For weeks now, Germany has had the impression that Cologne is a city in crisis. The authorities have been under pressure since the assaults on New Year's Eve. Will the citizens let these concerns spoil their festivities?
You can see and hear them from miles away: bees, witches and Snow White. A crazy mix of costumes in the center of Cologne. All around the Gürzenich, one of the city's best-known function halls, this morning it's very obvious that Cologne is gearing up for the climax of the "fifth season."
More than 1 million visitors are expected for the Rose Monday parade here on February 8, 2016. Today, though, one thing is particularly striking. There's not a single man in costume to be seen anywhere.
Could it be that we're already seeing the consequences of Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker's demand for men and women to stay "at arm's length"? A female pirate explains: "It's the girls' session today, which means lots of crazy women celebrating carnival together." The pirate, 22-year-old Lisa, says it's all much more fun without men anyway. "You don't have to behave so well," she laughs.
The women standing around us in the queue nod in agreement. Then they're already pushing their way into the venue. The "Gürzenich Girls' Session" is a tradition in Cologne. In half an hour it'll kick off with rhyming carnival speeches, local Kölsch beer, and singing. One thing's obvious, at any rate: There's not a single person here who's going to miss the "lords of creation" today.
Carnival's economic contribution
The manager of Kölner's, the pub around the corner, feels like the proverbial rooster in the henhouse. Quite a few of the party girls have already popped in for a Kölsch. Henning Schulz is happy. "When I know there's a session on, I make a point of opening in the morning as well," says the industrious publican. He and his girlfriend have been running the pub for six years now. "The women in particular notice, and they like to come back every year. I think it's great. I gain new customers who wouldn't normally go to the pub." His approach is paying off: Business is booming, as it always does at this time of year.
Henning Schulz is not the only one who treats himself to a well-earned holiday afterwards. For quite a while now the Cologne Carnival has been much more than just a traditional folkloric event. The "fifth season" brings the city treasury a revenue of almost 490 million euros a year. The city receives around five million euros in trade taxes just during the few weeks that are the height of Carnival.
In 2015 the Rhineland Carnival was put on the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. For many people in Cologne, Carnival is the – cultural – high point of the year. Like the cathedral and the River Rhine, it's part of what defines the city. So it seems even more important that all goes well this year, too. The city's leaders have made clear that ensuring the safe running of this big event will be a test for the authorities.
Authorities on standby
Wolfgang Baldes is the chief commissioner of the Cologne police, but it seems that his real vocation is being "a proper Cologne lad."
His strong sense of his local roots led the 49-year-old commissioner to take on the honorary role of spokesman for the Cologne Carnival Association. He finds he's losing sleep over the atmosphere in "his" city. "Quite simply, we've never had a situation like this in Cologne before," he says in consternation.
The violent attacks on women on New Year's Eve have had huge repercussions on the planning of Carnival, Baldes said. "Everything's different this year. The police have been allocated far more officers; we've stepped up security measures massively."
The city's new security plans show just how seriously the authorities are taking the situation. In addition to huge lighting units at potential trouble spots, there will also be a "security point" in the center of town, where female police officers and psychologists will be on hand to help any victims of violent crime.
In Kölner's, Henning Schulz is unmoved by the supposed atmosphere of crisis. "I've heard of some hotels where you can still get a room," he comments. "You wouldn't have been able to before." On the one hand, he's sorry for his colleagues in the gastronomy sector – but, he says, "On the other hand, to be honest, I think it could also be because of the high prices. During Carnival they put up the room rates by three or four times. Perhaps for some people it just becomes too much."
The women outside the Gürzenich also had no intention of letting the general hysteria ruin their party mood. Lisa, the pirate, spoke for the whole crowd of women, who are all of different ages and from different towns but agree on one thing: "We're not going to let news like that scare us off and spoil the party atmosphere," she said firmly. Then, as she turned to go, she added: "But of course we're never alone; we always go around in a group."