In the past year, Arab and Turkish shop owners, activists and refugee helpers in Berlin’s most diverse neighbourhood have been the targets of increasing intimidation, threats and violence from neo-Nazis. Now, the victims are organising and fighting back.
Most of us know Neukölln as a multikulti melting pot of Turks, Arabs and international hipsters. What many don’t realise is that the neighbourhood has a well-entrenched right-wing scene that dates back to pre-Wall times. And over the last year or so, it’s been more active and aggressive than ever before. At first, the main focus was in Rudow, but since last autumn, the neo-Nazis have moved further north within the district borders and started to target local Turkish and Arabic shops.
“ I’ve been living in Berlin for the past 35 years; I’ve owned my little Späti here in Neukölln for 17. I always thought I was safe here… until I put a ‘Refugees welcome’ sticker in my shop window,” starts 57-year-old Baris, the owner of a small convenience store on Karl-Marx-Straße. “At first, I got a couple notes in my mailbox saying, ‘Terrorist, get out!’ I didn’t take them seriously. But then last October they sprayed my windows with swastikas. And in May this year they smashed them with cobblestones and left a message suggesting there was more to come.” Born in Giresun in northeast Turkey, Baris came to Berlin with his wife almost three decades ago. After a series of construction jobs, he opened the friendly shop where he sells drinks, crisps, chocolate, tobacco, and anything else his customers might want. Today, he’s worried. “I have a family, a granddaughter, what am I supposed to do? Do I have to leave now?” He is not the only one in the neighbourhood fearing for his business and the safety of his family. In the past year, the number of right-extremist attacks has risen, shop windows have been broken, threats sprayed, cars burned and people harassed.
In 2017 alone, 35 out of 45 cases of serious right-wing violence in Berlin took place in Neukölln, according to Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus Berlin (MBR). This organisation offers consultations and legal support to victims, in addition to monitoring right-wing groups such as the NPD, AfD and NW (Nationaler Widerstand, or National Resistance). “We believe the attackers are all part of the same small neo-Nazi group,” says spokesman Matthias Müller. “The operations were all very similar. The way of threatening people, the swastika-spraying, the arson. We’ve observed such actions in the past – like when two cars were set on fire in Britz in 2011 near the office of the SPD youth organisation Falken. But nothing like what’s happening now.”
According to Müller, what’s new is not just the geographical targets but also the people targeted, and the heightened violence. “They’re aiming at civilians – not just organisation or politicians, like they used to. The stones they throw at private homes and shop windows are also bigger.” Müller is quick to clarify that the MBR is in no position to identify the attackers or their exact origins. Their mission is to monitor and assist. They’re no detectives.
What they do know is that Neukölln’s neo-Nazis thrive online. Prior to the attacks from
last November, a group of Neukölln rightwing extremists ran a Facebook page that encouraged their followers to “act” and listed the addresses of refugee accommodations, alternative liberal projects, democratic parties and Antifa meeting points in the neighbourhood. The page, linked to the NPD and NW, was eventually taken down after it published a Berlin-wide map of Jewish institutions. But the attacks have not stopped.
Since October, according to police reports, 21 residential properties have been targeted, and more vehicles have been set on fire than in previous years. Among those to have their cars torched were Heinz Ostermann, a Rudow bookstore owner who was listed on Facebook amongst “Neukölln’s anti-racist and anti-right-extremist” targets; the SPD councillor and Neuköllner Falken leader Mirjam Blumenthal; Detlef Fendt, an activist with IG Metall, Germany’s largest union known for its anti-right-wing-extremism positions; and a family that ran an initiative for integrating refugees. Arson attacks are on the list, like when beloved leftist café K-fetisch in Wildenbruchstraße almost burned down late last year. Fortunately, neighbours put the fire out in time and helped the café restart afterwards.
Müller underlines the importance of solidarity from local residents and friends: “After Ostermann’s car burned down, people collected €5000 for him to buy another one! And in the case of K-fetisch, many people went and bought an extra slice of cake or another coffee to help them get back on their feet. In case of private persons it is more difficult, of course, but I would suggest to just pass by their house, check on them, show empathy. That’s what’s most important to the victims: to know they are not alone.”
Businesses and organisations are one thing, but how do the extremists track down individual citizens? According to Müller, it’s easy. “Many activists make their addresses and phone numbers public in the phone book or on social media.” That’s probably how they got to Elizabeth (name changed). The 28-year-old, now a full-time social worker with a refugee organisation in Neukölln, used to volunteer at the sports hall in the Tempelhof refugee shelter. Last year, she set up a Facebook group to help organise her fellow volunteers. “The group was public, so it didn’t take long for the trolls to arrive. They started posting about how Islam will oppress women and Christianity and how we were just encouraging that, and so on. Then I made the group private, but they still managed to get in with fake profiles. Soon, some of us started getting personal threats.”
At first, the threats came in the form of Facebook messages, then via private email and phone calls. ‘A man called me up and said, ‘We’ll kill you if the Islamists don’t do it first.’
At first these came in the form of Facebook messages, then via private email and phone calls. “A man called me up and said, ‘We’ll kill you if the Islamists don’t do it first.’” Eventually, one night in February, someone rang Elizabeth’s doorbell. When she answered over her building’s intercom, a voice told her that she was being watched… “The next morning, I found a swastika next to my name on the doorbell. It’s happened twice since then. I have no car to be lit on fire, but I’m scared. I don’t like to walk alone anymore, especially not at night. And I think this is exactly why they do it – to create fear and uncertainty in all of us.”
The young social worker turned to MBR for support, and took part in an event organised for victims to exchange experiences and strategies. “It gave me strength,” Elizabeth says. She reported the harassment and threats to the police, but they told her there’s not much they can do for now.
“The problem is that the police don’t share any information,” says Müller. “They’re not allowed to talk about exactly what they are doing, so we can’t judge whether they’re doing their job right or not.” In January, the Berlin police set up a special task force specifically to investigate right-wing crimes in Neukölln, Ermittlungsgruppe Rechtsextremistische Straftaten (EG RESIN). “They’re supposed to be there to catch attackers, but they haven’t caught anyone yet…” Müller laments.
Feeling forgotten and fed up with a lack of results, some of the victims have started to organise. Baris has teamed up with fellow shop owners from the neighbourhood; nearly every night after their shops close, they walk the streets with pepper sprays and small bats. “We are looking out for these Nazi guys!” says Baris. They make for an unlikely vigilante bunch, more like a group of Turkish friends on an evening stroll: a small, bold man with a big dyed-black moustache; a smiley Turk in his forties with an electric cigarette in his mouth; a chubby guy, his fiery wife and their son and daughter. “We won’t hurt them,” Baris continues. “We’ll just catch them and call the police.” All say they don’t trust the authorities and would rather take the matter into their own hands.
“They claim there are undercover policemen – so where are they, then?” asks the only woman in the group. The man with the e-cigarette chimes in: “I had my shop window broken twice in less than a year! Once with a pavement stone, and once with a bottle filled with paint that destroyed my fl oor, too.” He runs a café/club on the border of Britz which hosts regular neighbourhood meetings for those who want to live in peaceful, multicultural Neukölln. “I don’t know what they are after, but we’ve been here for longer than they’ve lived, never hurt anyone, and we are not going anywhere! This is our home.”