‘State enemy No 1’: the Berlin counter-culture legend fighting eviction

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Hans-Georg Lindenau’s ‘corner shop for revolutionary needs’ has evaded attempts to close it for 30 years – now gentrification could succeed where the senate failed

The M99 shop in Kreuzberg, Berlin.
Hans-Georg Lindenau’s M99 shop in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Photograph: Philip Oltermann for the Guardian

For more than 30 years, M99, Berlin’s “corner shop for revolutionary needs”, has equipped the German capital’s alternative scene with requisite attire, reading materials and hardware.

The semi-collapsed shelves of the labyrinthine store in the heart of the Kreuzberg district hold books and pamphlets ranging from Anarchism 2.0 to A Short History of Zapatismo, Palestinian keffiyeh headscarves and 40 varieties of pepper spray (advertised here as “antifascist deodorant”).

Hans-Georg Lindenau inside M99.
Hans-Georg Lindenau inside M99. Photograph: Wolfram Kastl/EPA

With clashes over squatters’ rights a constant in Kreuzberg since the 1970s, the little shop at the corner of on Manteuffelstraße and Waldemarstraße has been a thorn in the side of Berlin’s senate for each of its three decades of existence. Shopkeeper Hans-Georg Lindenau – celebrated in local graffiti as HG – proudly describes himself as “Berlin’s state enemy No 1”.

Using a wheelchair since falling off a church spire in a “psychosomatic episode” in 1989, Lindenau moves around the shop that doubles up as his home using special contraptions to navigate tight spaces. Yet the cumbersome appearance betrays an agile intellect. The police have raided M99 54 times – and 54 times they left without getting their hands on any illegal items that would have enabled them to force the shop’s closure.

Now, however, urban gentrification may succeed where the senate has failed. An investor who acquired the building in 2013 cancelled Lindenau’s contract after accusing him of violating the terms of his lease by subletting the apartment above the shop without notification – a claim which the anarchist shopkeeper dismissed as “a lie and a deception”.

“I have always been illegal,” Lindenau said, sitting behind the makeshift till in his shop. “It’s just the definitions of illegality that keep on changing.”

After being served his eviction notice by the city authorities at the start of the year, Lindenau was due to move out of his shop by 9 August, but a series of demonstrations helped delay an enforcement of the ruling until after local elections in September. A report also found that a forceful eviction could lead to a “considerable destabilisation with depressive or suicidal crises”.

Hans-Georg Lindenau
Lindenau can often be seen in his Prussian spiked helmet around the streets of Kreuzberg. Photograph: Philip Oltermann for the Guardian

Lindenau now has until 20 September to vacate the premises and find a new home. He has threatened to go on hunger strike if he is evicted.

In Berlin, the conflict has already taken on symbolic value. During the cold war, Kreuzberg – part of the West German half of Berlin that was encircled by the socialist east – used to provide a unique habitat for alternative lifestyles, attracting draft dodgers, artists and punks. Since reunification, the district’s bohemian charm and proximity to the city centre has drawn a more affluent crowd: last year, rents in Kreuzberg were on average the highest in the German capital.

While Berlin has become the first German city to introduce a new rent-control law, cracked down on Airbnb and other short-term rentals, and in June made use of its right to buy a building in Kreuzberg to avoid it falling prey to property speculators, many Berliners feel politicians are not doing enough to protect the city’s unique character.

Lindenau, a member of Berlin’s squatting scene since his late teens, complains that he is frequently woken up by tourists moving in and out of Airbnb flats above his shop. In an ever more rapidly globalising city, the corner shop for revolutionary needs has suddenly become a marker of permanence and tradition.

Last Sunday, about 600 protesters marched through Kreuzberg to demonstrate against rising rents and in support of Lindenau, who led the field in his wheelchair, wearing a Prussian spiked helmet, yodelling into a microphone and carrying a sign reading “You don’t replant old trees”.

A man on a bicycle rides past street art in Skalitzer Straße, Kreuzberg.
A man on a bicycle rides past street art in Skalitzer Straße, Kreuzberg. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Lindenau may have become a figurehead for tenants concerned about being driven out of their city by property speculators, but his plight is not entirely representative. The shopkeeper’s supporters have struggled to fight for his rights as a tenant partly because the 57-year-old has in the past been reluctant to tie himself to Germany’s social security net. Certifying Lindenau’s disability, for example, has been complicated by the fact that he has rejected state support.

M99’s nemesis, too, may not entirely be the faceless venture capitalists of Kreuzberg folklore. Like Lindenau, the owner of the building at Manteuffelstraße 99 is a shop owner who has lived in Berlin since the 1980s.

Hans-Georg Lindenau
Lindenau: ‘I have always been illegal. It’s just the definitions of illegality that keep on changing.’ Photograph: Philip Oltermann for the Guardian

Originally a US citizen, Frederick Hellmann has two outlets in the city which cater not to revolutionary needs but those of a more moneyed consumer. Wares sold include luxury suits made by his brother. “Putin and Medvedev don’t wear anything else”, Hellmann said in an interview in 2011.

Lawyer Cornelius Ernst Wollmann said there were no plans to convert the building into luxury flats, as has happened to other premises in the area. The property had been acquired, he said, as “an investment for old age”.

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