Saturday, February 28, 2009

Arsonists Torch Berlin Porsches, BMWs on Economic Woe

Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- When Berlin resident Simone Klostermann returned from vacation and couldn’t find her Mercedes SLK, she thought it had been towed. Police told her the 35,000- euro ($45,000) car had been torched.

“They’d squirted something flammable into the car’s engine block in the gap between the windshield and the hood,” said Klostermann. “The engine was completely destroyed.”

The 34-year-old’s experience isn’t unique in the German capital. At least 29 vehicles were destroyed in arson attacks this year, most of them luxury cars, according to police. The number is already about 30 percent of the total for 2008. The latest to go up in flames was a Porsche, on Feb. 14, two days after a Mercedes was set alight in a public car park.

While youths in Athens protest by throwing Molotov cocktails, in Paris by toppling barricades, and in Budapest by hurling eggs at politicians, protesters in Berlin rage at their economic plight by targeting the most expensive cars -- symbols of German wealth and power.

A group calling itself BMW -- the initials stand for Movement for Militant Resistance in German -- has claimed responsibility for several attacks in left-wing magazines and Web sites, police spokesman Bernhard Schodrowski said.

One-third of the incidents are classed as “political,” prompting officers to assign a special unit to investigate, Schodrowski said. No arrests have been made. Schodrowski attributed the arson to “a protest against the world economy and rising rents.”

‘Quick to Attack’

German unemployment began to rise last November after almost three years of declines. Deutsche Bank AG Chief Economist Norbert Walter predicts the German economy, Europe’s biggest, may shrink by more than 5 percent this year.

The worst recession since World War II is fueling anger among youths across Europe who “perceive their future as rather precarious,” said Margit Mayer, a politics professor at Berlin’s Free University.

“Whether you look at the Berlin events or these anarchist groups in other European cities and countries, they are all making reference to the deepening economic crisis and how the various governments are dealing with them,” said Mayer, a specialist in urban social and protest movements.

Some groups are “very quick to attack whoever they can make out as responsible for having robbed them of decent life prospects,” according to Mayer.

The Berlin car burnings have been concentrated in up-and- coming neighborhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg, where Klostermann’s car was destroyed in May.

‘Don’t Move in Here’

There, new housing and building redevelopments are pushing out the squatter scene that flourished after East and West Berlin were reunited in 1990, said Andrej Holm, a sociologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt who has studied the change.

Rents that were about half the city average 10 years ago are now about 40 percent above the average, and the car attacks are an attempt to drive wealthy newcomers away, Holm said.

“It means: ‘rich people, don’t move in here -- your cars will be trashed, we don’t want you here’,” he said.

Representatives from Porsche Automobil Holding SE, Daimler AG, the maker of Mercedes, and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG declined to comment on the attacks. Daimler spokeswoman Ute von Fellberg said the matter was about security in Berlin.

Berlin Matter

“This is not a matter for the producer, rather it’s a matter for the city of Berlin,” BMW spokesman Alexander Bilgeri said today in a phone interview.

While Prenzlauer Berg and other central neighborhoods such as Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg are thriving, at least in parts, Berlin as a whole remains Germany’s “subsidy capital” almost 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, saidTobias Just, a real-estate economist with Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. Unemployment, at 14.1 percent in February, is almost double the nationalaverage.

Oliver Kappelle, who moved with his wife and two children to Friedrichshain, is unfazed by the perceived threat.

One night last month, Kappelle came across a “heap of junk that used to be a Porsche the night before,” he said. “I was just relieved that he didn’t park in the empty space behind me.”

Baader-Meinhof

Berlin has a history of political protest, with anarchist demonstrators regularly clashing with police on the streets of Kreuzberg during May 1 marches. Kreuzberg, which abutted the Berlin Wall, is represented in parliament by the Green Party’s Hans-Christian Stroebele, a former lawyer who defended members of the Baader-Meinhof gang in court.

Likewise, arson attacks on cars are not new: a Web site, “Burning Cars,” was set up to track the incidents in May 2007, one month before a summit in the northern German resort of Heiligendamm of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. There have been 290 attacks on cars since then, among them 55 Mercedes and 29 BMWs damaged or destroyed by fire, the site records.

“I wouldn’t advise someone to park their Porsche on the street” in Kreuzberg, Berlin police commissioner Dieter Glietsch told the Taz newspaper in June last year.

As the frequency of attacks increases, Klostermann, a company manager who has lived in Prenzlauer Berg for 12 years, remains unbowed.

“I would never want to be regarded as someone who can be driven out of a place where I enjoy living,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brett Neely in Berlinbneely3@bloomberg.net.

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