Swabian Separatists Fling Spätzle to Make Their Point

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BERLIN -- Separatists have escalated a growing conflict in the heart of the German capital. Their weapons of choice were delicious egg noodles, their victim a woman made of bronze.

A statue of the artist and activist Käthe Kollwitz was defaced with the southern German specialty known as spätzle, the latest episode in an escalating quarrel between Berliners and German migrants from Swabia, a region just west of Munich. A group calling itself Free Swabylon claimed responsibility on Tumblr, calling for an autonomous Swabian district in Berlin, to be known as Swabylon.

Almost since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than two decades ago, residents have complained about the growing number of Swabians making their homes here, a trend that only escalated when Berlin became the seat of government for reunified Germany in 1999. The local Berliners feel swarmed by rich southerners.

The Swabians, for their part, resent their reputation as carpetbaggers and the slights they have been forced to endure, with graffiti reading "Schwaben raus," or "Swabians out," a slogan often directed at foreigners, an increasingly common sight.

A backlash may have been inevitable. "There are more spätzle where those came from," the Free Swabylon site warned, threatening that the entire neighborhood would "disappear under a spätzle layer of Swabian rage."

The good-natured ribbing masks some serious points of contention not only within Berlin but also in German society as a whole. Throughout the European debt crisis the country has been described as the Continent's strongest economy, with money to spare, an oversimplification that belies the gulf between a prosperous south and a largely poorer north.

Berlin in particular would be bankrupt were it not for the mandatory aid it receives from booming states, especially Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, which Swabia straddles. The Finance Ministry on Thursday announced that Berlin received $4.41 billion in transfer payments in 2012. Bavaria paid $5.18 billion into the fund for poorer states, and Baden-Württemberg ponied up $3.58 billion. Bavaria's state premier announced last summer that he would bring a suit before the Constitutional Court to end the system; it is expected to be filed in February.

Thomas Glück, 52, who divides his time between Berlin and Baden-Württemberg, said it was a little hard to swallow that Berliners receive free preschool slots for their children, while in Baden-Württemberg parents have to pay fees. "If Baden-Württemberg didn't pay, Berlin would be broke," Mr. Glück said.

While he understood the ire of the Swabylon separatists, "I don't agree with their methods," he said with a grin.

Prenzlauer Berg, in the former East Berlin, comes freighted with symbolism and baggage of its own. Once a staunchly working-class neighborhood, today it is synonymous nationwide with a particular breed of hipster yuppies who eat organic food and practice yoga in an area that is a cafe- and boutique-filled cross between Brooklyn's Park Slope and the fictional version of Portland in the show "Portlandia."

Christian Gottschlich, 42, who runs the Fleischerei Gottschlich, a butcher shop that has been in his family for six generations, said that gentrification had certainly been good for business and helped improve the neighborhood. But he added that it was "sad so many Berliners have been pushed out."

"Look at the prices -- it's crazy," said Mr. Gottschlich, who grew up in the same building on Prenzlauer Allee where the butcher shop is located. "No normal worker can afford it anymore. That these people then get frustrated, I can totally understand."

The dispute flared up just before New Year's Eve when the Social Democratic politician Wolfgang Thierse, vice president of the German Parliament and a longtime resident of Prenzlauer Berg, suggested in an interview that migrants from Swabia needed to integrate better into their adopted home, comparing himself to an endangered species in his own neighborhood.

Mr. Thierse received 3,000 e-mails complaining about his remarks. His comments united Swabian politicians from across the ideological spectrum in their criticism, including one of the leaders of the Green Party, Cem Özdemir, and the conservative European Union energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger.

Trying to stem the uproar, Mr. Thierse, 69, wrote an article in the newspaper Berliner Morgenpost insisting that his comments were intended as "ironic," and that "I am no enemy of the Swabians." He even took a quiz about the Swabian dialect on a public television morning show to prove there were no hard feelings. He passed the test, but southern Germans in Berlin were not entirely pacified.

Many foreigners have flocked to central Berlin neighborhoods in recent years, from Japan, the United States and all around Europe. But the Swabians, with their thick southern German accents, have borne the brunt of local disgruntlement, scapegoats for all western Germans and for the dislocations of a changing city.

On Wednesday at Schwäbische Bäckerei, a bakery in Prenzlauer Berg with the coat of arms of the state of Baden-Württemberg on the door handle, stains from a recent egging were visible, as were anti-Swabian graffiti.

A police spokeswoman, Diana Born, said the authorities were notified Tuesday morning that someone had defaced the Kollwitz statue. "Obviously the head of the statue was covered with spätzle," Ms. Born said. "However, the monument was not damaged by this action." There was no criminal investigation, Ms. Born said.

The Free Swabylon group that claimed responsibility posted photographs of the bronze likeness of Ms. Kollwitz, an artist known for her pacifism and advocacy on behalf of the poor, noodles hanging from her face and dumped in her lap.

"A new morning dawns over Prenzlauer Berg," the group wrote. "Swabylon will be free."

The group also posted, with what might be called typical Swabian precision, a detailed map of the territory it wanted in the gentrified Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, an angry red quadrangle that included the square named after Ms. Kollwitz, who died in 1945. Observers in the German news media noted that it was probably not a coincidence that Mr. Thierse also lives on the square, known as Kollwitzplatz.

City workers cleaned up the statue, but the incident helped to reignite the debate over the Swabians. "Dough terrorists," proclaimed the Berliner Zeitung in a headline on Wednesday. The local district mayor, Matthias Köhne, was not amused, telling the tabloid BZ that the action "denigrates Käthe Kollwitz."

Several Berlin newspapers also took issue with the choice of target. Though she made her home in Berlin, Ms. Kollwitz came from what was then Königsberg, territory lost by Germany in World War II and now a part of Russia. Mr. Thierse was himself born in Breslau, today the Polish city of Wroclaw, but has lived in Berlin since 1964.

In response to the incident, Mr. Thierse told the Berliner Zeitung that he did not believe Swabians were behind it. They wouldn't "throw and smear their tasty spätzle on memorials," Mr. Thierse said.

Victor Homola and Chris Cottrell contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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