Costa Rican president used rumored drug associate’s private plane
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, May 16, 2013 22:30 EDT
Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla was embroiled in scandal Thursday amid revelations that she used a private jet made available by a Colombian suspected of links to drug trafficking.
The disclosure has prompted the resignation of her communications minister and sent Costa Rica’s intelligence officials scrambling to explain how the trips escaped their scrutiny.
Chinchilla made two separate trips — one to Venezuela and another to Peru — aboard a jet owned by Gabriel Morales Fallon, a Colombian who had introduced himself to Communications Minister Francisco Chacon under a false name.
Costa Rican officials say that while Morales does not have a criminal record, he has been linked to questionable criminal activities that would have turned up if he had been properly vetted.
In a statement late Wednesday, Chinchilla blamed a “chain of lapses,” saying her closest aides had failed to check into the Colombian’s background and his links to “illicit activities.”
Chacon, who had earlier described Morales as a “decent person” in press interviews, announced his resignation, admitting that he had not looked vetted the Colombian properly.
Chinchilla used Morales’s plane in March to fly to Venezuela for Hugo Chavez’s funeral, and as recently as last weekend to attend a wedding in Lima.
She was accompanied on the private trip to Peru by her husband, Chacon and his wife Foreign Trade Minister Anabel Gonzalez.
The head of Costa Rica’s Office of Intelligence and Security, which is responsible for the president’s protection, said his agency had not been informed the president was using the private aircraft.
“We are reviewing in detail everything that happened, establishing how the reporting of this information was omitted,” agency chief Mauricio Boraschi told ADN radio.
“The controls and screens were not activated,” he said, adding that as a result, the president was linked to “a person who turns up at a meeting using a name that isn’t his.
“The protocols weren’t followed. If they had I would have blocked the president’s trip,” he added.
Boraschi said Morales “has no convictions, or pending arrest warrants (but) has been linked to very complicated and complex situations from a criminal point of view.”
The Bogota newspaper “El Tiempo” cited intelligence sources as saying he was a frontman for Luis Carlos Ramirez, a drug trafficker currently imprisoned in Brazil. Morales Fallon has denied any connection to him.
Opposition leaders called on Chinchilla’s entire cabinet to resign.
“That’s what that whole cabinet should do,” said Manrique Oviedo, of the centrist Citizen Action Party. “Dona Laura can’t go because it is a legal impossibility, but the rest should present their resignations.”
Christian Democratic deputy Luis Fishman called the affair “an enormous lapse.”
“There are mechanisms to determine whether ships, planes and boats are under any suspicion as was the case here,” he added.
May 16, 2013
Chilean Judge Upholds Manslaughter Charges Linked to ’10 Tsunami
By PASCALE BONNEFOY
SANTIAGO, Chile — A judge dismissed an appeal to suspend involuntary manslaughter charges against four government officials accused of failing to issue a tsunami alert after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Chile in 2010.
“This court believes that not enough was done to avoid the catastrophic results” of the quake, Judge Ponciano Sallés said in his ruling. “Any reasonable analysis would conclude that the risk was greater by not evacuating the population than by doing so,” he said, adding that “information was concealed.”
The investigation into the deaths of 156 people and the disappearance of 25 more during the tsunami seeks to establish responsibility for the confusing and contradictory chain of decisions made by government officials and emergency agencies shortly after the earthquake. The actions resulted in mistaken public assurances that there was no risk of tsunami, despite reports that one had already devastated the Juan Fernández Archipelago in the Pacific, west of the Chilean coast.
The former director of the National Emergency Agency, Carmen Fernández, is accused of providing false information and not issuing a tsunami alert. The former under secretary of the interior, Patricio Rosende, has been charged with “imprudent conduct” in neglecting to warn the population. Both argued that it was up to the navy’s oceanographic service to issue the alert.
According to survivors, many families returned to their homes on the coast after hearing the president at the time, Michelle Bachelet, say on the radio that there was no danger of a tsunami. Raúl Meza, a lawyer for one victim’s family, has formally requested that prosecutors interrogate the former president as a suspect. Ms. Bachelet, who is campaigning for the presidential elections in November, has testified twice, but as a witness.
Three other officials have also been charged but did not appeal. The accusations, filed last year against the seven, include operating with inexperienced personnel, lacking knowledge on the use of technology, leaving shifts vacant at regional emergency agencies and ignoring field reports.
“If the accused had been fulfilling their duties, lives would have been saved,” said the lead prosecutor, Solange Huerta, after the ruling.
May 16, 2013
Groups Press Big Retailers on Safety Overseas
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
A large coalition of religious groups and investors is pressing major American retailers to join a sweeping plan to improve safety in Bangladesh apparel factories, calling on them to act together to force changes in overseas workplaces.
In a letter released on Thursday, the 123 signers, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Unitarian Universalist Association and the A.F.L.-C.I.O., urged retail giants like Wal-Mart, Target, Sears and Gap to sign on to the factory safety plan that more than 30 European retailers embraced this week.
The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, which helped put together the letter, said the signers controlled $1.1 trillion in investment assets.
Also Thursday, a second group of investment and pension funds controlling $1.35 trillion in assets, sent a letter to retailers, calling on them to ensure compliance with safety standards in Bangladesh and to disclose all of the factories they use — a demand that most major retailers have resisted.
The 118 religious groups and investors mentioned the Rana Plaza building collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers last month as well as a fire in November in Bangladesh that killed 112 workers, saying, “They are a grave indictment of the human rights record of Bangladesh, and an illustration of the failure of the global companies that manufacture and source their products there to ensure humane working conditions.”
The signatories pointed to decisions by some American companies, like Wal-Mart and Gap, to forgo signing on to the plan and instead set up their own factory inspection programs for Bangladesh, and criticized the moves as insufficient.
“Acting alone, companies can and do bring about meaningful and positive changes in human rights in the countries where they source and manufacture,” the signers wrote. “But when faced with intransigence of the type we have historically seen in Bangladesh on worker safety issues, we are convinced that systemic change will only occur when companies take action together.”
This week, numerous European retailers, including H&M, Carrefour, Tesco, El Corte Inglés and Marks & Spencer, rallied behind the new factory safety plan. Under it, companies commit to having tough, independent inspections of the factories they use in Bangladesh and to help finance renovations for fire and building safety, like building fire escapes on factories lacking them.
Of the nearly 40 companies that have signed that accord, only two are based in the United States: Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.
The signers of one letter, including Boston Common Asset Management, Christian Brothers Investment Services, Domini Social Investments, Trillium Asset Management, and Wespath Investment Management, investing on behalf of the United Methodist Church, highlighted the recent factory disasters.
“As shareholders who have been engaging apparel companies and retailers to foster responsible sourcing practices, including human rights due diligence with robust audit oversight in global supply chains, we see the events in Bangladesh as a watershed moment for the industry,” the letter said. “Regardless of whether products are being sourced from Bangladesh, Guatemala, China or the Philippines, morality dictates that the price/value calculus for all manufactured goods must begin with the fundamental human rights of workers, including health and safety, freedom of association and collective bargaining and a living wage.”
The second letter, signed by the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System and 13 other institutional investors, warned retailers of the “significant reputational, operational and legal risks that are ubiquitous in global supply chains.”
“We expect companies in our portfolios to ensure the integrity of their supply chains,” the investors wrote. “We are dismayed by public statements from any company that states it is unaware that a factory produces its products.” After the recent factory disasters in Bangladesh, documents tying Wal-Mart and Sears to production at the facilities were found, but both retailers said suppliers were using those plants without their knowledge.
Other signers included Amalgamated Bank LongView Funds, the Connecticut state retirement plans, the Illinois State Board of Investment and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Pension Plan.
“As investors, we feel it’s important to be clear in terms of what we want to say to the companies and to workers around the globe,” said the Rev. Seamus P. Finn, representing shareholders from the Catholic organization Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. “There is no ad hoc, stitch-up solution to this. It’s got to be a serious systemic approach.”
Father Finn said that if the retailers rejected these appeals, the faith groups and investors would not divest their holdings, but would instead push harder by, for example, sponsoring shareholder resolutions.
“Our general approach is we stay and fight,” he said.
Also on Thursday, Democratic Senate and House leaders sent separate letters calling for higher standards in overseas factories. Eight Democratic senators — including Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; and Tom Harkin of Iowa — sent a letter to Wal-Mart, Kohls, Gap, the Children’s Place, J. C. Penney and several other top retailers, urging them to join the international plan for factory safety in Bangladesh.
The senators wrote, “Your companies are in a position to put an end to these tragedies by requiring your suppliers to follow transparent processes and clear, enforceable standards for worker safety and basic human rights.”
In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and several others wrote to the Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, urging that worker safety in that country be ensured.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 16, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of institutional investors that signed a letter concerning safety standards and disclosure among apparel companies. There were 15, not 16.
Keeping up with Teresa Forcades, a nun on a mission
Spanish Benedictine nun is emerging as one of the most outspoken – and atypical – leaders of southern Europe's far left
Giles Tremlett in Montserrat
guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 May 2013 12.40 BST
Link to video: Teresa Forcades, the radical Catalan nun on a missionhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/may/17/teresa-forcades-radical-catalan-nun-video
The speedometer on Teresa Forcades' battered silver Peugeot saloon shows 130kmph, but Spain's most famously radical nun is so busy talking she seems oblivious to the 80kmph speed limit signs above the motorway near her Sant Benet convent on the slopes of Montserrat — Catalonia's sacred mountain.
The woman whose biting criticism of everything from banks to big pharmaceutical companies has shot her into the political limelight is in a rush to get to Barcelona's train station so she can travel to Valencia to deliver a speech. Then she will fly on to the Canary Islands for the next appointment on her busy public speaking schedule.
She is on the campaign trail to promote a radical new manifesto for revolutionary political change (link in Spanish). In the black headdress of the Benedictine order, Forcades has emerged as one of the most outspoken – and atypical – leaders of southern Europe's fragmented and confused far left.
As she floors the accelerator she praises Syriza, the leftwing Greek group that rose from the rubble of the country's ruined economy and which is a reference point for her manifesto for a radical new approach to building an independent Catalonia.
"The economic crisis in Spain has got to a point where it threatens the fabric of society," she says. "This is something that has happened in Greece. The precariousness of people's lives is progressing at an accelerated pace and people cannot cope. The danger of violence and upheaval in some non-democratic way is a possibility."
She and the economist Arcadi Oliveres co-wrote the manifesto calling for a refounding of the Spanish state, with an independent Catalonia, nationalised banks and energy companies and an exit from Nato. They hope to rekindle the spirit of the indignados who occupied Spanish squares in 2011, but focusing on more concrete aims.
"I and a group of people felt a need to intervene, in my case because of this popularity I've acquired. I thought it could be good to try to organise this discontent, this feeling of deep disappointment and growing tension," she says.
"I am not starting a political party and I am not intending to run in any elections," she adds. "That is not for a Benedictine and not for me."
But although she is not running for office, Forcades is not shy of public debate, regularly appearing on local television. Her conversation includes references to liberation theology, Marx's theories on surplus value, Hugo Chávez's Venezuela and the Tobin tax, as well as the 12th-century figure Saint Hildegard of Bingen or the rule of Saint Benedict — precepts by which she attempts to live.
On a visit to Venezuela in 2009 she found a country she did not recognise from critical descriptions in most Spanish newspapers. "Marginalised people spoke as if what they thought and wanted was important in the politics of their country," she says. "They had a sense of counting, which is essential in democracy."
Her critique of neoliberal capitalism includes not just a Christian desire to protect the weak, but also an attack on the hypocrisy of a system that gives goods and capital the freedom to cross frontiers while workers cannot. "It is a version of capitalism where the rights and needs of people are pushed aside," she says, pointing to how taxes are higher on selling bread than on financial speculation.
Her rise to fame stemmed from a polemical spat with the World Health Organisation and the pharmaceutical industry over swine flu vaccines in 2009. A video filmed at her convent, in which she talks to camera for one solid hour about what she claims are the dangers of the flu vaccine, went viral.
"What I found astonished me, the lack of scientific ground for any of the public policies and decisions," she says. "The video was highly viewed, by more than one million people. And that was the start of my public presence."
El País labelled her a "paranoid conspiracist" and "hoaxer-nun" who used half-truths and her religious status to spread fear. But Forcades, who trained as a doctor in the US and has a public health PhD, says she spent three months studying the science before making an hour-long YouTube video – one of just 95 that now sit on a special Forcades YouTube channel..
"The campaign was not based on scientific fact, but was orchestrated to favour the industrial interests of the big pharmaceutical companies," she says. It was also an attempt to curtail rights, she claims. "That was the talk, to justify mandatory vaccination."
At Barcelona's Sants railway station a middle-aged man walks up to her and kisses her hand. A woman with blonde frizzy hair also greets her like an old friend. Does she know them? "No, I don't." Does this happen often? "Yes."
A Barcelona vox pop gives mixed results. The young and working class do not know Forcades, or mumble vaguely about vaccines, but middle-aged, middle class Barcelonans know all about her and, mostly, approve. However, some question how she can be both a leftwing feminist and part of a misogynist church that bans contraception and backs punishment for abortion.
Before she took her vows in 1997, Forcades tested the other nuns by giving a talk on a group of gay Catholics who celebrated their sexuality as a gift from God. She was humbled by the nuns' humane reaction and, so, joined them.
Having already studied medicine in Barcelona and New York and signed up for a masters in theology at Harvard, the nuns encouraged her to finish her studies and then join them as a resident public intellectual, eventually giving her a secretary and freedom to travel and study elsewhere.
Forcades does not find convent life oppressive. "The myth that women can't fix a tap quickly disappears when there are no men," she says, pointing out that, historically, women often enjoyed greater freedom behind convent walls than in the real world. But she does not bite her tongue on the church Pope Francis took over in March, arguing for women priests while leaving contraception and abortion to individuals' consciences.
"The Roman Catholic church, which is my church, is misogynist and patriarchal in its structure. That needs to be changed as quickly as possible."
Forcades has talked for an hour and could probably keep going for two more, but Spain's indignant nun must catch her train. In recession-hit, austerity Spain, where unemployment is 27% and rising, new audiences await to lap up her words.
In Pig Putin's Russia...........Video of Russian orphans being beaten sparks outrage
Russia's investigative committee opens criminal inquiry after footage of teen caretakers beating under-10s goes viral
Miriam Elder in Moscow
guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 May 2013 13.50 BST
Two young caretakers are being investigated for torture after a horrific video showing the systematic beating of seven children at a Russian orphanage went viral.http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0A555ze2J58
The video shows seven boys in their underclothes lined up against a wall as a caretaker calls them forward one by one, only to grab them by the arm and lash them repeatedly with a belt. She kicks some of them and shoves them off, before grabbing the next child. The boys shriek and wail as the caretaker continues to beat them, at one point shouting: "Go to bed!"
The video, shot on a mobile phone at the Mazanovsky orphanage in the far eastern region of Amur, sparked widespread outrage after it went viral this week.
On Friday, Russia's investigative committee opened a criminal investigation into two teenage caretakers, themselves a product of the orphanage. A third caretaker suspected of involvement was born in 1998 and is too young to be investigated, it said.
The boys who were beaten were between the ages of seven and 10, and are being given psychological counselling, it added. The director of the orphanage, home to 129 children, has been fired.
The scandal has highlighted the often poor state of Russia's orphanage system, whose methods and infrastructure remain little changed from Soviet times. According to Russia's children's rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, there are around 650,000 children in Russian orphanages. Most have living parents.
An employee of the Mazanovsky orphanage, speaking to local news portal Amur.info on condition of anonymity, said everyone at the school was aware of the regular beatings and heard the children's screams. She recounted a conversation with one of the caretakers: "She said: 'I was beaten in the orphanage, and I will beat.'"
"Cruelty and violence among children is a scary and dangerous trend, which the whole world must battle, uniting the efforts of society and the government," Astakhov wrote on Twitter.
The scandal comes as Russia takes steps to limit foreign adoptions, consigning thousands of children to life in dreary orphanages.
In December, it banned Americans from adopting Russian children in response to a new US law barring Russians suspected of involvement in the prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky from entering the United States or keeping bank accounts there.
The law, loudly supported by President Vladimir Putin, was widely criticised by many inside Russia.
Last month, Putin said Russia would consider banning foreign same-sex couples from adopting Russian children, after France became the latest country to legalise same-sex marriage.
Greek addicts turn to deadly shisha drug as economic crisis deepens
Growing popularity of 'cocaine of the poor' in Athens has overwhelmed public health authorities already under strain
Helena Smith in Athens
The Guardian, Thursday 16 May 2013 20.08 BST
Nobody knows which came first: the economic crisis tearing Greece apart or shisha, the drug now known as the "cocaine of the poor". What everyone does accept is that shisha is a killer. And at €2 or less a hit, it is one that has come to stalk Greece, the country long on the frontline of Europe's financial meltdown.
"As drugs go, it is the worst. It burns your insides, it makes you aggressive and ensures that you go totally mad," said Maria, a former heroin addict. "But it is cheap and it is easy to get, and it is what everyone is doing."
The drug crisis, brought to light in a new film by Vice.com, has put Athens's health authorities, already overwhelmed by draconian cuts, under further strain.
The drug of preference for thousands of homeless Greeks forced on to the streets by poverty and despair, shisha is described by both addicts and officials as a variant of crystal meth whose potential to send users into a state of mindless violence is underpinned by the substances with which the synthetic drug is frequently mixed: battery acid, engine oil and even shampoo.
Worse still, it is not only readily available, but easy to make – tailor-made for a society that despite official prognostications of optimism, and fiscal progress, on the ground, at least, sees little light at the end of the tunnel.
"It is a killer but it also makes you want to kill," Konstantinos, a drug addict, told Vice. "You can kill without understanding that you have done it … And it is spreading faster than death. A lot of users have died."
For Charalampos Poulopoulos, the head of Kethea, Greece's pre-eminent anti-drug centre, shisha symbolises the depredations of a crisis that has spawned record levels of destitution and unemployment. It is, he said, an "austerity drug" – the best response yet of dealers who have become ever more adept at producing synthetic drugs designed for those who can no longer afford more expensive highs from such drugs as heroin and cocaine.
"The crisis has given dealers the possibility to promote a new, cheap drug, a cocaine for the poor," said Poulopoulos at a centre run for addicts in Exarcheia, the anarchist stronghold in Athens. "Shisha can be sniffed or injected and it can be made in home laboratories – you don't need any specialised knowledge. It is extremely dangerous."
Across Greece, the byproducts of six straight years of recession have been brutal and cruel. Depression, along with drug and alcohol abuse, has risen dramatically. Delinquency and crime have soared as Greece's social fabric has unravelled under the weight of austerity measures that have cut the income of ordinary Greeks by 40%. Prostitution – the easiest way of financing drug addition – has similarly skyrocketed.
"Desperation is such that many women agree to engage in unprotected sex because that way they'll make more money," said Eleni Marini, a British-trained psychologist with Kethea. "Shisha has been linked to a very intense sexual drive but it attacks your ability to think straight and we're seeing a lot more pregnancies among drug addicts who engage in prostitution." Last year, two sex workers gave birth on the streets of Athens.
In a climate of pervasive uncertainty –where suicides have also shot up and the spread of HIV infections has assumed epidemic proportions – drug addicts (a population believed to be around 25,000 strong), have become increasingly self-destructive. And, experts say, young Greeks marginalised by record rates of unemployment - at 64% Greece has the highest youth unemployment in the EU – are leading the way.
"The crisis has created a widespread sense of pessimism," said Poulopoulos. "For those who might have quit drugs there is now no incentive. Instead, there's an atmosphere of misery where people knowing they won't find work are becoming a lot more self-destructive. In Athens, where the economic crisis has hit hardest, shisha is part of that."
Greece's conservative-dominated coalition has tried to deal with the problem by driving drug users and other homeless people out of the city centre – a series of controversial police operations has swept central streets, clearing crowded doorways and malls.
"But with such actions, authorities are only sweeping the problem under the carpet," said Poulopoulos, a UK-trained social worker whose oversight of Kethea has won plaudits internationally. "What, in reality, they are really doing is marginalising these people even more by pushing them into the arms of drug dealers who offer them protection."
Just when the demand for help has never been greater, state-funded organisations such as Kethea have had their budgets slashed by a third at the request of the "troika" — the EU, ECB and IMF — keeping the debt-stricken Greek economy afloat.
Since the outbreak of the crisis in 2009, Kethea has lost 70 of its 500 staff.
The cuts come despite studies showing that for every euro invested in programmes such as Kethea, the state saves about €6 in costs to the criminal justice and healthcare systems. "The cuts we have witnessed are a false economy, a huge mistake," said Poulopoulos.
On the streets of Athens, the breeding ground of shisha, there is rising fear that austerity not only doesn't work, it kills.
A salute to the 'British Schindler' as he turns 104
Nicholas Winton saved hundreds of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. I wish him a happy birthday this week
guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 May 2013 09.00 BST
Nicholas Winton is famous because he did not turn over the page. While many British people tut-tutted when they read about the plight of Jews in central Europe under the Nazis in late 1938 and then turned to the next item of news, he took action. At the time, he was working as a broker at the London Stock Exchange and was about to go on a skiing trip as a Christmas break. Instead, he received an urgent call from a friend to come to Prague, where the latter was visiting a refugee camp. Winton cancelled his holiday, went over and saw the situation facing the Jews in the Nazi-occupied part of Czechoslovakia.
Winton became convinced that a human tragedy was looming – which only immediate action could avert – and focused on the need to rescue the endangered children. However, Britain had already set a limit on the number of children it would let in, which was happening through the Kindertransport programme. So he returned to England to persuade the Home Office to grant additional entry permits and for whom he personally would find sponsors so that they were not a burden on the state.
With the help of others, he also organised foster parents to provide homes for the children until they were 17, as well as the transport to bring them to England. This involved a considerable amount of work, dealing with the Home Office, finding sympathetic families and co-ordinating arrangements with the Czech authorities. In March 1939, a train left Prague carrying refugee children to England. Another five such trains were commissioned, bringing a total of 669 children to safety. A further train was due to depart from Prague on 1 September, but was unable to leave because of the imminent outbreak of war and virtually all the children died in the concentration camps.
Winton's rescue work was largely unknown until 1988, when it was featured on Esther Rantzen's television programme That's Life. This only came about because his wife found an old suitcase in the attic containing files about his mission, which had occurred before they met and about which she had known nothing, and she thought it a story worth telling. It led to widespread praise for his efforts and a reunion of Winton's "children", many of whom had become parents and grandparents by then, with the result that the number of lives he has saved has multiplied to several thousand. Some had become famous in their own right, such as Labour politician Alfred (later Lord) Dubs and film director Karel Reisz, whose works included the French Lieutenant's Woman. The ring he received as a gift of thanks from them all was inscribed with a line from the rabbinic code, the Talmud, "Save one life, save the world". In recognition of his efforts on behalf of the Czech children, he was knighted in 2002.
He is frequently referred to in the media as "the British Schindler", a reference to the German industrialist who used his factory in Poland to save hundreds of Jewish workers from the gas chambers. In 2010 a bronze statue of Winton was placed on one of the platforms at Maidenhead railway station, a reminder to commuters that, however stressed they may feel, their lives are carefree in comparison to those in former times.
Winton himself expresses surprise at all the attention he has received and denies that he was courageous, claiming that "I was at the right place at the right time". He is much mistaken. He deliberately went to the right place and then acted in the right way, and at a time when many others did neither. He deserves every accolade that he is given. Sir Nicholas will turn 104 on 19 May. Let us all wish him a happy birthday.
The flight paths of Britain and Poland diverge in a disunited Europe
Poland is eyeing a place in the group of leading EU nations just as Britain seems to be leaving
Timothy Garton Ash in Krakow
The Guardian, Thursday 16 May 2013 21.00 BST
Like two Spitfires tipping their wings in the sky, Britain and Poland are beginning to fly in different directions. The Polish pilot is heading for Berlin, not to strafe it but to join it. The British pilot is steering out into the Atlantic. Their old friendship is strained. Each country's choice is influenced as much by history, politics and emotion as it is by any cool calculation of self-interest. Both flight paths carry risks that the pilots may not see clearly enough from the cockpit – and both may yet change course.
The tensions became apparent at a sometimes emotional meeting of the Polish-British Round Table in Krakow last week, very different in tone from the shared optimism of our first encounter in Poland's former royal capital six years ago. A Polish participant said "our friendship is getting harder these days" and deplored the British government's "transactional approach" to the EU. A British politician wondered why the Poles were not more grateful for everything the United Kingdom had done for them – including Tony Blair's extraordinary opening of the British labour market to what turned out to be up to a million Poles. (Polish is now the most-spoken foreign language in Britain.)
Yes, replied a Polish politician, that helped when there was high unemployment in Poland and a Polish referendum on joining the European Union. But Britain had no right to expect eternal gratitude – and not everything Britain had done in history had been so positive for Poland. (The word "Yalta" was not spoken, except by me in a whisper, but hung heavy in the Polish air.) And after all, it was a British statesman, Lord Palmerston, who said that Britain has no eternal allies, only eternal interests. Poland, too.
But you will be worse off without us, cried the Brits. Asked one: "Do you want to be left alone … I don't want to use the phrase … at the mercy of Germany?" To which a Polish participant replied: "If the UK leaves, it's not the German demons we're afraid of – it's the Southerners, the French demons …" For Poland wants to be part of a strong, disciplined northern Europe. Having escaped from Soviet-dominated eastern Europe and reinvented itself as part of central Europe, Poland now sometimes speaks of itself as a north European country.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday night, 130 members of the British House of Commons voted to express their regret that prime minister David Cameron's commitment to a 2017 referendum on Britain's membership in the EU will not be set in the stone of law during this parliamentary session; 114 of the rebels were Cameron's own backbenchers. "Very well, alone!" they cry, like the British soldier standing atop the white cliffs of Dover in a famous 1940 cartoon. And now such a law will be proposed as a private member's bill by a Tory backbencher, with full support from the Conservative party.Britain's "Island Story" will, they insist, be carried forward much better if we Brits are freed from the shackles binding us to a sclerotic continent and sick eurozone. Contrast the latest US growth figures with those for the eurozone. There is a whole world of dynamic, emerging economies out there, which post-imperial Britain, speaking the world language of English, is well-placed to embrace. Remarkably, two big-hitting former Conservative cabinet ministers, Nigel Lawson, who as chancellor of the exchequer wanted to bring Britain closer to the European monetary system, and the half-Spanish Michael Portillo, have already said they would for Britain to leave the EU in an in-or-out referendum.
By contrast, Poland's current government will do everything it can to be at the very heart of Europe. Here too, history and emotion play a large role. After decades of being cut off from the west by the iron curtain, and centuries of feeling itself to be on the periphery of the ancient Carolingian core of Europe – "a suburb of Europe", as the Polish historian Jerzy Jedlicki titled his book about 19th-century Polish attitudes to western civilisation – the Poles want to seize their chance to be in the hard core at last. And if that means being part of a German Europe, well, so be it. For anyone who knows Poland's 20th-century history – Krakow's buildings are replete with memorial tablets to those who died under the Nazi occupation, and Auschwitz is just down the road – this is amazing.
It is also explicable. Poland's elites judge Germany's economic model to be a lot more solid than Britain's. A quarter of the country's trade is with Germany. Germany is a powerful friend in the EU. Berlin also contributes most to an EU budget from which Poland is – and, under the seven-year deal agreed in February, will continue to be – by far the largest single beneficiary. History, shmistory: getting a load of money from Brussels certainly helps a nation to love the EU. And the very fact that past enemies have become partners generates a positive emotional charge, in a way that the old but neglected friendship with Britain does not.
So while the British-educated Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski calls for more German leadership in the eurozone, he says that Britain is a country of "special concern". (The Polish phrase sounds almost like "special needs", as used of children with learning difficulties.) And he argues that if Poland gets into the eurozone, it could be part of a leading group of three to five countries from which Britain is currently resiling itself.
Yet the fact that planes tip their wings in opposite directions does not mean they will forever continue on diverging flight paths. Most Poles like their country's membership of the EU but only one in three of them currently wants it to join the euro. Polish experts have learned from the examples of Spain and Italy that you have to be very well prepared before you join that club. If Germany does the necessary to enable the eurozone to grow again, I think Poland will be right to join – but it will take many more years and tough, careful preparation. (At our first Krakow meeting, in 2008, we were told Poland's target date for euro membership was – er – 2012.)
Meanwhile, as the British debate gets slightly more real, the risks of leaving the EU become more apparent. It is already extraordinary that so much euro-denominated financial business is done outside the euro currency area, in London. The chairman of TheCityUK, representing Britain's financial services industry, says the idea that the City could thrive outside the EU is "poppycock".
So maybe the British and Polish Spitfires will end up flying in roughly the same direction after all, albeit at different ends of a rather widely spread squadron, and with a friendly Messerschmitt inbetween.
05/17/2013 01:30 PM
Crisis of Friendship: Split Persists Between Berlin and Paris
As a further sign that all is not well in the Franco-German motor of Europe, the two countries will not issue a joint statement ahead of the next EU summit as Berlin had hoped. The development comes as France slips further into economic malaise.
It's no secret that major differences are stewing between Berlin and Paris over the best recipes for combating the debt crisis. Despite efforts by French President François Hollande to suggest relations are just fine, they clearly aren't. In an address to his country on Thursday in which he pushed for an economic government in the euro zone, Hollande once again stated France has no problems with Germany and that his interactions with Chancellor Angela Merkel are "respectful." The only issues, he said, are when it comes to Europe. And even then, he said, Germany is prepared to make compromises, even if it "sometimes takes a while."
But in another sign that the Franco-German tandem often referred to as the motor of Europe has stalled is the fact that the two countries are likely to eschew presenting a joint strategy in the run up to the next European Union summit in June, government sources told SPIEGEL.
When Nicolas Sarkozy was still in office, Germany and France presented joint positions several times prior to EU summits. And this time, too, officials at Merkel's Chancellery had been pushing for a similar statement as a show of unity between Berlin and Paris. But sources at the Chancellery say this won't come to fruition because differences at the moment are too great to bridge.
German government sources said that Hollande had been skeptical of the plan from the very beginning. The French president is reportedly worried that a joint statement with Germany before an important EU meeting could irritate other member states.
Originally, further steps in the integration of economic and currency policy had been planned at the summit in June, but government sources in Berlin now say they don't expect any concrete results at the meeting.
Hollande Calls for 'Economic Government'
Speaking one year after his election to office, Hollande held a press conference on Thursday in front of 400 journalists at the presidential palace in Paris, at which he called for the creation of an "economic government" for the euro zone that would meet "monthly" under the stewardship of a president.
The leftist Socialist Party member said he wanted to pull Europe out of its "lethargy" and gave a time span of two years to "create the blueprint for a political union." He also indicated that Germany has expressed a willingness to consider such a union and that Europe could not move forward without the "indispensible German-French pair."
His speech came one day after the French economy officially slid into recession. Investments and exports are waning in France, purchasing power is falling and unemployment has reached record levels. "We will probably have growth in 2013 of zero percent, " the president conceded.
In terms of the economic government for the euro zone, he said it would coordinate economic policies among member states and also harmonize tax law. He also called for greater efforts to reduce high youth unemployment levels.
'A Balance Between Budgetary Rigor and Growth'
"It is my responsibility as the leader of a founding member of the European Union … to pull Europe out of this torpor that has gripped it, and to reduce people's disenchantment with it," he said, according to Reuters. "If Europe does not advance, it will fall or even be wiped from the world map."
He also said, "We have to find a balance between budgetary rigor and support for growth."
In addition to growth, Hollande said better education and training was needed as well as more competiveness -- also in relation to neighboring Germany.
Merkel: 'We Need Common Understanding in Europe'
For her part in Berlin, Merkel on Thursday stressed the need for reforms in France. "What we need above all is a common understanding in Europe -- and there unfortunately isn't one yet -- of what actually makes us strong and where growth comes from," Merkel said at a European policy forum, according to the Associated Press.
Hollande has called for a greater pooling of political and financial resources in the long run, including sovereign debt, but Berlin has vehemently opposed any calls for collective European debt in the form of eurobonds. Germany has argued that the EU isn't ready for eurobonds and that it would require a change to the European treaties.
Speaking at the forum, Merkel also said "the German-French relationship has very strong foundations," and that her personal relationship with Hollande is also "a good" one, but doesn't preclude "differences as well."
Responding to a controversial recent draft paper by the French Socialist Party describing her EU policies as egotistical, Merkel responded by saying, "I am not an egoist. I know that things can only go well for Germany if Europe is doing well."
May 16, 2013
Hollande Vows Reform as Critics Grow Louder
By NICOLA CLARK
PARIS — Faced with a deepening economic malaise and mounting public dissatisfaction with his leadership, President François Hollande of France said on Thursday that he would “go on the offensive,” promising new measures to reduce unemployment and harmonize economic policies among the countries using the euro.
Mr. Hollande warned that the protracted downturn facing France and other euro zone countries “threatens the very identity of Europe.”
“If Europe does not advance, it will fall, or even be erased from the world map,” Mr. Hollande said. “It is my duty to help bring Europe out of this state of lethargy and fear.”
A year into his presidency, Mr. Hollande has been criticized as lacking a coherent agenda to revive the limping French economy, which tipped back into recession this week. Recent surveys show that a large majority of voters do not feel that their lives have improved under his stewardship, and that about half are unsatisfied with the pace of the economic and social welfare changes he has promised.
Mr. Hollande made the remarks at a news conference that lasted more than two and a half hours. Dressed in a dark suit and perspiring at times, he defended his performance by rattling off a list of achievements, including changes in the banking sector and the labor market. And he renewed his pledge to “do everything” to reverse the rise in French unemployment, currently hovering at around 11 percent, a postwar high.
He acknowledged that his efforts had not found strong public approval yet. “What I wanted in this first year was not to be popular,” Mr. Hollande said. “It was to take the decisions that seemed to me to be in the best interests of France.”
The faltering economy, a series of embarrassing scandals involving members of his government and some public sniping among his ministers have combined to raise questions about whether he can maintain discipline in his cabinet, a mix of centrists, leftists and environmentalists that some say is unwieldy. Pressure for a reshuffle of the cabinet has been increasing lately.
“There should only be one line within the government,” the president said. “Every minister has a responsibility to support and execute the policies that I have articulated.”
In opening remarks that lasted 45 minutes, Mr. Hollande told reporters that he planned a series of economic initiatives, starting with a plan to create a central “economic government” for the 17 euro countries, with monthly meetings, a “real president” and the authority to issue bonds. Its duties would include harmonizing members’ policies on taxation and social welfare and coordinating the fight against tax fraud.
He also spoke of new measures to fight youth unemployment and to create a European “energy community” to coordinate a transition to renewable energy sources.
Such calls have met with a frosty response in Germany and some other member states.
“What we need above all is a common understanding of Europe — and there unfortunately isn’t one yet — of what actually makes us strong and where growth comes from,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said at a policy forum in Berlin on Thursday, The Associated Press reported.
Mr. Hollande paid homage to French soldiers who took part in the military intervention in Mali to fend off a takeover by militants, saying that they had “made France loved in all of Africa.” This week, France pledged 280 million euros, or $361 million, over the next two years to an effort to help rebuild Mali.
Polls in France show wide support for the intervention. French forces there are expected to begin returning home in the summer, giving way to a United Nations peacekeeping force.
Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.
France: waiting for Godot
A pressing task for Mr Hollande is to persuade a French audience he is capable of pulling his country out of its torpor. And on that test, he is failing
The Guardian, Thursday 16 May 2013 22.55 BST
The run-up to François Hollande's second press conference of his presidency could not have been less auspicious. France had just slipped back into recession, purchasing power had just dropped by 0.9 %, the heaviest fall in 30 years, and unemployment was at an all-time high. But to listen to the president, you would have thought that the French ship of state was on course.
If, in the president's words, his first year in power had been about bringing France's public spending under control (at 56% of GDP it is still nine points above Germany's) and putting the eurozone on the right track, the second year would see France going on the offensive. Now you may think, having seen most of his predictions for his first year in office crash in flames, Mr Hollande would be loath to create any more hostages to fortune. Not a bit of it. Mr Hollande called for the establishment of an economic government in the eurozone that would have: its own budget, debt, harmonised tax system and full-time president; a €6bn European youth programme; a pan-European energy policy; and more integration in the eurozone. As a founder member of the EU, it was France's responsibility to pull the sick, declining, doubting continent out of its torpor, the president said. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel was saying the opposite. Rejecting the idea of pooling debt, she stressed the importance of French reforms and each government getting their own finances in order. Apart from the hint Mr Hollande made that he will reform a pension system that is bust and that is borrowing from the markets, the distance between the two parts of the so called European motor is wide enough.
A more pressing task for Mr Hollande surely is to persuade a French audience he is capable of pulling his country out of its torpor. And on that test, he is failing. In January, he vowed to bring unemployment down by the end of the year. YesterdayOn Thursday, he said it was still "possible" to reverse the trend. He expressed complete faith in his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, but vowed there would be no reshuffle "for now". There is no doubting Mr Hollande's honesty.Nor is he looking for popularity. But there are strong doubts whether he has the strength to swim against the currents pulling him under. He is neither cutting fast enough to satisfy the austerity meisters of Berlin, nor is he reflating the economy. France enjoys the cheapest borrowing rates on the bond markets for decades, but is loath to use them. The US shows what even a small stimulus can produce.
Instead, Mr Hollande's strategy for growth relies on the rest of the sick eurozone supplying the demand that French exports need. There is nothing to indicate that will happen any time soon. Mr Hollande may well come to the podium next year pleading for more time.
François Hollande says eurozone needs its own full-time president
French president calls for more European unity, including budget and harmonised tax system
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 16 May 2013 20.13 BST
François Hollande has called for a united "economic government" in the eurozone, with its own full-time president, budget and harmonised tax system.
Hollande, who marks his first year in office as the most unpopular president in modern French history, said a more politically integrated EU would be key to his next years in office as he tries to dig France out of its slump and convince the public that he can still influence Brussels.
The move came as he attempted to use a set-piece press conference to stem growing pessimism in France which has fallen back into recession and is facing record unemployment, a stagnant economy, industrial decline and a population increasingly struggling to make ends meet.
Hollande said the notion of the 17-country eurozone integrating more would end the sluggishness threatening Europe's future. But the proposal was likely to be dismissed outright in Germany. "If Europe does not advance, it will fall or even be wiped off the world map," Hollande said. "My duty is to bring Europe out of its lethargy, to reduce people's disenchantment with it."
But commentators and polls showed the French public fears France's clout in Europe has weakened, despite Hollande promising when he was elected to be the crusader for a new economic approach and the end of one-size-fits-all austerity.
Hollande has been pressed by the political class, and even in his own camp, to step up his programme of reform in France.
Brussels has given Paris two more years to bring its budget deficit below the EU limit, but in return it is demanding serious reform of the French welfare state and high public spending. Hollande stressed he would continue with what he has euphemistically called "budgetary seriousness" – but not austerity – reducing state spending but without swinging the axe on public services. Hollande said he would protect the French welfare state but it had to be transformed in order to survive.
The main plank of this will be the highly controversial reform of France's generous pensions system, which is heavily in debt and borrowing from the markets to pay pensioners. In a departure for the left, he said: "When we live longer we must work a little bit longer." This will set the tone for summer months of pensions wrangling with unions which will begin next month. If a major pensions reform goes ahead it will be the first time the French left has seriously tackled the explosive issue of pensions in France. Each time the right has attempted changes, there have been massive street protests, sometimes forcing the government to backtrack.
He vowed that he would keep his promise to reverse the relentless rise of unemployment by the end of the year, despite economists and the majority of the public believing this is impossible. Joblessness, at 10% and 3.2 million, is at its highest since records began in 1996.
Eurocepticism no bar to close British-French defence ties
Thursday 16 May 2013 17.24 BST guardian.co.uk
• French minister stresses "pragmatic" cooperation
• Europe's two largest military powers could set the pace for other countries
Euroscepticism might be spreading across Britain - and other EU countries — but it does not appear to be affecting Britain's relations with France.
At least not in one important area. Far from it.
Cooperation between the two nations on defence seems to be flourishing. The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, helped to explain why at a press conference in London on Thursday.
Le Drian, a Breton who speaks little English, came to see see Philip Hammond, his UK counterpart, in the framework of the Franco-British defence agreements enshrined in the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties.
The two countries enjoy mutual respect because of the capabilities of their armed forces and willingness to deploy them. And certainly Hammond and David Cameron appreciated the emphasis the French (socialist) government placed on nuclear weapons in its recent defence white paper.
There is more to it than that. After saying he enjoyed an "excellent" relationship with Hammond, Le Drian suggested why the two governments got on so well, in military matters at least.
He charactersised cooperation between the two countries as "pragmatic" — a word he emphasised five times in barely half an hour. He stressed the need for "concrete" steps with decisions taken by "sovereign" nation states.
Other European countries were welcome to join in such defence cooperation but it would be little to do with Brussels or the EU.
That was the message.
"I don't speak of European defence but speak of the defence of Europe", was how Le Drian put it.
British and French forces have been deployed together in large-scale exercises and they plan to be able to deploy a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force from 2016.
They plan to develop an Anglo-French sea-launched missile and have joint projects designed to secure and maintain nuclear warhead stockpiles (in Valduc in France and Aldermaston in the UK).
Britain and France are now planning to develop unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs or drones, as they are commonly called.
The huge capability gaps in European defence capabilities were exposed during the Libyan conflict two years ago when Britain and France had to rely on US surveillance and intelligence -gathering aircraft.
In Mali in January, France needed the help of US intelligence assets and UAVs. Significantly, Le Drian was flying from London to Washington where France hopes to buy a number of US Reaper drones.
France already cooperates closely with the US on aircraft carriers — both countries use "cats and traps" planes — aircraft using catapults and arrester gear.
The British government last year abandoned its 2010 decision to equip its new carriers with "cats and traps" on grounds of cost. It has ordered the short take off and vertical landing version of Lockheed Martin's F35 fighter, at a cost unknown.
Where does this leave the rest of western Europe, and Germany in particular?
"Germany needs to take a bigger part in European defence and security -play a bigger part in the debate on collective security", a British defence minister told a recent European Council on Foreign Relations meeting in London.
"If European countries do not hang together they will hang separately", commented a former senior UK diplomat who warned that the US could be an "unreliable ally".
A European summit devoted to defence is due to be held in December.
05/17/2013 12:08 PM
Neo-Nazi Trial: Excrement Smeared on Lawyer's Office Door
Excrement and urine have been splattered on the Munich office of a lawyer representing plaintiffs in Germany's biggest neo-Nazi trial. Police suspect far-right extremists were behind the incident, just one of several apparently intended to intimidate anti-racist and immigrant groups as the trial gets underway.
Since the landmark trial of neo-Nazi Beate Zschäpe began this month, a number of anti-extremist groups have been the target of far-right attacks, a media report said on Friday. Only now, the attempts at intimidation have taken a decidedly unsavory new tone, with right-wing extremists suspected of smearing a lawyer's office with fecal matter and urine.
The door of the Munich office, which belongs to a lawyer representing family members of a victim of the neo-Nazi terrorist cell, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), was "extensively" daubed with excrement and urine on Monday morning, according to daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.
"It is unlikely that this is a coincidence," the paper wrote.
A housing project in Westend -- the same district of the Bavarian capital where the NSU committed one of its 10 alleged murders -- and the office of refugee counselling service were among other places to have been vandalized a total of seven times with things like neo-Nazi slogans and eggings, the paper said. The latest incident occurred on Thursday night, when the home of anti-racist activists was pelted with paint bombs.
Police suspect that right-wing extremists are behind the attacks, but are not currently investigating any individuals. "They want us to feel unsafe," one of the activists told the paper. "We won't allow ourselves to be intimidated."
The NSU trial, the biggest Germany has seen in decades, has sharpened the focus on the problem of neo-Nazi activity in the country. Beate Zschäpe, the last surviving member of the terrorist cell, is alleged to have helped form the neo-Nazi group with Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, who both committed suicide after a botched bank robbery in November 2011. Zschäpe was allegedly complicit in the racially motivated killing of eight men of Turkish descent, one Greek man and a German policewoman between 2000 and 2007. She also allegedly took part in orchestrating a 2004 bomb attack that injured 22 in a district of Cologne in which many Turks live.
Four alleged accomplices are on trial with Zschäpe, who faces a possible life sentence.
05/15/2013 06:18 PM
'Superficial Nightmare': Feminists Take Aim at Barbie Dreamhouse
Criticism is mounting against the life-size "Barbie Dreamhouse Experience" opening this week in Berlin, with feminist activists calling for protests. Bringing the doll's fantasy life into the real world goes too far in spreading damaging stereotypes, they say.
When Europe's first Barbie Dreamhouse Experience attraction opens in Berlin on Thursday, a number of young girls will probably be eager to get inside. But they'll have to get through the crowd of feminist protesters first.
Culminating weeks of criticism, feminist groups plan to demonstrate outside the giant pink mansion to call attention to what they say is a sexist role model that embodies the "pinkification" of childrens' toys. It certainly won't be the first time that the blonde, anatomically impossible doll has drawn the ire of gender rights activists, but something about the attempt to make the fantasy into an actual "experience," as the Barbie Dreamhouse organizers call it, seems to have hit a nerve.
Coverage of the attraction -- which features an "endless" closet, cupcake baking kitchen, fashion runway and pop-star karaoke stage -- have been decidedly less flattering than the Barbie outfits on display there. "Glitz, Glamour, Ghastliness," read a Wednesday headline in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, which went on to describe it as a "horror house" where the overwhelming prevalence of pink actually puts visitors in a foul mood. "It is exactly as the harshest critics predicted -- a pink-colored, sparkling world of beautiful illusion. A superficial nightmare in pastel," the paper said. The dollhouse for humans is a "Hell in Rose Pink," a headline in daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said last week.
In a SPIEGEL ONLINE editorial over the weekend, author Silke Burmester accused Christoph Rahofer, the head of EMS, the Vienna-based marketing firm behind the Barbie world, of creating a place to educate young girls in the arts of superficiality. "Not many women have the possibility of creating such a life for themselves," she wrote. "All the better that you, Mr. Rahofer, have now given children the chance to taste the sweet nectar of life as a doll. When else will they find the incentive to focus all of their energy on appearances, working ceaselessly for perfection, if the foundations aren't laid in their childhood days?"
Protesting Pretty 'Propaganda'
Occupy Barbie Dreamhouse, a group set up in March by Michael Koschitzki, a member of the far-left Left Party's youth organization, has spearheaded the protest movement against the Dreamhouse, printing thousands of flyers and calling on fellow feminists to gather outside for speeches and protest outside the temporary attraction on Thursday. "We don't want young girls exposed to sexist propaganda already at an elementary school age," the group's Facebook page states.
The group says its protests aren't targeted at parents who bring their children to the Dreamhouse, nor the children who enjoy playing with Barbie dolls, the group says. "Our protest is directed against the perception of women that is being propagated by the Barbie Dreamhouse in Berlin, and against the exhibition of the social conditions that it represents, namely that the role of a woman is to always look good, and to cook and clean."
Occupy Barbie Dreamhouse, whose name is a nod to the anti-avarice Occupy Wall Street movement, will also be joined by the German chapter of Pinkstinks, a group that campaigns against products, advertising and marketing they claim contribute to the limitation and "pinkification" of gender roles. "Pink is a wonderful color," the group's founder Stevie Meriel Schmiedel told news agency DPA last week. "But the pinkification of toys stinks. This colors stands only for being cute and sweet and outward."
The youth chapter of the environmentalist Green Party on Wednesday also encouraged anti-Barbie protesters to come out for the opening, releasing a statement that called for the doll to be banned, saying she not only undermines gender equality, but also "projects sexist roles and leads to eating disorders."
All in Good Fun
Located near Alexanderplatz, a main shopping hub in central Berlin, the 2,500-square-meter Barbie Dreamhouse Experience will charge €15 for adults and €12 for children ($19 and $15, respectively), and remain open until Aug. 25, when it will move on to other European cities. Dreamhouse creator Koschitzki, a father of two young girls, told SPIEGEL last month the attraction was "just about having fun," and called the protests "totally unnecessary."
Mattel, the US toymaker that has been producing Barbie dolls since 1959 and issued a license for the project in Berlin, has likely become accustomed to criticism of what the doll is perceived to represent. Indeed, "Barbie has again become a tool for some to advance their own agenda," a spokesperson for the company's German unit told news agency AFP.
-- kla, with wire reports
05/17/2013 10:50 AM
Protesting Pink: Barbie Dreamhouse Gets Fiery Welcome in Berlin
By Rainer Leurs
For some, it's a dream in pink. For others, it's a monument to misogyny. The Barbie Dreamhouse opened its doors in Berlin on Thursday, and demonstrators and journalists were out in force. Femen also made an appearance -- to burn Barbie on the cross.
In the end, someone did get hurt -- and in the center of the events at the Barbie Dreamhouse Experience on Thursday afternoon stood a gigantic, pink high-heeled shoe. The pump was actually a fountain of sorts, and the emblem of the life-sized dollhouse that opened its doors to the public on Thursday near Berlin's Alexanderplatz square.
In the weeks before its opening, various groups voiced their disapproval of the temporary theme park. And on Thursday, demonstrators finally got their chance to show just how furious they are. In the early afternoon, an activist with the women's rights group Femen climbed onto the gigantic shoe dressed only in a mini-skirt. She was carrying a burning cross on which a Barbie doll had been crucified. Parents and children stood nearby. The women screamed over and over again: "Being Barbie is not a career!"
When another protester became involved, going after a security guard, a brief scuffle ensued, a stroller tipped over and an elderly woman fell to the ground. According to police, the woman was slightly injured and went to the hospital for treatment.
It may sound relatively banal, but Barbie Dreamhouse personnel didn't find it funny at all. "They were standing at the fence and chanting 'Burn it down! Burn it down!'" one employee said. And then the Femen activist started running around with her burning cross. The employee said he thought she was going to light the building on fire.
And the building is not made out of bricks and mortar -- it is nothing but a tent. Almost nothing here is real: The walls are made of canvas, the columns of plastic, and the windows and curtains are merely painted on.
The answer to many a young girl's dream was put up by EMS Entertainment not far from Alexanderplatz in the heart of Berlin, a theme park in pink and white. Children must pay €12 ($15), their adult companions €3 more. Berlin will be just the first stop on a larger tour for the exhibit, remaining in the German capital until the end of August.
The organizers had likely hoped the grand opening would make a different sort of headline. But protesters grabbed the limelight even before the opening. The place is nothing but "sexist propaganda" for children, a spokesman for the group Occupy Barbie Dreamhouse told the left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung. The famous doll and her modelesque figure merely services misogynistic clichés, critics say. Some 2,000 people have joined the Facebook group since it was launched.
As such, media interest on Thursday was high. Hordes of journalists wandered through the pink Barbie tent to take a closer look at the miracles inside and, more to the point, to convince one of the relatively few families present despite school and summery weather to be interviewed on camera.
The inside of the Dreamhouse is poignantly harmless. There is a pink kitchen where children can bake virtual cupcakes using a touch-screen. A pink piano with colorful buttons instead of keys that must be pushed to make music. A sled in which they can sit to race through a virtual winter landscape. A table with pens where children can color in Barbie pictures and decorate them with glitter. And everywhere, in display cases, there are Barbies, all stylishly dressed, blonde and, of course, super-thin.
'Totally Off Base'
Is it really all that harmful? "This house is only about beauty, cooking and baking," says Susa Bruha, 34, one of the dozen members of the anti-sexist group Pinkstinks that showed up on Thursday for the opening, well before the crucified doll went up in flames.
"It is simply a very one-dimensional view of women," Bruha says about the exhibit. The message, she says, is that girls can become either models or pop stars -- and nothing else. "But there are other girls who are perhaps small or fat but can do other things super well."
Christoph Rahofer, head of EMS Entertainment, sees things differently. "Personally, I think they are totally off base," he says about the protesters. "I really can't understand how playing with a Barbie doll is problematic." There are, he says, certainly problems in the world that are more pressing than his exhibit.
In recent weeks, there has been no shortage of critique and insults aimed at Rahofer and the Barbie Dreamhouse, a fact which likely explained the watchful eye his personnel kept on the press. They followed journalists throughout the exhibition to ensure that no photos were made of Barbie's four-poster bed, her bathroom or her tub.
Burned on the Cross
They had plenty of work to do. Journalists from around the world -- from Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the US were present. All of them wanted to see if Barbie Dreamhouse is really that bad -- and if something newsworthy might happen outside.
For a long time, it didn't. Until midday, the Pinkstinks people were the only ones holding their posters up to the cameras. "Barbie is not my baby," reads one. And "Don't just bake cupcakes, eat them too!"
The scene was almost idyllic. Leftist demonstrators, feminists and other anti-Barbie protesters sat peacefully on the artificial grass or on pink chairs enjoying the warm May sun while small children crawled around in front of the display tent.
And then, Barbie was burned on the cross.
05/16/2013 04:06 PM
'Mommy Merkel': How the Chancellor Paralyzed German Politics
A Commentary by Dirk Kurbjuweit
During her eight years as chancellor, Angela Merkel has skillfully lulled Germans to sleep and used feel-good policies to switch their focus from politics to personal comfort. By starving Germany's democracy of vibrancy, "Mommy Merkel" has caused it to wither.
Shh, not so loud. Just don't fight or get worked up. The chancellor has asked for calm, including during the campaign season. No attacks, no impertinence, no major debates. Stay home -- and keep dozing!
This is how things look in Germany in 2013, and how they have looked throughout Angela Merkel's almost eight years as German chancellor. Merkel, the head of the ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), wants calm -- and she gets it, too. When a chancellor holds office for a long time, he or she affects the mood of a country, the disposition of the people. Eight years are long enough to do so. Not everything in Germany is influenced by Merkel, but enough is that it would be accurate to say that we are creatures of the Merkel Era.
What has become of us? What is the state of the country? The term that has been gradually taking hold to describe this period is "Biedermeier."
Peer Steinbrück, the chancellor candidate for the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), recently used the word while criticizing Merkel in a speech he delivered at a party convention, and the media had used it before him. It's not a term with positive associations, and few people would brag about living a "Biedermeier" life. Nevertheless, we seem to be living in a second Biedermeier period.
The first Biedermeier era began with the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and ended in 1848, when Germany tried its hand at revolution. In Vienna, after emerging victorious against the revolutionary upstart Napoleon, the old, conservative monarchies re-established previous conditions and enforced them throughout Germany with the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819. Press censorship, in particular, was meant to prevent the spread of liberal and nationalist views. A portion of the disappointed middle class withdrew from public to private life, which had a detrimental effect on public discourse. Today, the word "Biedermeier" is mainly associated with the style of furniture typical of the period, as well as being used to express a certain quiet, lethargic sort of hominess.
Yet nationalist and liberal sentiments continued to simmer under the surface of the Biedermeier period. Many Germans wanted to combine their various small states into a unified nation-state, an ambition that also expressed itself in chauvinism toward France. Many also desired more freedoms and civil liberties, as well as the ability to have a greater say in political decision-making. Along with the apathy of the period, there was an underlying revolutionary mood, an anger that exploded first in 1830, on a small scale, and then in 1848, on a massive scale. Citizens put up some protest, but they were ultimately too indecisive to successfully establish a democracy and a nation-state.
The current chancellor certainly doesn't govern Germany with anything like the Carlsbad Decrees. Our freedoms remain undisturbed. Yet Merkel has managed to paralyze discourse in Germany and create a republic at ease.
Merkel comes from a consensus-based school of thought. She was raised in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), in which confrontation and polarization were viewed as unproductive. The country's ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) prescribed consensus and, thus, political calm. Even East German citizens who weren't party members and took a skeptical stance toward the system, such as Merkel, later had trouble adapting to the endless struggles that are part and parcel of life in a democracy.
Merkel avoids open confrontation whenever she can. She shies away from making clear statements, polarization and big social ideas that could spark disagreement. She's drifting through the current election campaign, hoping it will benefit her party if voter turnout is low because hardly anyone can find reason to get particularly worked up about how she leads Germany. Instead of making any demands, she doles out benefits to retirees and families. Indeed, she's sapping the life out of Germany and sprinkling powdered sugar on top.
And she's getting away with it. In 2009, she reduced voter turnout to a historic low. Since she doesn't offend anyone, she enjoys outstanding approval ratings. While combating the financial crisis, she has pursued policies that she declares to be "the only option." And, believing her, the SPD amiably toes the line in the best interest of the country. Merkel's main rival candidates from the SPD -- Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2009 and Peer Steinbrück in 2013 -- previously served as part of a grand coalition with her, the former as a foreign minister, the latter as finance minister. Ever since, they have seemed incapable of showing anything but complete respect and chivalry toward the chancellor. In fact, there have been no serious attacks on Merkel because there are no politicians willing to make themselves unpopular by taking a popular chancellor to task.
The general public, too, has remained calm -- just as Merkel likes it -- and no one seems to be able to come up with much reason to protest against her. There is no particular enthusiasm for Merkel, but rather paralyzed consent. People sit at home and read Landlust, a magazine that has achieved enormous success by telling stories about rural living and domestic bliss.
A Protective Mother
The country Merkel has created must remind her a bit of her first home, the GDR, which was Biedermeier in the form of a country. Of course, the Federal Republic of Germany is much freer than the GDR was. But this freedom, which is first and foremost the freedom to express disagreement, currently goes largely unutilized.
It is interesting that the most significant novel to come out of the Merkel era is a book about the GDR, Uwe Tellkamp's "Der Turm" ("The Tower"). Tellkamp describes a morbid, bourgeois world in the eastern city of Dresden in which politics per force play very little role and, ultimately, it is the city's beautiful buildings -- crumbling, but all the homier for it -- that set the mood. Add in the Leipzig School movement, which continues to set the tone for German painting, and "The Lives of Others" as Germany's most prominent recent contribution to filmmaking, and the GDR proves astonishingly influential in Germany's art scene today.
Politically, however, the GDR no longer has anything to say to us. It was an error of history, now irrelevant. Even Sahra Wagenknecht, a German politician from the far-left Left Party, whose communist ideas seem to be buoyed by capitalism's crises, says she wouldn't return to the GDR's political system. The interest in East Germany may also be explained by the widespread notion that things would be much more relaxing in the absence of politics. In that sense, Merkel is working to build a "tower" for everyone -- a sheltered place of calm, a homey home -- and Germans as a whole don't seem opposed to the idea.
This general quiet also has to do with the fact that Merkel and her ministers have so far managed to spare the country from the unpleasant consequences of the financial crisis. Unlike in Southern Europe, where enormous numbers of people are now unemployed, in Germany, the economy is growing and incomes are rising. This is commendable, but it also has something of a chauvinistic approach to it. The re-nationalization of politics is one of the Merkel Era's truly significant changes. The chancellor does not fundamentally reject solidarity with Germany's European partners, but she does set limits. There won't be eurobonds under Merkel.
Merkel's policies could even be described as expansionary. She would like for other countries to adopt Germany's standards of stability and efficiency, allowing Europe as a whole to become more competitive. That way, Merkel figures, Germany as a major power in Europe would be able to preserve its influence in the world. It's been a long time since a German politician dared to have so much national ambition. And this attitude is well received by the general public. For many Germans, Merkel is the defender of their homeland against the world.
The Pax Angela
It could be coincidence, but the most successful non-fiction book in Germany in recent years was Thilo Sarrazin's derogatory reflections on immigrants in his "Deutschland schafft sich ab" ("Germany Does Itself In"). The book assuredly isn't something Merkel herself supported or promoted, but it does fit with the prevailing mood of the times, in which some Germans are quick to feel their comfort zone has been disturbed, with anger often being the result.
Anger is surely the most oft-cited emotion in Germany's public life in recent years. But rather than being directed toward Merkel and her federal-level policies, this upwelling of revolutionary sentiment generally focuses on local issues. Germans have fought against the Stuttgart 21 train station project, against a new major airport in Berlin and against new power-cable masts that will be necessary for the Energiewende, Germany's plan to phase out nuclear energy and massively increase its reliance on renewable energy sources. This is also a defense of the homeland, but one that takes place internally. Many Germans don't want to be inconvenienced by noise, dirt, aesthetic impositions or the uncertainties that always come with new things.
Just as in the Biedermeier period, the issue here is more about participation -- but it's participation meant to bring about an undisturbed life rather than a shared societal vision of a better world. In this respect, the second Biedermeier era is even more Biedermeier-like than the first one was.
At least democracy is alive and well at the local level. At the federal level, though, Merkel's Germany is by and large somnolent, in part because of the government's failure to present new ideas and plans. The chancellor gets by without them, and even the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior partner in the ruling coalition, can't seem to muster up much of an alternative, happy to avoid any danger of becoming a target of hostility.
By and large, things are calm in Merkel's republic -- and that really is something new. All other German chancellors who served long terms in office had a polarizing effect -- Konrad Adenauer (CDU) with his conservatism and alliances with Western powers; Willy Brandt (SPD) with his social democratic reforms and Ostpolitik policies aimed at normalizing relations with communist countries in Eastern Europe; Helmut Schmidt (SPD) with his arrogance and rearmament; Helmut Kohl (CDU) with his continued rearmament, the phrase "intellectual and moral turning point" and his entire persona; Gerhard Schröder (SPD) with the Agenda 2010 package of reforms to Germany's welfare system and labor market.
It was only when she was the opposition leader, when she briefly imagined she could succeed with a neoliberal approach, that Merkel added a little spice to German politics. But as chancellor, she quickly became "mommy," a nickname that seemed silly at first but has since proved apt, in the sense that a "mommy" is someone who takes care of the home, makes life pleasant and keeps worries at bay.
No Conflict, No Progress
And why shouldn't life simply be pleasant? There are two reasons, one cultural and the other concrete. A democracy needs conflict and commotion to make sure that its citizens get involved rather than fall asleep. Calm is something for dictatorships, which depend on fear and general passivity. A democracy needs disruptions and vibrancy in its civilian life. It also needs these things to ensure that progress continues, as reforms only arise from conflict and polarization. Someone has an idea about how to change society; others disagree and protest. Then there is a compromise, one that hopefully remains clear enough that it actually does end up changing something.
There are still things to change in Germany. The country's demographic problems remain unsolved, children's opportunities in life depend on the social class they are born into, the workplace is lacking in equality, and the shift toward renewable energy sources has stalled.
Merkel's Germany largely lacks this process of creative conflict. The country drifts along lethargically, its democracy withering because its citizens are given so little to challenge them. For the upcoming federal election in September, Merkel is also counting on asymmetrical demobilization, and that's a scandal. One way to describe her strategy would be: Maintaining power by slowing suffocating the electorate. Another would be: Creating a Biedermeier society through her feel-good policies.
Are we really okay with this? After all, it would be horrible if future generations primarily associated our era, too, with furniture.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
05/16/2013 05:53 PM
Political Conspiracy Theories: Angela Merkel Is No KGB 'Sleeper Agent'
By Jan Fleischhauer
Ever wondered what Angela Merkel had in mind with her decision to phase out nuclear energy? Dependency on Russian energy, if you believe some prominent conspiracy theorists. They'd like you to believe the German chancellor is some kind of KGB "sleeper agent" installed by Moscow at the end of the Cold War.
For people from the states of the former West Germany, those from the East just can't be trusted entirely -- it's a latent suspicion people have always had. For anyone who is drilled from childhood on to hide his or her feelings and thoughts, having two faces becomes second nature.
"Disguise and deception are traditional survival strategies that people were forced to use under a dictatorship," social psychologist Tilman Allert wrote a few days ago in the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in a piece that explored "strategic insincerity" as a way of life.
In other words, we should have known better. Instead, we allowed 16 million potential sleeper agents into the country. Now they are among us. One is already even sitting in the Chancellery.
Yes, let's not allow ourselves to be deceived by the harmless-seeming façade. Angela Merkel has everything it takes to sneak her way to the top: a great degree of adaptability paired with a high level of intelligence, as well as an almost inexhaustible capacity for patience. For nearly eight years now, she's been Germany's leader, and yet she remains an enigma. Even today, we still don't know what she's really thinking, what she wants or where she comes from.
'Homeland' in the Chancellery
Fortunately, there are still some courageous people in Germany who are brave enough to seek the truth. We have a publishing house in Munich to thank for a new book about the "First Life of Angela M.," which claims to clear up the "legend of the patriotic pastor's daughter."
Now we know that Merkel not only spoke Russian well, but was outright "enthusiastic" about learning the language. Nor were her travels as innocent as she would later lead us to think. During one trip through the Soviet Union, she absolutely had to travel to Gori, "the city of Stalin's birth." Anyone who has seen the television series "Homeland," knows where this is heading. You just have to put the pieces together to get the full picture: "She has been turned."
In Merkel's case, everything is built around a single theory, one that can also be found in the new book, but only in coded language. Even in Munich, it seems, there are some things people don't trust themselves to say out loud. Instead they have to rely on SPIEGEL ONLINE to do it for them.
The theory goes like this: During the fall of 1989, the powers in Moscow realized that East Germany was no longer sustainable. So they dispatched KGB agents Wolfgang Schnur (for a short time the head of "Demokratischer Aufbruch," or Democratic Awakening, the opposition political movement to which Merkel also belonged) and Lothar de Maizière (the first and last democratically elected East German prime minister) in order to steer a young physicist named Angela Merkel toward Helmut Kohl. The neophyte politician spent the subsequent years as a protégé of the aging German chancellor -- waiting and watching, learning and perfecting herself.
In March 2011, the time had finally come and the "sleeper agent" activated herself. With the phase-out of nuclear power, Merkel suddenly made Germany dependent on Russia for energy with one fell swoop. Anyone who ruminates on categories of power knows that energy policy is the same as security policy. So now it will be determined in Moscow whether or not the lights work in Germany.
Okay, you may think this is just some crazy conspiracy theory -- and you are doubtlessly right about that. But as one can see these days, even level-headed observers of the chancellor are falling prey to the demonization of Merkel. The notion that Merkel wants to transform the country into some kind of East Germany-lite has even been covered on the editorial and culture pages of the biggest newspapers in the land.
In the newspapers, though, Merkel isn't portrayed as a KGB sleeper agent -- but rather as a kind of evil spirit who wants to cast some sort of spell over Germany that will place the entire country in an eternal slumber. Here, too, it is her conspicuous harmlessness that makes her seem so dangerous. Or, as the German journalist Reinhard Mohr, who has a good flair for aphorism, puts it, "She does nothing, but it is precisely by doing so that she governs the country. She has no clear opinion on any given issue, but yet she imposes this upon the entire country. It almost sounds a little diabolical."
Merkel Wants to Stay in Office Longer than Kohl
The complaint that the chancellor is refusing to engage in the national election in any combative or interesting way is also a bit off the mark, if one thinks about it. In the past, it was always up to the opposition to make sure that the election campaign was a lively one. It appears, however, that the situation among the opposition Social Democrats is so desperate that this task has also fallen on the chancellor.
The left-wing political camps in Germany are now clinging to a hope that another recently published book about Merkel has fed: That she will step down halfway through her next term if re-elected, and will exit the domestic political stage, possibly taking a post at the European Union in Brussels. During Merkel's earlier days in the Chancellery, many had their sights set on toppling her. Now they are hoping she will leave on her own accord.
But I can only say this to those who despise Merkel and would like to see a voluntary retreat: You may be waiting for a very long time. If the chancellor has one goal in mind, it is to exceed the record 16 years that Kohl spent leading Germany. If she succeeds, then we will have at least nine more years of Merkel as chancellor ahead of us -- plenty of time for new theories to emerge.
Here's one that people might want to consider: Who is responsible for the fact that not only the chancellor, but also President Joachim Gauck, come from the former German Democratic Republic? The leaders of the opposition are to blame for catapulting Gauck into the position to further their own devious agenda.
But who's going to believe that?
Jan Fleischhauer is the author of "Der Schwarze Kanal," or "The Black Channel," SPIEGEL ONLINE's weekly conservative political column. Black is a reference to the political color of Chancellor Angela Merkel's political party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union.
05/16/2013 05:27 PM
Nazi Slogans: Has Berlin's Gentrification Feud Gone too Far?
By Charly Wilder
It may have begun as a joke, but with the adoption of slogans used by the Nazis, an ongoing feud pitting long-time Berliners against newer residents from southern Germany may have crossed a line.
On Monday morning, residents of Berlin's central Mitte district awoke to find a memorial bearing a bust of the 19th-century German philosopher Georg Hegel smeared with ketchup and currywurst, a local fast-food specialty, under a banner reading "Expatriate Swabians." This probably didn't come as a big surprise, however, given that in the past year, graffitied messages like "Shoot Swabians" and "Swabians Out" have become commonplace in the city -- particularly in the former working-class neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in what was once East Berlin.
Germans from the southwestern region of Swabia -- with their hefty savings accounts and distinct accents -- have become the unfortunate poster children for the city's rapid gentrification. Proudly rough-around-the-edges Berliners like to complain that the well-heeled arrivals from the south are bourgeois and pedantic types who are not only causing rents to spike, but molding the German capital in their own provincial image.
An anonymous group claimed responsibility online for defacing the bust of Hegel, who hailed from Stuttgart, Swabia's largest city. "The Swabians have until December 31, 2013 to leave the transitional quarter. They will be expatriated from Berlin and sent to the south," reads their website.
Though most of the intimations of the "Expatriate Swabians" group and those like it are probably meant to be tongue-in-cheek, many feel the mock-nativism is in poor taste -- especially in Berlin, where mass pogroms were carried out by the Nazis only a few generations ago. Berlin's interior minister, Frank Henkel, called the most recent incident "tasteless" and "unspeakable." On Tuesday, he told the mass-circulation daily Bild: "If anybody doesn't fit into Berlin, then it is not the Swabians, but these intolerant factions."
It Began as a Joke
The act is the latest in a series of incidents -- often referred to as the "Spätzle Wars" in the local press -- that at first seemed like harmless pranks. In January, a group known by the name of "Free Swabylon" splattered spätzle -- a traditional Swabian egg noodle dish -- on a statue of the artist Käthe Kollwitz and called for an autonomous Swabian district in Berlin.
A few days earlier, Wolfgang Thierse, a long-time Prenzlauer Berg resident as well as the vice president of Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, had commented to a local newspaper that he felt he'd become an "endangered species" in his neighborhood and complained that many local bakeries now use the Swabian terms for various pastries, instead of the Berlin ones.
"I hope the Swabians realize they are now in Berlin, and not in their little towns with their spring cleaning," he told the Berliner Morgenpost. "They come here because it's all so colorful and adventurous and lively, but after a while, they want to make it like it is back home. You can't have both."
But in recent months, the so-called "Swabian hate" has grown increasingly aggressive, as graffiti has adopted the tone -- and, in some cases, the exact wording -- that was used by the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews and other targeted groups in the run-up to the Holocaust. One recent piece of graffiti reads, "Swabians, piss off," with the double "S" resembling the Nazi's SS insignia. In early May, "Don't buy from the Swabians" ("Kauf nicht bei Schwaben") was spray-painted on the side of a Prenzlauer Berg building, an incitement to boycott that directly mirrors the slogan affixed to Jewish businesses in 1933 after Hitler came to power. Both phrases were followed with "TSH," supposedly an acronym for "Total Swabian Hate."
Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, told the daily Berliner Zeitung earlier this month that the graffiti was an "unthinkable action" for which there was "no justification." And Interior Minister Henkel pointed out that the act is especially insensitive because there is a synagogue on the same street. "Graffiti of this kind is no trivial offense," he said. "The police will do everything they can to find the person responsible."
"Its never good to trivialize the Shoah and the Third Reich by using the words and phrases related to that time," says Ralf Melzer, an expert on right-wing extremism at Berlin's Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. "But especially here in Berlin, where the Final Solution was planned and organized. It harms and insults the relatives of the victims." Serious or not, he adds, this kind of glib referencing is normally frowned upon, if not unprecedented, in Berlin.
"From time to time, you hear politicians use wording similar to the Nazis in other contexts or apply the word 'Holocaust' inappropriately, and so forth," says Melzer. But he can't think of another instance in which the language of the Third Reich was thrown around in such a cavalier fashion, he adds.
As early as the 1970s, Berliners have had a habit of mocking newcomers from southern parts of Germany -- especially Swabians, who were easily identifiable by their accent and idiosyncratic dialect. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Wall, derision grew as the younger generation flocked to the city from other parts of the country to take part in the wild parties and experimental arts scenes for which Berlin had become known.
In the past decade, as Berlin's international profile has continuously grown, resentment against the influx of new residents has intensified, with locals complaining that the city is being overly gentrified, sanitized and sapped of its character. An extreme case is Prenzlauer Berg, which transformed in less than two decades from communist workers' district to ragged bohemian playground to posh family enclave, complete with yoga studios, preschools and organic cafes. For all the claims that Swabian hate is just a bit of good-natured taunting, the sentiment is grounded in the real anger of long-time residents being priced out of their homes.
'A Real Social Dimension'
"Maybe the intention is to make a joke, but I'm not so sure," says Melzer. "I think this is actual resentment against a group. It's a very diffuse kind of feeling, but there is a real social dimension in that housing prices are getting higher, the neighborhood is changing, it's getting more chic. But you have to see that this is quite a normal phenomenon. Neighborhoods change. This has to be handled in another way -- not by stigmatizing a whole group, be it the Danish or the Swabians. It's a pity that things like this happen, and it's not good for the atmosphere in the city."
The focus on Swabians, in particular, has hit a nerve because it taps into deeper cultural and geographical animosities rooting back to reunification, when a bankrupt Berlin turned to the wealthier German federal states for support.
Today, the city-state of Berlin is more than €60 billion ($80 billion) in debt and receives around €3 billion a year in cross subsidies from the richer German states, such as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, the two states straddled by Swabia. Some see the anti-Swabian acrimony as particularly hard to swallow, given the fact that Berlin owes much of its current incarnation as a dynamic creative capital to the fact that its southern neighbors foot the bill.
And for that matter, as Melzer points out, you could just as easily blame new residents from Bavaria, Brandenburg or Italy.
"I would say that to some extent, it's an artificial conflict," he says. "There's a real basis, but you can't blame individuals. And bringing this into context with the Holocaust and the Nazi era is not only completely inappropriate -- but also counterproductive for people who want to keep prices low in their neighborhoods."