Christmas market attack: Berlin is gruff but inclusive, fun yet sturdy; a city for all

'You are crazy, my child. You must go to Berlin,' are the words of 19th century composer Franz von Suppe. 

They are a little like the melas in South Asia — social congregations for high spirits and laughter, eating and drinking, merry-go-rounds and glittering decorations. They have as much connection to religion as a Diwali or Holi mela would. Yet, during Christmas season, Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets) have become a staple go-to for Germans.

Those who gather at these markets, which come up about a month before Christmas, go around munching traditional roasted sweetened almonds, buying stollen white cakes and decorations for Christmas trees, listening to choirs, even dancing in the frost. Dancing isn’t the only way to keep warm; there are barbecues too. It is great fun.

To the killer who drove a heavy long-haul lorry through a crowd at the centre of Berlin, the Weihnachtsmarkt may have represented an unacceptable social norm. But if the attacker wished to target Western imperialism or capitalistic exploitation, he chose the wrong city.

Germans barely think of Berlin as essentially German. In fact, to many, the word Berlin stands for counter-culture. Long before German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the country’s doors to refugees and other migrants last year, parts of Berlin have defied the law to shelter illegal refugees.

One of the most striking posters one can see in Berlin reads, 'kien mensch ist illegal' (no one is illegal). Young Berliners mobilise whenever there is police action to evict refugees who have camped at a public crossing or an unused building.

Many hip 'White' German students try to rent accommodation in precisely those areas where migrants from other parts of the world live in large numbers — embracing the crime rates and lifestyles.

The numerous Indian restaurants are the most popular eateries in Berlin after the Turkish Durum and Doner places, many of them are takeaways. Ironically, the typical 'Indian' restaurant in Berlin is actually a South Asian place with cooks, waiters and owners from various countries.

Berlin’s identity as a world-embracer is not new. Writer John Paul said, "Berlin is rather a part of the world than a city” way back in 1800. Nor is its gruff pointedness a passing fad.

Hegel observed, “Berlin's witticism is worth more than a beautiful countryside!” No wonder, it has been home to some of the greatest scientists, philosophers, musicians and revolutionaries such as Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.

 Christmas market attack: Berlin is gruff but inclusive, fun yet sturdy; a city for all

People place flowers near the crime scene in Berlin on Tuesday. AP

A gruff, easygoing city

To be sure, the attack (if that is what it was) took place at the centre of Berlin, a stone’s throw from the Zoo station, and at the heart of Berlin’s most happening street of malls and upmarket stores. It was by no means the biggest or the best of Berlin’s several Christmas markets. Nor is Berlin famous for its Christmas markets like some other cities. But the attacker would certainly have found a lot of the upmarket crowd, and a large number of visitors to the city.

Germans do flock to it, although Berlin does not pride itself on being the capital of Germany. It takes that for granted, almost as an imposition. In fact, Berliners routinely make fun of the Chancellor’s office as a 'washing machine' — a reference to its architecture. This despite the fact that it has lived on subsidies from the federal government for decades. As a city, Berlin is chronically poor. It supports a lot of infrastructure but there is little industry and the city does not squeeze its tourists.

In fact, it prides itself on being a hip, easygoing, cosmopolitan place where everyone can feel at home — if they are tough enough to get past the gruffness. Anneliese Bödecker, the octogenarian Berlin philanthropist and social worker, expressed it aptly: "The Berliners are unfriendly and inconsiderate, gruff and self-opinionated. Berlin is repulsive, loud, dirty and grey, construction works and blocked streets where you stop and go. But I feel sorry for those people who can not live here!"

Indeed, most Berliners would be mortified if they or their city were described as chic. A tie and suit is out of place on the streets of Berlin. Jeans are the norms. So are bicycles and public transport.

The mall and zoo area where Monday night’s attack took place is just below Berlin’s Monkey Bar, and outside its Irish pub. The Steglitz municipality to the southwest of it, and possibly the Charlottenburg municipality directly to the west, and are about the only parts of Berlin that would pass for upper crust.

Most Berlin youth prefer to stay in the Kreuzberg, Neukolln and Wedding municipality areas further east. The population in these areas, and in Moabit a little to the north, are far more mixed than just about anywhere in Germany. Entire streets are dominated by Arabs. And Turks are commonplace.

The pulsating nightlife of clubs, restaurants and pubs around Ostbahnhof, Kottbusser Tor and Warchauerstrasse, have become must-do magnets for hip young people from round the world. On the other hand, some of those very areas explode with student demonstrations that draw tear gas and thousands of police on May Day every year.

Yes. Berlin is one of the only cities in the world where people still demonstrate for rights. People gather on weekends to demonstrate for causes far and near at places near the landmark Brandenburg Gate or Potsdamer Platz.

Berlin’s counter-culture has been reinforced by guilt over having been the seat of Nazi ambition. It is not only ironic that it was attacked on Monday night. That attack might end up weakening this bastion of cosmopolitan inclusion. Indeed, that might have been the intention of a mind that thrives on hate.

Instead of letting him succeed, let’s adopt the slogan the city came up with in 2008: Be Free, Be Frank. Be Berlin!

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2016 22:29:29 IST