THE 2000sTop 10 Myths about British Immigration to Berlin in 1995-2015

Figure 1. The Berlin skyline.

Note: This section is particularly indebted to Dr Melanie Neumann and her research on British and Irish migration to Berlin in the early 21st century.

The British community in Berlin has grown significantly since the beginning of the 21st century. According to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, the number of British expats in Berlin doubled over a period of 20 years (1995-2015).² In 1995 there were around 8,000 of Britons in Berlin, with the numbers growing to 10,000 in a single decade and increasing to 16,000 by 2019². However, even though the size of the British community in Berlin is steadily increasing, and its representatives are becoming more politically visible, socially active, and economically conscious, there are still many stereotypes and misconceptions about the lifestyle of British residents in Berlin. The phrase “Brit in Berlin” usually evokes the image of a young, wealthy, non-German-speaking hipster, who spends days in coffee-shops and nights in electro clubs, freelancing for the sustainability project in sub-Saharan Africa and looking for inspiration for the new “Heroes”. This article will explore ten popular myths about Britons in Berlin in the period between 1995-2015, and will demonstrate that the British community in Berlin is heterogenous, versatile and diverse, and their reasons for choosing Berlin as their home extend well beyond David Bowie and cheap rents.

Myth 1. Berlin is the place for British artists and those experimenting with creativity

It is true that Berlin attracted a lot of artists from around the globe at the beginning of the 21st century and was famous for its alternative music scene and defiance against societal norms and rules. With so many talented British artists residing and performing in Berlin, there is no doubt that this is the place to explore one’s creativity and artistic vision. However, contrary to popular belief, only a small percentage of British expats in Berlin are actually involved in creative industries. The study⁷ by Melanie Neumann shows that many Brits in Berlin (42,5%) are employed in professional sector, working as engineers, doctors, journalists, translators, etc. Around 15% of British migrants in Berlin occupy managerial, directorial, and other senior positions in their respective fields. Approximately 10% of Brits in Berlin work in customer service, sales, and marketing, and less than 5% work in other industries, such as artistic and creative industries. Therefore, only a small percentage of British migrants in Berlin identify themselves as artists. Many expats work in professional careers and choose stable and regular jobs.

Myth 2. The majority of British immigrants in Berlin are young single individuals

Between 2006-2016, 65% of British expats in Berlin were aged between 15-45 years old⁶. Studies suggest that compared with cities in the UK, there are more opportunities for young people in Berlin to combine work and hobbies, entertainment and career thanks to the cheaper costs of living and a more flexible approach to work³. British migrants in Berlin also report that they enjoy more of a work-life balance and have more time for creative pursuits and hobbies. Consequently, Berlin does indeed attract ,any young unmarried migrants from the UK. Moreover, according to the migration studies report by R. Murray in 2011, 61% of all British emigrants were single and almost 93% of them were aged between 15 and 596. The demographics of British migrants in Berlin are no exception to this trend, even though many representatives of the British community in Berlin are married couples with children.

Figure 2. S42 approaching the station.
Figure 2. S42 approaching the station.

Myth 3. The British community is not well-integrated into the urban life of Berlin

There is a popular belief that the British community in Berlin is rather isolated and detached from non-British residents, in terms of communication, networking and building relationships. Another common misconception is that Brits in Berlin live in their own “bubble”, and have little connection to the “outer reality” of Berlin’s urban life.

The fact that British immigrants often do not need to learn German, either for education, career or everyday communication purposes, only serves to support this myth. Yet the assertion that British people in Berlin neither contribute to its urban life nor integrate into the culture is unfounded.

According to M. Neumann’s study, around 30% of Brits in Berlin make economic contributions to the city budget of Berlin, by paying income taxes, founding their own businesses, launching start-up companies, etc⁷. Moreover, approximately 30% of British in Berlin contribute culturally by showcasing their art, working in creative industries, and supporting local artists⁷.

A quarter of respondents also maintain that they contribute politically through political party membership, organisation and participation in political events, as well as by expressing their political views, and voicing their demands⁷. The British community in Berlin contributes to the city’s urban life in different ways and is well-integrated in various domains of social life.

Myth 4. British migrants choose Berlin due to economic reasons

Migration studies researchers usually identify three main categories of motives to explain international migration: economic, social, and cultural¹¹. Economic reasons for migration include seeking better job opportunities, employment securities, higher quality of life, business networking and partnership building strategies. Social reasons for migration include reuniting with family, marriages with foreign partners, social networking and interpersonal relations. Cultural motives for migration include cultural preferences, interest in the country’s history, and a desire for lifestyle change.

With regards to the British community in Berlin, it is difficult to identify one major factor, which could explain individual motives for migration. Rather, researchers suggest analysing a combination of factors, to help explain British immigration to Berlin. According to Roland Verwiebe, only 14% of immigrants in Berlin chose the city due to the economic reasons¹¹. This position is corroborated by the research of Melanie Neumann⁷, who states that only 12% of British immigrants in Berlin moved to the city due to an offer of employment. Less than 30% of British immigrants cited social factors as the sole determining factor in their decision to move to Berlin¹¹. Notably, female immigrants are more likely than men to migrate due to the social factors⁸. At the beginning of the 21st century 19% of European immigrants in Berlin cited historical and cultural reasons for their decision to move to the city¹¹.

Reasons for British and Irish migration to Berlin

  • %

Triggers for British and Irish migration to Berlin

  • %
  • Social, cultural, economic reasons
  • Social reasons
  • Economic reasons
  • Cultural reasons
  • Economic and social reasons
  • Economic and cultural reasons
  • Social and cultural reasons

However, in the majority of cases, British immigration to Berlin is a combination of social and cultural factors—chief among these being the desire for lifestyle change and for new cultural experiences.

It is important to note that there is a difference between the stated reasons and the actual causes of migration. For example, while only 12% of British respondents in the survey by M. Neumann named economic reasons as the main motive for migration, nearly 30% of them moved to Berlin only after receiving an actual job offer⁷. Some also find it difficult to identify the actual reasons for migration, which supports the claim that migration is a complex process with many contributing factors. Yet it remains clear that economic factors cannot alone explain British migration to Berlin.

Myth 5.  Brits in Berlin are not motivated to learn German

Berlin’s international environment significantly reduces the necessity to use German as a language for everyday communication. Many businesses and start-up companies operate exclusively in English, making it especially attractive for the British immigrants. Similarly, German language skills are no longer essential for everyday communication. As the population of Berlin has grown increasingly diverse and international since the beginning of the 21st century, the use of the English language has become widespread in professional and interpersonal communication. Nevertheless, studies prove that Britons in Berlin are interested in learning German. About 50% of British come to Berlin with a basic knowledge of German⁷. Contrary to popular opinion, many British respondents in Neumann’s study maintain that around 90% of their interpersonal communication is in German⁷. This willingness to learn German cannot be attributed to professional motives, since many Brits are employed in English-speaking workplaces Some of the British immigrants in Berlin have studied German at university, but the majority starts taking language courses once they arrive in Berlin². Therefore, interest in the German language is due to cultural and social factors. Some British even admit that mastering German is one of the reasons for migrating to Berlin.

Myth 6. Many British migrants in Berlin are especially attached to the city’s cultural legacy and imagery

It has been already established, that many British people move to Berlin due to cultural reasons. Stella Maile and David Griffiths⁵ explain that some cities have strong narratives, legends or myths attached to them, which shape their social imagery and cultural reputation. The concept of social imagery refers “to the background, shared social assumptions which inform migrants’ choices and to the ‘imaging, planning and strategizing’ which is an integral part of the act of migration”⁵. The authors name several cultural narratives about Berlin that British migrants have identified as being significant to them. These are the social imageries of change, reinvention, instability, and void.

Instability. A popular saying about Berlin is that Berlin is always in the process of becoming, rather than being (Immer zu werden und niemals zu sein)⁵. The basis for this social narrative can be traced back to historical and social processes in Berlin throughout the 20th century. Over the course of a century Berlin was governed by no fewer than five different political regimes, and experienced enormous political, cultural, and social changes. Unsurprisingly, the city is associated more with change, than stability⁴. Apart from the political changes, Berlin also differs from other German cities in terms of “its commitment to modernity and enlightenment, and a tendency to disreputableness and an enthrallment to change”⁵. Many Britons, who chose to migrate to Berlin in the beginning of the 21st century, were drawn to this imagery and were keen to immerse themselves in the culture and history of the city.

Figure 6. Cranes over Berlin.
Figure 6. Cranes over Berlin.

Void. In the context of Berlin the narrative of the void can have both positive and negative connotations. As researchers point out, the void “evokes the war-time devastation of Berlin and the post-Wende reappearance of vacant spaces as both a sign of loss and negativity, but also of potential and opportunity”.⁵ This social imagery fosters a sense of incompleteness, and also inspires opportunities for further development and reinvention⁹. This void-narrative could also explain why so many artists find Berlin attractive, since it is closely associated with non-conformism, protests, and the search for self-identity and self-expression.

Myth 7. British citizens move to Berlin, when they want a lifestyle change

Lifestyle migration is a relatively new term in migration studies—it refers to individual decisions to change one’s country of residence with the purpose of obtaining better opportunities for self-actualisation and self-expression¹. Lifestyle migration is different from economic or political migration, since individuals are not primarily looking for better job options or a different political system. Rather, they want to experience a new culture and live in a different social environment.  Lifestyle migration is a common motivating factor for British people migrating to Berlin. The social imagery of the city, in addition to the city’s rich history, and strong associations with freedom and protests create an appealing new setting for those who decide to leave the UK.

Figure 7. Night in the city.
Figure 7. Night in the city.

Myth 8. For the British, Berlin is a Neverland—a place for enjoying life and working as little as possible

In contrast to UK cities, living expenses in Berlin at the beginning of the 21st century were indeed lower. There was a belief that in Berlin one can work less and still earn enough to cover the living expenses and save aside. However, the studies prove that British expats in Berlin work on average 7.5 hours per day, which constitutes a regular working day². Moreover, only 1.4% respondents in Neumann’s survey identified themselves as unemployed, meaning that the vast majority of Brits in Berlin are employed⁷. Around 30% of British migrants decided to move to Berlin due to suitable job offers⁷. Although British immigration to Berlin is not influenced exclusively by economic concerns, the majority of Brits are actively employed and work regular hours.

Myth 9. The British community in Berlin is politically engaged

The period between 1995-2015 has generally been characterised by a decrease in British political participation in the UK and abroad. Until the Brexit talks, the rates of political participation and electoral turnout were steadily falling among British people. It would be inaccurate to claim that the British community in Berlin was an exception to this trend. For example, many British migrants were not interested in changing their citizenship, regardless the duration of their residence in Berlin. Moreover, according to Melanie Neumann, only 16% of British residents in Berlin consider themselves to be actively engaged in the political life of the city, such as by being involved in political events². However, the situation changed after the UK announced about its plan to leave the EU. This announcement boosted political participation of British migrants residing in Berlin. For instance, many Brits in Berlin applied for German citizenship after 2015—many of whom had already been residing in Germany for several decades at the time of application².

It was also reported, that in comparison to other regions in Germany, Berlin’s city council takes less time to process the applications and inquiries of British citizens². A large number of studies on British lifestyles in Berlin confirms that the British community in Berlin has become more politically engaged. While British political participation in Berlin remained relatively low until the beginning of Brexit process, more and more British expats are now expressing their political views and ideas and are actively contributing to the discussions around Brexit.

Myth 10. There are no key differences between British and Irish migration to Berlin.

British and Irish migration to Berlin have a lot of features in common. In terms of the numbers, the Irish community in Berlin is much smaller compared with the British community—in 2015, there were around 3000 Irish residents in Berlin². Similarly to British immigration, the number of Irish immigrants in Berlin has been steadily increasing over the last few decades. Irish migration differentiates from British migration in one significant respect.

According to Neumann, only 37% of Irish residents moved to Berlin directly from the Republic of Ireland, without previously having lived outside their country of origin². In the case of the British, the percentage is 86%—meaning that only 14% of British in Berlin have lived in other places in Europe before choosing to reside in Berlin².

Figure 8. Irish people who live in Berlin were celebrating in the 5th St. Patrick’s Day Festival.

Figure 1: The Berlin Skyline © Unsplash
Figure 2: S42 approaching the station ©️ Pexels; Photographer: Johannes Rapprich
Figure 3: Cranes over Berlin © Unsplash
Figure 4:  Night in the City © Unsplash
Figure 5: TIrish people who live in Berlin were celebrating in the 5th St. Patrick’s Day Festival ©️ 2015 Brendan Power

Graph 1: Reasons for Migration to Berlin 1980 – 2002 ©️ BSTME 2002
Graph 2: Reasons for British and Irish Migration to Berlin ©️ Melanie Neumann, Britische Einwanderung nach Berlin. 24. Oktober 2017, https://minor-kontor.de/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Minor_GAB_Neumann_Pr%C3%A4sentation-Great-Berliners_2017.pdf
Graph 3: Triggers for British and Irish Migration to Berlin ©️ Melanie Neumann, Britische Einwanderung nach Berlin. 24. Oktober 2017, https://minor-kontor.de/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Minor_GAB_Neumann_Pr%C3%A4sentation-Great-Berliners_2017.pdf

1 Benson, Michaela. Lifestyle Migration: Expectations, Aspirations and Experiences. London, UK: Routledge, 2016; 2. Brexit Brits Abroad. “EP014 | About the British in Berlin”. Brexitbritsabroad, Dec 01, 2017. URL: https://brexitbritsabroad.libsyn.com/ep014-about-the-british-in-berlin; 3.Findlay, Allan, et al. “Ever reluctant Europeans: The Changing Geographies of UK Students Studying and Working Abroad.” European Urban and Regional Studies 13.4 (2006): 291- 318; 4. Griffiths, David, and Stella Maile. “Britons in Berlin: Imagined Cityscapes, Affective Encounters and the Cultivation of the Self.” Understanding Lifestyle Migration. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014. 139-159; 5. Maile, Stella, and David Griffiths. “Longings for Berlin: Exploring the Workings of the Psycho- Social Imaginary in British Migration.” Journal of Psycho-Social Studies 6.1 (2012): 30-53; 6. Murray, Rosemary, et al. Emigration from the UK. Research Report 68). London: Home Office, 2012; 7. Neumann, Melanie. Britische Einwanderung nach Berlin. 24. Oktober 2017. URL:  https://minor- kontor.de/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Minor_GAB_Neumann_Pr%C3%A4sentation- Great-Berliners_2017.pdf; 8. Pessar, Patricia R., and Sarah J. Mahler. “Transnational Migration: Bringing Gender.” International Migration Review 37.3 (2003): 812-846; 9. Rapp, Tobias. “Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno und der Easyjetset.” Suhrkamp Verlag, 2012; 10. Richie, Alexandra. Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin. London: HarperCollins, 1998; 11. Verwiebe, Roland. “Why do Europeans migrate to Berlin? Social‐Structural Differences for Italian, British, French and Polish Nationals in the Period Between 1980 and 2002.” International Migration 52.4 (2014): 209-230.

THE 2000sGentrification in Berlin and London

Gentrification became a central topic in Berlin’s city planning and urban development following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gentrification is generally defined as a structural change in the social, economic, and cultural character of a city neighbourhood due to the influx of more affluent residents, increased economic investment, and business growth. As researchers rightly point out, gentrification is a complex social phenomenon, and it would be inadequate to discuss it from an economic point of view only¹. This article will analyse the causes of gentrification in Berlin in the 2000s, examining the role of British migrants in this process, and will illustrate in what ways the gentrification of Berlin differs from that of London.

Causes of Gentrification in Berlin

The reinvestment process

The starting point in the analysis of gentrification is the overview of the property market. In Berlin—especially East Berlin—the property market simply did not exist, and after reunification a huge proportion of real estate was returned to the original owners⁴. For instance, in the neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, between 70-90% of housing was returned to former owners at the beginning of the 21st century⁴. Similarly in Neukölln, many residents found them unable to pay rent after their houses were privatised and they were deprived of state subsidies¹.

Figure 1. Gentrification Study Berlin. Development potential based on rental trends. Relocation frequenzy, size of household, shops and restaurants. Gentrification Probability: Red = Visible/Complete, Orange = High, Yellow = Low, Mint Green = Insufficient Data.  © B.Z. Berlin
Figure 1. Gentrification Study Berlin. Development potential based on rental trends. Relocation frequenzy, size of household, shops and restaurants. Gentrification Probability: Red = Visible/Complete, Orange = High, Yellow = Low, Mint Green = Insufficient Data. © B.Z. Berlin
Figure 2. Houses in Prenzlauer Berg.
Figure 2. Houses in Prenzlauer Berg.

The lack of a property market and the corresponding regulations led to the rapid sales of real estate, often with speculative prices. Even though the process did not last for more than a decade, it left a significant impact on the development of property regulations in Berlin.

Secondly, the lack of public funding and subsidies led to an increased proportion of privately refurbished housing. Before reunification, all modernisation and refurbishment procedures in West Berlin were financed by the State⁴. However, when Berlin was reunited, it became obvious that public funds would be insufficient to cover the refurbishment costs of East Berlin neighbourhoods—neighbourhoods which required much more investment than their western counterparts. As a result, the local government decided to delegate the financing of housing renovation to private companies. Within a decade, the amount of privately modernised buildings in Berlin rose from 0% (in 1994) to 49,6% (in 2001)⁴. Such a huge reliance on the private companies predictably led to the increased sales and rent prices.

Finally, the peculiarities of the German tax system also profoundly affected the reinvestment process. In the last decade of the 20th century, the refurbishment costs for old houses were tax deductible⁴. According to A. Holm, “until 1996 this form of depreciation allowed up to 50 percent of refurbishment costs in the first year of investment to be offset against tax, this proportion being reduced to 40 percent until 1998/99”⁴. This explains why so many investors suddenly became interested in the refurbishment of old houses, as the invested costs could become tax-deductible for the parties involved. Since investors benefited profoundly from this legislation, a lot of the modernisation happened in areas with low rental demand and low rental prices. This tax-deductible strategy resulted in the disproportional increase of rental prices in the first decade of the 21st century.

Population Changes

The modernisation and refurbishment of houses led to social changes in Berlin’s neighbourhoods. Newly renovated houses, owned by private investors, attracted more affluent residents to settle in what had previously been unattractive and poor areas of Berlin. This was especially the case for East Berlin. For example, in the early 2000s, 60% of households in Prenzlauer Berg were single-person households, compared with an average of 48% in other districts⁴. Another prominent change was the age of residents moving to the modernised areas. Thus, in the districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Neukölln, and Friedrichshain over the course of one decade between 1990 and 2000s the proportion of residents aged 25-44 rose from one third to over one half 1,4. Notably, many of the new residents were single individuals with no children.

Another change was the level of education and income of the new residents in the gentrified regions. It is generally estimated that the newly refurbished districts became popular among people who had, at minimum, a school-leaving certificate, and who often also had university qualifications⁴.

Prenzlauer Berg has got the highest proportion of residents with an Abitur—the German school-leaving certificate⁴. The same trend is discernible with regards to the proportion of residents with high income levels. The previously unattractive districts in East Berlin very quickly became densely populated, and many of the tenants had above average incomes.

In this context, it is important to note the role of migration in the process of gentrification. Researchers point out that the influx of migrants from west-European countries, the US and Canada has significantly affected real estate sales and rental pricing in Berlin. The proportion of real estate purchases by immigrants from the countries of the Global North also increased in the 2000s. While German residents prefer renting to owning real estate—due to cultural factors and legal reasons — many migrants from the US and the UK were especially attracted by the low prices for real estate in Berlin. Therefore, the influx of wealthy upper middle-class migrants from the UK can be viewed as one of the contributing factors to the rapid gentrification of Berlin.

Shift in cultural discourses surrounding the gentrified neighbourhoods

It is not just social and economic structures of the neighbourhood that have changed. Other factors that have contributed to gentrification include cultural enthusiasm⁴, social imagery, and media portrayals of the neighbourhood—all of which can affect the reputation of a district. In Berlin, the areas of Prenzlauer Berg, Neukölln, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain are often referred to as “legendary”, “hip”, “funky”, “liveliest regions in Berlin”, etc.⁵

Rather than being influenced by factors such as security or infrastructure, many people choose to live in these areas because of the cultural significance. From the beginning of the 2000s, the cultural boosterism² in Berlin resulted in increased investments into cultural infrastructure, including restaurants offering international cuisine, boutiques, art galleries, intercultural workshops, etc.⁴ The very names of the districts also started acquiring new connotations and were used to refer to some cultural phenomena and events. The so-called conspicuous consumption² has been extremely high in the gentrified areas of former East Berlin. Some of its regions have been marked with the highest concentration of pubs, restaurants, and coffee places in proportion to the rest of the city.

Another cultural feature, which affects gentrification is the association of particular areas with the famous people, movements, or events, which took place in those specific districts. For instance, Berlin from the British perspective is closely connected with the names of Christopher Isherwood, David Bowie, David Chipperfield, and Bono (U2). The cultural legacy of famous artists influences many migrants from the UK to choose Berlin as their home and to experience its historical and artistic backgrounds.

Overall, these are the three main factors explaining the rapid gentrification in Berlin, which took place in the decades following the reunification of Germany. It is worth mentioning that there were numerous protests against the gentrification and the increase of the rent prices, starting from the early 2000s. Activism against gentrification remains relatively high among Berliners, which demonstrates continued relevance and importance of this phenomenon of this phenomenon for the life of the city.

Figure 3. Buses around Tiergarten.
Figure 3. Buses around Tiergarten.

How does gentrification in Berlin differ from London?

Some aspects of gentrification are common to every city around the world. These include a change in the social structure of the population in the gentrified districts, the increase in rental prices and real estate sales, as well as the development of new cultural meanings and imagery  in the affected neighbourhoods. At the same time, gentrification evolves and manifests itself differently in different cities. While Berlin’s gentrification is largely connected to the cultural background and social imagery, a different situation can be observed in London.

A distinctive feature of London’s gentrification at the beginning of the 21st century was the growth of financial capacities and resources of the city³. It is reported that a disproportional percentage of London residents are employed or involved in the financial sector London is also a city, in which many international corporations and businesses locate their headquarters, thereby attracting more capital and investment of resources³. Consequently, the migration of professionals, the increase in the number of workplaces, and the rapid growth of businesses have created ideal conditions for gentrification.

Gentrification in London—more so than in Berlin—is associated with an increase in living standards and levels of individual income³. A strong focus on the service economy and financial sector placed London in a unique position, even in comparison with other British cities³. The unprecedented economic growth since the late 20th century was a unique feature of London’s city development and a crucial factor in its gentrification dynamics.

Figure 1: Gentrification Study Berlin. Development potential based on rental trends. © B.Z. Berlin
Figure 2: Houses in Prenzlauerberg © Unsplash
Figure 3: Buses around Tiergarten © Unsplash

1. Bader, Ingo, and Martin Bialluch. “Gentrification and the creative class in Berlin- Kreuzberg.” Whose Urban Renaissance?. London, UK: Routledge, 2009; 2. Beauregard, Robert A. “The chaos and complexity of gentrification.” Gentrification of the City. London, UK: Routledge, 2013; 3. Hamnett, Chris. “Gentrification and the middle-class remaking of inner London, 1961- 2001.” Urban Studies 40.12 (2003): 2401-2426; 4. Holm, Andrej. “Berlin’s gentrification mainstream.” The Berlin Reader. A compendium of urban change and activism (2013): 171-188; 5. Huning, Sandra, and Nina Schuster. “‘Social Mixing’or ‘Gentrification’? Contradictory Perspectives on Urban Change in the Berlin District of Neukölln.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research39.4 (2015): 738-755; 6. Levine, Myron A. “Government Policy, the Local State, and Gentrification: The Case of Prenzlauer Berg (Berlin), Germany.” Journal of Urban Affairs 26.1 (2004): 89-108.