Three pillars of German society left shaking from Berlin attack

Berliners are stoical at reopening of Christmas market, but attitudes are changing

The reopened Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in Berlin,  near where a truck killed 12 people and injured dozens in a terrorist attack three days ago. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The reopened Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in Berlin, near where a truck killed 12 people and injured dozens in a terrorist attack three days ago. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images


At 11am on Thursday the shutters went up again on the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in western Berlin, but it was far from business as usual.

It was a smaller, quieter market than on Monday evening, and the section demolished by a truck – where 12 people were killed in a terrorist attack – was cordoned off for the ongoing investigation.

Staff from other stands, tears in their eyes, laid candles and flowers in front of two plaques. Michael Roden, head of Berlin’s market association, said it was a miracle no market staff were among the victims.

“But many are still in shock as they saw it first hand,” he said.

As the first visitors arrived – some ordering a mulled wine with an extra shot of rum – there was plenty to talk about. Where was the main suspect? Why was he not deported? A far bigger question, as Germany heads into Christmas and a new, election year: has the attack changed Germany?

As in other countries, public opinion is divided here between those whose shock has tipped into anger and those whose shock hardens turns into stoicism.

The stoic Berliners were out in force at the market yesterday.

“We all know what happened here and carry the mourning in our hearts,” said Andrea Seibert (52), from Berlin. “We don’t have to let it break us.”

Behind the chat, though, the attack on German soil has rattled three pillars of modern German life, all erected in answer to its own painful history. Will any crack?

State surveillance

For many, the sexual assaults on women in Cologne last New Year’s Eve was a turning point, when police blamed lack of decent video evidence for the low number of convictions. In Berlin, it was video footage from a train station that allowed authorities find a Bulgarian man who, in October, kicked a woman – unprovoked – down a staircase.

The second pillar rattled on Monday: Germany’s decentralised federal structures. After huge abuses under centralised Nazi-era control – in particular the Gestapo – today’s 16 federal states in Germany have their own police, criminal police and intelligence services. But sharing – or not sharing – information is a long-term problem.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the federal criminal police (BKA) headquarters in Berlin, it renewed its long-running demand for more centralised policing in its hands. The market attack may boost its case, though federal leaders will not give up competences without a fight.

A final cultural pillar shaken by the Berlin attack: a generous postwar refugee and asylum policy informed by its wartime past. Though Germany took in 890,000 people last year, many ordinary people here struggle to understand the principles of asylum, in particular the legal and logistical difficulties in deporting those found to have no right to be here.

With a rising far-right ready to exploit these fears and insecurities, Merkel – with an eye on next September’s federal election – is likely to demand a drastic recalibration on this front. Anything less, and she will face the wrath of conservatives in her party – and her allies in Bavaria.

Wake-up call

“It would be good if those people who say we need to look closer at security are not always pushed into the far-right corner,” he added.

Seasoned Berlin watchers say that much of the sound and fury in the aftermath of Monday’s attack is pre-election talk and not a precursor of a fundamental, hardline shift in Germany’s constitutional order.

“Considering everything, the mood is still quite sober,” said Dr Henning Rieke of Berlin’s DGAP think tank, predicting tighter asylum rules and tinkering with crime-fighting competences – but little more.

“Some might see this as German complacency or even naivety,” he added, “but in Germany the vast majority of people still value a balanced rule of law above all, and Monday won’t change that.”