Thierse is an engaged intellectual who has earned many people’s respect in Germany with his fight against neo-Nazis and constant criticism of the authorities over their lax dealing with the problem.
All the more tragic, then, that it was him of all people who exposed himself as one of those Berlin snobs whose intolerance sometimes makes the city so ugly.
Thierse has lowered the tone of the already judgement-laden Berlin debate between the long-established residents and the supposedly nouveau-riche newcomers to a new low.
While he demands special privileges for himself and other old-time Berliners, the newcomers – whom he crudely paints universally as uptight and stuffy Swabians – should all adapt to some hazy idea of bygone East Berlin mainstream culture.
In the process, he uses stereotypes which underbid even Prenzlauer Berg’s last remaining smoke-filled corner pub. A bread roll must be called a Schrippe – the Berlin slang – and not a Weckle, the word used by Swabians.
And, says Thierse, Berlin is not and will never be as clean and idyllic as the Swabian’s native southwest Germany.
Thierse says all this as if there are no East Berlin snobs, and as if all Swabians are like that. As if there are no Swabians criticising the transformation of Prenzlauer Berg, a former working-class neighbourhood of East Berlin now thoroughly gentrified.
Thierse’s wrong-headed, simplified ideas of Berlin’s existing culture and the perceived ‘alien’ culture are the kind usually used by right-wing populists. And even if this conflict is about Swabians – Germans – Thierse has turned it into one about ethnicity by foisting all the problems onto a group of people from a certain area.
Die Welt newspaper recently showed what happens when the debate is dragged down to this level. Why, asked one journalist, wasn’t Thierse angry about Arab and Turkish people who had ‘Islamicized’ whole areas of Berlin?
And so a necessary debate about cities and their inner lives turns into a nasty conflict feeding off crude prejudices.
The subject is far too important to de-intellectualize it in this way. For years, Berlin’s mayors have looked on as investors transform parts of the city at whim, turning the area’s social makeup and culture upside down.
Meanwhile, there are questions that really need asking: how do we prevent whole parts of big cities becoming socially homogenized? What can the government and local authorities do to stop this? How should conflicts between new and old inhabitants be dealt with?
But on these points most bar room philosophers are much more advanced than Thierse.
It is possible he thinks the debate should be simplified so that it hits a nerve and gets people talking. But all that comes out is a tone of self-justified intolerance like that shown by other leading left-wingers like Ralph Giordano and Günther Grass.
A gentrification debate that is only filled with bogeymen is a setback for all those eastern and western Germans fighting for their local culture, way of life and diversity.