Volume 12 Number 2
Mother to Berlin's Minorities
01 April 1999

Ten years after the fall of the Wall, Michael Smith visits Berlin and meets the woman charged with bringing down the barriers between the city's multi-racial communities:

Landing in Berlin last November, 10 years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I discovered a vibrant new city in construction. Potsdamer Platz, the commercial heart, is a forest of cranes, putting up showcase offices and shopping malls such as the Sony Centre and 'Daimler-Benz city'. Berlin is said to be the largest building site in Europe.

Only short fragments of the Wall itself remain and the street that was once divided between East and West at Checkpoint Charlie is now full of elegant shops. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum, dedicated to non-violent resistance, is a poignant reminder of the sacrifices and daring escapes of the Cold War.

The Reichstag building, impressively restored with a new glass dome, becomes the seat of government again when it reopens on 23 May, to elect a new German president that day. The date marks the 50th anniversary of the Federal Republic and Parliament's exile in Bonn. The building, gutted by fire in 1933, long stood as a metaphor of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the end of parliamentary democracy.

Berlin, once the embodiment of the Cold War, is now at the heart of a new Europe moving fast towards economic and even political integration. Europeans are going to have to get used to a new 'epicentre of European gravity', writes the British journalist Neal Ascherson, an authority on Central and East Europe.

The city--half way between Moscow and the Atlantic, as Ascherson puts it--is a crossroad for multiracial Europe. 160,000 Turkish Muslims live there--the figure includes some 40,000 to 50,000 Kurds--as well as 72,000 refugees from former Yugoslavia, 30,000 Poles and 13,000 immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, many of them Jews. But the figures hide black market labour and could be a lot higher, Ascherson says.

Like Britain, Germany first encouraged the influx of foreign labour in the 1950s and '60s, to help in post-war reconstruction. At the time, Germany expected foreign workers from Mediterranean countries with good economic prospects to 'stay for two to four years and then go back home', says Barbara John, Berlin's Commissioner responsible for the interests of immigrants and minorities. This worked for the Portuguese and Greeks but not the Turks, who now make up a third of Berlin's immigrant population.

Germany still welcomes 300,000 immigrants each year--more than any other European Union country, says John. They include Aussiedler, people of German origin whose forebears may have left for Russia and elsewhere 100 or more years ago. But they also include over 100,000 refugees from all over the world. Ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and former Yugoslavs, escaping the conflict in their region, now make up some 20 per cent of Berlin's foreign population.

Barbara John is charged with bringing down the cultural iron curtains between the various communities. A large-hearted woman, she is mother to Berlin's minorities and commands enormous respect across the political and social spectrums. She has remained in her post through successive city governments since 1981. With an annual budget of DM 10 million, her staff of 30 handle a range of problems brought by a stream of visitors to her department--from permits to stay in Germany to conflicts between neighbours. They can seek advice on how to bring in spouses from abroad, and if they think they are about to be unfairly deported.

Her task is not eased by Germany's highest rate of unemployment since the 1930s, with over four million out of work. Joblessness among Berlin's immigrants, at 30 per cent, is over twice the city's average and this prevents social integration, she says. 'They don't have the linguistic contacts. They live in poor areas. They don't qualify for better jobs or for better education.' Unemployment has been exacerbated by the flight of jobs to low-wage economies such as Poland and the Czech Republic. It all adds up to increased racial tension.

John plays down the influence of the small numbers of Neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists and points out that violent attacks on Turks were 'years ago'.

She sees hope in Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's promise to get 100,000 young people into work through increased investment in apprenticeship training. There is a high demand for computer skills, for instance. While America is giving its Green Card to thousands of computer technicians, Germany 'would not allow that kind of business immigration', she says.

She admits she has 'no idea' what effect the Chancellor's proposal to reduce the retirement age to 60 will have. In Italy, she points out, everyone leaves work at 60 but youth unemployment is still over 30 per cent. 'It's not inevitable that by pushing out elderly people you bring in young people. They cannot automatically replace the experience of the elderly.'

The other hot issue among immigrants, she says, is religious instruction for Muslim children. Recently a high court ruled that the Islamic Federation, one of three Muslim groups in Berlin, could give their children religious instruction in schools--a right for which the Islamic Federation had fought for many years. They were able to achieve it because city legislation is different from federal policy which makes the state responsible for religious education. But it has created divisions within the Muslim community. Internal Muslim politics complicate the situation: one of the bodies within the federation is affiliated to the Raifa Party in Turkey, which is outlawed by the Turkish government.

One way to resolve the conflict would be for the Berlin government to change its law and adopt the federal model of state responsibility. But, says John, neither the Social Democrats nor the Christian Democratic Party, who make up the city's coalition government, believe the state should be responsible.

Germany's minority communities are also deeply concerned about citizenship. The new SDP government announced that within its first year of power it would give automatic German citizenship to the grandchildren of immigrants, so long as one parent was born in the country. 'Children born here will get automatic citizenship when their parents have a secure legal status,' says John. Holding a German passport will give them an added sense of security.

John says it is a myth that German citizenship is hard to obtain. Immigrants only have to pay DM100 and do not even need to speak German. But they don't apply because it would mean giving up their former nationality, 'and many people are reluctant to do this'. Foreign workers already have full social security rights and the one benefit of citizenship is the right to vote. Now the SDP is proposing that everybody who wants to retain their former passport and gain dual nationality can do so. Barbara John would welcome this but admits that the majority of Germans feel it is one step too far.

John also sees an urgent need to change the employment laws, to give immigrants the immediate right to have work permits and to run small businesses. At present Turks and others born in Berlin may bring in their spouses from abroad but the latter cannot get a work permit for four years after entry. Permits to run small businesses takes even longer: six to eight years. 'They need economic and social citizenship as well as legal citizenship,' John says. 'This could be one of the most important changes in the law, to give them job opportunities.' She believes it wouldn't pose a big problem to the majority community, 'because most immigrants have been here for 20 to 30 years, anyway.'

John is known as a conciliator. 'It is part of the job,' she says pragmatically. She thinks that conciliation 'is more and more needed by all politicians because our societies are falling apart--between the generations, between the winners and losers, between majorities and minorities. So you need conciliators everywhere.'

She wants the majority community to 'enjoy living together with other cultures' by knowing enough about people from different backgrounds. 'Diversity is a strength--for tourism, but also for the business and social communities. Diversity can always be seen in a positive light. We have to fight against negative images endorsed by some people who see diversity as a danger. If you have the small heart of a rabbit you are probably not able to enjoy diversity.'

Fortunately for Berliners, that is not Barbara John's problem. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to hear from her friends that she is loved by people of all backgrounds. While Berlin is a focal point of the new Europe, John has a dream that her city could also be a model for Europe's multiracial communities.
Michael Smith