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Fearing the Foreign on Europe’s Streets

After last weekend’s local elections in Berlin, my more optimistic friends celebrate what they consider to be the victory of the left, while the pessimists (or realists, depending on who you ask) bemoan the ascent of the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) who received 14.2% of the votes. At a quick glance, the election results paint a picture of a city divided into rich and poor peripheries, established urban cores, and a gentrified center. Yet Berlin is not an archipelago and thinking about its individual neighborhoods as islands is intellectually lazy. Not only does marking Berlin’s eastern neighborhoods as strongholds of nationalists further stigmatize them, it also overlooks the growing popularity of the AfD across the entire city (and the country, for that matter), and that includes its more affluent corners. As this interactive map of the election results demonstrates, the picture is much more nuanced than it may first appear. Studying it in greater detail is essential in apprehending the scale and complexity of the growing popularity of racist, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-refugee rhetoric and practices — a development not limited to selected Berlin neighborhoods or German regions, but detectable across Europe and beyond.

Originally from Poland, I have been living in Berlin on and off for over a decade now and, for the past six years, I have been raising a child here. I exclusively speak Polish with my son, both at home and in public (like most of the Polish migrant mothers I have interviewed for my research conducted within the TRANSFORmIG project at Humboldt University). We live in a fairly well-off, western neighborhood where over 40% of residents have a so-called “migration background” (Migrationshintergrund, meaning both migrants and children or grandchildren of migrants). On my way to school or to the subway, at grocery stores and ice-cream parlors, as well as at my favorite local bar, I hear many different languages besides German: Turkish, Polish, English, Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese — you name it.

Yet, just a few weeks ago, a stranger approached us on my street, openly reprimanding me in German for speaking Polish to my son. “Does he even speak German?” the man demanded to know. Although I responded that it was none of his business with as much restraint as I could muster, he continued: “After all, we’re in Berlin!” “Exactly,” I snapped back.

My Berlin remains a place of many languages, ethnicities, and nationalities; I do not feel threatened, but empowered by the city’s diversity. That someone would question our right to speak whichever language my son and I choose, on our street, felt invasive and threatening, a disquieting wake-up call.

Not long after this unpleasant confrontation, I found out that speaking Polish in public can get you killed in post-Brexit Britain. Already in the months leading up to the EU referendum, Eastern European migrants were repeatedly named and shamed by the Leave campaign, which was dominated by an anti-immigrant rhetoric of “waves” and “swarms” threatening to take over Great Britain. In the Brexit aftermath, many migrants report experiencing a mixture of anxiety, fear, and shock. People stopped feeling comfortable speaking their native languages in public, and fear increasingly not only for their future in Britain, but also for their lives.

As Poles get attacked abroad for speaking Polish, another Pole was recently beaten up in Warsaw for speaking German. Jerzy Kochanowski, a historian at the University of Warsaw, was on a tram, chatting with a colleague from Jena, Germany, when he was told by a couple of male passengers to stop speaking German because, after all, they were in Poland. When the professor did not budge, explaining that his companion did not know any Polish, he was beaten up, the perpetrators escaping at the next stop. Shockingly, the tram driver refused to get involved or even to call the police, and no one else on the tram intervened — some Polish commentators dared to attribute this passivity to the fact that most of the passengers were women, implying that civic courage is determined by gender norms. It was not until the case made it to the media — accompanied by a photo of the professor’s bloodied t-shirt — that the public became outraged, and solidarity declarations and anti-xenophobia protests followed.

Xenoglossophobia, the fear or hate of foreign languages — is not an exclusively right-wing phenomenon. As Berlin’s gentrification and touristification reach unprecedented heights, much of the left-wing anti-gentrification and anti-touristification rhetoric is more likely to be directed at international newcomers identified as gentrifiers, rather than at the local political mechanisms and global economic structures that enable gentrification in the first place. Judging by the literal writing on the wall, the sound of English is particularly identified as a hostile takeover of urban space. A typical piece of graffiti in Kreuzberg, for instance, encourages people to go to New York if they want to speak English; another popular sign proclaims: Berlin hates you. So much for the German Willkommenskultur.

What is missing here is a serious debate on why so many English-speakers come to Berlin (and not exclusively from English-speaking countries either, but also from Israel, Italy, or Spain) and why they end up gentrifying entire neighborhoods. As Rosa Luxemburg persuasively argued a century ago, we will never be able to overcome the problems caused by the workings of capitalism if we continue to consider them only locally and not for what they are, which is part of a global, interconnected capitalist system.

Rosa Luxemburg, of course, was murdered for expressing such opinions. Several years after her brutal assassination, the anarchist Emma Goldman, disillusioned with the Soviet revolution, came to work in Berlin. In her autobiography, Living My Life, she discusses an encounter she had on a subway car. Two male passengers loudly blamed “the verdammte Juden as idle vampires and the cause of the ruin of the Fatherland.” When Goldman reproached them for “talking nonsense,” they threatened to “do to her what they did to Rosa Luxemburg.”

Goldman does not mention whether any of her fellow passengers spoke up, but, knowing the course of German history, we have few reasons to assume anyone did.

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Agata Lisiak

  • Daniel Matysiak

    this crap “Berlin hates you” is done by one “self-angry” person, who cannot speak english at all. This creep is actually living in the house where you took the pictures..in generall germans are afraid to loose something. they’ve lost anyway, this they like to forget. Dont take it personal, idiots are spread worldwide.


    • CMuir

      Language is inextricable from identity. Identity is inextricable from politics. Herein lies the problem. Reasons for negative reactions to different languages run the gamut from your point Daniel to Agata’s point. I lived in Basel, Switzerland (2005-2009) where dialect is Primary and the dialect changes every 20 kilometers down the road. What motivated my local butcher to demand I speak his dialect rather than my adequate High German was different from the motivation of the Emergency Room admittance worker who coldly replied, “Nein” after I politely asked in High German if he would kindly find one of his colleagues who could speak English with me since medical terms were not a part of my “conversational High German.” Some of the Germans I know living in Switzerland talked about Germans being tired of the American occupation. Swiss Germans would insult Americans and the USA and then afterward smile and say, “Don’t take it personally, we hate everyone.” This is nothing new and the pendulum always swings with the current political times. The essay gets lost when it moves from Xenoglossophobia (which is really the same as xenophobia) to why are English speakers gentrifying Berlin.

      • CMuir

        I could have easily taken offense by the local butcher’s demand. In fact, my first thought was — gee, give me some credit for speaking High German not my native English. But, I decided instead to let him be my teacher. I sensed his deep pride in his dialect. Every visit afterward, I would try to add a new word in the dialect. We became friends. As to the Emergency Room admittance worker — there was nothing but pure hate in his eyes.

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