Berlin is a big city with all the ups and downs this brings with it.
Compared to other parts of the world Berlin is quite a safe place, even during the night you can walk around in the city center without being endangered – especially if you’re in a group of people.
But lately multiple times people got into fights in Berlin’s subway during the night, in 2012 two cases especially shocked Berlin where people were beaten to death for minor reasons.
I think everyone who lives in a big city has encountered aggression in the public transportation, but it rarely really escalates if the people keep a cool head.
I would like to share two events that happened to me during the last years while using the subway in Berlin.
This first story happened a couple of years back, I think it was in the summer of 2009.
I was invited to a birthday party in the far eastern edge of the city, close to the last stop of the U5 line. It is basically a GDR housing district build in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts. Rents are cheap, unemployment is rather high, especially among young folks.
I left the party at about 1am with a friend. During the weekends the trains run all night long, so we walked back to the nearest subway station.
Shortly after passing a bar the door of the place opened and spat out a group of drunken young Neonazis. They took the same route as we did, we knew who they were even before we saw them – we heard them sing their songs and immediately knew: This could mean trouble.
There was only one other guy on the platform who joined us when he saw the Neonazis, sighing: “Oh no, not those guys, I just served them drinks in that bar!”
There were seven of them, all of them drunk.
Six of them were contend just being loud, banging on things, singing songs.
The seventh was looking for a fight.
When he spotted us he came to us and started to talk to the waiter he already knew from the bar. He checked us out, trying to find a way to intimidate and provoke us.
He had shaved his head bald, a very common thing among Neonazis in Germany and he had a big scar going over his forehead. He proudly claimed that he got that scar from a fight with some Russians from that area. Apparently one of them had pushed against the edge of a metal column of that station there.
The train arrived and we all got in. I had hoped we could just get into another wagon, but this was a new train which had no separated compartments. Looking back I still don’t know though why we didn’t go to the complete opposite of the train, but sat down somewhere in the middle.
He soon came to us once more and by this time he had already picked his target: Me.
Our group of three consisted of two guys and one girl. I was the tallest and so he thought I’d be the easiest to provoke.
Even the most brutal bully does not start to beat on you immediately. He first likes to take a ladder of escalation: Insults, pushing each other, getting into a violent mood.
I knew that and simply refused to play his game!
He leaned over me in a quite provoking manner, trying to intimidate me to get a reaction. But I just looked back up to him as if we were old friends: Smiling, doing small-talk, refusing to let the situation escalate.
When it was all over my friend asked me: “How could you look that guy in the eye all the time, I was so damn scared!?” I replied: “If you show him that you are scared you have already lost.”
So I proceeded being Prince Charming himself. He clearly had not expected my reaction, I could see the growing confusion in his eyes.
So he changed tactics: My friend had a half-finished beer bottle from the party. Still addressing me he suddenly demanded: “I’m thirsty, give me that beer!”
As if we were among friends I turned to her and asked: “Do you want to share your beer with him?” She only shook her head, so I turned back to the bully, smiled at him and said: “Well, she does not want to give it to you, I guess there’s nothing we can do about that.” So he started to complain loudly: “But I’m thirsty!”
Until this point the situation had still been under control. But now the guy we met at the platform thought he needed to intervene. Sitting opposite of us, actually behind the Neonazi, he pulled out his water bottle and said: “Hey, you can have my water.”
That was the kind of reaction he had waited for the whole time. He turned around, threw the offered water bottle to the ground, shouting: “I don’t want your fucking water, I want beer!” He started to push the guy around on his seat and gripped him by his shirt.
In the blink of an eye the whole situation had turned really ugly, he had found his victim and processed as usual towards a fight he would clearly win – if not by himself than with the help of his six friends.
We were saved by the bell.
Luckily at this moment the train arrived at the station where the group had to get off. So his own men shouted at him: “Hey, get off the train, man!” and pulled him out before the doors closed.
If that hadn’t happened I guess we would have ended the night in a hospital.
During the whole thing I had been surprisingly calm. Only about half an hour later my hands started to shake uncontrollably in a sudden rush of adrenaline when I realized just how much could have gone wrong on that train ride.
I had never thought about how to behave in such a situation before, I had just reacted instinctively. Thinking about it later I realized that we should have gotten to the other end of the train, should have tried to join other people to become a bigger group or should have simply left the train at the next stop when the guy came to us.
In the end we were simply lucky.
But during that night I had learned a valuable lesson about how people act before a fight really starts. And that lesson would become very handy a couple of years later in a situation I will tell you the next time…