Berlin Now by Peter Schneider (trans. Sophie Schlondorff). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.00, 336 pp.
Toward the end of his popular 1982 take on East-West relations, The Wall Jumper (tr. Leigh Hafrey), Peter Schneider’s West Berlin narrator says of himself and an East Berlin friend:
It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see. Pommerer and I can disassociate ourselves from our states as much as we like, but we can’t speak to each other without having our states speak for us.
In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam.
The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in the original German. Sophie Schlondorff’s translation is not bad but nowhere manages to elevate Schneider’s writing to the elegance readers enjoyed in The Wall Jumper; the prose simply doesn’t stand up to comparison. Nevertheless, the author can certainly tell stories and is at his strongest on the subject of the old West Berlin. In the places where he relates the half-city’s history through its characters—a pair of Polish dentists who survived the concentration camps and built successful lives for themselves with the aid of the U.S. Army hospital, a man obsessed with rebuilding the royal palace—the book is enjoyable and informative. And the opening anecdotal chapters on Berlin’s architecture are particularly polished, although some readers will take issue with Schneider’s position on the East/West conflict over the demolition of the “Palace of the Republic.”
Yet as he moves away from familiar territory and into the present, Schneider falls back increasingly on his own heavily generalizing views. This may be comparatively harmless when he surveys the queue outside Berlin’s legendary Berghain nightclub and finds the young generation’s clothing rather dull. But when he provides an identikit picture of “the East German woman”—in contrast to the West’s viragos—as independent but still feminine, alarm bells begin to ring:
The East German woman stands on her own two feet professionally, but isn’t willing to relinquish the natural prerogatives of the fair sex. . . . She is immune to the theory that differences between men and women are nothing but a social construct; the mention of “gender studies” makes her yawn. . . . She insists on her personal homemade blend of femininity: employed, self-confident, decisive, yet also womanly. Above all, she is still in the mood for men.
How kind of her.
Where Schneider really reveals his prejudices, however, is on the subject of “foreigners.” Here, his method of picking one individual to tell a wider story falls flat, as it can only ever result in generalizations. The first hint of his prejudices comes when he goes out clubbing for research purposes:
The patrons we were crushed up against at Kumpelnest on this particular morning looked like they came from every part of the world. Afghans, Italians, Turks, Palestinians—but, except for the Americans, they were all speaking German with each other, mostly with a Berlin accent. This was a new experience for me. It had been at least twenty years since I’d last stayed out until morning at a trendy Berlin dance bar on Lehniner Platz. There, too, there had been countless “foreigners,” as they were called at the time. But they had kept to themselves and would answer in broken German or English if you spoke to them.
Where has Schneider been in the meantime, to have failed to notice that people with different complexions can actually speak German? Not in Berlin, one suspects. His representation of ethnic minorities in Berlin Now is strictly black-and-white—as either victims or perpetrators of crimes, rarely active agents. This begins when he describes the appalling violence against refugees in East (and West) Germany immediately post-reunification in the chapter “The New Racism,” its title suggesting that racism was previously unknown. He praises himself and others for lighting candles in protest but fails to mention that the Kohl government took the opportunity to severely restrict the right to political asylum previously guaranteed by the German constitution, with the support of Schneider’s own Social Democratic Party.
Considering he devotes a significant amount of space to multiculturalism in Berlin, Schneider seems to know very few actual “foreigners,” as he insists on calling us. His chapter on Vietnamese in Berlin consists of a two-page report on his visit to a Vietnamese mall, for instance. While he writes approvingly of this minority as “one of Germany’s most assimilated immigrant groups,” his interaction goes no further than turning down a haircut. More disturbingly, Schneider’s chapter on Turks in Berlin—the city’s largest minority—is centered almost entirely around the highly controversial sociologist Necla Kelek.
Kelek has been widely criticized by academics, by the left, and from within Muslim communities for her position on Islam and the contentious way she presents it. Previously compared to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she is not the most objective of reporters on the subject of Berlin’s Turkish community. Instead of a depiction of a diverse and fast-evolving minority making in-roads into the city’s intellectual, cultural, and business life, what Schneider gives us is an attack on Muslims. No mention of theatre director Shermin Langhoff, no mention of writers like Emine Sevgi Özdamar or Hatice Akyün, no mention of DJ Ipek—for Schneider, Turkish-German women in Berlin are victims of Islam. And so he bases his chapter on Turks around a woman who has opposed the building of mosques and who helped launch what Schneider himself calls “Thilo Sarrazin’s controversial bestselling diatribe against Muslims,” Deutschland schafft sich ab, a sub-Bell Curve attempt to suggest that Germany was becoming less intelligent because of its large Muslim-origin population.
Another chapter tackles recent high-profile cases of violence among young men in Berlin, called “The New Barbarism,” pointing out that a number of the perpetrators come from Muslim families—and posits that religious Muslims have a higher propensity to violence than non-religious Muslims. In his eagerness to draw implicit parallels to the post-1989 violence against immigrants, Schneider seems not to have read the full study from which he took his statistics. The 2011 report from the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony states that it found no significant linear conjunction between Muslim religiosity and violent behavior, and found the highest incidence of violence in Berlin among young men with origins in the former Soviet Union. However, Berlin compares favorably to the rest of Germany in terms of youth violence. The study also found that Muslims are more likely to have experienced discrimination than other groups of young people.
In fact, another study cherry-picked by Schneider and published in 2012 by the German Ministry of the Interior not only investigated young Muslims’ “willingness to assimilate” but also media representation of Muslims. Every fifth item featuring Muslims on German public television and every fourth such item on private channels, the study found, presents them as potential or actual terrorists. Schneider does not go quite as far in Berlin Now, merely castigating them for refusing to assimilate, accusing them of forming a parallel society and suggesting they are inherently violent. Although he profiles controversial local mayor Heinz Buschkowsky, he distances himself from the latter’s standpoint that social rather than ethnic or religious issues are the main problem for the borough of Neukölln with its large Turkish and Arab communities.
While Schneider was blissfully unaware of the existence of “foreigners” able to speak perfect German, a debate over integration and assimilation flared up—led by the Kanak Attak movement in the early 2000s—and died down again, resulting in agreement among many of Germany’s immigrants and their descendants that there’s no reason for us to assimilate, and that integration is a two-way street. An assertive “postmigrant” culture has blossomed, spawning plays and films and novels and magazines, many made, set or performed in Berlin. Peter Schneider has missed a great deal, which he could catch up on—even in English—through the work of Olga Grjasnowa, Saša Stanišić, Terézia Mora, Feridun Zaimoglu, Maxim Biller, Fatih Akın, or Marianna Salzmann, to name but a few. These writers and theatre and film people will be angry with me for mentioning them in a single breath, though, because they have little in common apart from a refusal to act out what Peter Schneider demands of them in his closing chapter on the city’s future: to be “what Berlin needs more than anything”: “qualified immigrants who are willing to assimilate.”
What makes Berlin a fascinating and attractive and vibrant place to live, and has done so throughout its history, is that people come to the city and bring their cultures with them rather than abandoning them at its gates. From the Huguenots who heavily influenced the local dialect and introduced white bread around 1700 to the Turks who claim to have invented the döner kebab in its current form in 1970s Kreuzberg; from 18th-century Bohemian Protestants to eastern European Jews then and enterprising young Israelis now; from postwar refugees from East Prussia who made southwest Berlin the rural idyll it still remains to the protesters against Fortress Europe currently camping out at various spots around the city; even the West German dropouts who flocked to the walled city to evade conscription, including Schneider himself—like almost every other city, Berlin would be nothing if they had all assimilated.
What Peter Schneider gives us in Berlin Now is his own very limited perspective on present-day Berlin. He is not alone with his prejudices, sadly—the aforementioned anti-Muslim diatribe is one of Germany’s bestselling non-fiction titles since records began. Many of Schneider’s generation of German authors have “trod that dreary safari from left to right which generally comes with age,” as Alan Bennett put it recently, “a trip writers in particular seem drawn to, Amis, Osborne, Larkin, Iris Murdoch all ending up at the spectrum’s crusty and clichéd end.” Schneider too began his writing career from within the left, his 1973 story “Lenz” detailing the sorrows of a left-wing intellectual in the student movement and his 1975 epistolary novel Schon bist du ein Verfassungsfeind highlighting the devastating effects of Willy Brandt’s ban on “radicals” exercising certain professions. The latter work was even compared to Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.
Germany’s now crusty and clichéd writers include Richard Wagner, Akif Pirinçci, Henryk M. Broder, Monika Maron, Alice Schwarzer, and Ralph Giordano, all of whom are united by vocal Islamophobia. Peter Schneider is thus very much a man of his generation, his state still speaking for him. How sad that a writer once much more open-minded has spoiled what might have been an interesting personal insight into his city by hitching his book to the pro-assimilation bandwagon. For a view that actively celebrates Berlin’s diversity, I would recommend JM Stim’s essay “Here Is Berlin.” It is shorter, better written, more enjoyable, and presents a picture of the city altogether more recognizable to this particular long-term resident.
Katy Derbyshire is a translator of contemporary German fiction, including Helene Hegemann, Christa Wolf, Clemens Meyer, Inka Parei, Simon Urban and Sibylle Lewitscharoff.
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