Fiona Laughton chats to Australian author Stuart Braun about his debut book…
Over the past century, Berlin has been a refuge for many different people. For those claiming political asylum, for example, but also economic migrants such as Greeks and Spaniards fleeing increasing unemployment, as well as privileged soul-searchers seeking a more affordable lifestyle.
When Australian writer Stuart Braun first visited Berlin in 1996, he was quick to observe how many of the city’s residents possessed a certain restless spirit, which he came to believe was fuelled by Berliner Luft – the term often given to the city’s mysterious capacity to attract people of all stripes.
In 2009, Braun relocated to Berlin. Four plus years of research and 40 interviews later, he now brings us City of Exiles: Berlin from the Outside In. Equal parts historical tome, memoir and reportage, Braun has combined his experience as a historian and journalist to examine the rise of Berlin as an urban sanctuary for Wahlberliner.
While it’s all but impossible to write a book about Berlin’s international residents without dropping the usual famous names, Braun has managed to balance the Bowies and Isherwoods with many of the lesser-known characters that surround us everyday: drag queens, Palestinian refugees, drug dealers, café owners.
Armed with these insights – and his own keen eye for detail – Braun penetrates deep into the underbelly of the city’s many subcultures to provide a fresh look at why and how Berlin remains a magnet for so many strays and dreamers of all kinds.
How did the idea for the book come about?
Arriving in Berlin to live in 2009, the city seemed to be full of people who were from somewhere else. I soon wondered: what are they all doing here? There were few jobs, it was freezing. But they kept coming. As I started to publish journalism about the city and read widely on Berlin, I soon realised that this wasn’t new.
Over centuries, Berlin had been an exile for persecuted Protestant minorities, for Jews, anarchists, Russians, English homosexual writers, German radicals avoiding the army in the Wall years, Turkish political refugees, and now a new transnational Lost Generation. Interestingly, many of these exiles were inspired by the city in similar ways. I wanted to know why. This was the challenge. It wouldn’t be enough to say that Berlin was cheap.
So over four years, much of the time spent in Berlin’s magnificent state library, I contemplated why this fathomless city built on sand has maintained its singular allure. I explored the lives of some 200 of its exiles across the centuries, and tried to tie their stories to Berlin’s peculiar architectural, political and cultural evolution. But it remains complex. Like Iggy Pop said in the 1970s, perhaps there’s simply something in the air.
The book is about how Berlin is the ideal City of Exiles — but aren’t all cities natural refuges in that way?
Cities are generally diverse places people have immigrated to to find work, to get away from their provincial small towns. My home city of Sydney is an immigrant city, and was a refuge for my Hungarian father. However I do not really see it as such a diverse place anymore – even if it’s very multicultural. If you want to live in Australian cities, you must abide by certain national ‘values’. You must assimilate.
Berlin is different. In this no man’s land, this interzone on the border of East and West Europe, identity is very fluid. Outsiders can come and create their own world on their own terms – often while barely speaking the language. And then they leave again and the cycle continues. It doesn’t matter what school they went to. But it does in much more established capitals like London or Paris.
Mr Maloke from the Puppetmastaz, a hip hop band made up of Wahlberliner, including Chilly Gonzales, that got together in the 1990s, said it well in the early 2000s: “If you compare Berlin to a young girl, I would say she’s at this time where she finds her sexuality, she’s just getting conscious about what she’s all about. Not like London or New York; they already know what they’re all about. They’re New York, they’re London. But Berlin doesn’t know shit.”
Weimar Berlin editor Willy Haas, who was from Prague, famously quipped that ‘anyone can become a Berliner’. Is this true?
The special thing about Berlin is that your nationality doesn’t define you. In the book, I describe the time I met a man at an anti-racism demo in Kreuzberg who spoke perfect English and who told me he was a Berliner. He had come from Africa I later found out, but he was simply a ‘human being’, as he once told police who wanted to deport him and who wanted to know his nationality. He liberated himself by calling himself a Berliner. Like Haas said, you just have to breath the air.
Many characters in your book describe Berlin’s primary draws as things like freedom, creativity, tolerance and liveability, and state that these have been apparent during many of Berlin’s different eras. Are these the things that make Berlin so different from other major cities?
These are some of the fundamental values that people need to uphold if they are going to live together as free individuals. Berlin has learnt the value of this stuff the very hard way. I also believe that people have come to this city to build a kind of safe haven. They’ve often been dissatisfied with the place they left behind and they’ve contributed to the creation of a city that has long nurtured ideas of toleration and free individual expression.
Gentrification/rising rents have sometimes been blamed on the hipsters but one of the interesting pieces of research in City of Exiles has shown that many Berlin residents have been protesting these rental increases for many decades now. From interviewing many residents for your book, are you able to draw any conclusions about this?
The influx of people into Berlin who are willing to pay inflated prices for shorter term rentals has been one reason for rising rents in certain pockets of the city, and it’s causing some tragic displacement. But in a city where about 90 percent of people rent, which once had the most tenement rent houses in the world, Berliners new and old have long fought for their rights as tenants. I’ve been to many demos against rising rents, have taken part in debates about the issue as a journalist. Kreuzberg would have been flattened to make way for freeways and high rises in the 1970s if squatters didn’t start occupying old buildings. The occupiers also tried to solve a housing crisis when the government gave the old buildings to greedy developers who let them rot while waiting for values to rise.
Right now, a petition is being circulated to initiate a referendum on affordable social housing and the need to cap rents. It has a good chance to go the way of the referendum that stopped the development of Tempelhof park. Anecdotally, these debates don’t happen to anywhere near the same extent in Sydney or London, where housing is regarded largely as an object of speculation. A lot of English property investors have tried to buy up Berlin, but the established renters are also resilient.
The point is that Berlin has this very special urban design based around its 19th century rent house tenements. It is a crucial ingredient in the rise of city of exiles, and it survives due to the work, in particular, of German exiles who I interview like the architect/urban historian/avant-musician Klaus Kürvers, a Berliner since 1973.
The old chestnut goes that Berlin was always better before. Do you feel that way about the city? Is today’s Berlin a mere shadow of what it has been before?
As Mark Reeder, who arrived here from Manchester in 1978 as a 20-year-old, and has been driving force in the Berlin underground ever since – and stars in a compelling new film about West Berlin’s music and art counterculture of the 1980s, B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989 – recently told me: “People still come to Berlin for the same reasons that they did back then. They still come to Berlin because they feel they can connect with the same kind of mentality that we had. It makes Berlin that vibrant place that it’s always really been. I find it still as exciting and interesting as it was back then.”
You cover a lot of different eras and scenes in your book. If you could go back in time and live through any of them, which would you choose?
From pre-World War I to the present day, every era interests me in different ways. The early 1920s, after the revolution and leading into the hyperinflation, was an especially fascinating and fertile time, a lot of interesting people coming from Moscow, London and New York via Paris. I think East Berlin after the Wall fell would have been similar. I got a slight taste when I visited in ’96, a taste that never left me.