Camp in the City

A number of figures haunt the fantasmatic space of the camps that have mushroomed in Berlin these last few months, figures that jostle for a place in the German imaginary. I begin with two as I write today, in March 2016. Last year, eighty thousand refugees arrived in the city. They have been housed in more than sixty school gyms, as well as in abandoned shopping centers and schools, low-income apartments, exhibition halls, military barracks, and even the Olympia stadium where Jesse Owens so famously shattered Nazi cults of racial superiority in 1936. For months, three hundred refugees trickled into the city every day. Every day, a space the size of a large gym was filled. At the decommissioned Tempelhof Airport, a monumental building where forced laborers built Nazi war planes and the Allied Forces airlifted supplies to Berliners after World War II, refugees today live in rows of white tents and prefabricated, ceilingless boxes, with clothes draped along the top to dry and messages scrawled on outer walls.

One of the figures that haunts the space of the camp is that of little Aylan, a Kurdish boy who became a symbol of innocent death in September 2015 when his drenched body was found face down on a Greek beach. The other is the nameless North African—a figure born on New Year’s Eve in 2015 in Cologne, when groups of mainly North African men mobbed women leaving the train station, ripping their clothes and robbing them of their cell phones and bags. Two cases of rape were reported and hundreds of cases of sexual harassment filed. That night, Aylan ceased to exist simply as a child in need. Afterward, Aylan could not be thought of apart from the man that many Germans assume he would have become: a dark menace violating the body of the German woman and, in his lawlessness, the very integrity of the law of the German state. After Cologne, the unstable infrastructure of compassion that had been built over months was suddenly threatened to its core.

The refugee, this figure of frailty and violence, is accompanied by others, too. In December 2015, an anonymous source revealed that entire rooms in Berlin’s Regional Office for Health and Social Affairs (Lageso) were stacked with boxes full of unprocessed refugee registration applications, leading to the emergence of “finders” at Lageso—persons hired exclusively to find lost files. This revelation laid bare an embarrassment at the heart of these camps: because the filing system used by the Berlin government had been neither digitized nor federally coordinated and centralized, up to five thousand refugees remained unregistered for months, in excess of camp and state, unnumbered and unknown. When half of all Lageso’s bureaucrats called in sick in January 2016, leaving hundreds of refugees waiting in the cold for days to access money to buy food, Berliners reacted with disbelief. It was as if Berlin has returned to a scene of war marked by chaos, a broken state, and the specter of “hunger having returned to the city.” Its camps—paragons of humanitarian action when the rest of Europe was failing—were revealed as sites of disorder, failed by the state and ruled by laws beyond the state’s devising. 

When reports surfaced that private security guards at Tempelhof (the majority of whom are themselves of immigrant descent) had treated refugees like Untermenschen (subhumans, a term used by the Nazis to refer to Jews), it became clear that violence was not the prerogative of either refugees or North African immigrants, but was constitutive of the camp as such. Violence is folded into the camp, operating through multiple modes of sovereignty. Violence is also viciously directed against the camp: attacks, especially arson, have quintupled over the last year. With these attacks comes the specter of the return of the repressed. “How can we use the word Lager to refer to this camp in our city?” one man asked during a meeting about Tempelhof’s future. “All I can think of are those two dreaded letters.” He did not have to clarify, since the unspeakable was already present with us in the room: KZ, Konzentrationslager. Indeed, right-wing commentators have relentlessly belittled the German welcome of refugees as a reflex propelled by historical trauma rather than reason: “You’re only doing this because Grandpa fought for Adolf.”

Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna, used here courtesy of Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.
Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna, used here courtesy of Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.

The camp, in short, is a space haunted by a series of projections, desires, repressed fears, and trauma future and past. It signals a threshold whose volatility is compounded by the fact that the state appears exhausted by these new realities while its proxies (private security guards, for example) make rules of their own. The camp is thus a space marked by the volatility of law, violence, police, and compassion, a zone where sovereign power is more an aspiration that an actual achievement. It is in this sense that the camp is a symptom of a more general European condition of volatile laws and proliferating sovereignties. Out of this volatility, the current crisis has not been resolved but simply relocated to Europe’s borders—borders maintained with force and through the blatant disregard of European and international law. 

When I last visited Tempelhof, its hangars—previously filled with the smells of catered food and the murmur of more than two thousand women, men, and children chatting, playing, drinking sweet tea, and checking phones—were eerily quiet. Workers were breaking down tents that had hurriedly been erected a few months earlier by the German army. What just a few weeks ago was a space projected to be filled with thousands of additional incoming refugees is now a series of echoing concrete halls. The closing of the Balkan route has had the desired effect: while the Tempelhof refugees moved on and dispersed into the city, very few refugees have newly arrived. Europe, for now, can pretend to have returned to normalcy, however tenuous the fantasy might be. The question is how long and at what cost this can be maintained.