Seeing red in Hamburg: Violence flares as radical left-wing squatters fight to save commune from developers

Tony Paterson reports from one of Europe’s richest cities fast becoming a magnet for a new wave of German activism

The dilapidated and graffiti-smeared 19th -century theatre looks like an improbable relic from the early days of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. “Your Struggle is Our Struggle,” proclaims a slogan on its front facade. Bedraggled, bearded men in combat jackets and berets camp out in sleeping bags on the front steps, despite the January cold.

“Red Flora”, as Hamburg’s leftist community centre is named, sticks out like a sore thumb in the city’s hip, alternative yet increasingly upmarket Schanzenviertel district. Last week it prompted police to declare the centre of one of Europe’s richest port cities a “danger zone” and caused the US embassy to issue travel warnings to citizens contemplating a visit. 

“If stopped without proper identification, persons may be detained by Hamburg police without further justification,” Berlin’s American embassy cautioned last Wednesday. The draconian measures would appear to have turned posh Hamburg and its famous if less smart Reeperbahn red light district into the Teutonic equivalent of Belfast during the Troubles.

The entrance to the Reeperbahn’s Davidwache police station was festooned with police barricades last week. Police helicopters circled above the city. Uniformed officers conducted stop-and-search operations. Last Wednesday, police were involved in skirmishes with left-wing protesters who pelted them with fireworks. “Many people who live here are fed up with the violence and destruction,” was how Hamburg’s police trade union president, Joachim Lenders, justified the new measures.

As Germany’s longest surviving squat, Red Flora has become a symbolic last stand against what many on the alternative left fear will be the total gentrification of what is already one of Europe’s richest cities.

Shortly before Christmas plans to evict the squatters were met with a mass counter-demonstration involving militant left-wing and anarchist groups from throughout Germany. The city experienced some of its worst street violence since the Second World War. Masked protesters torched cars and showered police with stones, bottles and fireworks. The police responded with water cannon, baton charges and tear gas. More than 120 police officers and an estimated 500 demonstrators were injured, many of them badly.

Just days later, another group of protesters assaulted police with stones and bottles as they were leaving the Davidwache station in what was apparently an unprovoked attack. One officer suffered a broken nose and jaw. Conservative politicians have since demanded that police be equipped with rubber bullets and Tasers. The police trade union said it did not rule out the qualified use of live ammunition.

Last Thursday, the streets around Red Flora still bore the scars of the so-called “resistance” against growing gentrification. Several shop windows smashed in the pre-Christmas street battles were taped over and still unrepaired. The protesters had deliberately targeted chains such as H&M and Adidas – which are seen as the unacceptable face of capitalism – for their attacks.

The surrounding area is full of independently owned bars, shops, cafes and cheap restaurants. Their owners see the arrival of foreign or multinational retail outlets as a threat, and many of them sympathise with what Red Flora has come to stand for.

“It is one of the few places left in Hamburg where the rule of money is not absolute,” said Dirk, the manager of a record shop selling vintage vinyl opposite the squat. He declined to reveal his surname. “Gentrification is pushing the rents up all the time. Even the local discount supermarket is being driven out. We fear we may be next. We’ll no doubt be replaced by some faceless chain store,” he said.

Plans announced by the owner of Red Flora to evict the squatters from the building and turn it into a “community centre for all” were the spark that ignited mass protests and the subsequent violence.

Manfred Murck, the head of Hamburg’s state intelligence service, says the city is home to some 1,200 left-wing extremists, of which 620 are prone to violence. However, protests against the plans to shut down Red Flora attracted many of the estimated 6,000 other extremist leftists in Germany, and scores of sympathisers. “Red Flora has turned into a symbol of many grievances,” Mr Murck told Hamburg’s Morgenpost newspaper. “Many came here thinking they had a right to destroy things.”

The row over Red Flora now dominates Hamburg politics. The city’s opposition Left and Green parties say the decision to declare parts of the city a danger zone is an unnecessary overreaction on the part of the Social Democrats.

But at Red Flora the mood remains upbeat despite its position at the centre of Hamburg’s “danger zone.” Dave, a man in his twenties who described himself as a community activist, said the publicity of recent weeks appeared to have halted the eviction plans: “We are going to make Red Flora pay for itself. We are going to renovate it ourselves. There will even be a coffee shop and a bar,” he told The Independent.

 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

Berlusconi's world of sleaze

The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

Could gaming arcades be revived?

The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

Heard the one about menstruation?

Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage