Picture credit: Adam Berry/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Cash only in Berlin

The city is struggling to remain itself

Not far from my brother’s apartment in Berlin, I spotted a shop selling Yorkshire Tea. This was a welcome surprise. With supplies low in his kitchen and pressures mounting — juggling a new baby alongside a hyperactive 3-year-old brother — a resupply of tea bags was sorely needed. 

As I considered some pricey options, the shop owner started speaking to me. My GCSE German couldn’t keep up and I asked if she spoke English. Unlike many Berliners who are close to fluent, she apologised in halting English while explaining that when a child she had to learn Russian. Of course she did — we were in former East Berlin. I asked if she could still speak Russian. Her reply included the word “protest” and a stern shake of her head.

The whole encounter, mixing the banalities of British tea proclivities with Russian occupations, past and present, was a surreal reminder that as one plods about Berlin’s streets, this city and its people have experienced a surreal history, perhaps unmatched, in contemporary terms, by almost any other European metropolis. 

Since the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, though, much of that is lost and forgotten, certainly to foreigners and visitors amid the massive gentrification that the city — especially the former eastern sector — has experienced. There are times in Berlin today when you might forget you are in Germany. On hip Kastanienalle Strasse and its surrounding streets, you pass American-style burger bars, ramen noodle restaurants, a wine bar, then more wine bars. You hear lots of English spoken, often with an American accent. You have to work pretty hard to find a bar serving traditional Germanic beverages and food.

Fortunately, there seems to be a grassroots pushback against such globalising trends. Many places have signs in windows indicating payment is cash only. This is in stark contrast to the card-only-payment rules sweeping the UK’s service sector. 

“It’s a fundamental shift,” Geoff Norcott writes in his Spectator article The tyranny of card-only payments, noting the calm acquiescence to an “easily manipulated centralized currency,” especially among younger generations. “There will soon be no way of operating without having your movements and affairs logged on some level.” This drive towards digital currency is also going hand in hand with talk of digital IDs, as Alex Klaushofer noted in a previous Critic article. “Where adopted, such measures would potentially affect every aspect of an individual’s life, right down to details that have hitherto been considered private and personal, creating a completely different kind of society,” Klaushofer said. 

In the Berlin bars that tend to be cash only, it often feels like going back to the 1990s. People are smoking inside. The bar lady tallies each drink on a pad of paper. Phones are mounted on walls. Large steins of beer are still affordable — hence eager-looking under 18s try to get in, only to be politely turned away without any fracas. It’s all very pre-9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis — those watershed moments that seem to have left the fabric of society still in an unwinding freefall. 

There are other ways in which Berlin stands out against prevailing modern norms. There appear to be children everywhere. The city’s ubiquitous playparks are absolutely overrun with the little blighters. 

“It’s a good place to being up a family,” a Brazilian lady who married a German husband told me. Kindergartens — called “Kita”, which stands for Kindertagestätte and which means children’s daycare — are paid for by the local government and cover children from around 2 years old until they attend school at 5-6 years old. “It means a woman can get her life back a bit,” says the lady, who works as a dialysis nurse when her two children are at kita

But it’s not just the generous daycare provisions. Children are riding bikes behind their peddling parents, taking trams or walking to school amid the pedestrianised professional morning rush hour. There is a fair bit of graffiti splashed around — this is Berlin after all — but most of the streets feel safe and buzzy, and don’t smell of weed and urine, increasingly the prevalent urban fragrance in US cities (one of many depressing trends that British cities such as London seem set on following). 

Having won two World Wars, and then the Cold War, our complacency means that cities like London appear to be losing the peace — if they haven’t already lost it — while Berlin, which very much lost and then had to go through another existential crisis, appears a healthier place for it all nowadays. 

Of course, Berlin, as with the rest of Germany, is experiencing the same problems roiling everywhere else. Inflation, high energy costs, unchecked immigration and cultural clashes are causing spiralling tensions as the mask increasingly slips from the political ruling classes. In a café, I spoke to one of the staff who was born to Eritrean parents who sought refuge in Germany during the 30-year war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. 

“Eritreans don’t like to take handouts — so we learned the language and worked hard after my family arrived,” the lady says. “But the people coming now, they don’t learn German and they don’t want to work.”  

What the Russians failed to do … globalist trends may yet achieve

What the Russians failed to do in WWII and during its aftermath, globalist trends may still yet achieve, turning this edgy, unique city into another bland replica of all the others. But Berlin doesn’t go down without a fight. There’s too much of what Anna Funder describes in Stasiland, her Samuel Johnson Prize-winning 2003 book about life behind the Berlin Wall in communist East Berlin, as Berliner Schnauze — snout. “It’s attitude: it’s in your face,” Funder says. 

You can certainly still sense that Schnauz walking along these former East Berlin streets. Berliners are polite, but definitely not soft. Is this hardened edge perhaps also driven by, as Funder describes, a still residual sense of conflict over whether the mistakes of the defeated system — the surveillance — were entirely worse than the mistakes — inequality — of the capitalist system that won out. 

Increasingly, such tensions over differing ideologies and world views aren’t limited to former East Berlin. Not only is the victorious democratic West increasingly indulging in the favoured modus operandi of the losing communists — state surveillance and control — we are ever more susceptible to their criticisms. “This capitalism is, above all, exploitation!” a former Stasi officer tells Funder. “It is unfair. It’s brutal. The rich get richer and the masses get steadily poorer.”

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