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Society

Berliners speak their minds

Freedom of speech was suppressed in 20th century Berlin under both the Nazis and the communists. Now, Berliners are taking advantage of every opportunity to exercise their freedom, says DW's Louise Osborne.

Clad in riot clothing and holding helmets, police are standing next to their green vans surrounding the tram bridge at Kreuzberg's Kottbusser Tor waiting for action, helicopters occasionally circling overhead.

It's May 1 and, like every year in Germany's capital on the Labor Day holiday, there are protests taking place across the city with people taking to the streets in demonstrations against all kinds of issues from rising rents to right-wing extremism.

Blaring horns, whistles and stamping feet are the soundtrack to the sight of hundreds of people marching, banners waving and placards raised.

A sense of solidarity

Kreuzberg, the neighborhood once hemmed in by the Berlin Wall in the western part of the city, has long been a hub of revolution in Berlin, from the 1968 student movements that swept West Germany and the riots sparked by the attempted assassination of its leader, Rudi Dutschke, to the street party turned uprising in 1987 that marked the beginning of the city as a hotspot for aggression between police and protestors in subsequent May 1 demonstrations.

Public protest has become a regular feature of Berlin life and taking part in demonstrations - either actively or passively, observing from an overhanging window or a nearby street - is something of a rite of passage.

Living at the edge of Kreuzberg myself, I sometimes feel swept up in the omnipresent sentiment that something must be done to stop injustice in the world. I get caught up with those calling for change and can't help but feel a sense of solidarity with the voices shouting a message one kind or another.

Without protest, nothing will change

David Hasselhoff is showered with confetti as he is addressing fans and campaigners at the East Side Gallery on March 17, 2013

Even David Hasselhoff turned up in Berlin to protest the removal of parts of the Berlin Wall

A demonstration against removing sections of the Berlin Wall recently attracted more than 10,000 people to the East Side Gallery, including the US television hero David Hasselhof. Protestors regularly take their outrage onto the streets in response to gentrification in general, or to the Barbie Dreamhouse in particular, due to open on Alexanderplatz later this month.

In short, Berliners love to protest.

In 2011, more than 4,000 protests were registered across Berlin - from small local demonstrations against evictions in Kreuzberg to large protests taking place in the center of the city in support of refugees.

Protests keep democracy alive, says Heike Walk, a political scientist at the Freie Universität in Berlin who specializes in protests and social movements. "Protests lead to the critical examination of specific topics and circumstances and also emphasize neglected topics," she said.

"Democracy functions less well when it doesn't have these stimuli from society. Political systems always tend to be closed and when closed systems are not stimulated from the outside, nothing can be changed," she added.

Social movement and change have always been some of the things I love most about Berlin - the desire to make things better - not just for one person, but for society in general.

East Germany's Hohenschönhausen prison in Berlin

Some of those who spoke up in East Germany landed in here

Every voice counts

Walking through the throngs of people in the friendly carnival atmosphere that has now come to characterize Kreuzberg on May 1, I am drawn to the voice of an older man shouting through a megaphone over the din of the crowd.

"Why are foreigners treated differently?" he yells. "Turkish people pay their taxes here, too."

His solo protest has attracted a small gathering of onlookers, nodding their heads in agreement. Even just one person, it seems, can make a difference.

In the 20th century, publicly voicing your opinion could have promptly landed you in prison in German - first during the Third Reich, then during the communist German Democratic Republic. All the more reason, then, for today's Berliners to speak out and make the most of their freedom.

DW.DE