The ‘square city’ has long been a pioneer in its approach to welcoming migrants – but now Mannheim is attracting criticism for the ‘ghetto’ character of its giant refugee camp, as Germany agonises over how to integrate
When the foreigners arrived at the central station, they were met by crowds of cheering Germans. Brass bands played cheerful tunes; the greeting committee carried flowers and gifts. For the young men on the trains, it was the first glimpse of a country which promised wealth and stability unheard of in the countries they had left behind.
These scenes were recorded not in September 2015 but in the 1960s, when “guest workers” from Greece, Italy, Turkey and Yugoslavia arrived in Mannheim and other cities in Germany’s wealthy south-west, after the country had signed a series of recruitment agreements with southern European countries in order to meet the labour demands of its booming economy.
Fifty years later, Mannheim is once again what British-Canadian journalist Doug Saunders has called an “arrival city”. Since its central station was designated a so-called refugee “turnstile” last September, more than 80,000 refugees have arrived in around 150 special trains via the Balkan route. The majority were distributed to surrounding regions, but around 12,000 were temporarily sheltered in Mannheim, a city of around 290,000 people – making it one of the highest per-head ratios among Germany’s larger cities.
Few in Germany might expect Mannheim to be well-equipped to cope with this challenge. In contrast with nearby Heidelberg, a picturesque 14th-century university town, it is often perceived as lacking the ability to inspire. Whereas ancient castles and forest paths grace the banks of the Neckar in Heidelberg, Mannheim lines the same river with heavy industry and an awkward trio of 1960s high-rises. In the region, Mannheim is commonly known as the “square city”, after its prosaic, New York-style grid plan. Few outside its borders know the city is also home to the second-biggest baroque castle in Europe, after Versailles. […]