Analysis: Auto destruct: the curious case of the flaming Mercedes (…not to mention the Audis BMWs, Porsches & VWs)

Who (or what) is behind Berlin’s bonfire of the coupés?

This time, it was Porsche lighting up the night with its flames. A high-spec Cayenne, freshly waxed with all the extras. Its owner had parked it outside his apartment around midnight on the 21st September. By ten to five in the morning, it was just another charred, smouldering shell on another Berlin sidestreet.

 

There are no sirens, no flashing lights in Friedrichshain, the gentrifying suburb on the firmer eastside. For the red-eyed Polizist blowing on his styrofoam coffee, it is all too familiar. On the front seat of his squadcar, his radio crackles. His colleague stretches the tape around the Cayenne and the blackened husk of what was once a VW Polo parked next to it. Another cop posts notices on neighbouring apartment lobbies and doors.

 

By now, the question of the early summer – who was the phantom arsonist, torching luxury cars on a nightly basis, sometimes by the dozen? – has become a shrug. These cases – and there’s another coming in on the radio from just across the ditch in Kreuzberg – take the figures close to 400 since June. Nobody I talk to on the street is quite sure how close, simply because they say they’ve lost track. They are almost always luxury models, almost always German-made.

 

As the first Autobrände (‘automotive firebombings’) filtered in, the Bullen – hard-bitten city cops – had figured it was business as usual. Germany is no stranger to automotive arson, and the past four years have seen its crime map becoming a pincushion of charred marques: VWs, BMWs, Audis, Mercedes take the brunt, but only because, well, that’s most of what you see in Germany. There’s even a special website, brennende-autos.de – or “Burning Cars” – where you can chart the latest car arson action. But though there have been waves before, mostly those cases were scattered, occasional, and varied in their methods: petrol on the backseat and a tossed match; rag in the fueltank.

 

Under pressure from a city hall anxious to see the incumbent mayor win a third term, investigators started out handling it like those cases: old-fashioned, low-key policework, pick up the clues, wait for a pattern, arrest the fraudster or pissed-off boyfriend. Nothing to see here.

 

But this summer, something unusual happened: the arsons multiplied, then multiplied again, spreading quickly out of control.

 

Not that there was no method, at least at first. The attacks were all concentrated around just a few square miles of central Berlin; they were all discovered in an advanced charred and smouldering state – there were no fireballs, no explosions, no smashed glass. They burned silently, from the inside. One local resident told me it reminded her of human spontaneous combustion.  It was the ultimate stealth method, nearly impossible to stop or detect, and most importantly of all, it buys the firebug time.

 

This is the method. A quiet street, the early hours – between 1am and 5am, when the city is emptiest. A wedge of barbecue firelighters inside the front wheel arch, by the kerbside tyre. By the time the flames are visible to the next dog-walker, cop or shiftworker to pass, it’s too late: the rubber tyre has gone up like reunifocation day firework, and the engine, exposed to the flames licking up the inside of the wings and causing the fuel tank to overheat and erupt, has exploded. Seconds later and the car is a fireball encased in metal: 1,000ºC on the insides, the frame smoking and collapsing in on itself. The arsonist is long gone – vanished on foot or bicycle while the firelighters were still just small bundle of white cubes wedged under the tyre of the mark.

 

Such was the speed with which the firebug spread that reports awaiting processing became backlogged. At one stage, police were reduced to modifying their theories and their list of suspects on the fly, as data entered into the computers forced on-duty officers to abandon searches midway through and head to new addresses.

 

By August, nine cars a night were being razed, with the weeknights 15-17th alone claiming 40 automotive arsons. Since the hot, dry Berlin summer kicked in, the total was 372, and creeping nightly towards 400.

 

There were now those within the department – and in Berlin – who argued that this was no longer a crime, but an epidemic; a kind of spreading madness or mass hysteria. They argued it could no longer possibly be a case of who was torching the cars, but why so many others had started torching them too.

 

Every time they thought they had a pattern, it would break. The most attractive blanket suspects for a long time were radical political factions. The rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Mitte seemed to draw most of the fire – the former West- and East-Berlin’s radical urban neighbourhoods whose long-standing inhabitants have a deep suspicion of the incoming hipsters, executives and media types whose arrival has brought lurching rent-rises, bulldozers and big, bad brands.

 

The authorities focused on the fact that many of the charred and burning wrecks lining these neighbourhoods each morning were luxury models. That was enough for them to make the left-wing radicals connection. And that meant they, the same cops who until a week or two ago had been prepared for the usual collaring of disgruntled ex-lovers and parking disputes – were now effectively running an anti-terror operation.

 

German terror cells have a history of fetishistic attachment to their cars that rivals that of the yuppies, businessmen and suburbanites they oppose. For a few heady years in the 70s, the BMW enjoyed the nickname “Baader-Meinhof-Wagen”, because of that group’s preference for the marque – and specifically its top-of-the-range models, capable of outrunning police pursuers. This time, initial suspicions settled on the car as economic symbol. The dark side of these automotive symbols – BMW’s terror-group adherents and mad owners, VW’s Nazi origins and slave-labour production lines, Mercedes’ staff-car iconography – still has a heavy voodoo that would make them magnets for fringe groups looking for a symbol.

 

They didn’t need to look far.

 

In these bohemian heartlands, shiny status rides attract flack every day. Locals had long been voicing the need for direct action, just like the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, when their running battles with the police who kept trying to break up their protests and raid their homes for drugs – tactics they saw as creactionary attempts to cleanse leftist communities – made headlines, with burning cars and water cannon staples of the nightly news. This time, the locals felt, the cleansing was being achieved economically, by stealth, with chain outlets replacing family businesses and tenants (nobody buys in Germany) forced out by property developers. As the arsonist or arsonists struck again and again, the police became convinced the local radicals were executing a risky homegrown terror campaign: a “bonfire of the brands”.

 

As the burnings overtook past years (until now, 2009 had been the arson epidemic everyone talked about) the authorities, having reclassed 155 of the 372 cases on record as ‘politically motivated’ crimes, responded with numbers. This too was just like the 1970s: 500 extra police would patrol the city suburbs, every night. Helicopters would keep watch from above. Chasing down suspects with searchlights.

 

They proved useless. The low-key nature of the detonation – all it took was a few seconds kneeling beside a car, pretending to tie your shoelace while you pushed the firelighters into the wheel arch – made the arsonists impossible to catch.

 

The mayor, Klaus Wowereit, was a worried man. His conservative challenger Frank Henkel was now campaigning on the issue, claiming he’d set up a Berliner Bürgerwehr, or Citizen’s Vigilante Militia, to combat the problem if he got elected. The police immediately hit back. “Bounty hunters belong in Westerns,” said their spokesman. “Vigilante justice is much more of a danger.”

 

Feeling the heat, Berlin Police began offering €5,000 for tipoffs, no questions asked. Rainer Wendt, head of the German Police Union, went on TV, making “a desperate appeal for tips from all citizens.”

 

In the meantime, they had another problem. No sooner had they begun to investigate the left-wing terror/direct action theory than the wave of fire spread, beginning to engulf rattletrap traders’ vehicles, scrapheap-dodgers and second-hand Fords and Opels parked across the city. By late September, the targets were more or less indiscriminate: a police spokeswoman read out the nightly toll to jaded press in a deadpan voice: “One Opel Corsa on Rigaer Strasse. Old registration, Time of burning around 1.40am. Another Opel, unidentified, parked next to the first. Old registration. One Audi, Bernkastelerstrasse, Weissensee district. Time reported, 6.30am.”

 

I asked the police who they thought they were dealing with now. Off the record, one businesslike Berlin cop told me the only possible explanation was a “coalition, just like the politicians… some people early on were certainly protesting. But that created a new condition and everybody who wanted to could burn something.”

 

The result was, if not a madness, a wave of oddly opportunistic bacchanalia. The normally buttoned-up people of Berlin, given the perfect cover, wanted to see what it would be like. Copycats – many, police believe, otherwise law-abiding people who had never entertained the thought of arson before – found the temptation too much to resist.

 

Then came the third wave. The disgruntled, the vengeful and the jilted could suddenly get even, Scott-free, courtesy of the epidemic. Fraudsters, anyone who fancied a new car. Underappreciated wardens, neighbourhood watchmen, even firemen. Only four suspects have been jailed, with seven more free but under investigation. Clearly, the police were desperate: one, a pretty 21-year-old identified only as Alexandra R, was arrested for being in the vicinity of a car on a dark street with a spraycan in her hand.

 

That morning, police announced a breakthrough. They had arrested someone they believed to be a key figure on the wave of automotive arson. Someone who had been arrested – and freed – on suspicion of torching cars once before, in that long hot summer of 2009. They could put him at the scene, apparently convincingly, of a handful of burnings.

 

They named him Tobias P, a 25-year-old Berlin resident. Tobias is a freelance crime snapper. Under the name ‘Andreas’, Tobias had been covering the burnings – often first on the scene, always great pictures – and selling his photographs of the cars police now suspect him of torching back to Berliner Zeitung city newspaper, other media, and the police themselves.

 

Meanwhile, the firebug has spread to Moscow, with the long, hot weeks of high summer claiming between four and nine cars every single night. The same methods. The same complex relationship between residents and the luxury cars that line their suburbs.
Perhaps, after all, we get the riots we deserve. This summer in the Middle East, long-standing dictators in military fatigues got bazooka-toting rebel armies. In London, Manchester and Birmingham, decades of mixed messaging about aspiration and cut throat competition begat locusts in branded clothing, devouring electronics and sportswear stores.

 

And in Germany – as ever – it all came down to das auto. The VWs, the Audis, the BMWs, the Mercedes, the Porsches. The post-war economic miracle, in moulded chrome, dirty secrets as standard. Berliners’ symbol of the fat years, once so comforting and lasting, now pouring black smoke from the hood as dawn breaks over another Kreuzberg sidestreet.

 

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