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150 years ago, Berliners knew what to do against rising rents

The Blumenstraßekrawalle (Flower Street Riots) in Friedrichshain began on July 25, 1872. We can learn a lot from this example of mass self defense by renters. By Nathaniel Flakin

The homeless in Berlin in front of the entrance to the asylum, Germany, 1872. Photo: IMAGO / H. Tschanz-Hofmann

150 years since Berlin’s Flower Street Riots

It was a July day just like today when Ferdinand Hartstock was told he was getting evicted. The carpenter lived with his family in a basement apartment on Blumenstraße (Flower Street) in Friedrichshain. But his landlord had decided that a new tenant would pay more rent. When bailiff arrived, Hartstock’s furniture was already on the street, but due to a disagreement with the moving company, his stuff remained on the sidewalk for hours.

This might sound like last week, but this was 150 years ago: July 25, 1872 Hartstock complained loudly, letting everyone know that a family was getting thrown onto the street so that a speculator could increase his profits. The people of the neighborhood were themselves trapped in overcrowded apartments and worried they could be kicked out at any time. So they began complaining too. By the afternoon, 2,000 people had gathered on Flower Street to stand up for the Hartstock family. Young people smashed the landlord’s windows. By the evening, up to 4,000 people were on the streets of Friedrichshain, fighting back against police.

Hartstock’s address was Blumenstraße 51c. The entire neighbourhood was rearranged after World War II, so the street no longer exists. The location would be more or less the back side of Strausberger Platz 12-13, on what is today Neue Blumenstraße.

In 1872, Berlin was going through another episode of its more or less permanent housing crisis. Berlin had just become the capital of the German Empire, and the year before, 130,000 people moved to the city. Within a few years, it grew to over a million inhabitants. These new arrivals were stuffed into shoddily built tenements or moldy basements. Families lived with up to ten people in a single room — young people would rent other people’s beds so they could sleep during the day. Unhoused Berliners set up shacks outside the city gates. Most famous was the Free State of Barackia, a self-governed slum just past Kottbusser Tor.

The housing market was in the throes of a speculative bubble. With prices for land shooting up, no one wanted to build apartments. Long-term tenants were a burden.

The day after the eviction on Blumenstraße, the police began clearing out huts at Frankfurter Tor. This provoked even more fighting. This repression was ordered from the top: Kaiser Wilhelm was planning to host his colleagues Tsar Alexander II of Russia and Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria in September. He didn’t want them seeing any poor people during the Three Emperors’ Meeting.

As the Blumenstraßenkrawalle (Flower Street Riots) continued for a second day, Friedrichshain workers smashed street lamps and laid barricades across the cobblestone streets to stop police horses. They even stormed the local police station. Up to 1,000 cops were sent into the neighbourhood, with the army on alert.

When the riots subsided after three days, 159 people were counted as injured — the actual number was certainly far higher. In the following months, 33 different renters were sentenced to up to four years of hard labour.

What’s funny about the story of the Flower Street Riots is how familiar it all sounds. It makes me think of the eviction on on Lausitzer Straße in Kreuzberg back in 2013, for example. Just like 140 years previously, a working-class family was evicted so a speculator could raise the rent.

Over 1,000 people tried to stop the bailiffs. The main change was that the police no longer relied on horses — instead, they had a helicopter! (It’s worth remembering that evictions have always been very expensive, and we all have to pay the bill in order to line the pockets of criminal speculators.)

Berlin remains in a housing crisis, with rents roughly doubling in the last ten years. This is why last year, 59% of Berlin voters spoke out in favour of socializing (i.e. expropriating) big housing companies. Our deeply unpopular mayor Franziska Giffey, an undeclared lobbyist of the realty mafia, is working to sabotage the will of the majority. In order to guarantee dignified and affordable housing for everyone, we can’t rely on politicians. Just like 150 years ago, we need to convince our rulers that they they should fulfill our demands — because it will be cheaper to provide us with affordable housing than to incur our wrath.