Berlin since the 2nd World War – Exile, Transit, Emergency Shelter

Flight from Berlin, which characterized the city especially in the 1930s and 1940s, turned into flight to Berlin after the Second World War. Even before reunification, both West and East Berlin offered refuge. Today, Berlin enjoys the reputation of a diverse, open metropolis and city of refuge, which is characterized by and attracts migrants, and which offers space for political, social and cultural self-organization, networking and expression. However, the extent to which it can actually offer a safe exile for people with various flight experiences is questionable given the precarious situation many refugees find themselves in.

The history of refugeedom in post-war Berlin began with the temporary accommodation of Displaced Persons (DPs) in DP camps in all four occupation zones of the city after the end of World War II and with the arrival of expellees from East Prussia. By the time the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, hundreds of thousands of citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), founded in 1949, had fled to West Berlin across the still open sector borders. Many moved further west and only a few stayed in the city. (West) Berlin became a city of transit.

The cosmopolitan character of the city, which had been rigorously destroyed by National Socialism, slowly returned with flight migration to (West) Berlin and with migrant workers coming in the early 1960s, especially from Turkey.

In the 1970s, both West and East Berlin developed into a city of exile: with the regime change in Chile in 1973 and in Iran in 1979, exile seekers found refuge on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Many intellectuals and artists from Eastern Europe, the sphere of influence of the USSR, from Turkey and refugees from the GDR, as well as so-called boat people from Vietnam, reached the exile city of West Berlin. From the 1990s on, the reunified Berlin became a popular domicile for Jewish “quota refugees” who had fled from the collapsing USSR. 11Kleff, Sanem/Seidel, Eberhard, 2008: Stadt der Vielfalt. The Emergence of the New Berlin through Migration, ed. by the Commissioner of the Berlin Senate for Integration and Migration, p. 112-114: https://www.berlin.de/lb/intmig/veroeffentlichungen/einwanderungsgeschichte/ (July 29, 2020).

“In the summer of 1990 the rumor spread in Moscow: Honecker accepts Jews from the Soviet Union as a kind of compensation for the fact that the GDR never participated in the German payments for Israel. […] The many traders who flew from Moscow to West Berlin and back every week to conduct their import-export business brought this news to the city. […] Many people of different nationalities suddenly wanted to become Jews and emigrate to America, Canada or Austria. East Germany joined a little later and was something of an insider tip. […] The ticket cost only 96 rubles, and no visa was needed for East Berlin. My friend Mischa and I arrived at Lichtenberg station in the summer of 1990.” 22Kaminer, Vladimir, 2000: Russendisko, Munich, pp. 9 ff, Translation from German to English by Minor Kontor.

Berlin as a Cosmopolitan City of Refuge since 1990

After the fall of the Wall, Berlin as a reunified city increasingly developed into a cosmopolitan magnet for migrants and made it’s mark within Germany and internationally as a “city of diversity,” of subcultures and political activism, which provided the ground for diverse forms of migrant (political and social) self-organization and cultural-artistic reflection of migration experiences.

“Berlin does not accept only one particular color for itself and its inhabitants. It tries to form a new identity from various identities.” 33Nabi, Widad, 2018: Sieben Gründe, sich in Berlin zu verlieben, first published in: Weiter Schreiben, URL: https://weiterschreiben.jetzt/texte/widad-nabi-sieben-gruende-sich-in-berlin-zu-verlieben/ (11.06.2020). Translation from Arabic into German by Suleman Taufiq, Translation from German into English by Minor Kontor.

As a city of refuge for refugees from various conflicts, forms of individual persecution and existential threats resulting from climate change and extreme poverty, Berlin gained increased attention in the 2010s as a safe haven for people seeking protection. At the latest since the summer of 2015, when Germany and especially its capital city became a place of hope especially for refugees from Syria, which has been war-torn since 2011, and other countries in the Near and Middle East, the issue of flight migration and asylum policy has moved to the center of social and political debates in Berlin, Germany and Europe. The ‘magic’ of the “culture of welcome” of 2015 is increasingly giving way to a restrictive asylum policy, which – primarily decided at EU and national level – also affects Berlin and can be easily seen in declining numbers of asylum applications: Whereas 55,001 asylum applications were still being submitted in 2015, in 2019 the number shrunk to only 6,316 in Berlin. 44Landesamt für Flüchtlingsangelegenheiten Berlin (State Office for Refugee Affairs Berlin), 2020: Zahlen und Fakten. Zugangslage Flüchtlinge, in: berlin.de: https://www.berlin.de/laf/ankommen/aktuelle-ankunftszahlen/artikel.625503.php (08.09.2020).

Safe Exile, Precarious Transit City or Unattainable Place of Hope?

Whether Berlin today can be described as a (safe and long-term) city of refuge and accommodation of refugees cannot be answered unequivocally.

For the We Refugees Archive, this means describing the very diverse experiences of people after the flight today and the role of Berlin in this process in an exemplary manner. For which group of refugees does Berlin represent a place of refuge? What – especially legal – framework conditions must be in place for Berlin to become a city of exile? And for whom and for what reasons is Berlin merely a transit point, a temporary anchor in the European odyssey for refugees?

Refugees who are granted the right of residence are given the chance of a new beginning and hope for the future in Berlin. But what about the people who often have a long escape route across the Mediterranean and criss-crossing Europe, who are denied access to basic social, economic and political rights because they are denied the right of residence and citizenship? And how does Berlin relate to the many who, due to the increasing isolation of Europe, are stuck in front of or at its borders and are given no chance of finding refuge in Berlin and other European cities?

To call Berlin a city of exile means to expand the concept of exile and to rethink it. It is necessary to go beyond the previous focus on (especially cultural and artistic) elites and the seemingly inseparable connection with the time of National Socialism and to question and open up the long-term nature of exile inherent in the term.

The Egyptian sociologist Amro Ali characterizes Berlin as a capital of exile with enormous potential as an important political laboratory. He compares ‘Arab Berlin’ to what New York was to Jewish exiles who fled Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, or to Paris, which gave Latin American exiles a home in the 1970s and 1980s. It refers to Arab intellectuals and artists who could overcome their fragmentation, paralyzing political despair and inactivity through networks of exile in Berlin. 55Ali, Amro, 2019: Über die Notwendigkeit, der arabischen Exil-Szene in Berlin eine Form zu geben. In: dis:orient: https://www.disorient.de/blog/ueber-die-notwendigkeit-der-arabischen-exil-szene-berlin-eine-form-zu-geben (17.07.2020).

But Berlin is much more than just a city of exile. As a city it accommodates experiences that are usually much more short-lived and precarious. In this fragmented Berlin as a place of refuge, there are refugees, for whom the possibilities to guarantee a long-term stay by legal means are closed.

For those who can receive or expect to receive recognition as refugees, Berlin can develop into an exile and/or a new home. Others run the risk of deportation or illegalization.

    Footnotes

  • 1Kleff, Sanem/Seidel, Eberhard, 2008: Stadt der Vielfalt. The Emergence of the New Berlin through Migration, ed. by the Commissioner of the Berlin Senate for Integration and Migration, p. 112-114: https://www.berlin.de/lb/intmig/veroeffentlichungen/einwanderungsgeschichte/ (July 29, 2020).
  • 2Kaminer, Vladimir, 2000: Russendisko, Munich, pp. 9 ff, Translation from German to English by Minor Kontor.
  • 3Nabi, Widad, 2018: Sieben Gründe, sich in Berlin zu verlieben, first published in: Weiter Schreiben, URL: https://weiterschreiben.jetzt/texte/widad-nabi-sieben-gruende-sich-in-berlin-zu-verlieben/ (11.06.2020). Translation from Arabic into German by Suleman Taufiq, Translation from German into English by Minor Kontor.
  • 4Landesamt für Flüchtlingsangelegenheiten Berlin (State Office for Refugee Affairs Berlin), 2020: Zahlen und Fakten. Zugangslage Flüchtlinge, in: berlin.de: https://www.berlin.de/laf/ankommen/aktuelle-ankunftszahlen/artikel.625503.php (08.09.2020).
  • 5Ali, Amro, 2019: Über die Notwendigkeit, der arabischen Exil-Szene in Berlin eine Form zu geben. In: dis:orient: https://www.disorient.de/blog/ueber-die-notwendigkeit-der-arabischen-exil-szene-berlin-eine-form-zu-geben (17.07.2020).

Films 2

Chapters 11