Swabians: rich, stingy southerners forcing homegrown Berliners out of their city? Or persecuted minority?
“As the joke goes, how do Swabians swim?” asks 30-year-old architect and Urberliner Moritz Fuchs with a chuckle. Moving both of his arms in front of him in a semi-circular motion, he delivers the punch line by imitating hoarding piles of money.
In Berlin, the Kreuzberg native elaborates, Schwabe is a loaded term synonymous with more than the geographical region straddling Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. Stereotypes interchangeably accuse and praise Swabians of frugality, quick wit, entrepreneurialism and a diligent work ethic. Here, they’re the primary scapegoat for the transformation of Prenzlauer Berg into a yuppie haven.
The Swabian invasion
The exact number of Swabians in Berlin is unknown, but the estimated total number of Baden-Württemberg residents ranges between a 2013 government figure of 141,000 up to the widely quoted 300,000. After the Turkish community, this would class Swabians as Berlin’s second-largest minority, 57 percent of whom live in Berlin’s central districts.
Fuchs recalls a millionaire Swabian acquaintance whose modest predisposition belied his bulging bank balance. “When you look at him, he looks like a bum,” Fuchs says. “He’d drink the cheapest beers like Sterni, he’d always buy Turkish Pide bread because it was the best value for money whereas everyone else just bought something that tastes nice. He had the shittiest car, and used the cheapest tools but he owns like three flats in Kreuzberg. It’s sick. It’s really, really extreme.” Fuchs isn’t alone: 77 percent of respondents to a Berliner Kurier survey said they thought of Swabians as geizig, stingy.
With average rent increases in Berlin (2.5 percent) now outstripping the national average of 1.6 percent, Fuchs understands Berliners’ frustration with “Schickimicki” southerners. “You hear them say, ‘Oh wow, flats are only €10 per square metre here! Berlin’s so cheap!’ And it’s like, fuck you.”
Over the past two decades, more than 60 percent of former Prenzlauer Berg residents are believed to have moved away as rental prices shot up; up by 27 percent since 2007. Anja Maier’s 2011 book Macchiato Mütter popularised Prenzlauer Berg’s transformation into “Pregnancy Hill”, and the sight of prenatal yoga ads, organic shops and child daycare centres on its cobbled streets has become a red flag to anti-gentrification bulls.
Responding to the perceived taunts of rich newcomers staking out their territory, anti-Schwabe attacks peaked between 2009-2012; multiple cars were torched by left-wing groups like Bewegung für militanten Widerstand (Movement for Militant Resistance), and graffiti reading “Kill Swabians” and the abbreviation TSH (Totaler Schwabenhass, or “total Swabian hate”) marked Prenzlauer Berg.
The debate went political when ex-Bundestag vice president and long-time resident of embattled Kollwitzplatz Wolfgang Thierse quipped in December 2012 that he felt like “an endangered species” in Berlin. The former East German SPD politician bemoaned having to call bread rolls Wecken instead of Schrippen at Prenzlauer Berg bakeries. “I wish they realised they’re in Berlin and not in their small town with Kehrwoche,” he said, referring to the traditional Swabian rotating cleaning schedule. Although he later insisted his comments were purely ironic, Swabian politician Hans Rülke (FDP) declared Thierse persona non grata in Baden-Württemberg’s state parliament: “Whoever finds Swabians in Berlin dislikeable, will not speak before Swabians in Stuttgart.”
Swabians strike back
The battle for the headlines took a decidedly culinary turn in January 2013 when a statue of German expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz on Prenzlauer Berg’s Kollwitzplatz was defaced with Spätzle (the noodles are a Swabian speciality). The culprits? Free Schwabylon, an anonymous pro-Swabian organisation struggling for the rights of their disenfranchised minority.
“It’s just typical of the Berlin minority’s dialectical chauvinism, and about as dumb as the CDU’s suggestion that Turkish families should speak German at home. We’ve struggled for our right to live in Berlin, we built our homes here, we occupy important offices here and bring purchasing power,” explains an anonymous representative of the group.
Their goal is to turn Prenzlauer Berg into the autonomous republic of “Schwabylon”, protected from “aggressive Berliners” by a wall of Maultaschen (ravioli-like pasta squares). Non-Swabians would also have to leave “Schwabylon” due to irreconcilable differences: “Just compare the state budgets of Berlin and Baden-Württemberg and our main difference is already clear. Berliners can’t deal with money, Swabians can.” According to Handelsblatt, Baden-Württemberg (along with Bavaria and Hessen) provided Berlin with €3.16 billion in equalisation payments (by which richer states help finance poorer ones) in 2013.
The campaign to establish this “mini-Tübingen” in Prenzlauer Berg, run on green energy and filled with bicycles and “educated people”, has reportedly attracted the attention of the police, who keep tabs on the group’s online activity. Hence, Free Schwabylon has never divulged details of its members, structure or dynamic. Still, they say that their Spätzle-Aktionen will continue if new Berlin mayor Michael Müller is uncooperative.
Post-reunification hangover? Clash of cultures? “Berliners are definitely ungrateful,” said our Free Schwabylonian. “If by ‘gentrification’ they mean the necessary renovation of housing, then we Swabians are happy to assume responsibility. If what they mean is people no longer having to heat with coal, we’re happy to have ‘gentrified’ Berlin.”
Achim Ruppel – head of the theatre organisation Schwaben in Berlin, director of the play Schwabenhatz and initiator of the 2012 “Schwabiennale” (Berlin’s first “Swabian culture week”) – draws parallels between the attacks on Turkish businesses after the Berlin Wall fell and anti-Schwaben graffiti along Kollwitzstraße. ”Who does such a thing? Are these people who feel eternally disadvantaged, cannot take control of their lives, and therefore have to blame others?”
The Baden-Württemberg native moved to the capital in 1979, and says in 35 years, he’s never encountered prejudice apart from “a few funny innuendos alluding to money and thriftiness” and, of course “our dreadful dialect”.
“It’s a bad thing when native residents are driven out due to price increases,” he says. “This issue requires political solutions and concepts. Since there aren’t any, it stands to reason that people react. They look for a scapegoat; where possible a minority.”
The real villains
Whether or not it’s justified for wealthy, white southwest Germans to paint themselves as a persecuted minority, actions like the one in May 2013, where “Don’t buy from Swabians” was spray-painted outside a shop on Rykestraße (recalling the Nazi call for boycotts on Jewish businesses), don’t help. That same month, members of the group Schwaben ausbürgern (“strip Swabians of their citizenship”) flung currywurst over a bust of philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel in Mitte – born in Stuttgart in 1770, died in Berlin in 1831. Hegel’s influence is responsible for the 42-year division of Berlin, the group wrote online, adding that Berlin is split today between “Swabian invaders and Berliners”.
Indeed, Schwabe has become an all-encompassing label for the annual influx of 161,000 newcomers to Berlin blamed for the rapid changes in communities. According to a 2014 survey of apartment search engines, new residents are prepared to pay more than €9 per square metre net rent, almost double the city’s rent index. But most of them come from Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia, not Swabia.
And these newcomers, no matter who they are, are less to blame than landlords who’ll use any excuse to drive up rents. The proposed Germany-wide rent cap announced in September for early 2015 will limit the maximum markup of newly rented homes to 10 percent of the comparative local rate, but this rule won’t apply to new buildings or to extensively renovated homes – and already inflated rents will remain untouched.
Let’s face it: throwing currywurst won’t solve anything. Swabians are here to stay. And it’s not all that bad – may Berliners remember whom to thank for a good plate of Spätzle.
Originally published in issue #134, January 2015.