Mitte (Berlin)

SUMMARY

Mitte is a district within Germany’s capital, Berlin, and has the largest share of ethnic minorities of any Berlin district – mostly Turkish descendants (27%) but also immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, Poland and Arab countries. Many are socially disadvantaged, and many older residents lack sufficient German language skills. But Mitte is also home to some of the city’s most important landmarks, including the Reichstag, Germany’s seat of government, and was seen as a focal point for gentrification, as young people flocked to the city in recent years thanks to its vibrant cultural scene and affordable rents. Berlin as a whole is still suffering from the economic after-affects of reunification, which left the city with huge debts.

PROFILE

With a population of around 327,000 in the year 2009, Mitte is the third largest district in the German capital (and federal state) of Berlin. The district was formed from three former Berlin districts — Tiergarten, Wedding and Mitte — in the course of a consolidation of the city administration in 2001, during which 12 districts were created from the previous 23. Mitte was one of the two districts where former East and West German districts came together. Mitte thus went through two transitions in recent history, one in 1990 when German reunification came, and the second in 2001 when the district reform took place.

Mitte is the Berlin district with the largest share of its population belonging to ethnic minority groups (almost 45%). The largest single ethnic group in Mitte is of Turkish descent (27% of the foreign population in the district) that originally came as labour migrants in the 1960s and 1970s. The next larger groups come from former Yugoslavia (10%), Poland (9%) and Arab countries (8%). Many of the foreign residents are socially disadvantaged and often have not completed an occupational training program. Many (especially older) foreign residents lack sufficient German language skills.

The three former districts are very different from each other. Wedding is on the whole densely populated and traditionally an industrial area where workers often lived. This went back as far as the early years of German industrialization. Since the recruitment of labour migrants, Wedding has become home to a large number of people belonging to ethnic minority groups, especially Turkish people who live very segregated in the northeast part of the former district. The majority of the population of Wedding is socially disadvantaged.

The former district of Tiergarten is very diverse. On the one hand, there are socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the North and South that are similar to Wedding, but with other ethnic groups. In addition to Turkish people, there are also many people from Arab countries, Poland or former Yugoslavia. Many of the foreign residents in Tiergarten came as refugees. On the other hand, Tiergarten was part of the section of Berlin where the German central government was located before the Second World War, and has many historic embassies and governmental buildings that were restored to their original functions after the reunification. Tiergarten also has the “Tiergarten”, a larger formal garden that is an attraction for tourists and Berlin residents alike.

The former district of Mitte is very different from the other two. The German word “mitte” means “centre”, and the historic centre of Berlin was in the former district of Mitte. Many of the famous museums, cathedrals and sights in Berlin are there. Mitte was also a location of the German central government before the Second World War, and the government seat of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) after the war. The social situation of the population is much better than in Tiergarten and Wedding. The former district of Mitte has fewer people from ethnic minority groups than Wedding and Tiergarten, and they come from different countries (predominately from the former Soviet bloc or people working in embassies).

The administration in the city and state of Berlin is structured somewhat peculiarly. On the one hand, the district parliaments and commissioners are elected by the people and have somewhat restricted powers of making decisions and setting priorities. The districts are bigger than most autonomous cities in Germany, but the district offices have much more limited powers. They are technically a part of the state administration and receive their funding from the state treasury. This means that every attempt to economise, in order to reduce the huge state debt, restricts the fiscal autonomy of the districts. Another peculiarity is the fact that the district mayor does not have authority over the entire district administration. There are five district commissioners (six including the mayor) belonging to main political parties represented in the district parliament, and each is responsible for his or her own department.

As a whole, the people living in Mitte — also the Germans — are socially disadvantaged compared to most other districts. This means that the district administration — especially in areas like the schools, the Kindergartens, the Health Department and the Youth Services Department — generally target this group. One of the most important instruments for helping socially disadvantaged areas is called neighbourhood management (Quartiersmanagement = QM). This is a federal government program to actively help disadvantaged areas. At the moment, it is the most important source of funding for measures in many different areas (schools, integration measures, health promotion measures, building projects).

One of the greatest problems in Berlin (and thus also in Mitte) is the huge debt (around 60 billions Euros) that Berlin has accumulated since the financial redistribution plan that existed in former West Germany (Berlinforderung) and was phased out after German reunification. Because West Berlin was like an island in the middle of East Germany, it needed financial subsidies to remain solvent. Berlin was not a favourable site for industry (high transportation costs), and many businesses would have shut down without assistance. This was also done for prestige reasons (Berlin was a Western outpost in the Eastern bloc). East Berlin was similarly subsidised in East Germany, as the showcase for the Warsaw Pact countries.

Expectations were high in the year 2000 that a reunified Berlin would emerge as a strong economic site between the Eastern and Western economic regions. After a short period of economic growth, however, the economic and currency union between East and West Germany led eventually to the collapse of the Eastern European economies (and also of the industrial base in the eastern part of Germany), and to a deep recession in Germany and Berlin. Due to the manifold costs of rebuilding the unified cities and the generally high level of government employment, Berlin is still suffering from the economic burdens of reunification.