2016/12/26

Killings at a Berlin Christmas market test Germany’s nerve

At least 12 people are dead and 50 have been wounded, many seriously

IN THE aftermath, police officers with automatic weapons guarded a cordon 300 metres around the Breitschiedplatz, a busy junction in the middle of Berlin’s shopping district. Beyond the barricades twinkled the sparkly lights on the roofs of little wooden chalets offering Glühwein. A screen normally used for adverts urged people to go home and ignore rumours. Other Christmas markets and some bars had emptied as the news filtered through. In train stations, armed police officers outnumbered passers-by. By late in the evening of December 19th the streets in the normally restless, insomniac German capital were eerily quiet.
All of which contrasted starkly with the carnage and chaos of a couple of hours previously when, at 8.15pm, a lorry had sped into the throng of the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz. Jan Hollitzer, the deputy editor of Berliner Morgenpost, whose offices are nearby, told Canada’s CBC television that he heard noise and screaming from a group of destroyed huts. “Then I saw lights, many Christmas lights, that were shaking. Then the truck came out of the Christmas market again, destroyed some small houses and came out on the street.” By the morning 12 people had died and about 50 were wounded, many seriously. The lorry carried a dead Polish citizen in the passenger seat, perhaps its original driver, who had been shot. A man suspected of being the perpetrator was later arrested nearby. As The Economist went to press German media reported that he was a Pakistani asylum-seeker who had arrived in Germany in the past year.
Angela Merkel, the chancellor, said: “We have to assume we are dealing with a terrorist attack. I know that it would be particularly hard to bear for all of us if it was confirmed that the person who committed this crime had asked for protection and asylum in Germany.” 
The attack resembled one in Nice on July 14th, when 86 people were murdered at Bastille Day celebrations by a Tunisian, inspired by Islamic State, who drove a heavy lorry through the crowds. The location of the Berlin killings was significant: the market is in the shadow of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, preserved in its bombed-out state since 1945 as a symbol of Germany’s yearning for peace.
It comes amid fears about jihadist extremists slipping into the country with the influx of refugees admitted under the “welcome culture” of Mrs Merkel. Unlike other European countries, Germany had not in recent years seen an attack on the scale of these killings. But for months evidence had been mounting about potential jihadist plots. In the autumn several men were arrested on suspicion of planning violence. In November America’s State Department warned travellers in Europe about plans to attack Christmas markets (such threats go back at least to 2000, when a plot to bomb the market in Strasbourg was foiled). Hence the impression in Berlin on December 19th of an establishment that had long readied itself for this moment.
The incident highlights the tensions within Germany. Markus Pretzell, a member of the European Parliament for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, tweeted that the victims were “Merkel’s dead”. Rumours rippled across the web suggesting that the perpetrator might be Chechen or even Kurdish, and circulating photos of unconnected men. All of which comes near the start of a German election year made unusually unpredictable by the rise of the AfD.
No longer the exception
In recent months Mrs Merkel has stabilised her position following the peak of the refugee crisis: pleasing her party’s base by flirting with a burqa ban and talking tough on the numbers of failed asylum-seekers deported. Before December 19th her approval ratings were rising again and her party’s rift with the Christian Social Union, its more conservative Bavarian sibling, was closing. But this progress is unsteady, and vulnerable to events.
To be sure, for now Germany’s authorities feel in charge of things. “Berliners, like Londoners, are pretty resilient. I expect they will take this on the chin,” says Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank. But if the attack in Berlin marks the start of a French-style jihadist campaign in Germany, it could herald a turning point in the country’s politics. Conscious of its historical burden and bound by its political system to put moderate, consensus-oriented coalitions into power, Germany is unusually immune to populist sensationalism compared with many of its neighbours. But that may not last if the killing goes on.
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