Marzahn-Hellersdorf in eastern Berlin has become a right-wing stronghold. Why can’t the district get a grip on the problem? A search for clues.
Despite all the campaigns, Marzahn-Hellersdorf never quite got rid of its brown reputation. Photo: dpa
Kastanienboulevard is the name of this place. Boulevard – that sounds like a big city, like strolling in front of noble stores. But the big city is far away here in Hellersdorf: "Conny’s Container" is written in peeling pale red letters on the half-ruined building on the square in the middle of the boulevard. Otherwise, there is a city toilet, a kebab snack bar and the Cafe Auszeit, in front of which three tattooed men sit on plastic chairs.
It is not a place of big words. The phrase one often encounters when asking around among residents is simple: "I just want to have my peace." Sometimes it sounds accusatory, sometimes conciliatory.
Even in the June sun, Kastanienboulevard looks as dreary as the backdrop of a movie about disconnected neighborhoods. The Kastanienboulevard neighborhood ranked 416th in the last social structure atlas, out of a total of 419 areas surveyed. But quiet, that’s what it is.
This calm is upheld – even when it is actually disturbed. Like the other day, when there must have been a loud clang at night. Once, twice, again and again, the heavy square stone flies against the thick glass door, which shatters into countless pieces. It is even quieter here at night than during the day. The clang must have been heard all along the boulevard as unknown persons try to smash the door to the LaLoka refugee cafe. Nevertheless, the police did not receive any calls that night, and none of the neighbors noticed anything the next day.
"Three years ago, there would have been an outcry about such an incident," says Luisa Seydel, "but today we know that we don’t even have to try to make a big scandal out of it, it doesn’t work anymore anyway." The 24-year-old stands in front of the door, which is held together in a makeshift fashion.
The reports of right-wing extremist attacks do not cease. Unlike in other districts, people here just can’t seem to get a handle on the problem.
Seydel helped set up LaLoka – Internet cafe, advice center, meeting place – together with the Hellersdorf hilft initiative, which she founded with some friends in 2013, and students from nearby Alice Salomon University. "Since the beginning of our work, neo-Nazis have tried to intimidate us. This is a permanent threat that we have been living with for three years now," says Seydel. Next to her is Sajid from Pakistan, who prefers not to give his last name. He lived for a long time in the accommodation on Carola-Neher-Strasse just around the corner, and recently he was finally able to move into an apartment. He points to the shattered door: "Something like that is scary because they try to break into the rooms where we feel safe."
Initial spark: Brown Tuesday
Neo-Nazis existed in Marzahn-Hellersdorf even in the 1990s; the district was never entirely free of a brown image. But for the past three years, it has become the focus of right-wing extremist activity in Berlin. Attacks on refugee homes, right-wing demonstrations, crimes with a right-wing extremist background: no matter which statistics you look at, Marzahn-Hellersdorf always occupies a sad place, sometimes with numbers twice as high as all other districts combined.
Residents: About 260,000 people live in Marzahn-Hellersdorf. 13.5 percent of residents have a migration background, the second lowest figure of all the districts. In terms of the proportion of foreigners, Marzahn-Hellersdorf ranks second to last with 5.9 percent.
Social structure: In the ranking of the Social Structure Atlas, the district occupies ninth place out of twelve. The unemployment rate in 2015 was 9.1 percent, which puts the district in a middle position in a Berlin comparison.
Refugee housing: Eight of the first 26 modular shelters for refugees (MUFs) are to be built here. So far, there are eight emergency shelters in the district. (mgu)
Although the neo-Nazis in Marzahn-Hellersdorf have not been able to reach people outside their scene in a relevant quantity for about a year. According to the latest report of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, however, the neo-Nazis themselves are becoming more radicalized, and reports of right-wing extremist attacks continue to come in. Unlike in other districts, the problem hardly seems to be under control here.
To understand why this is the case, it is necessary to look back to the day three years ago that went down in Hellersdorf’s local history as "Brown Tuesday": an information event about the new refugee shelter on Carola-Neher-Strasse, which was about to open at the time. A hot day in July, the event is moved outside because of the large crowd, around 800 people come. The mood is testy, the district representatives are visibly overwhelmed. Organized neo-Nazis pose as blameless residents and can spread their agitation on the microphone. Afterwards, there is a spontaneous demonstration through the neighborhood.
It is the initial spark for the "Burgerinitiative Marzahn/Hellersdorf" (Marzahn/Hellersdorf Citizens’ Initiative), which organizes protests against refugees, first in Hellersdorf and from 2014 also in Marzahn. At its peak in the fall of 2014, it succeeds in getting up to 1,000 people on the streets.
Strategy of trivialization
At the beginning, many underestimated the leading role of organized neo-Nazis in the supposed "citizens’ initiative" and played down the protests as "residents’ concerns. The Senate Department of the Interior also holds to such an assessment for a long time: In the fall of 2014, the Secretary of the Interior, Bernd Kromer, still speaks of neo-Nazis in Marzahn trying to "misuse residents’ protests for their goals" – as if the protests had arisen independently of neo-Nazis.
This difficulty in recognizing that residents can also be neo-Nazis runs through the way right-wing extremism is dealt with here. "It is always pretended that this is about neo-Nazis who arrive from outside, who actually have nothing to do with the district," says Seydel.
For her, this is incomprehensible: "Everyone knows that those who live here feel at home here." Indeed: The doorbell signs of the masterminds of the "Citizens’ Initiative" – Patrick Kruger, deputy state chairman of the party Die Rechte, Rene U., who is considered the political foster father of the NPD state chairman Sebastian Schmidtke, Marcel R., who was already active in the network "National Resistance Berlin", or Daniela F., who helped build up the "Kameradschaft Mahlsdorf" in the 1990s – can all be found in the district.
Early July 2013: In Hellersdorf, flyers appear on which "Burgerinitiative Marzahn/Hellersdorf" makes sentiment against the establishment of an emergency shelter on Carola-Neher Strabe.
July 9, 2013: An information event of the district on the new emergency shelter is taken over by right-wing extremists, who later still march through the neighborhood with a spontaneous demonstration.
July 2013: The initiative "Hellersdorf hilft" (Hellersdorf helps) is founded. Many members were students of the Max-Reinhardt-Gymnasium.
August 19, 2013: The first refugees move into the new emergency shelter. There is both a welcome rally by left-wing activists and an extreme right-wing demonstration.
Late summer/fall 2013: The "Marzahn/Hellersdorf Citizens’ Initiative" holds almost weekly demonstrations and rallies against the new shelter and the acceptance of refugees. Again and again there are attacks on refugees and leftists.
September 22, 2013: In the federal election, the NPD receives more than 10 percent of the vote in the streets around the new home.
October 26, 2013: For the first time, counter-demonstrators succeed in blocking a march by the "Citizens’ Initiative."
New Year’s Eve 2013/2014: At the emergency shelter as well as at the alternative youth center "La Casa", attempts are made to destroy the doors with fireworks.
Autumn 2014: After it had been quiet for a while around the right-wing extremist group, which has since been renamed "Citizens’ Movement," it now shifts its activities to Marzahn. Here, one of Berlin’s first container accommodations is to be built on Blumberger Damm, and there are demonstrations against it every Monday.
November 22, 2014: Around 2500 people demonstrate in Marzahn against the procession of almost 1000 refugee opponents.
February 2, 2015: The last "Monday demonstration" against refugees takes place; most recently, only around 50 people had taken part in the marches.
July 10, 2015: At the Open Day in the new container accommodation, neo-Nazis hold a rally on the opposite side of the street.
January 4, 2016: A heavily pregnant asylum seeker is attacked and thrown to the ground by several men near the Blumberger Damm container shelter. The perpetrators manage to escape. It is just one case among many, the enumeration of which would go beyond the scope of this chronicle.
January 2016: The story of the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by southerners, which later turns out to be a lie, is misused by neo-Nazis in the district for their propaganda.
February 2016: A "Marzahn-Hellersdorf vigilante group" is founded on Facebook.
April 2, 2016: Around 200 neo-Nazis demonstrate under the slogan "Security instead of fear", counter-demonstrators are attacked at the edge of the demonstration.
June 13, 2016: The NPD holds a first "Monday demonstration" against the construction of a new shelter on Wittenberger Strasse in Marzahn.
June 14, 2016: The windows of the LaLoka meeting cafe are smashed by unknown persons at night, and there are numerous right-wing extremist graffiti around the scene of the crime.
In Marzahn-Hellersdorf, as in other districts, there is a separate office for the fight against right-wing extremism. "Polis – district coordination office for democracy development at the place of diversity" is its name here. "Places of Diversity" is a federal initiative that provided funds for local programs to promote cultural diversity until 2014, and the list includes many Berlin districts.
In the district office of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, this seems to be understood as an award: The commitment to refugees is "proof that the district ultimately bears its 2009 award from the federal government as a "place of diversity" – even and especially under sometimes challenging circumstances – completely rightly," reads the concluding sentence of the "Annual Report on the Development of Democracy 2013." "Sometimes challenging circumstances" – a rather euphemistic paraphrase for "brown Tuesday" and its consequences, which are celebrated in the Nazi scene to this day as the "Hellersdorf model".
One would be happy to talk about this with Thomas Bryant, who held the district coordination office until the end of 2015 and is now the district’s integration officer. But Bryant turns down all inquiries: Sometimes he is too busy, sometimes not responsible.
Antifa is ignored
So one has to rely on what people who are active against the right in Berlin say behind closed doors: that Bryant had long underestimated the mixture of organized neo-Nazis who felt safe here and widespread everyday racism. They also say that the district can’t get a grip on the problem because, unlike other districts, it doesn’t involve local antifascist groups, even though they often have extensive knowledge of the local Nazi scene. Unlike in Schoneweide, for example, the Nazi infrastructure here is not so obvious. "There are no Nazi pubs here, but there are Nazis in almost every pub," is how one Antifa activist puts it.
What is not problematized cannot be solved: That may be part of the explanation, even if Bryant’s successor, Raiko Hannemann, enjoys a better reputation.
A supplementary statement is not aimed at the neo-Nazis themselves, but at civil society’s resistance. For this is more difficult to organize in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, this district that was once so popular and then quickly fell into disrepute after reunification, than elsewhere. A local politician, who doesn’t want to be named with this quote, puts it this way: "People here have never learned what a functioning civil society is, what democratic co-determination means." There it is again, the motive: I just want to have my peace. But some people’s peace makes others’ impossible: "I won’t be intimidated, but I don’t walk around here alone at night – it’s just too dangerous," says Sajid.
Committed left alone
Of course, there are also counterexamples. The Alliance for Democracy and Tolerance, founded in the fall of 2014 under the patronage of district mayor Stefan Komob (SPD), was able to mobilize around 200 people for its own counter-rally at the beginning of April, when the last major Nazi march took place in the district – a success for Marzahn-Hellersdorf, where around 90 percent of participants at anti-Nazi protests usually travel from the city center. And Hellersdorf hilft has long been a model association anyway, the LaLoka an excellent example of cooperation between refugee helpers and refugees themselves, who now run the place almost on their own.
The only problem is that it is precisely these committed people who repeatedly feel left alone – not by local politics as a whole, but by those responsible in the district office and the police. Five live cartridges were found by members of Hellersdorf helps in front of LaLoka a year ago – one day after neo-Nazi Rene U. threatened the initiative at a rally by pretending to point a pistol at them. According to police, U. is in possession of a weapons license. Except for an unsuccessful apartment search a few days later, the initiative never heard from investigators again. "There are so many signs that these people are behind other attacks on refugees and committed people, and yet they have gone unpunished for years – that’s not a good feeling," Seydel says.
At least the police now always investigate right-wing attacks against their initiative, as they did with the smashed door, which was not the case in the past. And the district, as can be seen in the comparison of the Polis reports, now seems to take the problem more seriously. This, in turn, may also be due to the neo-Nazis themselves: While their activities have long focused on refugee shelters and aid workers, they are now also targeting other actors. A few days before the attack on LaLoka, other windows had been smashed in the district: those of the SPD office on Blumberger Damm. Simply having peace and quiet is no longer so easy here.