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The second Swabian invasion and the end of Berlin’s postcapitalist dream

“The Year is 2017 AD. Germany is entirely occupied by the Swabians…. Well, not entirely! One remote Prussian capital, inhabited by indomitable Berliners, still holds out against the invaders.”

A beautiful allegory indeed, but also a postfactual one. On closer inspection we’ll notice that the invading Swabians aren’t all Swabians, the indomitable Berliners aren’t all Berliners, and they aren’t all that indomitable either. Let’s take the opportunity to investigate!

The first Swabian invasion

If you grew up in a world where Bavarians were feuding with Prussians and Badeners with Swabians, you might be a bit befuddled by the news that Berliners (and whatever else is left of old Prussia) are suddenly taking potshots at the Swabians.

Asking around, one quickly learns that “Swabians” are not just the citizens of the state of Württemberg. We’re dealing with something that’s more of a psychogeographic phenomenon: a mythical tribe inhabiting the extended Black Forest, equipped with superhuman industriousness and infinite cleanliness. If you’re projecting mythical Swabia on the real map of Germany, you’ll find that next to the traditional areas of Württemberg and Bavarian Swabia it also includes major parts of Baden, both Palatinates, southern Hesse, and seemingly half of Old Bavaria. So roughly where Mercedes, Porsche, Bosch, SAP, BASF and maybe Adidas and Audi are from. The most recognizable feature of the Swabian is not the pronounced Southwestern dialect, but his sharpest weapon: the small–town petit–bourgeoise which he parades ahead of him like a pike.

Some Berlinologists claim that even in the Cold War era a few Swabians immigrated into the divided city, but there are very few remnants of their erstwhile presence. Apparently those pioneers of Berlinoswabianism completely assimilated into the native population. If that’s also true for the Hohenzollerns who supposedly brought Swabian culture to Berlin, Prussia and the Mark Brandenburg since the 15th century, is still up for debate. Clearly their premodern attempts to replace the local potatoes with schupfnudeln have been unfruitful.

The first modern–modern Swabian invasion started shortly after the Wall came down, and initially it didn’t quite differ from the zero-th. The old and soon-to-be-new capital of the republic, the eternal teenage room of the nation, always somewhat unkempt and recalcitrantly unproductive, at first beckoned those who tried to flee the industrious domesticity of their native tribe, into the arms of the reunified Prussians. But slowly the trickle turned into a Neckar–wide stream and whole neighborhoods (local lingo: kiezes) morphed from the original Prenzlauer Berg into a New Schwäbisch Hall. Even though that stream mixed with the multitudes of republican refugees to become a multicolored migration, but unlike Oldenburgers and Hanoverians, the Swabians couldn’t quite leave their employment contracts and maultaschen at home, even though their workhours were now running on the Kreuzberg clock and their kids were infected with world peace ideas in the local kindergartens. That’s because the first wave of Swabians had already arrived in the 1990s where their brethren back home are just gotten to now: mostly green, with a dash of black.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Berlin and its postcapitalist experiment

Berlin’s path to become the capital of postcapitalism can only be described as a chain of historic accidents, since it never was a true capital of capitalism. After the last of those accidents ended catastrophically in the midst of the 20th century, the city found itself wedged in-between a rock and a hard place: forgotten diaspora of the West German economic miracle hither, and the new capital of stale Stalinism yon.

This vacuum was pinched when in 1967 the Shah of Persia visited Berlin and, with active help from the Axel Springer press, smacked anticapitalism into Berliner skulls. In the following years the city used Christiane F. and the Four Powers status to turn itself into an antidote of the economic miracle and offer refuseniks a refuge — at least to those from West Germany. Easterners had to climb the Wall to join in.

Most of the former communes between Deutsche Oper and Zoo Station have been converted into law offices, but the spirit of anticapitalism lives on and by now fills Berlin‘s coffers. And after a few years of happy reunification spirit the city is divided again: It’s no longer East vs West, today the Ringbahn splits Old Berliners (outside) from new metropolitans (inside).

So what’s postcapitalism and why do we find in Berlin’s Tarifzone A, of all places? Just like the anticapitalist, the postcapitalist rages against consumption terror and the ills of global supply chains, and eats, drinks and travels regional, bio and upcycleable, but now in renovated old biedermeier townhouses rather than collapsing new buildings. Bionade beats building bombs.

This mix of green and black, of capitalism criticism and cleaning week, didn’t go over all too well with the old anticapitalists, especially after they had to watch how their fixed-up squats popped up as attractive investment opportunities in international real estate portals. Just as it’s common amng neighbors, the long-simmering feud finally erupted when prominent anti Wolfgang Thierse (himself from Silesia) blames all of Berlin’s postcapitalist ills on the “Swabians”, and all subtle differences between real and psychogeography were swept away in the ensuing shitstorm.

The second Swabian invasion

Berliners have the amazing, and rather un-German, aptitude to take things as the are and, with Markian–Mediterranean pragmatism, incorporate the rubble of the past into their lifestyle. The Wall? Perfect for flea markets and karaoke Sundays. Hitler’s airfield? Beats Tiergarten for kite surfing and bbq. The Reichsbahn repair shop? Awesome techno temple. Geil.

The same Spreemediterranianism also lead to the feuding tenants establishing a grudging peace. The guardian angel of the peace agreement is Prenzlschwäbin Bärbel Stolz, and Berliners and Swabians alike can meet and mingle at Kollwitzkiez, where Fräulein Kimchi serves up spätzle Korean style. Today’s turf wars only erupt over illegally parked strollers in the backyard.

But neither first wave Württemberg refugees nor any of the inner-Ringbahn new Berliners expected the second Swabian invasion. Anyone who years ago fled the shadow of Daimler, Bosch, and Zeppelin into the arms of Original Unverpackt and Veganz must have been quite surprised to watch their previous employers follow them on the pilgrimage to the land of the Soli.

Like their first–wave ancestors they first came in small numbers, but soon enough whole business units “thermoelectric” came lapping into the Spree valley. The last remaining industrial brick buildings in the startup Bermuda triangle Hackescher Markt — Alex — Rosenthaler Platz were turned into Digital Labs, Accelerators and Corporate co-working spaces and stuffed with teak pallets, suede beanbags and Ikea shelves from Stilwerk — anything to capture the stereotypical startup second–hand flair the corporate way.

Senior Vice President goes to Berghain

But how could this all happen? How did the former scrooges suddenly turn up with moneybags, just waiting to be fleeced by savvy locals like country bumpkins in the California gold rush?

Apparently word has gotten out all the way to Stuttgart that Berlin somehow came into possession of this mythical fairy dust called “Innovation”. Even if the typical Swabian might be worried in which dark corner between Berghain, Kotti and Tacheles this dust might have gathered, the proof is still in the pudding: Berliners have switched seamlessly from crotcheting, clubbing, and SO36 to disrupting, scaling and Industry 4.0.

It’s not quite clear what the newbies are looking for, other than “something with startups and innovation”, especially not to them. They just started to realize that at home in Untertürkheim that their ties got ever deeper entangled in their global supply chains, and they are now looking for a secret recipe to disrupt them out of their predicament. So Kreuzberg is now offering design thinking workshops as corporate yoga classes and in Mitte you can join startup safaris as petting zoos for suits. Anything for the fairy dust.

It might help to loosen the ties and switch to “Du”, but it stands to be noted that the entity that reigns supreme over the Berlin startup is Rocket Internet, in their own words an extremely unkreative but highly efficient conveyor belt for scale-ups. Right now they are fighting trench wars with similar blue-shirters over lucrative pizza delivery verticals. That’s about as radical as toothpaste, and those Mitte people have as much to do with fairy dust as Neuköllners with automated restaurants.

Postcapitalism now! Photo by Jaromir Kavan.

The end of Berlin’s postcapitalist dream

Germany is the land of mechanical engineers, and the capital of machine building is (with apologies to Munich, Wolfsburg and Ingolstadt) Stuttgart, that biggest of all small towns. A V12 internal combustion engine might be the crown German engineering. But it is a piece of industrial art slated to end up in a museum, to be replaced by washing machine motors at the wheel hubs. And discarded washing machines you’ll find at any street corner in Neukölln.

The other thing you find at any Neukölln street corner is scene hangouts like Villa Neukölln, Ä, Neu, or Posh Teckel, filled with the flea-marketed furniture that once belonged to grandma from Backnang — exactly the milieu the first wave Swabians tried to escape. It seems like two generations tried to avoid each other and then met again at the other end of the country like two atoms in a particle collider.

But what now, as we’re watching decade-old savings being blown on innovation glitter and fairy dust for startup tourists? Does this mean Berlin can stay poor but sexy and Swabia can remain wealthy but become innovative? The most likely answer is they’re both meeting in the middle (and not only in Mitte), so a mix of undershirts from Breuninger and garters from Amorelie. The true question is whether that what Berliners want and Swabians need.

The answer for both is quite certainly No. Just like the proverbial drunk who is looking for his keys underneath the street lamp in Schöneberg, the suited Swabian is trying to find this innovation thing where he can see and not where he lost it.

And he has lost his entrepreneurial innocence where he least expected it: in the research labs and development centers, in Weissach or the Sindelfingen–west otherwise known as Silicon Valley. While the German engine builder spends twenty publicly funded years fine-tuning autonomous cars, the Californian search engine builder puts a few washing machine-powered vehicles on the highways around the San Francisco Bay, sets them off and watches what happens.

What this is all about is opportunism — the ability to recognize opportunities and grab them, to get things going and to go for the big bet rather than the small solution. Exactly where Swabians and Berliners are united: Be it BER or Stuttgart 21, nothing goes without planning, and plans tend to go wrong. Germany’s industry 3.0 is not dying from Not Invented Here syndrome, but from Still Under Development syndrome.

How it feels to try and change the world with lots of money and little clue is something we were able to learn the hard way during the Dot-Com bust of the early 2000s. And if good ideas really take 15 years from Palo Alto to St. Oberholz, and another 15 years from Rosenthaler Platz to Bad Cannstatt, we can expect two more generations of internal combustion engines to come out of the South-Western temples of industry. We’re finally seeing the first signs that this might not come to happen, because in two product generations we might no longer have polar caps or postcapitalism.

So dear fellow countryfolks, to keep this from happening, get rid of your ties, untangle yourself from your supply chains, and don’t be appalled when the Berlin cabbie calls you “Du” on your next visit. But make sure that with all your enthusiasm and moneybags, don’t accidentally blow the fairy dust into the wind. Much love!

Oliver Beige was born in Karlsruhe (which makes him a Swabian according to Berliner psychogeography), has lived in California for ten years, and for the last six years proudly in Wilmersdorf. He’s been doing something with startups and innovation for the last twenty years. This is, as usually, his private opinion.