Germany attacks: extra security promised as shock remains

Angela Merkel facing mounting pressure over refusal to raise terror warning level

In Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus beer hall, waiters perform their impressive choreography as always – weaving between the crowds to serve beer and roast pork knuckles.

Five days ago it was a very different scene. Minutes after news of shootings at the Olympia Shopping Centre to the north, a wave of panic burst through the beer hall doors.

“Five people raced in, screaming of gunshots, and within a minute the panic had spread up to the second floor,” said Sabine Barthelmess, spokeswoman for the Hofbräuhaus.

Amid the panic, English guests smashed two stained glass windows with their beer mugs in an attempt to get out. New plain glass replacement panes are the only trace of the Friday night panic that left a waiter with a broken shoulder and a guest with cuts.

“We got 1,500 people out in five minutes, but we’re hoping to learn and improving things if there is a real terrorist attack,” says Barthelmess. “But we know that, faced with human panic, there are limits to what you can do.”

Paul Daly has a similar tale to tell. Staff and guests in his two popular Irish pubs in Munich heard reports of shots at the Stachus Square and elsewhere.

“Around 7pm people ran in saying there were people with guns outside,” he says. “They were policemen but people didn’t know that. Some people ran into the kitchen and out the back, a woman broke her neck trying to climb some scaffolding.”

His customers and 80 staff remained calm, he adds, but police kept them locked in the pub for over five hours as rumours swirled on rolling news channels and social media.

Now Daly has imposed bag checks at the doors of his pub, a staff meeting next week will plan tighter security procedures. “And in future we’re only going to rely on reliable local media, not social media and Sky News, they just spread panic,” he says.

North of the city centre, at the Olympia Shopping Centre, the media circus has moved on but the shock remains. Passing locals gaze at the wilting carpet of flowers and handwritten signs.

One reads: “There are times when the world stands still.”

Another, from a friend of a victim, reads: “You didn’t earn this.”

Across the road, the fast food restaurant where Friday’s mass shooting began, is boarded up. Hovering around the shopping centre entrance in a high-vis vest is Sabine Ohlauer, a grief counsellor from Rosenheim, near the Austrian border. She has come up to help out because her Munich colleagues, she says, are simply wrung out.

“After the first shock there’s a need now to talk. People want to show solidarity and sympathy. It’s very heartening,” she says. “One young man summed it up earlier best. He said he just hopes people don’t put all the recent attacks into one pot, they’re very different.”

After four horrific attacks in a week, three in Bavaria alone, that is the challenge facing Germany’s politicians and media: to steer a calm debate about consequences for the future, while looking back to ensure that the four attacks do not merge into one undifferentiated, panicked mass.

The perpetrators of Würzburg’s axe attack and Ansbach’s suicide bomber were a refugee and a failed asylum seeker respectively.

Both have reported links to the Islamist terror network Islamic State, though both were in Germany long before last year's migration crisis.

Sunday's machete attack in Reutlingen, in which a Syrian refugee killed a Polish woman, was a relationship drama with no political element. And the biggest shock – Munich's mass shooting on Friday – was the work of a disturbed youth.

His victims were like himself: teenagers, born and raised in Munich to migrant parents. On Tuesday grieving families gathered at the Sendlinger mosque to bid farewell, their expressions of absolute grief trascending politics and religion. More funerals are scheduled for Thursday.

On Sunday, the mourning families of Munich are guests of honour at a state ceremony attended by German chancellor Angela Merkel. She has maintained an unflappable tone throughout, admitting to a "heavy heart" but refusing to raise the terror warning level.

But tensions are rising among her Bavarian colleagues, the ruling Christian Social Union (CSU). A year ago Bavaria was on the front lines of the migrant crisis, and the loudest critics of Merkel's open-door migration policy.

"The last week has struck Bavaria to its marrow," said Horst Seehofer, Bavarian governor and CSU leader, at a party gathering on Tuesday.

With thunder and lightning crackling above, he promised to do "everything possible" to improve security such as extra police, additional asylum seeker checks. In a dig at Berlin, he said, "Prudence doesn't improve security."

That prompted Munich’s Abendzeitung newspaper to comment drily on Wednesday: “In the CSU, it reeks of populism.”

And as Germany enters its election cycle ahead of the September 2017 federal poll, the CSU in particular is feeling the heat from the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland.

Since the attacks, the anti-immigration party has issued one “I told you so” press release after another, denouncing what it sees as a liberal plot in the refusal of German politicians and media to lump the attacks together under the heading “Muslim violence”.

In the Olympia Shopping Centre, as shoppers stroll by, pensioner Klaus Söder shakes his head at the mention of the AfD.

“I was born in 1935 and the AfD’s blabber in the last days reminds me of the Nazis,” he says. “People aren’t stupid. They can differentiate between the attacks even if, Lord knows, it’s all been a bit much at once.”

All around the city, it’s the same message: Munich is holding together, shaken but not terrified.

This year’s Oktoberfest – which attracts six million visitors annually – will go ahead, but there will be a ban on rucksacks and a security fence around the sprawling festival grounds.

Back at the Hofbräuhaus, the beer flows as a brass band plays on. Among the tourists, smiling locals sit at their regular tables as usual.

“We always come here on Wednesdays,” says Sep, in his traditional Bavarian outfit. “We’re not going to let some boy with a gun change that.”