2010, and had registered our presence at the local Rathaus (city government office), in Friedrichshain, someone had written “Juden Raus” (Jews Out) with a sharpie on our front door, in bold black letters
The coincidence was extremely unsettling. So much so that we gave up renting the flat, just off of the trendy and then extremely punk Boxhagenerplatz, not long thereafter. Though we had an excuse – Jennifer had co-founded a tech startup in Stuttgart she had to commute to – it was a relief to give notice immediately afterwards.
Though not without their difficult moments, the last few years have been something of a reprieve for foreigners like us. The 2015 refugee crisis, though framed negatively now by the German press, suppressed any sense that we were actually minorities in Berlin, unwanted by the local populace.
The arrival of nearly 1.5 million persons, primarily of Middle Eastern background in 2015 injected a healthy sense of strength in numbers in immigrant families like ours. So overwhelming was the influx of Syrians and Palestinians to our neighbourhood in particular, the number of people that arrived made it feel like a different country altogether.
That is not to say that we were uncomfortable with the idea of living in Germany, with Germans. We arrived in Berlin from Milan nearly a decade ago, without any sense of what it was like to live in a migrant neighbourhood. We prepared to move by spending two weeks watching Fassbinder ’s one and only television series, Berlin Alexanderplatz, not al-Jazeera English.
Little did we know that its Weimar-era setting, charting the rise of the Nazis through the character of a down and out German thug, would have as much retro appeal as it does now, given the meteoric rise of the fascist Alternative für Deutschland party, since we arrived in 2010.
The AfD would not be founded for another three years. Initially launched as a eurosceptic party, its leadership would eventually become radicalised by the refugee crisis and adopt a far-right nationalist platform in the mould of Austria’s Hitler-loving Freedom Party (FPÖ) by 2016. According to pollsters, Alternative für Deutschland is now the second-most popular party in the country.
In retrospect, relying on our typically American, college tutored approach to all things culturally German, over time we became more self-conscious of our provinciality about our adopted home country, as political events continued to undermine it. Particularly as Jews, with the Nazis such an important part of our identity, as we both have parents who had fought in World War II.
Raised to be wary when it comes to all things German – except when it comes to purchasing cars – to this day, we both find it difficult to get family members to visit us here. Berlin is cool. They get it, and they love German culture – particularly German Jewish culture. But not enough to actually visit and see how contradictory minority life is here in Neukölln to the fear we all grew up with.
Walking home today on Karl-Marx-Straße, from the bank, of all the stereotyped Jewish places, I finally found myself giving in to the ambivalence of our families. Two Nazi skins were walking in front of me, to my right. I followed them for a few metres before they stopped in front of a hip-hop clothing store, full of typically African-American street couture,
“Schwarze kleidung!” (Nigger clothing) one of them loudly exclaimed to the other, as though they wanted to be overheard.
Not being a proficient German speaker, I tried to suspend judgement, even though as a Jew, I understood the ironic use of schwarz (black) as a pejorative from Yiddish slang. But, as I grew closer, and could hear the man repeat himself, I caught a glimpse of the tattoo on the left side of his neck. It said SS in bold letters, using the exact same font as that of the Nazis.
Hitler may be a long way from power. Seventy-three years to be precise. But, for some, the near century that has passed is, as co-chief of the AfD Alexander Gauland would put it, a “speck of bird shit” in reference to the Third Reich. That speck remains as significant as ever, and one which I increasingly fear I never took seriously enough in moving to Germany.
Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.