Berlin remembers Christmas market attack one year on

Memorial comes amid criticism from victims’ families of bureaucracy, government apathy

The bells rang out for 12 minutes on Tuesday evening in Berlin, a minute for every person who lost their life in Berlin’s Christmas market attack a year ago.

At 8.02pm on December 19th last year, an Islamic State sympathiser crashed a stolen lorry into the market on Breitscheidplatz, pulverising wooden huts, killing 12 people and leaving more than 70 injured.

A scene of horror a year ago, the square on Tuesday evening was a chilly place of calm reflection: flickering candles forming a chain of light, dozens of white roses and calm signs of defiance: “Terrorism will not defeat us.”

In the fading light, locals and tourists studied the city’s latest memorial to past horrors: a 14m golden gash in the pavement and steps, surrounded by the carved names of the victims. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters: Fabrizia, Christoph, Dalia...


For German politicians it was a day of reflection and atonement, after victims’ families accused them of showing a lack of tact and sympathy.

A day after meeting families for the first time, chancellor Angela Merkel joined them and Berlin mayor Michael Müller in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church to unveil the memorial.

“It shows a crack, the wound with which we now have to live,” said Bishop Markus Dröge of Germany’s Lutheran church.

In an open letter to Ms Merkel two weeks ago, relatives complained of an exhausting battle against Berlin bureaucracy, their struggle for meagre compensation and the German leader’s apparent apathy to their plight.


On Tuesday the chancellor admitted the attack, carried out by a failed asylum seeker who entered Germany during the 2015 refugee surge, had exposed “weakness” in the state. “Today is a day of mourning but also a day of willing to do better what didn’t go well in the past,” she said.

Mr Müller said the failings of the state a year ago – in particular of Berlin police and investigators – could only be “explained, not excused” by the unprecedented situation of the terror attack. He added: “As mayor I ask you, relatives and injured, for forgiveness.”

Hours earlier, the Bild tabloid printed his invitation letter to relatives, offering travel costs for economy flights, second-class train tickets and 20 cent/km mileage. "Taxi costs will not be reimbursed! Public transport must be taken," it said.

While some relatives welcomed the belated political recognition of their suffering, others were less positive.

Ralf Grawinkel from Düsseldorf, who lost his sister Angelika in the attack, said the belated meeting with Ms Merkel was “indecent” and the travel cost information from Berlin “embarrassing”.

“Merkel said nothing special but tried to be friendly,” said Andreas Schwartz, who jumped out of the way of the truck during the market attack.

Amid high security – concrete barriers and snipers atop buildings – Berliners were allowed inspect the memorial from 2pm. Among them was Frank Hoedt, who was the fire brigade director of operations a year ago.

“When I came home,” he said, “it was like I fell into a black hole.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin