Citizenship and the Obama Moment in Berlin
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What does it to mean to think about a global future when one looks at the world from the vantage point of Berlin?
When non-Berliners think of Germany, they do not usually think of Berlin. They definitely don’t think of the real living Berlin, the Berlin that includes passionate reggae scenes, electro(nic) music, river beaches, schools with a majority of children whose parents are not originally from Germany, huge universities, major film schools, salsa music, swing, and club scenes in which white German women go to meet black men and vice versa. Even the Holocaust Memorial by Peter Eisenman, completed in 2005, or the Jewish museum, with architecture designed by Daniel Liebeskind, are not a significant part of the global imagination of this “German” city. If they are, it is not widespread.
Berlin is not a global city in the sense of being a financial capital. It is not a fast-paced, high-stakes environment like New York or London. It is not a city that can be reduced to love like Paris, nor is it a city of intense population density like Mumbai. It is not a city one thinks of as being in the process of post-industrial decay like Detroit, nor a city of breathtaking natural beauty like Cape Town. If it is a city of the future, it is not a future like Beijing’s.
In fact, because it is so close to the history of an alternative socialist moment, Berlin seems reticent, resistant, and reluctant to embrace the future of what Americans think of as inevitable. If consumption and travel were at the center of the call for “freedom” that led to the fall of the Berlin wall, there are enough losers of this history in Berlin to compel one to re-examine this version of the future.
Along these lines, many East Germans, particularly those who have stayed in the territory of the former republic, see themselves as descendants of a devalued history and a marginalized present. It is not that most didn’t want the wall to fall, but many have argued that unification should have been slower or even that socialism could have been reformed.
Berlin’s current economic situation, a result partially of unification and partially the Cold War split, means that almost as many people move into the city as move out of it each year. The unemployment rate approached 20 percent as recently as 2005, not unlike much of East Germany. The current mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, has famously called the city “Arm aber Sexy” (poor but sexy). In 2007, when I was in Berlin on Christopher Street Day, I noticed the rainbow flags of gay pride flapping in unison in front of the Red City Hall. Considering the Love Parade, the Carnival of Cultures, the club scenes, and Christopher Street Day, sex, pleasure, and pride seem to be constant themes in this city. The mayor, who is openly gay, memorably remarked about his sexual orientation: “And it’s also good that way.” The city hall is red because of the color of its bricks, not the city’s political orientation, although the governing coalition is red/red, meaning that it is governed by Mayor Wowereit’s Social Democrats and the Left.
When one comes to the city, one immediately realizes that the designation of Berlin as “poor” is relative. Every year, there are gleaming new glass and steel office buildings with signs that seem permanently to read “available for rent.” Furthermore, even though the city has a reputation for being gritty rather than clean and pretty like Hamburg or Munich, if riding the public transportation serves as evidence, one doesn’t need to drive a VW to experience Fahrvergnügen (driving pleasure). Poverty is defined in relation to the rest of Germany, southwest Germany in particular, and not to the rest of the world.
In fact, the New York Times recently suggested one could argue that “Berlin is the most cultured city in Europe.” Being in Berlin, one realizes that this designation has a lot to do with the combination of the relaxed pace of the city as well as its diversity. Someone once told me that Berlin is similar to Los Angeles in that it has multiple centers. When one goes to a new neighborhood, it feels like a completely different place. There are neighborhoods that are simultaneously predominately Turkish/Turkish German and Bohemian. There are neighborhoods with high-rise East German block housing that also have numerous immigrants, particularly those of German descent from the former Soviet Union whom the other Germans living there call Russian. Some of these same neighborhoods also carry with them the real threat of neo-Nazi violence. Then there is Mitte, the city’s center, with major museums and beautiful architecture. There are still many vacant apartments, but, like other European cities, the vacancies are being moved out of the center.
When I came to Berlin in the mid-1990s, there were many sections of East Berlin, including Mitte, that were occupied by squatters, informal cafés, and anarchist graffiti, but these spaces have now been mostly privatized, repainted, and occupied by companies like Starbucks and Esprit. This has also meant that the thriving club scenes have had to readjust. In Berlin, they must be mobile. Berlin-Kreuzberg, the neighborhood with a large Turkish German presence, the home of descendents of the Red Army Faction, and the main site for Berlin’s May Day protest, is now “in” again. When I told a pair of artist friends here about the New York Times lauding Berlin as a cultural mecca, they worried that New Yorkers would start coming here en masse, disrupting Berlin’s equilibrium and driving up rent prices.
As a cultural anthropologist, I don’t know that I am equipped or even want to think of Berlin as a “type,” as a sociological category that one can easily understand in relation to other sociological categories in the world. Here, the category would be “the city.” I can, though, talk about this city as a position from which to see the world, processes of globalization, migration, transnational flows, national sovereignty, citizenship, and noncitizens. That said, I do not necessarily want to make a global case for this city in particular as the vision of the future, but I do want to make a case for seeing the future from the perspective of Berlin.
Perhaps more pessimistically, as I noted recently at a talk honoring the life and work of cultural geographer Allan Pred, the ethnographic vignette that I would present was very much in line with Allan Pred’s notion that “even in Sweden” cultural racisms are becoming the norm. “Of course,” I said, “one doesn’t need to add the ‘even’ in Germany’s case.” But I actually wanted to argue that, using Pred’s adaptation of Marx, “the specter haunting Europe” is the specter haunting Germany. That is, Germany is not taking a so-called special path, but a European path (toward the future) that is very much related to a reconfiguration of the “politics of freedom” after the Berlin wall in which African children, men, and women are dying in sinking boats on the Mediterranean just trying to get in.
For me, Barak Obama’s recent visit to Berlin is a particularly useful moment to think about and to try to explain these relationships—relationships between the future, noncitizenship, cultural production, and Berlin. In analyzing Berlin’s position in relation to the future, one should realize that critique and protest are central to the ways in which Berliners see their city. In West Germany before the wall fell, if young men wanted to avoid the military draft, they could simply become residents of West Berlin. Now, protests with hundreds of thousands of people, if not over one million participants, are a regular occurrence. The Love Parade, for example, a daylong high-volume techno party with floats that thump, was first filed as a demonstration, not as a parade. So it is with Christopher Street Day. In addition, May Day in Kreuzberg has traditionally been highlighted by street fights with the police after dark. In fact, police in riot gear seem to be a regular occurrence in Berlin.
If Obama’s candidacy is one that professes change and a look toward the future, the decision to come to Berlin to make his first major international speech is quite astounding, particularly given Berlin’s global position in the world’s imagining as past and not future, not only in reference to the history of World War II, but in relation to the Cold War as well.
Even though he is now out of the limelight, Donald Rumsfeld’s notion of “old” and “new Europe” also comes to mind. If, according to Rumsfeld, Western Europe is old and Eastern Europe is new, by featuring Berlin over Paris or London (not to mention New Delhi or Shanghai), how is Obama claiming new stakes and a different vision from the perspective of Berlin? How does Berlin fit into the post-Rumsfeld world? Why would Obama choose Berlin as the space in the world from which to imagine the future? Furthermore, what does his choice reveal about this city? What does it mean to think about the future of the world, as well as the contemporary condition, when one looks at it from Berlin?
On July 24, 2008, the day of the event, it is clear that the Berlin press is infatuated with Obama. The Berliner Morgenpost leads with a large picture of John F. Kennedy on its cover and the headline: “What Does Obama Have to Say to Berlin?” The Tagesspiegel has a picture of the victory column with an Obama campaign balloon in front of it. Bild (literally, “picture”), an extremely popular tabloid, tans the complexions of Germany’s most famous politicians; shortens, curls, and darkens their hair; and gives them Obamanized versions of their names, including “Angela Omerkel,” “Barak Steinmeier,” “Horst Oköhler,” and so on. The top headline reads: “Give Us Back the Fun in Politics” and underneath that, illustrated with a large picture of a smiling candidate, “Obama Is Doing It for Us!”
The Berliner Zeitung reports that “Obama is a Berliner for one day,” once again alluding to Kennedy’s famous speech, and it leads with a picture of a man from southern Germany throwing red paint from his car onto the street in front of the place where Obama will give his speech. The Berliner Kurier, another tabloid, calls the man with the red paint, who somehow got through the police roadblock, “The Obama Hater!” This newspaper features a close-up of the perpetrator’s face on the front cover, with an image beneath of Obama holding his forehead, as if he is reacting to the incident. Also on the front cover, the Kurier claims to have 351,000 daily readers. Just inside that cover, the Kurier tells Berliners and others how to get to the “show” (in English) which it says will be simulcast on ARD (Germany´s most watched station), ZDF, Phoenix (a C-SPAN equivalent), and nTV (a station clearly inspired by CNN).
According to the tabloid, Obama will visit the Holocaust Memorial, and 700 police officers have been deployed to protect him. The following day, he is scheduled to go to Paris. As if to draw Germany’s connection closer to the popular politician, the paper also refers to a very distant German (multiply) great-grandfather who went to “Amerika” in 1749. Bild, the most read paper in all of Germany, usually with a conservative edge, has only positive comments about Obama. CNN (the international version) speaks of Obama’s visit to Berlin as reaching out to Europe and repairing the U.S. image.
In earlier work I have argued that the fall of the wall was actually a primary moment in which the lives of noncitizens got immediately worse. Their lives became less hopeful, even as Germany began to move toward Europe and toward a universalization of its legal forms of citizenship. Having seen a number of people of color at the Obama event, particularly African immigrants and black Germans, beyond the official and mainstream lauding, I was interested in what the Obama event meant for people who live in Berlin but who are often seen as foreign. I talked to some of these people to understand their relationship to the event and about the event’s relationship to Berlin.
Freweyni Habtimariam, a woman I have known over the years, came to West Gemany as a child from Eritrea and moved to Berlin as an adult. She studied German and English and is now a teacher of German to “foreigners” as part of a policy that has gained much attention over the years, emblematic of a move or attempt at new policies toward “integration.” She is also in the leadership of the Afrika Rat (African Council). Freweyni, clearly moved by Obama’s visit, recalled, “I was proud of him, as a black person. I was fascinated to see what’s possible in America, something that’s unimaginable in Germany. Second generation . . . first generation [from his father’s perspective], then making it all the way to the presidential election.”
Within this context, I also interviewed Özcan Mutlu, a Turkish German Green Party senator in the city-state of Berlin. I originally met him in 1995 during my first research year, when he was just beginning his political career and leading the Berlin-Kreuzberg chapter of the group ImmiGrünen (Immigrant Greens). In our conversation, he noted:
I’m a second-generation migrant kid. My parents came to Germany as guest workers. And I’m quite sure, if [Obama] wins the election in the U.S., it will affect the debates in Europe. It will open doors for us. For us in Europe, in Germany, in Berlin, because then we can, on the one hand, tell the majority, “Look, Obama is president, and it’s good; he is a good president. Why can’t we become part of the decision-making process?” Or on the other hand, we can talk to our own people and say, “Look, he did it. We can do it as well. We have to work hard. We have to struggle.”
From another perspective, Carl Camurça, a former president of the Berlin chapter of the Initiative of Black Germans, mentioned the T-shirt the national organization of the Initiative of Black Germans would make should Obama win the elections. It would read: “Wir sind President” (We are president).
On the other hand, Berlin-based Turkish German filmmaker and theater director Neco Celik was more skeptical about the universality of the feeling for Obama expressed in part by the 200,000 attendees at Obama’s speech. “Du bist exot. Ich sehe Fremd aus,” he told me. (You are exotic. I look like a stranger.) His statement perfectly dissected the widespread ambivalence about the Turkish presence within Germany and the simultaneous desire for American and even African American culture, while implicitly linking my background (as visibly African American) to Obama’s. Even if exoticism has its limits, it nevertheless connotes a sense of desire, a desire that is complicated for Turkish Germans.
Mutlu, the Green Party politician, also pointed to high rates of unemployment and school dropout and “the transformation from the large heavy industry” in Berlin, in particular, to the service industry. “They [Turks and Turkish Germans] didn’t go this path, and they lost everything . . . [We] have an unemployment rate among the Turks of nearly 50 percent.”
Within this context, Obama’s visit points both to the possibility of multiple identifications and also to the distance of the majority in Berlin and Germany from the local and national Turkish German population. This is not a distance that Obama himself creates, but a distance next to a desire that is a production, in part, of Berlin’s history, not only of American occupation after the end of World War II but also of the African American occupation in particular. Germans still remark about the generosity of African American soldiers who felt somewhat distanced from their white American counterparts, as segregation was still legal in the southern United States and still practiced in the army. Historians such as Heide Fehrenbach have linked this distance both to the experience of more freedom for postwar African American soldiers in Germany compared to the United States, as well as relationships of generosity between German citizens and their African American occupiers. These soldiers, it has been claimed, were more generous to the Germans.
Obama’s speech itself focused on the American airlift to Berlin when West Berlin was blockaded by the Soviet army and American planes brought in provisions. He also spent a lot of time talking about the Marshall Plan. It was clear that these postwar moments of generosity and care were also implicitly being connected to what Obama imagined for Iraq and perhaps Afghanistan. While many Berliners have been critical or silent about the Afghanistan part of Obama’s speech, the Marshall Plan and the airlift as the visions of a future Iraq are versions that Berliners can embrace.
When I spoke with Philippa Ebéné, the director of the Werkstatt der Kulturen (Workshop of Cultures) in Berlin-Neu Kölln, she told me that she too had been excited about Obama’s visit. She talked further about the promise of Berlin in thinking about the future, not a future that continues to be based on the salience of the nation-state as a site of primary identification, but a future based on what she called “transcultural production.” She went on to talk about children and potential artists whose parents were not from Germany but who were also not from the same country, and who were therefore forced to speak to each other and to their children in a third language (i.e., German). What kind of art and, implicitly, what kind of future would this growing population produce?
Over tea and nuts one evening at a café in Kreuzberg with Neco Celik, the lead actor in his most recent play came by and sat down. Remarking on the conversation about so-called immigrants in Germany and immigrant artistic production, he commented on the German situation, suggesting, “Everyone is interested in background.” The extensive government funding of artistic production and promotion is typically structured in terms of art to be funded as part of the high cultural form. (I have been told that Berlin’s art budget is equivalent to the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.) The other funding, at a much lower rate according to Celik and the director of Werkstatt der Kulturen, is for people “with a migration background.” “No one is interested in the foreground,” the lead actor went on. But perhaps, increasingly, transcultural production will be the future, not only of politics, but also of daily imagination. If many Germans and Berliners, in particular, can imagine a future via Obama, then perhaps they will also begin to imagine the future via the transcultural artistic productions and visions of other Berliners, thanks to the skepticism, the relaxed time, and the space of Berlin. In any event, if Berlin is “the most cultured city in Europe,” this will be an important place to look.
Damani Partridge is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and at the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. This fall, he is a Visiting Professor at the Humboldt University’s Institute for European Ethnology in Berlin.