At Home in Berlin

Harry Stopes

Most of the lampposts in my neighbourhood in Berlin have at least one election placard attached to them with cable ties. The centre-left SPD candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, looks straight at the camera in black and white, wearing a dark suit, dark tie and white shirt. The polls all suggest his party will win the most seats on Sunday; whatever coalition emerges, Scholz is the likely chancellor. The SPD’s assertive campaign has an air of dry inevitability. As Jan-Werner Müller put it in the LRB, Scholz is presented as a ‘supremely competent Beamter (civil servant)’.

The SPD’s local candidates have a similar vibe. In my constituency Annika Klose is a former chair of the Berlin branch of the SPD youth. She has a degree in social sciences and used to work at the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, a federation of eight trade unions. The centre-right CDU’s candidates meanwhile look like bank managers and the liberal FDP’s like tech venture capitalists. The Green and Die Linke (The Left) contenders are harder to categorise but they at least look more like people you might actually want to talk to.

This election has serious implications for the climate, housing and healthcare. There are major differences between the parties though the campaign materials aren’t always clear about what these are. ‘Berlin: ready for more,’ says a poster for the CDU’s mayoral candidate, Kai Wegner. (More what?) ‘There has never been more to do … let’s grab the future,’ the FDP urges. ‘Olaf Scholz, chancellor for Germany,’ the SPD flatly declares.

The slogans that gesture towards policy often come as couplets: ‘stable pensions, good care’ (SPD); ‘for the millions, not for millionaires’ (Die Linke); ‘our country, our rules’ (AfD). The SPD appears to be offering pairs of things that go together, but the comma in a phrase like ‘strong economy, good jobs’ or ‘more homes, affordable rents’ actually implies ‘but’ rather than ‘and’. The triangulation is typical of the continuity Third Way tradition that Scholz belongs to. You can have good jobs, but only if the rich get their strong economy; you can have (undefined) ‘affordable’ rents, but only if the real estate lobby gets plenty of development opportunities.

The implied logical operator deployed by the right wing, in contrast, is ‘not’. The far-right AfD wants ‘neighbourhoods, not ghettos’. (The CDU posters promise, more discreetly, ‘safe’ and ‘clean’ neighbourhoods.) The AfD is also making a big deal about ‘normality’. The motto on all their posters is ‘Germany, but normal’. Fighting ‘indoctrination’ in schools is normal, keeping ‘our’ pensions for ‘us’ is normal, protecting our police is normal, protecting our borders is normal.

Almost all the posters are in German. I’ve seen Turkish on a handful of CDU materials, but the only party to use other languages consistently is Die Linke. As I was crossing Seestraße after football practice recently I saw one in Vietnamese. I photographed it and sent the picture to a Vietnamese-Polish friend, who translated: ‘Let’s protect the renters!’

The independent – but endorsed by Die Linke – campaign for the referendum to expropriate large landlords is similarly multilingual. I’ve seen posters in Vietnamese, Russian, Polish, Arabic and Turkish. The translation into many languages gives an extra layer of meaning to the campaign slogan ‘Damit Berlin unser Zuhause bleibt’ – ‘So that Berlin remains our home.’


  • 24 September 2021 at 12:08pm
    Robert says:
    The couplets reminded me of Karstadt's slogan, " gute einkaufen, schöne leben".

  • 28 September 2021 at 8:30am
    Camus says:
    The voting in Berlin was chaotic, with polling stations out of ballot forms and huge lines waiting for hours to cast votes in three issues, national and regional elections and a Referendum on housing, calling for state or city ownership of companies with more than 3000 flats. The city administration has a reputation for its abysmal record on running the schools, and remains a Mecca for creative geniuses