Klaus Wowereit steps down today after 13 years as Berlin’s mayor. During the course of his time in office, he came out as Germany’s first openly gay politician and was once seen as potential chancellor. Mr. Wowereit is associated with the ongoing delays over plans to build a new airport in the German capital. He said the airport is his biggest failure. Die Zeit spoke with him exclusively about his departure from office.
DIE ZEIT: You famously said: “Berlin is poor but sexy.” How is Berlin doing at the end of the Wowereit era?
Klaus Wowereit: Berlin is certainly still sexy, but it isn’t quite as poor anymore. It has a lot more financial leeway. I’m seen as a leftist member of the SPD, which is why many believe that I throw money I don’t have out of the window with both hands. What they overlook is the fact that I used to be a budget expert. That’s why I always felt that Berlin needs to help itself, and that it can’t just rely on outside help. I pushed for that change in mentality from the start. We now have a balanced budget, even a surplus.
Your successor, Michael Müller, has been the city’s senator for urban development until now. “Wowi”, who epitomized everything that’s cool about Berlin, is now being succeeded by a bland administrator. Can you tell us why this is a good thing for Berlin?
Well (laughing), it can’t be a good thing for the city to be without me.
In 2009, you had the chance to become chairman of the SPD, which would have paved the way for a future candidacy for the chancellorship. Why didn’t you take that opportunity?
I had to decide: mayor of Berlin or chairman of the SPD.
Why couldn’t you do both?
Because it’s a sensitive issue for Berliners. If they get the impression that someone is on his way out, and that Berlin is no longer good enough for him, things start to get difficult. Mayor and SPD chairman wouldn’t have worked for long.
So are Berliners more like petit bourgeois than residents of the German capital?
No, that was a huge compliment for me. They wanted me, lock, stock and barrel. I see that as Berlin’s special brand of self-confidence.
Did you ever consider leaving Berlin?
No. I can’t imagine any other city. I’m a Berliner through and through. Leave Berlin? Me? No.
We are directly above the Volksbühne theater on Rosa Luxemburg Square in the Mitte neighborhood, the home of the great provocateur and destroyer of plays, Frank Castorf. Few people know that Mr. Wowereit began his career as a city councillor for cultural affairs in the Tempelhof district, and that he later served as chairman of the theater subcommittee in the legislature.
Your roots are in an area of politics that tends to be removed from the center of power: cultural policy. Nevertheless, you made a bid for power. Why?
I’ve always seen myself as a generalist. And that automatically puts you on the path to power. But I would like to see my party develop a stronger affinity for culture.
Was the SPD too narrow for you?
Social policy experts dominate the SPD. This sometimes creates a tendency toward overprotectiveness. It can also turn out to be a fiasco, and it sometimes leads to the opposite of performance. But performance as a condition of social advancement is a key concept for social democrats.
We are looking down on Prenzlauer Berg, a once working class neighborhood that is now full of coffee shops and people working in the media. To our right is the opulent Stalinist architecture of Frankfurter Allee leading down to to the troubled Lichtenberg neighborhood, which foreign travel guides say is a no-go area.
Are the affluent pushing poorer residents out of Berlin’s downtown neighborhoods?
People move to better neighborhoods as soon as they start making more money. That’s just the way it is. What’s important is that we do something about it. We spent a lot of money on renovating buildings and repairing streets, and we were ridiculed at first. But look at the results: A new social mix has emerged in districts like Neukölln. The perverse thing about it is that these successes are vilified as gentrification. Our goal was to ensure that the poorest residents would not be isolated in decaying neighborhoods. In the long term, we need more living space for those people whose incomes are not growing, such as an elderly woman with a small pension.
Are there streets down there in your Berlin where you wouldn’t go at night?
No. It’s not that I would walk through every park in the city at night, but I’m not afraid of any neighborhood. But there are Berliners who worry, and it doesn’t matter whether their fears are justified or not.
Now we have to talk about what’s appearing before our eyes: Friedrichshain, Europe’s biggest youth hostel, Berlin’s party district for some people. Party time.
There’s plenty of partying going on…
Is this when we talk about me as the party-loving mayor? I knew it was coming. You know what’s funny? Nowadays I can leave a party at 10 p.m., and afterwards people say: Once again, Wowi was the last person to leave the party.
It’s time to address the issue of the new airport and its massive cost overruns. Nothing hurt your time in office more than that construction site. It has become the butt of jokes all over Germany. Are you surprised about what has happened there?
Nothing surprises me, but me I am angry about it. There are many airports around the world hit by problems. Anyone who takes on a major project knows the risks. But I have to just let it go. If I say anything, people would just say- there goes Wowereit, trying to make excuses.