How a murder has forced light into the shadows of Berlin’s ‘lawless’ central park

Tiergarten is the green lung in the heart of Berlin. But a murder in September, accompanied by rising social problems, has led local politicians to push the alarm button on the idyllic, forested park.

How a murder has forced light into the shadows of Berlin’s ‘lawless’ central park
Tiergarten. Photo: DPA

At the entrance to Berlin’s Tiergarten park lies a damp piece of paper surrounded by wet flowers.

“My dearly beloved wife Susanne was found here on September 8th,” reads the note, with a picture of a smiling woman on it. “40 years of happy marriage wiped out, just like that.”

The note and flowers are a memorial to Susanne F., a 60-year-old art historian, who was murdered in Berlin’s central park last month. As her mobile phone and other valuables were missing, police suspect that her attacker was motivated by greed.

A suspect, an 18-year-old Russian, has now been arrested for the murder.

Susanne F.'s killing was the last straw for Stephan von Dassel, the mayor of the central Berlin neighbourhood of Mitte, where the Tiergarten is located.

He complained last week that the park had turned into a “zone of illegality”, saying that park staff were at breaking point due to rising homelessness, drug dealing and prostitution in the heavily wooded green space.

Von Dassel, a Green party politician, complained that “the Polish government shouldn’t solve its social problems in our parks” and called for homeless east Europeans who are camping there to be deported. Party colleagues accused him of using populist language, pointing out that his suggestion was against European law.

'Things have gone crazy'

Homelessness in Tiergarten. Photo: DPA

Basti, a 28 year old from Bavaria, is one of the growing number of homeless people who have taken up residence in the 210 hectare park. 

A carpenter by trade, he spends much of his time collecting discarded bottles to trade them in at recycling stations. On Tuesday morning he was sitting in front of his tent eating a sandwich.

“Since the murder everything has gone crazy here. But we’re the only ones who are always calm,” he says, pointing at the row of eight tents behind him. His brother camps next to him, then two Poles, and next to them someone who has been there for eight years.

“We look after each other's stuff when we got bottle collecting. Otherwise it would all be stolen. And we never do anything to anyone,” he insists.

But he says that the park is quite different at nighttime to what it is like during the day, when it is filled with cyclists, mums pushing prams and joggers.

Basti says he has often found empty handbags, thrown away by robbers once they have emptied them of valuables. He adds that drug dealers hang out in the more thickly forested areas.

Prostitution at the Victory Column

In the area around the Victory Column – the Prussian war memorial that stands in the park's centre – men have been meeting for sex for years.

Now refugees are working as male prostitutes there. During the day men can be seen waiting on the paths. When potential customers approach them they say “hello” before disappearing behind a tree.

The initial appearance of calm in the park is deceptive, one park ranger says.

“It is getting worse all the time. In some areas children are being offered for sex. Other people break down the branches to build themselves tents. When we try and intervene they just make rude comments in reply,” she says.

Berlin’s city mayor has been at pains since the start of the year to give the impression the city government is improving security. On an almost monthly basis new initiatives are being announced: more police, more police stations, more CCTV and new investigation teams.

The city senate has also been quick to respond to concerns around the Tiergarten. Starting on Wednesday, the police presence there will be beefed up.

“At least in the short term this should noticeably change things,” said a senate spokeswoman.

Basti, the Bavarian camping at the west side of the park, isn’t impressed by the sudden glare of attention from politicians.

“They should just leave us in peace,” he says.

For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.