A nightmare for Berlin motorists as cars set alight each evening


BERLIN LETTER:The motive remains a mystery as cars from luxury models to second-hand motors are reduced to wrecks

IN 1931 Fritz Lang directed the chilling tale of a child-killer in Berlin, M: The City Seeks a Murderer.Seven decades on, while other cities are on summer holidays, Berlin is gripped by another drama: A: The City Seeks an Arsonist.

For the eighth night in a row, Berliners woke up yesterday morning to the news that “A” had been on the prowl again, burning 11 cars. Over 90 have gone up in flames in the last week, from a Maserati in upmarket Charlottenburg to a second-hand Volkswagen Golf in working-class Wedding.

Regardless of their price tag, all cars look the same when reduced to mangled, scorched wrecks of metal and wiring.

When the latest series of arson attacks began last winter, Berlin police pinned the blame on extreme left-wingers. Left-wing groups took credit in online forums, describing the burning of mostly luxury cars in the “alternative” neighbourhoods of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg as a form of political protest against gentrification and rising rents.

By now the attacks are so widespread that police believe “A” has several copycats who are far less fussy about their targets.

Last Wednesday night someone poured liquid spirits over a tyre of a dark blue Audi A4 and set it alight. Its owner eventually showed up – not a slum landlord or hedge fund manager, but an 18-year-old trainee mechanic called Kevin. Tabloids pictured the skinny youth standing in shock before the charred remains of the car he bought just two months earlier, second-hand, with 115,000km on the clock, for €5,000.

“I spent six years saving for this,” the tearful teenager told the BZtabloid. His budget was so tight the teenager could only afford third-party insurance.

“My mother will have a heart attack when she hears this.”

More than 2,000 cars have been set alight in Berlin in the last six years, with 2009 the worst year, at 401 cases. With 300 cases so far this year, that record is likely to be cracked soon. But the insurance industry has called for calm.

“Across the country, some 15,000 cars go up in flames every year, so the number of Berlin cases is, statistically speaking, quite low,” said a spokesman for the German Insurance Federation. “We see no reason to call for an increase in insurance premiums.”

That may be the case, but ahead of city-state elections in Berlin next month, the arson attacks have left mayor Klaus Wowereit feeling the heat. He has announced a €10,000 reward for information that ends the attacks.

“Setting cars alight is an unacceptable crime that requires a consequential investigation,” he said, promising to lean on the police for results.

The police union has hit back at Mr Wowereit, blaming budget cutbacks and a patrol shortage for the epidemic. “We can’t manage this on our own . We need help,” said Rainer Wendt, head of the union.

Berlin’s acting police chief, Margarete Koppers, has rejected criticism that her force is understaffed. She has 130 officers – in uniform and plainclothes – out on patrols each night, backed up by police helicopters with heat cameras to spot would-be arsonists.

However, it’s an impossible task to monitor 1.2 million registered Berlin cars parked along the city’s 5,400km-long street network.

“This is a matter of quality, not quantity,” she said. “We need good police officers who know what they are looking for.” Therein lies the problem: nobody knows what the arsonists look like.

Police have warned Berliners to be on the lookout for “strangers in dark clothes, cycling without a light” – which describes every second person out and about after sundown.

Nobody knows what “A” and his associates look like, but every Berliner who reads a newspaper now knows how to set a car alight using a bottle of liquid paraffin, a firelighter or even just barbecue charcoal.

Several suspects have been arrested, from social workers to newspaper delivery men, but the series of arson attacks continues.

The only thing on which the squabbling city police and state government can agree is that these are opportunistic rather than politically motivated attacks.

But opposition parties aren’t so sure. A month before the election they are falling over each other to put up new arson-related election posters.

One has even revived a quote from the co-founder of the left-wing Red Army Faction, Ulrike Meinhof: “Setting a car on fire is a criminal offence. Setting hundreds of cars on fire is a political act.”

As for Kevin, his tale of woe had a happy ending when a local Audi dealer supplied him with a new car, free for a year.

“You can’t call it a hobby, burning cars,” he said. “It’s just cowardly.”