Letter From Hamburg

Zonk! Pow! Nosh! The Crusader Caper Pits Goodies vs. Evil

Thieves dressed as superheroes make off with $2,000 worth of goodies from a Hamburg store April 28.
Thieves dressed as superheroes make off with $2,000 worth of goodies from a Hamburg store April 28. (Frankfurter Rundschau)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

HAMBURG, Germany -- It began as a quiet Friday morning at the Fresh Paradise gourmet grocery in this prosperous northern German city. A few well-heeled customers meandered through the aisles, looking for the perfect chevre to pair with their favorite Gewurztraminer.

Suddenly, half a dozen costumed superheroes appeared, their shopping baskets filled with prime Kobe beef, Manchego cheese curdled from the milk of Spanish sheep, handmade French chocolates from the Rhone Valley. Some $2,000 worth of fancy groceries darted out of the store before employees realized they'd been robbed by a gang of cartoon characters.

The leader was a skinny person of indeterminate gender, clad head-to-toe in a lavender nylon bodysuit. One accomplice was wrapped in a red costume with a lightning bolt, a la Flash, the comic-book speedster. At least four others wore an assortment of capes, wigs, sunglasses and white gloves, the latter to avoid leaving fingerprints. Waving their stolen booty outside the store, they pranced around and flexed their muscles as yet another partner took pictures.

Before fleeing, the gang left flowers and a note for the stunned Fresh Paradise cashiers:

"In case you do not know us yet: We are Santa Guevara, Spider Mum, Operaistorix and Multiflex. We are precarious superheroes," it read, in part. "Without the power of superheroes, there is no chance for survival in this city of millionaires. Although we produce the wealth of Hamburg, we hardly have anything to show for it. It does not have to stay like this."

Police dispatched a dozen squad cars and a helicopter to the area, to no avail. Two months later, no arrests have been made and no suspects identified.

The April 28 caper generated front-page headlines in Germany, and a group claiming responsibility posted statements on the Internet saying the pilfered goodies had been given to the needy, including children at a kindergarten.

It was not the first time the gang had struck: A year earlier, about 20 masked marauders barged into the Seven Seas Restaurant, a swanky bistro overlooking the Elba River. As astonished diners watched, the intruders dumped the entire buffet spread, right down to the wild salmon ravioli, into trash bags before fleeing.

The self-styled caped crusaders belong to a movement called Hamburg for Free, a loosely organized network with a simple and alluring ideology: People shouldn't have to pay for anything they might want. Short on cash? Scuffling for change? No worries! Just walk into a store and help yourself.

While it sounds like a juvenile mixture of anarchism and anti-capitalism, the people behind Hamburg for Free say they belong to neither camp. The root of their ideology is basic: economic frustration. The port city, with 1.7 million residents, is home to more millionaires than any other German town. But the Mercedes and BMWs clogging the downtown streets belie an unemployment rate of 11.3 percent, and the posh lofts and waterfront estates are a stark contrast to the squatters and homeless who wander the streets.

Police investigators and sympathizers of the movement say the ranks of Hamburg for Free are filled mostly by young adults of middle-class origin -- people in their twenties or early thirties who resent that their parents and elders are swimming in good fortune while they struggle to find jobs. Despite its title of the biggest exporting nation in the world, Germany has been slowly unraveling its long-treasured social safety net, trimming unemployment benefits, raising health-insurance premiums.

In the note they left at Fresh Paradise, the shoplifters provided cryptic explanations:

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