How often Philipp K. had to hear these two sentences he no longer knows. “Welcome to the Corona hotline of the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Health Department. Unfortunately, all lines are busy at the moment – or you call outside of our office hours. ”At the end of September the management consultant tried for a whole week to reach the authorities. Vain.
He had been on vacation in Tenerife with his girlfriend, the two of them wanted to report as returning travelers from a risk area. What she managed to do with a phone call in the Lichtenberg district turned into an odyssey for him. Things became threatening when his doctor announced the result of his self-organized test: positive. The health department would be in touch, said the doctor. Nothing happened for days.
Desperate attempts to reach the health department
Philipp K. desperately contacted the responsible city councilor for health. After all: after he had taken on the matter, an employee of the health department reported. He was “competent and empathetic”, remembers K. And that the employee complained about too much work for too few people.
The Bundeswehr supports all health departments in Berlin, except in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. There, the Green District Mayor Monika Herrmann is blocking it. Ideology wins over pragmatism.
All of this could be dismissed as a provincial farce, especially since political failure is a well-practiced discipline in the capital. But in times of a global pandemic, such antics can, in the worst case, cost your life.
It’s not just the immediate pandemic response that is working poorly. In a city-state whose economy is largely based on tourism, the unnecessary tampering of entrepreneurs and restaurateurs is fatal. Berlin also has a security problem that it apparently never gets rid of – and that has nothing to do with the fight against corona. Last week the evacuation of an occupied house in the east of the city was only possible with police support from other federal states. The residents do not want to accept that, the owner has hired private security guards. There is always a threat of new conflicts.
The story of the Failed State Berlin has been told many times. She looks trite. The only annoying thing is: it’s true.
Müller’s authority is being undermined
The main problem in Berlin is that there are many politicians who shy away from responsibility. The governing mayor Michael Müller (SPD) is trying to swear the residents of the city to a winter with stronger restrictions. But Müller, who will step down as ruler in a year, has long been a “lame duck”, and his authority is often undermined.
Sure, Berlin isn’t the only big city where the pandemic could get out of hand. There are also high numbers of infections in Frankfurt, Bremen and Cologne. And yet Berlin is an exception: in no other city is there such a gap between individual districts. While Neukölln is approaching a value of 200 infected people per 100,000 inhabitants, the neighboring Treptow-Köpenick is still a long way from the critical 50 value. The twelve districts, all of which are large cities in their own right, react differently. A shambles.
Michael Müller will often sit next to the Chancellor over the next few weeks, more precisely to her right. Like last Wednesday. The federal state of Berlin took over the chairmanship of the Prime Minister’s Conference at the beginning of October. In the future, Müller and the Chancellor will inform the public about new resolutions and measures.
He can learn a lot from her, after all, Merkel has to coordinate 16 federal states. After all, Müller has to do with twelve district mayors. How nerve-wracking this is for him could be seen on Tuesday a week ago when Müller and his senators announced a curfew for Berlin. “We all have something to do with each other now,” he said, referring to the whole country, but also his own coalition and the unruly district mayors.
One rule, no controls
Müller looked combative when he announced the new measures for Berlin. However, the governing mayor realized late that it was he who had to set the direction. When a mask requirement was introduced on public transport at the end of April, there was initially no one to check it. A fine for mask refusers followed weeks later.
And then there are the illegal parties. The Lichtenberg district councilor Kevin Hönicke doesn’t understand why they still exist. “Everyone knows which bars and parks have illegal parties in. They have to be stopped, ”says the SPD politician. Hönicke is angry about the development in the city, also angry with the red-red-green state government. “After the Corona demos, too many politicians thought that cracking down on cracks could no longer be conveyed.” The more Hönicke gets into a rage, the more he thinks about Berlin. “This is now taking revenge.”
Today’s Berlin has been around for exactly 100 years. Since then, the two-tier administration has also existed. “The state level may determine the political guidelines, the districts carry out”, says the historian Andreas Ludwig from the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam. “In fact, many tasks have always been unclearly distributed.” That is why responsibility is shifted back and forth time and again. Bettina Jarasch, the Berlin Greens’ top candidate for the 2021 parliamentary elections, recently even called for a veto right for the districts. Ungovernability would then be in the constitution.
Berlin, that means 96 districts, twelve districts, from the bourgeois southwest and multi-million dollar residential areas to the anarchist Kreuzberg and bitterly poor residential silos on the outskirts.
Müller could not get through
As of today, the Berlin Senate could declare a pandemic, which would give the Governing Mayor extensive rights of intervention. So far, Müller has not been able to bring himself to do this. This policy of hesitation is no longer going well, says City Councilor Hönicke, a party friend of Müller. “We finally have to understand that we need a policy for the whole city – and not differently according to districts.” Hönicke believes it is necessary for the Senate Administration to tackle the pandemic. “It takes courage and politicians who want to take responsibility,” says Hönicke. “Instead, discussions often last for hours and urgently needed resolutions are delayed.”
The restaurateurs, for example, are the ones who suffer. A curfew has been in effect in Berlin for a week – the first since 1949. So far, those in power have been able to rely on the restaurant scene to be friendly to them. Millions of tourists, a limitless club and party culture and regulatory agencies that weren’t too strict about it were good conditions for the location. Now the bars have to close at 11 p.m. every evening.
“We have to turn our heads to make sure that no one in the city has enforced the corona rules,” says Jörn Peter Brinkmann. The 40-year-old bought the “Permanent Representation” three years ago in a prime Berlin-Mitte location, a few meters from the Reichstag and Friedrichstrasse train station. Brinkmann is not a troublemaker. So far, he has carried the corona measures without a murmur. He also makes sure that the guests observe the rules of distance even if they are drunk. Now he fears that he will be driven to the brink of ruin. Or beyond.
Black sheep get away
The official figures prove Brinkmann right. Until mid-August, the Mitte district did not impose a single euro fine on a pub or restaurant. “We have the problem that only five percent of the fines that have been imposed have been enforced by the regulatory agencies so far,” Müller recently complained. Consequences: none.
Thomas Lengfelder, head of the Berlin Hotel and Restaurant Association (Dehoga), wanted a ruler who “hits the table”. At the end of September Lengfelder took part in a “gastro summit”. While the Senate wanted to allow gas patio heaters in the winter in the interests of restaurateurs, the Green District Mayors from Mitte and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg blocked this.
The latter is the district in which the eco-party is not only particularly strong, but also particularly fundamentalist. Town hall chief Monika Herrmann said no and left. With this uncompromising manner, she is now even turning the Greens against her. “Before everyone goes bankrupt, they should put up patio heaters in God’s name,” said Anton Hofreiter, parliamentary group leader in the Bundestag, recently. He advises not to be “more papal than the Pope”. He bounced off the green Congregation for the Faith with its seat in the Kreuzberg town hall.
The Berlin police would not have made it alone
The symbol of this religious community can be found in Friedrichshain. Last Friday it said “Zecke” on Rigaer Strasse, corner of Liebigstrasse. The 30-year-old with a blue rain jacket does not want to reveal her real name. “Zecke” hits a pot with a wooden spoon to express her displeasure. She came with about 50 like-minded people. “All of Berlin hates the police!” They roar while the police dissolve the “anarcha-queer-feminist” house project Liebig 34 and clear the house. About 1500 police officers are on duty, moved from the federal territory. The Berlin police would not have made it alone.
The building with its colorful façade was actually a perfect fit in the colorful city district. However, there was no longer a legal basis for the residential project, the lease had expired in 2018 and the owner had obtained an eviction notice. Massive crimes have been committed from within the house in recent years. Passers-by, police officers, journalists and rescue workers were attacked, cars set on fire and neighbors intimidated.
The justification in the scene was the increasing gentrification of the district, rising rents and the gradual displacement of alternative forms of living. The district has been watching for years. Even more: The green district mayor Monika Herrmann and her responsible city councilor and party friend Florian Schmidt protect the squatters to this day.
Whether virus or autonomous – those responsible are overwhelmed
Now the house has been cleared, but the problem remains, believes Tom Schreiber, who sits in the Berlin House of Representatives for the SPD. “The left-wing autonomists want to occupy the house again,” he says. The owner is responsible for property protection. Videos are already circulating on the Internet of private security guards and leftists attacking each other in front of Liebigstrasse 34 at night. “The police have to be nearby if there is any violence or crime,” says Schreiber. “We need a long-term security concept.” And again it is evident, whether virus or autonomous – those responsible are overwhelmed.
A red-red-green coalition has ruled the capital since 2016. Schreiber believes that only such a left alliance could have defused a major social conflict like the one in Friedrichshain. But it is precisely this coalition that shied away from it – just as it did when it came to resolute crackdown on the pandemic. “You’re afraid of making yourself unpopular,” says Schreiber. “But politics must solve problems and not postpone them.”