Friday, 2 November 2012

7: Super Safe City - Who is going to stab me?

If you come from a city where murders are featured regularly in your local newspaper with gruesome detail, you’ll find Berlin quiet and remarkably safe. That is not to say that there aren’t murders: there are, and brutal. Only recently a man locked his child in a room, hacked up his wife and then threw her body in pieces from his terrace onto a busy street in broad daylight.

But such crimes are rare and make front cover news for weeks.

Crime just hasn’t taken off in Berlin. When I arrived, I asked myself the same question I ask myself when I arrive anywhere - Who is going to stab me? 

The first thing I do when I arrive in any new city and look at the map is swiftly locate the drive-by zone or murder-mile. For Berlin, this is somewhere in the northeast, but it is a tame and cohabitable ghetto compared to its international counterparts. There’s a distinct lack of urban rudeboyness. Why is the city so safe?

This is hard to answer. In the 1970s, Germans who didn’t want to do military service could move to West Berlin to be exempt. The German military considered that Berliners had seen enough war for a generation and many pacifists settled west of the wall. The result is that even with the high levels of poverty, Berlin’s residents just don’t have the DNA for car jacking and street shootings.

Hamburg is doing great, but Berlin, for all its talk of aggro, just hasn’t got an edge in the same way London or Paris does. The bikers can be a scary lot and the occasional crew of neo-Nazis or Turkish youth can bring a more streetwise bowl out of the most secure. Even AggroBerlin, Berlin’s indigenous gangster rap, does a good job of setting the tone but the streets, full of flower motifs and loved-up graffiti, ultimately  ensures it falls on deaf ears.  

Germans just don’t really do crime, or at least not the ones I know. When I interned for a German newspaper, temporarily aspiring to become a journalist, one of my main duties was to monitor police press releases. Over three months, I don’t remember more than a handful of murders. But I learned that Germans commit odd crimes overall.

Around Christmas 2011 for example there was a punch poisoner disguised as Santa Claus roaming around Berlin’s Christmas markets offering strangers a toast with his giftschnaps, or mulled wine spiced with the date-rape pill. He nailed a dozen unsuspecting takers, mainly women, telling them that he’d just become a father and felt like celebrating. Nobody was however severely hurt.

Soon after, the North Korean ambassador was arrested for fishing without a permit on the banks of the River Spree but was cleared after proving he had diplomatic immunity. Other than a man walking into a bank with a gun and demanding to borrow €3, few other crimes are worth mentioning here. The crime I counted the most was video store robberies: there were at least three of these a day. Then of course there was Yvonne the runaway cow, a legend among contemporary German outlaws, who made headlines when she escaped from her farm and half of Germany’s media for days. 

One man's right to fish: His Excellency Si Hong Ri takes time out from the stress of denying mass starvation. 

 In early 2012, dogs started dying in parks in Friedrichshain  and Kreuzberg. Theories began to run wild about the culprit's identity in the local media, with one neighbourhood paper describing the offender as a “danger to both dogs and mankind.”

The dog poisoner, probably aware that Berlin has more dogs than any other Western city, had placed all canine owners on alert: let it off the leash and I'll cull your canine with poisoned bait. Six dogs down and no one knows who the ‘evil goodie man’ is. 

But crimes against humans in Germany happen to refugees or migrants at the hands of the police or far-right extremists. Dozens of Africans have lost their lives in German police cells in the last 20 years, an asylum centre has been burnt down and racist attacks are on the rise. The old east, once the bastion of socialism, is now sadly the cradle of German nationalism. 

Unless you are a refugee locked away somewhere, you will never hear about these. They happen behind closed doors.

If you are white, you’ll be safe in Berlin.  Some areas have higher crime rates than others, but few have a pervading sense of menace or impending danger. Muggings do occur around Alexanderplatz and the centre, but violent assaults are rarer than, in say, London or Paris. Wedding and Marzahn can be rough but not Camberwell or Bronx rough.

If you are assaulted, it’ll probably be by a load of bare-foot square-pattern headscarf-toting hippies armed with a dubious understanding of post-structuralism and hyperactive Facebook accounts. Germans are so legal that fare dodging on the tube makes you feel like a gangster, jay-walking draws sniggers and pissing on a tree will force passers by into a citizen's arrest.

There are however a number of crimes you will have to commit to truly be part of the city’s underground energy. You will need to squat private property, if not permanently then at least as part of some artist or events collective. You will occupy vacant grassland for guerrilla gardening. You will paste posters beside signs that read ‘No advertising bills.’ You will write slogans that say ‘All graffiti is noble’. You will shout far more than you normally would. You will abide religiously by the A-Z of Kreuzberg.

You will smoke marijuana and consume occasional harder drugs when appropriate. And finally, you will throw Molotov cocktails at the May 1 riots and sleep on public buildings at Occupy protests.


  1. Just wanted to say I've spent the better part of an hour reading your blog and for the first time I feel like I have an idea about what it's like to live in Berlin. My partner and I are thinking about living there for a year but have been feeling rather ambivalent about it. I'm now slightly leaning towards univalent. I'd love to read a more fleshed out account of the different areas to live in.



    1. Hi Katherine - thanks for reading my blog for over an hour. That's definitely a record. Might this help (re: different areas)?

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