Berlin resident Renate Langanke woke up shortly after midnight to a loud explosion. When the pensioner peeked out her window, she saw flames billowing from two Mercedes-Benz brand cars parked across the street.
“Fire and smoke were everywhere, you could smell burned rubber, it was awful,” said Langanke, who lives in a sleepy area with tree-lined alleys in white-collar western Berlin. “I’ve always felt safe here, now I’m scared.”
Arsonists have set fire to 26 cars in the German capital in the last two days, mainly from Daimler AG’s Mercedes, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Volkswagen AG’s Audi, police said today. That brings the total number torched this year in Berlin to at least 138, more than double the figure for all of 2010.
The rise in Berlin car burnings coincides with widespread lawlessness that erupted last week across England. More than 1,500 people were arrested as rioters looted shops, attacked bystanders and burnt autos. In Berlin, far-left extremists are specifically targeting German luxury cars, symbols of the country’s wealth and export prowess, police said.
“The arsonists want to hit what they say are ‘Fat Cats,’” Berlin police spokesman Michael Gassen said. A special unit is investigating the fires as political crimes after the police received letters claiming responsibility that derided globalization, gentrification and rising rents, he said.
While the attacks are spread out over the year, police usually see a spike during the summer months. In some cases, arsonists have placed barbeque charcoal lighters on tires and ignited them, Thomas Neuendorf, a Berlin police spokesman, said today. Arsonists have in the past also lit a car’s hood on fire after hosing it with accelerant. No arrests have been made in the most recent string of attacks.
The fires come amid worsening economic data and political discontent in the country. German growth, last year the motor of Europe’s recovery, almost ground to a halt in the second quarter. Gross domestic product, adjusted for seasonal effects, rose 0.1 percent from the first quarter, the Federal Statistics Office in Wiesbaden said yesterday.
Almost two years into the European debt crisis that began in Greece, restiveness over Germany’s contribution to rescues is also weighing on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition as voters rebel over providing aid to fellow euro countries.
Merkel’s Christian Democrats have the backing of 32 percent of Germans, while her coalition partners, the Free Democrats, are supported by 3 percent, according to a Forsa poll released Aug. 10. The two parties won the 2009 election with a combined 48.4 percent support.
When the country in 2009 experienced its worst recession since World War II, a record 221 autos were torched. A key factor for the unrest is that about 40 percent of German youths are either without a high school degree or a paying job, according to Johannes Becker, head of the Center for Conflict Studies at the University of Marburg.
“In Britain you have the phenomenon that people are predisposed to jumping on the bandwagon,” Becker said. “They see that something is up and want to be part of it, to add some fuel to the fire, as it were. With these cars in Berlin, they are in contrast consciously trying to send a message.”
Berlin also has a history of political protest, where the violent Baader-Meinhof gang staged its first armed attack in the city in 1970, and demonstrators today regularly clash with police during May Day marches.
“It is not necessarily the financial crisis which is the main motivation for these attacks,” said Carsten Koschmieder, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin. “The perpetrators see themselves as being from the left, and protest against capitalism, globalization and gentrification.”
The attacks in the past happened mainly in eastern Berlin districts where more affluent tenants had pushed out squatters who arrived there after reunification in 1990. It’s a “new trend” that arsonists have now moved west, targeting areas such as Westend and its upscale neighbor Charlottenburg, said Michael Maass, a Berlin police spokesman.
Pensioner Wolfgang Lambrecht inspected a burned-out silver Mercedes yesterday afternoon that was parked next to a tree, its trunk blackened by the fire. Lambrecht, who has lived in a nearby apartment for 16 years, woke up in the middle of the night when the smell of burning tires crept through his open bedroom window.
“In the morning, when I saw all the damage, I was so upset that I told my wife, ‘Let’s pack our bags and get out of here,’” he said. “But that would be giving in to the radicals, wouldn’t it?’