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Terror will not break Berlin's open and tolerant spirit

Berliners know that extremist attacks are aimed at disrupting Germany’s welcoming attitude to refugees and asylum seekers.

Winding my way towards west Berlin on the S-Bahn the morning after an articulated lorry ploughed through an annual Christmas market, slaughtering 12 innocent people and injuring dozens of others, felt surreally like any other weekday morning. A typically diverse array of locals occupied the seats around me, most dressed in warm, dark-coloured clothing designed to do battle with the chilly temperatures, staring bleakly out at the city’s dull metallic skies or into the wan glow of their mobile phones.

Unlike in Paris and Brussels following recent attacks, there was no immediate sign of any increased security presence, though the site of the incident (Breitscheidplatz, close to the Berlin Zoo) was cordoned-off and busy with a mixture of armed police and clusters of onlookers who grimly surveyed the scene, took photos and added a flower or candle to one of the makeshift memorials.

The heavy fog that clung to the tops of the buildings wasn’t so usual though, and the way it shrouded the glass cupola of the famous Reichstag as the train carried me through the centre felt like an apt metaphor, on a morning during which many in the German capital were doubtless dwelling on the tragic events of the night before and pondering the possible political implications.

While many in the German and right-wing international media have been blaming Angela Merkel's "open door" policy on migrants for the attack —  almost a million refugees and asylum seekers have entered the country since 2015 — Berliners have something of a special relationship with refugees. Some 80,000 are currently living here, more than any other German city, with around half residing in temporary shelters as they wait for their applications to be accepted or rejected: increasing numbers have been turned away in recent months, which many believe to be a political compromise after a series of smaller refugee-related attacks around the country.

The news that a Tunisian asylum seeker, who is reported to have been shot dead in Milan this morning, is the prime suspect for carrying out the attack confirms the fears expressed by the German Chancellor in her statement on Tuesday: “I know that it would be particularly difficult for all of us to bear if it would be confirmed that this deed was carried out by a person who sought protection and asylum in Germany,” she said. Merkel was aware that such a scenario would play directly into the hands of her critics — in particular the populist right-wing group AfD (Alternative for Germany), which has campaigned heavily on an anti-immigration platform since its formation in 2013. 

For the most part, the city has drawn on its reputation as a tolerant, open and inherently multicultural place (its demographic includes significant Middle Eastern, Asian and Eastern European communities) to help many settle and integrate into the city. As well as shorter-term assistance such as donating clothes or food, there have also been longer-term, grassroots projects like the award-winning Give Something Back To Berlin, which encourages integration via regular language, cooking and social-themed meet-ups, as well as creative responses from refugees themselves, including an app created by Syrians that helps navigate Germany’s typically burdensome bureaucracy. Even the city’s clubbing community has made an effort with the Plus 1 campaign, which has raised over 125,000 euros by charging a minimal fee for guestlist spots and then donating it to refugee causes.

The more intensive levels of integration already established in Berlin, as well as the famously world-weary attitude of its inhabitants — many of whose families have lived through war and division themselves — no doubt plays into the city’s somewhat muted reaction to the attack. Berliners know through their own experience that the vast majority of refugees just want an opportunity to live normal, regular lives without fear of being bombed or oppressed; they are aware that organised terrorist activities are aimed precisely at disrupting Germany’s “Willkommenskultur” ("welcome culture") and a subsequent air of defiance — even nonchalance — has been discernible alongside the sadness and quiet air of caution.

Although the evening following the attacks saw the Christmas markets close early at the request of city officials, and various vigils take place around the city to pay tribute to those killed — including a major one inside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at the site of the attack, which has been a symbol of peace since being partially destroyed in the Second World War — the city has quickly returned to its typical pre-Christmas atmosphere.

By Wednesday the markets were open again and Berliners came out in force to visit them and show the world — and especially the terrorists — that they would not be abandoning their traditions or seasonal spirit so easily. The usual flurries of activity could be found around the shopping and cultural areas and Christmas decorations continued to shine from the city’s 19th-century tenements and GDR-era high rises.

Perhaps the most telling sign that terror will not shake the resolve of the locals, nor deter them from their collective desire to help those fleeing war-ravaged regions, came on Wednesday night when anti-refugee demonstrations at Breitscheidplatz were met with much larger counter-demonstrations demanding unity and a continued respect for human rights.

A German proverb states: "fear makes the wolf look bigger than he is". While it seems the wolves have never been closer to the door, Berliners are doing their bit to resist fear and stay focused on humanity.

Paul Sullivan is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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