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#34: A look back at 2021
New rules kick in, corona numbers down, sort of
Hey 20 Percent,
I’ve always loved Zwischen den Jahren (“between the years”) in Berlin, the dark days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. There’s always a mass exodus of Germans to Stuttgart and Rostock and everywhere in between. The streets are quieter than usual. A lot of people are off work, enjoying lazy days of Spaziergänge through icy parks or 24/7 binge-watching.
The corona figures are somewhat encouraging, with the 7-day incidence rate and number of corona-related deaths falling in both the capital and Germany as a whole. As the authorities keep reminding us, though, health officials also get time off for Christmas, meaning the fax machines get a break, meaning we might not see a full statistical picture of the current state of the pandemic in Germany until the first week of January. That’s when, according to some experts, not a wave but a “wall” of Omicron infections awaits us. Let’s hope not.
The new corona rules kick in nationwide today. The main change is that private gatherings are now limited to 10 people for the vaccinated - no New Year’s Eve blowouts for us. Gatherings where an unvaccinated person is present can only have two guests from another household.
Since this is Zwischen den Jahren, below you’ll find my totally subjective, corona-free review of 2021. On Friday, Andrew will be taking a look at what awaits us in 2022!
The Berlin corona stats for Tuesday, December 28
Fully vaccinated: 71.3% (71.1% Friday)
New cases in one day: +2,457 (2,000 Friday)
Total deaths: 3,996 (+8 over Friday)
🔴 7-day Covid-19 incidence (cases per 100,000): 263.1 (325.8 Friday)
🟢 7-day hospitalization incidence (also per 100,000): 3.0 (3.9 Friday)
🔴 Covid-19 ICU patient occupancy: 19.4% (20% Friday)
Source: Berlin’s corona information page
2021 in review
The end of the Merkel era
Of course, the single largest event in “political Berlin” was Angela Merkel’s (CDU) exit from the political stage. Our chancellor of 16 years was seen off by a torchlit parade of German soldiers (triggering the usual comments about how German soldiers still wear World War II helmets on Twitter) and a rendition of a Nina Hagen song by the German army orchestra. That imagery does perhaps fit a little too well with one of the final things the Merkel government did before Olaf Scholz’s traffic light coalition took over: a last-minute, €5 billion arms deal with Egypt, including three German warships for the rather authoritarian Middle Eastern government - human rights be damned. Of course, this won’t tarnish Merkel’s image around the world as somewhat of a saint, the moral leader of West, etc. Besides, all will soon be forgotten: our new foreign minister Annalena Baerbock (Die Grünen) promises a foreign policy guided more by ethics than economic interests. One can only hope.
Bye bye TXL
If there’s one thing that might be missed even more than Angela Merkel in Berlin it’s Tegel. Though all commercial flights ended November 2020, West Berlin’s old airport was officially decommissioned in May 2021. The iconic, hexagonal building continues to serve Berliners as a vaccination centre. Meanwhile, the new BER airport continues to be riddled with problems. In January 2021, at least 60 baggage handlers even reported receiving electric shocks from luggage scanners. Several workers were hospitalised. Can anyone be surprised that they’re having trouble hiring people? Staff shortages at BER meant utter chaos during the fall school holidays, when the airport suggested showing up three and a half hours before flights.
Tschüss rent cap
Perhaps an even greater failure than BER was Berlin’s bold and hopelessly naive attempt to regulate the rental market through its Mietendeckel (rent cap). The law flopped spectacularly when the German Constitutional Court threw it out on a technicality in March. Tenants who had had their rents lowered in November 2020 had to pay back the amount they had saved.
To expropriate or not to expropriate
The defeat energised the Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. referendum campaign - which was approved by voters at the ballot on September 26. More than a million Berliners voted in favour of the proposal to force large corporate landlords to sell their housing assets to the city government in the hope that state control would prevent skyrocketing rents. But the new SPD-Grünen-Linke city government is split on the issue. While the ecologist Die Grünen and leftwing Die Linke favour expropriation, Mayor Franziska Giffey (SPD) is against it. And so she’s appointed a commission to take a year to look into the feasibility of a housing buyback. Out of sight, out of mind - for now.
About that mayor…
Frau Giffey, winner of the September 26 city election, is our first elected female mayor, and, at 43, the second-youngest. Born and raised in Brandenburg, Giffey held posts as mayor of Neukölln and family minister in Angela Merkel’s last GroKo government. Amidst a plagiarism scandal in which the Free University annulled her doctorate, she quit her job as minister to run for the mayor’s job. She says she’ll place priority on tackling the housing shortage and is promising to build tens of thousands of affordable flats over the next five years. Her optics couldn’t be more different to those of her dour predecessor, Michael Müller (also SPD). She’s promised more smiles at city hall - and it’s hard to find a snap of her where she’s not beaming. Berliners, unfazed by the plagiarism charges, seem to like it.
Decolonising the Humboldt Forum
The clunky reconstruction of the old Prussian city palace on Museumsinsel in central Berlin, aka the Humboldt Forum, opened to the general public on July 20. The new museum was mired in different debates on both the building itself and its contents. Critics have attacked the controversial cross on top and the rather millitant Christian message inscribed around its dome. As for the contents: critics pointed out that the building houses many exhibits that were looted or at least obtained in dubious, often violent, “colonial contexts”. The museum has taken some of the criticism on board. The famous Benin Bronzes originally looted by the British in its collection will be returned to Nigeria, it was decided. The Humboldt Forum has also included critical artworks in some of its exhibitions.
A medieval toilet
Another kind of history resurfaced this year. A stone’s throw from the palace, on the Fischerinsel, excavators discovered a curious structure on a building site: the remains of an 800-year-old brick latrine. Wohnungsbaugesellschaft Mitte, which is building 210 apartments on the site, says the toilet will be incorporated into the building and made visible from the street. For some reason this is the most German story ever, so I had to include it.
The Gorillas dispute
We’ve been following the story of Gorillas, the grocery delivery unicorn that can’t seem to get anything right. After a year of worker protests, the company that exemplified the worst of the gig economy - poor working conditions, low pay, erratic firings, aggressive management - has finally been forced to conform to labour law. In November Gorillas employees got their way and elected a works council to represent their interests. Wired has a nice story on the whole saga.
For the Californian automaker attempting to build a plant in a sandy Brandenburg forest with insufficient water, it was a year of delays, bureaucracy, pronouncements, and unsolved environmental issues. No, the factory still isn’t open - despite all the announcements that cars would be rolling off the assembly line by the end of the year. The Brandenburg Environment Ministry still hasn’t issued its final permit. Something must be up. Maybe it’s taking the groundwater problem seriously. Sorry, Elon. We’ll keep you posted.
And yes, we now have a disgusting food museum
Berlin has a museum for everything from peace to sugar and The Ramones, even dead bodies, but I didn’t see this one coming: The Disgusting Food Museum that opened up in May. Bull penises, frog smoothies, maggot cheese - this place has got you covered. This sort of thing triggers the Kulturpessimist in me, but hey at least there’s a “tasting bar”.