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Berlin and Beyond: Crime and punishment

Tamsin Walker
May 18, 2018

This month's news that Germany's crime rate has hit a 25-year low was met with claims of inaccuracy from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Danger, Tamsin Walker writes, is often a matter of perception.

Tamsin Walker with police car in background
Image: DW/T. Walker

In all my years in Berlin, the worst crime I've experienced firsthand is having my bicycle stolen. Three times. Though, to be fair, I don't always lock it. And, in any case, on two occasions, it was later returned. Whether that says more about my bike, the thieves or the city, I don't know. But I do know that there are days when local papers, digital billboards and email inboxes seem to be conspiring to give the sense that this is a place where danger lurks as much in the shallows as in the shadows.

From warnings of phone-thieving gangs and child-snatching strangers to glaring headlines about stabbings, muggings, beatings, burglaries and murder, it's all there. But is it as bad as it's made out to be? That depends on the nature of the crime, who you ask, and, most significantly, what you want to believe.

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If statistics are your tipple, the capital, like the country, is not looking as bleak as it did this time last year. In 2017, it recorded an overall 8.5 percent fall in criminal activity, which translates to less murder, manslaughter, pickpocketing, burglary, car and bicycle theft.

Cem Özdemir, Katrin Göring-Eckardt cycling with other people
Good news for bike owners...Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

But in and among that good news, the city witnessed a 16 percent increase in grievous bodily harm on streets and squares - and a 7 percent rise in physical assault on public transport.

Down in the underground

Some stories, such as the one about a Bulgarian man who kicked a woman down the stairs of the underground in 2016, or the group of young refugees who set light to a homeless man sleeping in a station, capture the city's imagination, but most remain well below the broader public radar.

Last week I got a message from a friend of mine. Let's call him Ahmed. A Bahraini human rights activist who was granted political asylum here in Germany four years ago, he'd been on the train with his visiting elderly parents when his mother's bag accidentally bumped a male passenger's leg. Despite her apology, the man shouted at and kicked her. When my friend intervened, the aggressor punched him in the face.

I asked him if he feels unsafe in Berlin, but he said only when he's with his wife or his mother, both of whom wear a hijab.

Anti-AfD march in Berlin
Tension on the doorstepImage: B. Voss

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I put the same question to myself. Does this feel like a safe place to me? For the most part, yes, though if I'm really honest, probably less so than it once did. I still don't always lock my bike, but there's a different level of tension these days. Whether that's the result of violence, a cause of it, or both, would be hard to measure. But it's there. On the streets, squares and public transport. And even on my doorstep.

When I came home from a weekend away this month, it was to a line of police vans stretching the length of my street. They'd been brought in to prevent Antifa protesters from disrupting an AfD May Day party in a park next to my building. It was the first Alternative for Germany gathering so close to home, and it rattled me. Forget the shallows and the shadows, this felt like danger in broad daylight.

In Berlin and Beyond, British-born Tamsin Walker takes a closer look at some of the quirks and perks of life in Germany, which has been her home for almost 20 years. She tweets as @TamsinkateW

Trailer: Berlin and Beyond