Last month Germany's real-life Robin Hood gang struck again, stealing a trolley of luxury food. But who are they - and why do they do it? And how did Luke Harding manage to track them down when the police couldn't?
Standing inside his delicatessen, Carsten Sievers gestures forlornly to where the giant Spanish cheese used to sit. "They took it," he says, pointing to an empty shelf. "They also took my Ruinart champagne. It costs €99 [£68] a bottle. Fortunately, my vintage wines were all locked up." Late last month Sievers's shop, Frische Paradies in Hamburg, was the victim of one of the most inventive - and possibly the funniest, though not to him - raids in German criminal history. At 10.15am on April 28, a group of activists dressed as superheroes burst into his gourmet supermarket. Wearing carnival masks and calling themselves names such as Spider Mum, Multiflex, Sante Guevara and Operaistorix, they made off with a trolley loaded with luxury goods.
"They took a whole slab of Australian Wagyu Kobe beef. It cost €108," says Siefers. "The cows had been specially massaged. We also have some very fine cheese here from Philippe Olivier. He's a very tough and famous cheesemaker. They took that too."
Their €1,500 haul also included olive oil, bio-cheese, a haunch of Serrano ham and Valrhona chocolate. The group - known as the Robin Hood gang - handed over a flower to the woman at the till. Attached to it was a note, which read: "Although we produce Hamburg's wealth we scarcely enjoy any of it. The sources of wealth are many. So are the opportunities to take it."
Pausing long enough to pose for photographs, the Robin Hood gang then vanished into the warren of houses and stepped gardens overlooking Hamburg's picturesque Elbe River.
The police arrived 10 minutes later. A helicopter and 14 police cars failed to find them. "I went after them. But all I found was a plastic bag," recalls sales assistant Silke Neuhoff. The raid provoked front-page stories in Hamburg and elsewhere - not least because it appeared to be inspired by the hit German film The Edukators. (In it, a group of young radicals stage a series of political burglaries against the rich, leaving behind a note: "Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei - Your days of plenty are over." The group don't take anything but end up accidentally kidnapping a wealthy businessman.) So far, as in the film, the Robin Hood gang hasn't been arrested.
In a note posted on the internet the gang said it had distributed the food among Germany's new underclass - interns who worked for months in glamorous publishing houses without being paid, low-wage nursery assistants, mums forced to take part-time jobs as cleaning ladies and "one-euro jobbers", performing menial tasks under a German government welfare scheme. The gang said it didn't merely object to capitalism. Instead it was making a stand against Prekarisierung or "precariousness" - the uncertainty facing 20- and lower 30somethings as they try to navigate their way through Europe's gloomy neo-liberal jobs market.
"To survive under the present conditions of precariousness you need to be a superhero," says Multiflex, after agreeing to meet the Guardian at a secret location. In her first interview with a newspaper since the gang staged the raid, she tells me that surviving on a low budget in Hamburg is tough. Of all the German cities, it has the highest number of millionaires and at the same time there is a growing number of people who don't share in this wealth. "We wanted to make a connection with the film," she says. Wasn't she afraid she might get caught, though? "It was a risk. But it was a well-planned operation. We were very organised. We tried to do it all with a bit of humour." How did the gang escape? "We flew away," she says, twinkling her eyes.
The group that carried out last month's raid, it turns out, goes under the name Hamburg Umsonst (Hamburg for free). Its slogan reads: "Everything for everybody. And everything for free." They meet in the city's Hafenstrasse, a row of brightly coloured riverside houses, that was once the scene of violent clashes between police and squatters. These days the squatters own the houses, with the grizzled veterans of the original street battles now in their 40s and 50s. But the area - with its rambling front gardens and communal barbecues overlooked by Hamburg's giant port cranes - is still the centre of the city's thriving alternative scene.
But unlike these older leftists, Hamburg Umsonst is a newer movement, loosely affiliated to a growing network of young anti-capitalist protesters from across Europe. The movement started off in Milan in 2001. It has now spread to more than a dozen European cities, including Paris, Palermo, Stockholm, Helsinki and London, and its main event is May Day.
May 1 is a traditional day of workers' protest in many European countries. But the techniques of Euromayday, as has been dubbed, differ from traditional demos. Since it was founded in 2003, Hamburg Umsonst has staged other eye-catching actions. It gives regular tips on fare-dodging, sneaking into the cinema for free and file-sharing. (Fare dodgers are urged to identify themselves with a pink dot.) A year ago, members burst into a Michelin-starred restaurant in Blakenese, a posh Hamburg suburb overlooking the Elbe, favoured by the rich and famous. Around 20 protesters wearing carnival masks marched into the restaurant ballroom and emptied the entire buffet into plastic bags. They then ran off. The protesters wore T-shirts which read: "Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei" - a clear homage to The Edukators and another example of life imitating art.
Protesters staged a similar raid on Borchardt, a Berlin celebrity and politician-filled restaurant. They were chucked out. Santa Guevara, another caped activist, says the gang would like a basic income for everybody, regardless of what people actually do for a living. What exactly is precariousness about? "There are all sorts of people who are affected by precariousness. It's a feeling of uncertainty. More and more people feel excluded from basic things like health care, paid holidays, maternity leave and job security. We are not just talking about the unemployed. We are also talking about graduates."
It used to be the working classes who were mainly affected by precariousness. Now, though, the sons and daughters of Europe's professional middle-classes are affected too.
Like the students in France who recently forced their government to rescind its new employment law, which made it easier to hire and fire young people, the Robin Hood gang say they are fed up with being unable to find proper work. The students were demonstrating against precarité or precariousness - the same sociological cause that prompted the Robin Hood gang's raid on the Frische Paradies. Interestingly, it was students, rather than trade unionists, who led the protest movement. But it is not just the French who are unhappy with the direction that European capitalism is taking. The traditional post-war economic model in France and Germany has been the "European social model" in which high wages, secure jobs, and decent pensions have been guaranteed. But, in the face of global competition, that has come under strain. The prosperity that Europe's last generation of rebels took for granted - the '68-ers - seems to have disappeared.
In Hamburg, meanwhile, the group's special wrath is reserved for German companies that exploit interns. Typically, German interns work for long periods - often to be let go after months of underpaid slogging. They are then forced to take another internship somewhere else, a process that can drag on into a graduate's early 30s. "We gave some of the food to four Praktikanten [interns] who work in a Hamburg publishing house," Santa Guevara says.
"What we are seeing now is an interesting switch," says Prof Paul Nolte, a cultural historian at Berlin's Free University. "Traditional protests in the 1980s were concerned with post-materialist issues such as the environment, ecology and nuclear energy. Now young people are interested in social issues."
He adds: "We are talking about young, relatively well-educated people whose parents easily attained secure jobs and middle-class status. The situation now is far more insecure. For the first time in many generations, young people in Europe have bleaker prospects than their parents did. They are not as optimistic or utopian as people were in the 60s, or as pessimistic and depressed as they were in the 80s. Instead they find themselves having to walk a tightrope."
The Euromayday protesters, meanwhile, are a media-savvy bunch. Within hours of looting the delicatessen, the Robin Hood gang posted photographs of themselves on the internet. (One showed them sitting in a children's sandpit waving their goodies in the air. Another showed Spider Mum doing a victory leap in front of a Kindergarten). The gang also sent the pictures to Hamburg's main tabloid, the Hamburger Morgenpost. The Mopo, as it's known, put a photo on the front page under the headline: "Class struggle ahead of May Day".
Hamburg's police, meanwhile, are not amused. "Hamburg has always been a very tolerant city which allows many different opinions. We are not Bavarians. This is north Germany. Traditionally this is the freedom-loving part of the country," says a spokeswoman for Hamburg police. But, she adds: "We are talking here about theft. It is forbidden. This was criminal activity. We can't tolerate it, even if they say they were behaving like Robin Hood." Hamburg's Staatschutz, or state protection unit, is investigating. It admits, however, that it stands little chance of identifying the 30 people who raided the supermarket, all of whom were masked.
Sievers feels his shop was the wrong target. It is in the centre of Hamburg's old fish trading area; the road is lined with wholesale shops selling crustaceans. The ferry to Britain used to leave from the nearby harbour. "We were just a symbol," he says. "It's true that a lot of well-off people buy groceries here. But we fight for every cent. We are not a rich company."
The till assistant who was given the flower by the group, Katya Griebenow, says she found the raid a bit scary. "I stood rooted to the spot," she says. "The whole thing took about 30 seconds. They didn't say anything at all. But when they left they started screaming for joy." Did she feel exploited? "I'm not sure," she says.
The shop regularly donates surplus poultry and vegetables to Hamburg charities. "If I had a message for the gang," says Sievers, "I would say, 'Try and come with an idea next time that doesn't involve crime.'"Hamburg umsonst
Es genügt nicht, keine Gedanken zu haben, man muss auch unfähig sein, sie auszudrücken.