The project proved to be simultaneously difficult and surprisingly easy. It was technically and logistically difficult to find the trucks and cranes, head out to the countryside and load up the MiG fighter planes that had been left behind by the suddenly defunct Soviet military on a Brandenburg airfield. But it was easy to transport the planes right into the centre of newly unified Berlin. “After loading up in the woods, we rumbled into the city in a convoy with the jets and the heavy equipment,” recounts Tom Diezel in Berlin Wonderland, a new book about 1990s Berlin after the fall of the wall. “Nobody stopped us.”
The MiGs were offloaded in Mitte and, along with other military equipment, turned into pieces of art by the Mutoid Waste Company, a London group of artists who came to Berlin after the wall fell. One reason for their relocation to Berlin was that police pressure in Britain was mounting on the group and their spectacular but often illegal projects. “The [German] police took a relatively laid-back attitude towards the whole MiG thing,” says Diezel, the group’s technical expert. “Eventually the matter just fizzled out.”
“Nobody stopped us” … “Eventually the matter just fizzled out”: this is Berlin in a nutshell. Against all the cliches of German law and order that are still taken for granted in Britain and elsewhere, the German capital is a mildly chaotic city. It certainly isn’t Prussian strictness that attracts all the young Americans, Australians, Canadians and Brits who keep flocking here. Berlin is laissez-faire, it’s creative, it’s high life at low cost, still and in spite of all the fuss about gentrification and rising rents (which in fact remain rather low compared to places like London).
When the MiG stunt was pulled in the early 1990s, Klaus Wowereit was still city councillor for culture and education in the local borough of Tempelhof. It took another decade, an election victory by his Social Democrat Party (SPD) and their spectacular shift from a coalition with the conservative Christian Democrats to the far-left PDS (the socialist successor of the Communist party of the GDR) before Wowereit became mayor of Berlin, in 2001. Ironically, Wowereit was back in a conservative-social democrat coalition when the announcement came of his resignation.
In between, during a 14-year rule, there were two re-elections, a rise to international stardom and talk of Wowereit as a possible candidate for German chancellorship. And there were a couple of disasters that should serve as a lesson for every aspiring mayor of a western metropolis, not least Boris Johnson in London: not to get carried away by metropolitan glamour, but instead to get things done on the ground.
Yes, there is the famous Berlin non-airport, mired in a costly loop since 2012, when the grand opening for the “BER” was called off, to everybody’s surprise, just a couple of days before it was set to launch. But that alone is not what brought Wowi down, the Berlin mayor who in 2005 was featured on the cover of Time magazine, which named him one of “the smart big city bosses” who were “bringing new vision to urban life”: Wowereit smiling triumphantly in the centre of the photograph, London’s Ken Livingstone pushed to the margin. No, there was also what came to be known as the “S-Bahn disaster”, a long period of train delays and cancellations starting in 2009 and still being felt today, the result of the state-run company having neglected maintenance, safety measures and modernisation of its infrastructure. And there were those ill-fated plans to counter Berlin’s rising rents by building new flats on the former Tempelhof airfield. The plans were stopped by a public referendum, another anticlimax for Wowereit.
Berlin is still dependent on other people's money
Even now, two catchphrases are cited over and over again when it comes to Wowereit and his legacy. The first was “I am gay and that is just fine,” said to roaring applause when he was nominated as a candidate for mayor. The phrase helped mainstream acceptance of homosexuality in Germany immensely. It also helped Wowereit to become the face of the tolerant, easygoing Berlin of the 21st century. A creative and cool Berlin for which the foundations were laid in the 90s with experimental arts and techno music. A Berlin that was “poor but sexy”, according to the other quote Wowereit became famous for. This one captured Berlin’s way of life well: attractive but not pompous, young and full of ideas but penniless for the time being.
Berlin is dependent on other people’s money. This is not a new thing, neither for the western part of the city, which was subsidised by the Federal Republic during its decades of being a walled-in island surrounded by GDR territory, nor for East Berlin, which was pampered by the socialist state. Modern Berlin – not just a city but also an autonomous region within the German federal system – remains heavily supported by southern regions, which are constitutionally obliged to pay for their poorer brothers in the north. “Berlin is working hard to be lesser and lesser dependent on subsidies, and one day not at all any more,” Wowereit said on a popular TV talkshow in his first public appearance after announcing his resignation. A local economy that keeps growing above the German average might prove him right.
But it is another Wowereit quote, lesser known but capturing an attitude towards everyday life, that best explains what brought Wowereit down – a quote that made him appear detached from ordinary people in his city; a quote that was also quite cynical. “Berlin is not Haiti,” is what Wowereit said in 2010, during a winter of discontent when the capital’s pavements had been encrusted under an ice shield for weeks, home owners and municipal services alike having simply given up trying to scrape it off. Apart from being a nuisance in a country that is proud of its largely functioning public services, the ice was also dangerous, particularly to elderly people. Not caring or being able to manage is the less hip side of Berlin’s “Nobody stopped us” and “Eventually the matter just fizzled out” coin. What Wowereit seemed to be saying with his Haiti statement was: just don’t complain all the time, you Berliners, there are people in this world who live in much worse conditions.
Where Boris Johnson should take note
If this reminds you of Boris calling the £250,000 Daily Telegraph salary he had to abandon to become mayor “chicken feed”, it should. And yet Klaus, son of a single mum, should know better than the silver-spoon-fed Boris about what is required on the ground. Lately, however, he did not seem to. In some respects Boris, the toff, seems to understand people better, when he cycles around the city or involves Londoners in Twitter Q&As. There was no Twittering, no cycling for Klaus. There would be no #AskWowi sessions for Berliners, no matter how much hype there was about Berlin becoming a European Silicon Valley; and you’d see never see Wowereit on a bike. Indeed, he was regularly slammed for driving gas-guzzling, air-polluting limousines – sexy to some, perhaps, but definitely not what could be called poor.
“Poor but sexy is just not enough,” says Marc Young of Handelsblatt Global Edition, the international online offshoot of Germany’s renowned daily business newspaper. Young, an American who came to Berlin before the wall fell, was struck by Wowereit’s reluctance to take over responsibility for failure – not even at the airport when things went completely wrong. “If the mayor oversees a publicly run project and does not feel responsible, who ever does?” Young says. No buck stopped at the mayor’s desk. Instead, there were excuses and jokes. This might be fun for a while but it rarely lasts. Boris Johnson, who is also involved in great infrastructure projects and also has an inclination towards comic relief, should take note.
With his main infrastructure projects on hold, there is little in the way of tangible Wowereit legacy to be seen right now. What he did manage, though, was to grasp that his home city needed a breath of fresh air, needed people coming to visit and to live, not just from all over Germany but all over the world. He lent his face and name to this process, and it happened as he hoped. Berlin has become a much more colourful and creative place during his reign – which is no small achievement, though it may well be that the artistic likes of the Mutoid Waste Company, who laid the foundations for Berlin’s success, did more than establishment politicians such as Wowereit, who merely jumped on the wagon.
Berlin’s future still very much depends on its ability to attract people and their ideas from all over the world, to keep fuelling the creative and digital industry that, alongside tourism, is the backbone of Berlin’s economy. Wowereit did his bit. Turning the short-term hipness of Berlin into the long-term global attraction of a place like Johnson’s London, however, is a challenge that, in the end, he left to his successor.