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Society

Berlin, a sanctuary for the searching

Berlin has long held a special allure for people from afar. The current flood of foreigners may be annoying locals, but as DW's Stuart Braun found it, Berlin has always been a mixed bag.

Moving to Berlin felt like joining a spontaneous gathering of strangely multifarious yet connected tribes.

It started on my first night in the city and hasn't stopped, these people crossing my path from Rome, Beirut, Buenos Aires, Stockholm, Sierra Leone, San Francisco, Puerto Rico, London, Lapland, Helsinki, Kiel, Nantes, Andalusia, Zagreb, wherever. They'd arrived last week, or decades ago, and many had escaped from something and found a kind of refuge in this city.

When some complain about the recent influx of mostly young people to Berlin, refugees of sorts in search of self-expression and occasional drug-crazed abandon, it's made to sound like these newcomers are colonizing a once homogenous, unchanging city. They seem to forget that Berlin has long been a fluid and porous place, a transient oasis for misfits and exiles from all over.

The latter come and go, not for the cheap rent, but because no one cares who they are or where they came from. How the city became this oddly neutral space is a long story - one that I am slowly articulating in a book I have been compelled to write.

In the 1970s and 80s, young Germans would say they were drawn to West Berlin because the Wall protected them from the rest of West Germany, where they looked down on the monotony of life in the bourgeois, post-war miracle economy. It might have seemed ironic, the idea of finding freedom in a virtual prison, but even during World War II anti-Nazi dissenters felt safer within Hitler's adopted lair (Munich was his true spiritual home) than any other German city.

Then, despite the purges, Berlin somehow remained the Red City, the most liberal city in Central Europe, maintaining a halo of tolerance for outsiders as it always had for gays, artists, Red and White Russians, and Jewish intellectuals alike.

From the outside in

When writer Christopher Isherwood first visited Berlin in 1929 - on the insistence of his friend, poet W.H. Auden - he experienced a "psychological release" and couldn't wait to emigrate from stuffy England. But it wasn't just the permissive boy bars that inspired the young man - who hadn't yet outed himself in his own country - to move to Berlin, even if the Great Depression and a Nazi takeover loomed.

Isherwood was looking for a place to belong to. When he came to Germany to stay, he was asked by passport officials about the purpose of his journey. "[I] could honestly have replied," he wrote when reflecting on this moment decades later, "I'm looking for my homeland and I've come to find out if this is it?"

These words are still mirrored among the hordes of so-called exiles I meet in Berlin. For the ones that stay - despite the torment of this sometimes dark and disturbing metropolis - most have found a strange kind of peace and sense of acceptance in Berlin.

Graffiti in Berlin with two people embracing and the words I love Berlin and We are one people

Berlin has always drawn opposites together

One such exile was the photographer Nan Goldin, who came from New York to live for periods in the 1980s and 90s. "The best years of my life were here in Berlin," she said in 2010 during a retrospective of her Berlin work. "I don't say that lightly. I've been looking for a home all my life. The only place I feel myself and comfortable and feel real love for my friends is Berlin."

Strong words, but so often said. Stephen Spender, Isherwood's literary cohort in Berlin, visited three decades after fleeing the Nazis and still felt the pull, even though the Wall was just about to cleave the city. "There is more feeling of community, of belonging to each other in Berlin than in other cities," he wrote in his diary, "because I think there are shared points of view here, [a] respect for individuality and culture."

Why then is the same sentiment being repeated 50 years later in a city largely unrecognizable from the one Spender knew? Maybe it's because Berlin remains the mythical meeting point for a modern Diaspora, a people that left the towns and cities they could no longer be themselves in.

Moving to Berlin

Irish songwriter Fionn Regen released the song "Moving to Berlin" in 2012, a tune that evokes the restlessness and disappointment of his generation. "Sell off the beaches, sell off the forests," he sings, "I'm moving to Berlin."

Berlin still tantalizes with the promise of a way out for many different people. Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian-Jewish Nazi death camp survivor and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, was gradually drawn to Berlin from Budapest in the early 2000s when nearing 80 years of age. In 2009, he wrote an appropriately titled essay, "Why Berlin, of all places?" Why relocate to the city that fomented the Holocaust that killed most of his family and very nearly himself? Kertesz could, however, easily justify his decision.

He described the panoply of accents and tongues in the city, the fact that, like New York, few are interested about your origins. He considered the sense of acceptance he feels, something he partly attributes to Berlin's perpetual sense of transformation.

"I loved Berlin from the start and I still do. I'm desperate to get back," writer Clare Wigfall told me a couple of years ago as she plotted a return to Berlin from Edinburgh. "Why do I want to come back to Berlin? I find the UK rather stifling. I like that Berlin is so much more laid back. I found it very easy to meet people."

Clare inevitably did make it back. Having already lived in Prague for many years, she's typical of the almost perennial exiles who are drawn to Berlin and sometimes never leave. Looking out onto my ice-bound tenement in mid-March, I still wonder why we decide to stay.

I suppose many of us feel we have nowhere else to go.

Stuart Braun's book, "Berlin: City of Refuge", is forthcoming.

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