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Scene in Berlin

Ben Knight, BerlinApril 10, 2014

Berlin has always been lazy and it's always resented lazy people coming over and lounging around. But now that old disdain has become muddled with an even older one: the disdain for the benefit-scrounging immigrant.

People lounging in a park in Berlin, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It might look pretty cool from afar, but when you live in Berlin it kind of feels like a city of losers.

They're secret losers, who came here to hide their loserness behind a flimsy wall of creativity. But you see through this "Will this do?" sensibility soon enough, and when you do, in that very instant you also notice that you're one of them. It's like the Stepford Wives or the end of Animal Farm or something.

It's hard to tell if the people were losers before they came (maybe that's why they came?), or if Berlin made them into losers, but one way or another that's what's happened. That's not to say the people here aren't creative and talented - they're definitely that (well, creative anyway).

But they don't get things done. They're not diligent. In a recent review of the major new book "Berlin: Imagine a City," written by Canadian Rory MacLean, the New Statesman's reviewer pointed out that Berlin's serious writers always have to find refuge elsewhere (like the Baltic Coast or the Bavarian mountains) to actually get some work done.

Scene in Berlin logo, Copyright: DW

That's because Berlin inveigles its way inside you and does things to prevent you turning your scrap of artistic talent into a saleable quality: 1) It makes you very aware that most scraps of artistic talent aren't sellable qualities in the first place, 2) It makes you have too much fun, and most importantly, 3) The fun is too affordable.

Walter Benjamin wrote somewhere about the luxury of Berlin's wide streets. It was a city, he implied, that made everyone feel like a monarch. No wonder the city incubates laziness.

The New York Times published a blog post in 2012 by an Australian rock musician whose experience of the city was typical. In it, a spoiled young buffoon declared that Berlin had sapped his creative marrow because, even though he had made the effort to get on a plane and spend six months in a delirium of cheap speed, the city had declined to turn him into the next David Bowie. Even if he was not a loser before, the city had coaxed the latent loserness out of him. The article rankled with many expat Berliners (he better not come back any time soon) - but it is true that Berlin somehow never really puts you under much pressure.

Draft-dodger city

This point is not new. Berlin has attracted layabouts for a long time. This is partly because of the city's peculiar history, for West Berlin residents were exempt from military service throughout the lifespan of the Wall (Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper once estimated that some 50,000 young men moved to the city for this reason). In those heady days, the eastern end of Kreuzberg - now a hive of MDMA-fuelled nightclubs and swarms of young tourists - was literally a dead end, a carless junkie's paradise fenced in on three sides by the communists. And even then, West Berliners hated that influx of draft-dodging stoners.

This disdain is re-manifesting itself today with a simultaneous animosity towards two ill-defined but related hate-figures: the "immigrant" and the "hipster." With the eurozone crisis driving more young unemployed people to Germany, especially from southern Europe, we Berliners have been getting our prejudices muddled. The old hipsterphobia has become conflated with the even older anti-immigrant phobia: the primeval fear of what Germans call Sozialtourismus, or welfare tourism.

Sculptures in a park in Berlin, Copyright: "Fotolia/Laiotz
Some typical Berlin art - as usual, the models couldn't even be bothered to stand upImage: Fotolia/Laiotz

Not only are hipsters coming to Berlin and gentrifying everything, making Berlin's colorful neighborhoods too trendy and expensive for normal folk, now middle-class Spaniards and Greeks are coming over and claiming benefits too. Just as Mediterranean economies are living on German bailouts, Mediterranean hipsters are living on the German taxpayer.

Foolish vision

Except it's a lie: For one thing, few economic migrants bother with the economic sinkhole that is Berlin with its 11.7-percent unemployment rate. For another thing, Germany's welfare system is not nearly as generous as the media tells you - the Hartz IV benefit is enough to scratch out a living on, but you have to constantly be applying for work to get it.

And thirdly, in 2011 Chancellor Angela Merkel's government did its best to disable the European Convention on Social and Medical Assistance, which Germany signed in 1953 and which guaranteed that all EU citizens be treated equally by the welfare system. The policy has worked and the stats show that the German welfare state is still mainly a German-only zone: the new European immigrants, the Romanians, Bulgarians, Spanish, Greeks, hardly claim anything from the social welfare system. Barely 10 percent of Spanish people in Berlin claim benefits, well below the 20 percent for all of Berlin.

German unemployment agency, Copyright: AP
Berlin's unemployment rate is currently 11.7 percentImage: AP

So maybe, just maybe, outside my expat bubble Berlin isn't as lazy as I seem to think. It's hard to tell though, because the city feeds off its own hype. In 2003, Mayor Klaus Wowereit delivered a much-quoted phrase that would soon become the city's brand. What the "poor, but sexy" line meant economically was that Berlin would become powered by its creative energy. Thousands of brilliant young creatives would somehow imbibe the city's kookiness and sell brilliant outside-the-box ideas to the world's corporations. It hasn't panned out that way, partly because that was a completely idiotic vision that only a very giddy politician could dream up.

And partly because, in the end, Berlin always gets you.