Have I ever mentioned I was in Berlin before it was cool? (To paraphrase James Murphy, I was everywhere before anyone.) Back in the heady days at the end of the 20th century, when I learned how to get around on the S-Bahn, I was so excited to occasionally hear someone speaking English that I would actually go up to them and introduce myself.
Imagine trying that now. These days, Berlin has the opposite problem: At no small number of establishments, it's hard to find people who speak German.
In my beloved Neukölln, I feel sad for the old Bierproleten, those crusty old guys with moustaches who never lack a beer bottle – their Eckkneipen, where one could get a glass of Schultheiss for 90 cents (that's almost two deutschmarks!) are disappearing. They've been converted into chic hipster haunts where a pretentious imported ale sets you back €4. And instead of the thick Berlinerisch, the new patrons speak the accented English of the expat crowd or the lisped Spanish of peninsulares.
This is the background of a horrifying crime.
On September 20 of last year, it was just a normal night at the Del Rex bar on Ringbahnstraße, just south of Neukölln S-Bahn station. Alledgedly, Rolf Z., a local from the neighborhood, was sitting at the bar – which had formerly been his regular hangout, his Stammkneipe – and discontentedly mumbling that the people no longer "Deutsch sprechen". The white-bearded 63-year-old then left – just another night at the front lines of the Gentrification Wars.
That night, 31-year-old Brit Luke Holland was also at Del Rex doing a DJ set. Just before 6am, Holland went outside to use the phone – he called a friend in Britain. Then Rolf Z. returned and shot him in the stomach. Holland died on the way to the hospital.
Was it because he was speaking English? That's what the state prosecutor is claiming at the trial, which is going on right now. The police have lots of evidence against Z, including the murder weapon. But he's not making any statements about his motive.
So is this just a one-off case of a Hobo with a Shotgun? Maybe, maybe not. Four years earlier, another young man – 22-year-old Burak Bektas – was murdered in Neukölln under similar circumstances. An unidentified man appeared in the middle of the night and shot at a group of young men with "migration backgrounds". No motive was established – no suspect was found. But Rolf Z.'s name was mentioned in the police files.
The ongoing investigation of the NSU has shown how the German police are willing to cover up racist murders on a massive scale, for many years. Was Holland murdered for racist reasons? Did Neukölln have its own one-man NSU – a crazy neo-Nazi shooting foreigners? It's a scary thought, especially with right-wing violence exploding across the country.
A verdict is expected in one month. Meanwhile, there will be a demonstration in remembrance of Luke and Burak on April 9 at 2pm at Krankenhaus Neukölln.
One reason I left sunny Texas for the permanent grey of Berlin was that I'm a very abrasive person. Sometimes I feel like insulting strangers on the street. And it's reassuring to know that these strangers don't have guns. So I don't know what to think of this crime right around the corner. I think I'll keep insulting people – but I'll do it in German.