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Frankfurt’s elite have rediscovered the joys of nature

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It was where Snow White fled, where Hansel and Gretel were left to find their way and where Little Red Riding Hood met the Big Bad Wolf. The woods, as described in the folklore of the Brothers Grimm, have long held an almost mystical place in the German psyche.

The woods are a symbol not only of danger and disorientation, but of salvation, of how, by overcoming fears and resisting temptation, we can outsmart dark forces and emerge wiser and stronger.

This may go some way to explaining why the forests of the Taunus, a prosperous area to the north-west of Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital, have become so popular during the pandemic.

It has been a bewildering year, yet also one in which many people, forced to embrace the everyday and confront human fragility, have found joy in their surroundings. The Taunus may not have held much allure when the city’s wealthy could fly all over the world. But when one is advised against travelling even between regions within Germany, it has become a place to find solace and beauty.

The forests offer everything from rambles and cycles up gentle paths covered by tunnels of trees to steep climbs past the Celtic ruins of Altkönig, one of the highest peaks. The area is easily accessible — just half an hour from central Frankfurt by public transport, or even quicker by car at weekends when there is little traffic.

It is an increasingly popular place to live, too. “People have been moving out of the inner city in places like Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin over the past three or four years as rents and purchase prices have shot up. The corona crisis has [accelerated] this movement,” says Stefan Behrendt, a senior research analyst at Dr Lübke & Kelber, a property investment firm. “People want to have more space. They don’t want to live without a [room for a] home office. In Germany too there’s a tax break — if you have a separate room to work in, it’s tax deductible. There’s just not a lot of supply of bigger places in the middle of the city. And if you are only coming into the city two or three times a week, then congestion is less of an issue.”

As I walk from the station in Kelkheim up into the forests, the well-kept houses and gardens and expensive cars that line the driveways are testament to the wealth here. In enclaves such as Königstein, one of the choicest parts of the region with its medieval castle and pretty old town, rents are on a par with those in the plusher parts of central Frankfurt, such as Westend — though prices to buy, while rising fast, are lower.

Bad Homburg, one of the largest towns in the area, was where Alfred Herrhausen, former chairman of Deutsche Bank, lived — and where, on the way to work in 1989, he was assassinated by far-left militants. In normal times, the Taunus hosts fancy gatherings at swish hotels such as Schlosshotel Kronberg, where European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde held her first away day for her senior management team late last year. The area is also dotted with international schools.

© Getty Images/iStockphoto

Those wishing to dress the part will have to head into the centre of Frankfurt, however. For outdoor clothing, luxury label Moncler, famed for its padded winter jackets, has a boutique on Goethestrasse. Globetrotter, a mountaineering store near the ECB’s new headquarters, stocks premium brands such as Arc’teryx. I am no mountain-biking aficionado, but cycle shops Montimare, Feine Velos and Bike Boutique in Frankfurt, and E-motion, a national e-bike chain with a branch in the Taunus town of Oberursel, come recommended. Sales of bikes and e-bikes in Germany hit 3.2m in the first six months of the year — a near 10 per cent increase year on year, according to the Zweirad-Industrie-Verband, a trade body.

Yet even before the virus struck, venturing into the woods was Germany’s great equaliser. In his excellent 2014 book on the country’s cultural history, Germany: Memories of a Nation, Neil MacGregor describes the Grimms’ fairy tales as a “part of a German political and social renaissance” and “evidence that . . . the Germans had an identity which no foreigner could eradicate”.

This idea of unity forged under the branches is also there in the writings of 19th-century Romantics such as Ludwig Tieck and Joseph von Eichendorff, and is all the more remarkable for existing in a land where divisions between east and west, and Bavaria and the rest of the country, can still feel profound.

As winter encroaches and cultural attractions, along with restaurants, bars, gyms and much else, are set to remain closed until at least early December, Germans — rich and poor, young and old — will find few better ways to revive their spirits than to embrace nature and go back to their roots.

Claire Jones is global economy reporter for FT Alphaville

This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment



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Missing Belarus activist found hanged in Kyiv park

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Belarus updates

A Belarusian opposition activist has been found hanged from a tree in a park near his home in Ukraine, a day after he was reported missing. Local police said his death could have been made to look like suicide.

Vitaly Shishov, who led the Kyiv-based organisation Belarusian House, which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution find their feet in Ukraine, had been reported missing by his partner on Monday after not returning from a run.

Shishov’s death follows weeks of increased pressure in Belarus by authorities against civil society activists and independent media as part of what the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has called a “mopping-up operation” of “bandits and foreign agents”.

Many Belarusians have fled the country since Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown last summer after nationwide protests erupted following his disputed victory in presidential elections. About 35,000 people have been arrested in Belarus and more than 150,000 are thought to have crossed into neighbouring Ukraine.

Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who met UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday in London, said Shishov’s death was “absolutely shocking and unexpected to all of us”.

“He [Shishov] and his friends helped people who were moving to Ukraine,” Viacorka told the Financial Times. “They were very helpful, especially for those who have just arrived and didn’t know what to do.”

Viacorka said many activists living in Ukraine, such as Shishov who fled Belarus in 2020, had “complained about possibly being followed, and receiving threats”.

Kyiv park where Vitaly Shyshov’s body was found
The Kyiv park where Vitaly Shishov’s body was found after he failed to return home following a run © Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Downing Street said that after meeting Tsikhanouskaya, Johnson condemned the Lukashenko regime’s severe human rights violations. “The UK stands in solidarity of the people of Belarus and will continue to take action to support them,” a spokesperson said.

Ukrainian police have now launched a criminal case for the suspected murder of Shishov, including the possibility of “murder disguised as suicide”.

Yuriy Shchutsko, an acquaintance and fellow Belarus refugee who found Shishov’s body, ruled out suicide, pointing out that Shishov’s nose was broken.

“I suspect this was the action of the [Belarus] KGB . . . we knew they were hunting for us,” he told Ukrainian television.

Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police of Ukraine, subsequently said Shishov’s body had what appeared to be “torn tissue” on his nose and other wounds, but stressed it would be up to medical examiners to determine if these were caused by beatings or the result of suicide.

There was no immediate comment from Lukashenko or his administration.

Belarusian House said: “There is no doubt that this is an operation planned by the Chekists [the Belarusian KGB] to eliminate someone truly dangerous for the regime.

“Vitalik was under surveillance,” it added. “We were repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations up to kidnapping and liquidation.”

Adding to the swirl of attention on Belarus this week, Tokyo Olympics sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Monday took refuge in Poland’s embassy after alleging she had been taken to the airport against her will, having criticised her Belarusian coaches.

The athlete has said she feared punishment if she went back to Belarus but has so far declined to link her problems to the country’s divisions.

Shishov’s death comes five years after Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarus-born opposition figure and journalist, was killed in an improvised bomb explosion in downtown Kyiv while driving to work at a local radio station. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Ukrainian authorities at first suggested Belarusian or Russian security services could have been involved in the hit, as Sheremet was close to opposition movements in Russia as well.

Instead, officials charged three Ukrainian volunteers who supported war efforts against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — although they steadfastly denied involvement and authorities were unable to provide a motive in what has been widely described as a flimsy case.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London



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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus

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EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.



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Britain’s wrong-headed approach to refugees

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UK immigration updates

Thanks to the bravery of volunteers who run towards storms at sea to rescue ships’ crews, few British institutions command as much respect as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The charity, however, has recently had to negotiate a different kind of storm, over its efforts to help refugees who get into difficulties crossing the Channel from France. Nigel Farage, the former Brexit party leader, accused it of running a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs. Last week, the RNLI said it had received hundreds of thousands of pounds of extra donations in response.

The RNLI has become embroiled in a now familiar story when the summer months allow more small boats to make the Channel crossing. Compared with the flows to other countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, only a handful of migrants attempt the journey. That makes the UK’s inability to control the border in an effective and humane way — and shabby treatment of those who do make it across — no less of a scandal.

Britain’s strategy for stemming the flow has relied mostly on paying the French authorities to limit the number of boats crossing and return any that leave to France, while deterring would-be migrants through the unwelcoming environment that awaits them. Just as EU countries are dependent on their neighbours for keeping entrants down — whether Morocco for Spain or Belarus for Lithuania — the UK needs French co-operation to control the mutual border. Diplomatic spats, whether over Brexit or extra Covid quarantine restrictions on arrivals from France, have made that harder.

The UK approach manages to be simultaneously ineffective and cruel. Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, wrote last week to home secretary Priti Patel to complain of unacceptable conditions in the holding facility for migrants who make it to the Kent coast. A recent unannounced visit by MPs found most of those remaining in the overcrowded facility sitting on a thin mattress on the floor, with women and children in the same room as adult men.

Earlier this year, the High Court ruled that “squalid” conditions in the Napier Barracks, a temporary centre set up last year to house asylum seekers during the pandemic, were so bad as to be unlawful. While arrivals have declined since the peak seven years ago, cutbacks have led to a backlog in processing claims, leaving more in a legal limbo.

Since the start of the pandemic Britain has shut down other paths into the country, ending a resettlement scheme. This has ceded the ground to people traffickers. The “push factors” of the risk of violence and torture at home and “pull factors” of higher living standards mean many are still willing to resort to risky and illegal methods to try to reach the UK. Creating a harsh environment for those who make it has done little to dispel the widespread belief among migrants that Britain is a better destination than other European countries, and stem the flow.

That will not stop the government trying. Barristers have warned that a clause in draft border legislation could potentially make it a crime to help asylum seekers arrive in the UK, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; at present it is illegal to do so to earn a profit. The Home Office says the clause is aimed at criminal traffickers. But along with a suggestion to set up offshore processing centres, the provision has rightly earned criticism from human rights groups. If the government is unwilling to create safe and legal routes, its only option is to prevent people from coming in the first place. That, ultimately, will mean relying on France.



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