Old age rampage

Berlin's elderly are leading demonstrations against soaring property rents and social housing displacement as "old age radicality" sweeps an economically beleaguered Berlin. One group, Kotti & Co, will be speaking on Nov 13.

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At Stille Straße: Elli Pomerenke (74), Doris Syrbe (72) and Ilse Schröder (72). Photo by Marta Domínguez

Budget cuts and skyrocketing rents are hitting Berlin seniors where it hurts. In response, more and more of them are taking to the streets. Are the elderly getting radical?

Berlin-Pankow, June 29: A group of activists declare to perplex journalists that they’ll be squatting their community centre until the local council revokes its decision to close it. An occupation like this would not usually be a big deal in our bankrupt and rebellious city – except for one thing: this is not a youth centre, and these aren’t black-clothed anarchist teenagers. They’re 70-year-olds who need a place to play bridge and paint watercolours. 

The “Occupy Stille Straße” protesters made headlines around the world as the world’s oldest squatters. But it is not an isolated case. In the last year, Germany has seen a wave of “old age radicality,” as Peter Grottian, former professor at the Free University of Berlin and an expert on social movements, describes it. Whether it is in Gorleben, blocking the train bringing nuclear waste from France to the town’s nuclear waste factory, or in Stuttgart, trying to prevent the new “Stuttgart 21” train station development, the hair colour at mass demonstrations is turning increasingly grey.

“Older people are much more accepted in social movements than 20 or 25 years ago,” observes Grottian. In the education protests of 2009-2010, a number of professors were demonstrating alongside the students, and the young people thought it was great.”

According to a recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, half of all Germans will be over 46 by 2030. Today, 20 percent of Germans are over 65, about as many as are under 20. While this might seem like the right time to start converting kindergartens into adult education centres, at the moment the opposite is happening: austerity measures mean pensions, senior homes and health care services are under attack. And the first ones affected are starting to get really angry. 

Not so quiet on the Eastern front 

It’s mid-October and Doris Syrbe, a 72-year-old native of Pankow who worked for the East German telephone company for decades, has already been illegally squatting the senior centre at Stille Straße 10 for 105 days. The 1926 two-storey family house, which once housed Stasi boss Erich Mielke, sports the drab grey facade typical of the yet-ungentrified East. Since 1998, it has served as a meeting point for 29 senior social groups for English, gymnastics, chess, card games and art – all organised on a volunteer basis. But the experience of protesting has expanded the centre’s programme: “We even added a graffiti workshop,” says Doris proudly.

When news came that the villa, which provides activities for just over 300 pensioners, was going under the chopping block, Syrbe and her friends protested at the district council and wrote to politicians all the way up to President Gauck. The typical answer: “We are sorry, but we can’t interfere in the affairs of the district council.” Syrbe, who as a citizen of the GDR could always address complaints directly to the head of state, wasn’t happy at all: “What are they there for if they can’t help us?” Only then did they threaten with an occupation. 

“No one believed that we old people would do it!” Syrbe says with a mischievous smile. At a demonstration with over one thousand young leftists, the seniors formed a geriatric block at the front. Laughing, she remembers that the grey-haired people in a sea of black clothes were a “sensation”. They moved in expecting to stay for three or four days – and now Syrbe hasn’t spent a night in her apartment in more than three months. “Everything is covered with dust,” she says of her home, which she now only visits to do laundry. 

Has she ever done anything like this before? “All of us are from the GDR, and this kind of thing wasn’t allowed back then.” Doris thinks for a second and adds: “I guess it isn’t allowed now either!” Ilse Schröder, another occupier, took part in some protests in East Berlin in 1989: “But back then we had to go to work during the day and could only go to protest meetings in the evening.” Now they can protest round the clock – and what politician is going to have Omas and Opas dragged out by the police? 

In three months, “a lot of politicians have woken up.” Gregor Gysi from the Left Party, a tribune of older East Germans, has dropped by, and the Pirate Party in Pankow supported the squatters at the beginning. But Syrbe understands the parties have their own interests: the SPD and the Greens are on their side not out of love for seniors, but rather “because their numbers aren’t so good right now.”

Syrbe can’t hide that she’s tired of sleeping on a cot and would like the group’s demands to be met, but she’s not going to move until she’s certain the house is saved: “If we’re still here until Christmas, then it’s their fault!” 

They didn’t have to wait that long: on October 18, one week after Syrbe was interviewed, the district council let the Volkssolidarität, the GDR-founded organisation that runs senior centres, take over the house, giving them another year to renovate it. Temporarily or not, after 111 days of squatting, the seniors have won. 

“At the beginning, we were doing this for ourselves, but now I hope this is a lesson for others.” She knows of several other recreation centres that threaten to “do it like in Pankow!” when faced with cuts. Seniors are often willing to put up with anything, Syrbe laments, but the number of pensioners is increasing rapidly while funding for senior centres is being cut. And as retirees are being driven out of places like Prenzlauer Berg (also part of Pankow) to make room for luxury lofts, Syrbe expects her group won’t be the only “oldest squatters in the world” for much longer. 

On Kotti square 

Meanwhile, in the former West, fellow pensioners have joined the social unrest in Kreuzberg. “The rents are too high,” spell out signs in German, Turkish and English. A protest camp has been set up on the south side of Kottbusser Tor, and a donation container lies next to the tent to help the protesters through the winter. Across the square, two old women are sitting at a table at the queer café Südblock with blankets and coffee. They’re selling the “I (heart) Kotti” buttons that have become the symbol against rising rents in Kreuzberg. Inge Borg (77) and Helga Möller (78) have been part of this protest from the beginning. 

The women started meeting at Südblock long before the camp was set up on May 24 of this year. “We got to know each other, and we heard that many people were being forced to move away,” explains Borg. They don’t have anything against students moving into their neighbourhoods, but “lots of Turkish neighbours have to move to Spandau,” Möller adds. So when a group of renters, inspired by the tent cities that exploded on Spain’s central squares, decided to use the same tactic to make their voices heard about gentrification, the two dames joined right in.

It’s referred to as a Gecekondu (a Turkish word for an informal settlement next to a big city, like a slum), and there are usually lots of women in headscarves drinking tea. But the ugly concrete apartment buildings in the heart of Kreuzberg are home to a diverse community, and the protesters include teenagers of Turkish origin and German grandmothers who have been brought together in the fight against the big property companies.

The movement has scored a few initial successes – an open conference about social housing has been planned for November 13 at City Hall, and particularly high increases in utility bills have been cancelled. But the protesters are determined to keep up the pressure with the “noise demonstrations” they organise every fortnight. Inge and Helga are on the frontlines. 

Neither of them have a history of protesting – “Only in my family!” says Möller. But for these Kreuzberg residents of over six decades, high rent and rising utility costs were the final straw. Inge pays €400 a month for a 43sqm apartment right at Kottbusser Tor. “When I moved in 16 years ago, the rent was 310.” That’s 310 deutschmarks, meaning the cost has more than doubled. “The whole city used to consider Kreuzberg a trash dump. They called it ‘Little Istanbul’ and they called the U-Bahn here the ‘Orient Express’. And now they’re building apartments for the rich!” She might be close to 80, but she won’t budge: “We’ve grown old here and we’re not leaving. We’re going to fight to our last breath.” 

1968 reloaded? 

Another senior who has joined the Kotti demos is Hans-Christian Ströbele. The 73-year-old Green politician – who started his political career as a radical 1968-generation lawyer, defended members of the RAF and has been a member of parliament for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg since 2002 – still hits the streets nearly every Saturday to support progressive causes, from anti-nuclear to refugee rights. In contrast to Borg and Möller, he’s a veteran protester. “Some of the demands of 30 or 40 years ago remain, while new ones have emerged.” And since, as he joked on his 70th birthday, “the world revolution hasn’t worked out yet!”, he has no plans to retire. He isn’t surprised that Berlin pensioners are getting politically active: “In West Berlin, we made a habit of taking to the streets to fight for our rights for decades.” 

“People from the 1968 generation are entering retirement,” echoes Christine von Blanckenburg, a political scientist. She cites 1970s student protests as a crucial factor: “Protests were defining experiences of their political socialisation. Now in retirement, without the need to consider a career, but with time and money, they are in the best condition to relive their political youth.” Of course, that doesn’t explain the Pankow occupiers, since there wasn’t much of a 1968 movement in East Germany: “They grew up with such a limited framework for political participation, where everything was regulated, that they seem to want youthful experiences in old age.” 

But is it really all just about “‘68ers” eager to relive the political adventure of their youth and Ossis like Syrbe catching up with the street activism they never had the chance to experience? Von Blanckenburg points to more objective factors: “There are also the disadvantaged and the old poor. In this case, it is simple adversity that leads to radicalisation.” 

In other words, seniors take action when things get personal. Older activists have historically been found at protests affecting their immediate environment, explains Grottian, in contrast to the more far-reaching idealistic goals of young people. The schism is evident in the debate over the Berlin Brandenburg airport: while young activists protest the proposed deportation prison, older residents in neighbourhoods like Friedrichshagen are more concerned about flyovers. At a demonstration for refugee rights in mid-October, a sign read, “You’re worried about flight noise, we’re worried about racism!” Most recently, the proposed extension of the A100 has mobilised 77-year-old Siegrid Klauke and 80-year-old Ursula Birkner, residents of a Treptow senior home who are both suing the city for the increased noise and pollution the new highway will produce. 

But the greatest and most personal threat comes from the European recession, which continues to take its toll on pensioners. The government has confirmed that in the last 12 years, pensions have stagnated despite inflation, and by 2030, pensions will be as low as 43 percent of average lifetime income. As lifespans lengthen and birthrates decline, poverty among seniors will only get worse. Be ready to see more Omas with Molotov cocktails in their handbags.