Four men are slumped on a litter-strewn pavement lighting up pipes full of crack – the illegal and catastrophically addictive blend of cocaine and baking powder.

They are within sight of a police car and passers-by, myself included, but seem untroubled. Nearby, a woman lies comatose in a doorway, whether from crack or a cocktail of other drugs is unclear.

There is a deeply unpleasant smell of human waste, exacerbated by the fact it is midday on one of the hottest days of the year. Meanwhile, a couple of football fans sidestep the junkies, the rubbish and the broken glass on their way to the Crazy Sex brothel which seems to be keeping up a steady trade.

Then along come two filthy men of indeterminate age, both with the shakes and the occasional mild spasm, walking with a great sense of urgency, heads staring at the ground, while making indecipherable growling noises. These are addicts on a frantic hunt for their next ‘rock’ of crack.

Bahnhofsviertel near Frankfurt’s main railway station is a hotbed for drug use and prostitution

Of course, you will find junkies, prostitution and squalor in any big European city if you go looking for them. But they will probably not be as visible or concentrated as they are in Frankfurt.

Here in the financial capital of the European Union, they are very hard to avoid. Step out of the city’s magnificent central railway station, one of Germany’s busiest, and, within a one-minute walk, you are inside what looks like the set of a dystopian film well before you find, say, the headquarters of the European Central Bank or the delightful old world charm of Roemer square.

In recent days, Frankfurt’s big attraction has been the Euros, with five matches staged at the city’s football stadium, including England’s tedious game against Denmark. The championships have served to shine a deeply unwelcome light on the problem in the Bahnhofsviertel district, exacerbated by a headline in a British newspaper.

When The Sun called this ‘Zombieland’, there was uproar around here. Many — though not all — German newspapers professed outrage.

Having now walked around the area with the local police, and then again with a city councillor, I have come to realise that this is a problem with many underlying causes beyond Frankfurt’s control. A recent federal decision to legalise the possession, growing and public smoking of cannabis has hardly helped.

You certainly cannot accuse the authorities of ignoring the issue, given the plethora of security cameras, police patrols, drug clinics and advice — right down to a tourist map for junkies pointing out the nearest needle pick-up points and shower facilities.

Yet talking to residents and businesses, I find that this merely speaks to a greater sense of insecurity and frustration about the state of Germany as a whole.

A nation for whom punctilious efficiency is as much of a national stereotype as queuing is for the UK, is now suddenly undergoing something of a crisis of confidence. A football tournament designed to promote all the great things about the country has also served to highlight some of its chronic problems, not least the country’s rail network.

This has proved so unreliable during Euro 2024 that thousands of Austrian fans missed half of their team’s game against the Netherlands because a rail replacement service never materialised.

All supporters have learned to add in considerable extra time before planning any journey. Even The New York Times has managed to take time off from moaning about Britain to report that, in the world of soccer, ‘Germany’s faltering rail system emerges as a tough opponent’.

Nearly all the economic data makes alarming reading for the chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose Left-of-centre coalition is split over how to tackle a £40 billion shortfall in the next budget.

The country was the world’s worst-performing front rank economy last year, with output declining by 0.3 per cent. An economy underpinned by global demand for its cars after years of cheap energy is now suffering because both factors are now reversed. Past complacency is now being punished.

Robert Hardman visits Frankfurt, and sees for himself why the city was recently dubbed 'Zombieland' in the media

Robert Hardman visits Frankfurt, and sees for himself why the city was recently dubbed ‘Zombieland’ in the media

Robert Hardman sees how the city is struggling to get to grips with its snowballing drugs problem

Robert Hardman sees how the city is struggling to get to grips with its snowballing drugs problem

Germany is way behind most of Europe, lying at 18th when it comes to administrative digitalisation, with a tiny federal budget for nudging the country towards a digital future. While tiny countries like Estonia lead the way with 91.2 per cent of services now digitally integrated, the same measure for Germany (according to the EU) is 63.4. Britain scores 83.5 per cent.

When it comes to growth, Germany is now being outperformed by the EU’s former basket case, Greece. Meanwhile, in the first half of 2024, corporate insolvencies in Germany increased by 30 per cent. And so on and so on.

Now, let’s not pretend that Britain — or any other major European power — is in rude health. And just because the Germans have a word for enjoying the misfortune of others, let’s avoid the schadenfreude. However, the next time a parliamentary candidate tries to tell you that Britain is a laughing stock/falling apart/in terminal decline, look across to what is happening in the economic powerhouse of Europe. What’s more, they can’t even blame it on Brexit.

Once the happy distraction of the Euros is over next week, few Germans seem to expect that things will get much better. ‘People are feeling worried. After the coronavirus was over, we thought we could see the light and then along came this f****** war,’ says Frank Hoefler, 51, owner of Frankfurt’s Sun4you tanning shop for the last 18 years. Germany is much more divided than Britain when it comes to supporting the Ukrainian war effort, but then it is very much nearer the action.

Mr Hoefler’s shop is just around the corner from Niddastrasse, the epicentre of the drug scene. So was he offended by the British press calling this ‘Zombieland’? ‘No, I liked it because the city has woken up,’ he says. ‘Now we get the streets cleaned two times a day.’

Prostitution is as conspicuous as it is rife and selling sex is legal

Prostitution is as conspicuous as it is rife and selling sex is legal

Mr Hoefler believes one solution would be to put welfare benefits on a voucher system which would stop payments being squandered on crack. ‘Why should I have to work hard so they can sit around and smoke?’

He wants to see more CCTV cameras — ‘like you have in London’ — and more police crackdowns. ‘Right now, we just have junkie-jogging,’ he says, referring to local slang for the way in which the drug addicts simply shuffle round to another street each time the police appear.

In another street I meet Nadine Maletzki, 48, owner of the Eros Sex Inn, a licensed brothel founded by her father in the 1970s. ‘When I started 30 years ago, it was all heroin round here and now it’s crack,’ she says, pointing out that heroin users would be much less violent and visible.

She says she will often find addicts sleeping in her doorway. ‘If I ask them to move, they are very polite, but I think Frankfurt is too welcoming to these people. I hate drugs and people are too soft on them. I know who the dealers are so why don’t the police? And I have to be so careful walking the dog because of all the broken glass.’

She says that the ‘Zombieland’ row has been good for the area. ‘It has been an advertisement as people want to see if it really is as bad as they say,’ she says. She believes that the new legalisation of cannabis is a major error. ‘I always think that it starts with one joint. That’s the beginning,’ she says. 

The streets were cleaner under the former conservative regime of the CDU, she adds, but the city’s current coalition of socialists and Greens is too soft. ‘I cannot afford to vote Green,’ she jokes, adding that driving a car is getting more and more difficult. Not that she would ever consider public transport. ‘The trains are useless now.’

At the local police station, chief Christoph Bosecker explains how the city has become a magnet for drugs. ‘On the one hand, this is a successful financial metropolis. With that has come a big red light district and, along with success, came heroin and cocaine.’

To avoid repercussions, drug addicts simply shuffle round to another street each time the police appear

To avoid repercussions, drug addicts simply shuffle round to another street each time the police appear 

The streets that have become a drug-users' haven are unclean and strewn with litter

The streets that have become a drug-users’ haven are unclean and strewn with litter 

He points out that the city pioneered a system called ‘the Frankfurt Way’ for dealing with heroin users, with needle exchanges and places for addicts to take the drug substitute, methadone. The problem with crack, he says, is that there is no substitute, the side-effects are more violent and users stand out. ‘They are very distinguishable — walking fast with heads down looking for the next rock.’

He is proud of the steps his force has taken in reducing crime around the station district. ‘After the pandemic, when the drug users had the streets to themselves, things became more violent. So we responded with more cameras, more patrols and the introduction of a ‘no weapon’ zone and crime has fallen,’ he says.

The Press reports that the whole city is a ‘Zombieland’ are grossly unfair, he tells me, because the problem is limited to one district. The situation may not look appealing, he concedes, but ‘people should feel secure’.

I join a foot patrol and see the way in which the addicts — those who are awake, at least — give the cops a beady eye. One man who is lowering his trousers against a wall proceeds to pull them back up again. 

The police know exactly what is going on and as long as the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 addicts and 300 dealers are contained in one district, so the thinking goes, it is possible to keep a lid on it.

The next day, I go for another tour, this time with Annette Rinn, city councillor for urban security. ‘Frankfurt is at the centre of Europe;’ she explains. ‘All the planes and trains come here and the drugs come too.’

Having grown up in this part of town, she knows the issues but says there are factors beyond the city’s control, not least the falling price of cocaine. Everything else may be subject to inflation but not, it seems, the dreaded crack. She points to the new street toilets which have gone up to alleviate the smell and she is proud of new security masts bristling with cameras. 

Yet nothing much seems to change, does it?

‘Many of these people have multiple problems. Some are here because of child abuse. You can’t just put them in an asylum or send them away because they look scary,’

She introduces me to the president of the local association of small traders, Nazim Alemdar; a Turkish-born shopkeeper who has been working in the area for 43 years. He takes a charitable view towards the addicts. ‘When people have problems, you give them help,’ he says.

Others believe the time has come for a tougher approach. Peter Postleb worked for the former mayor, dealing with street hygiene and safety. Locals used to call him ‘the garbage sherrif’ because of his rigorous on-the-spot fines. ‘As soon as the Euros are over, the situation will get worse again,’ he says.

He points to the strategy adopted by the city of Zurich when it responded to an influx of drug addicts by sending them back to their home towns. He knows this area as well as anyone, pointing out well-known joints for trading stolen goods and which brothels are under the ownership of a local branch of the Hells Angels (I wondered what an immaculate Harley Davidson was doing in a neighbourhood like this). Was Mr Postleb upset by accusations of ‘Zombieland’ from the foreign press? ‘It was brutal,’ he says, ‘but it was good. Things have to change.’

The same could be said for Germany as a whole.

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