As a tumultuous year draws to a close, the atmosphere in Europe has turned febrile once again. What does the Berlin terror attack tell us about the continent’s greatest power, and where it is heading?
December 19, 2016 was not a good day for political stability. Hours after an off-duty policeman in Ankara, Turkey shot dead the Russian ambassador, demanding support for anti-Assad forces in Syria, a lorry was driven into revellers at a Christmas market in Breitscheidplatz, killing 12. Meanwhile, a Swiss gunman with, according to police, ‘occult beliefs’ shot three worshippers in a Zurich mosque.
The sense of chaos seeping into the mainstream is palpable. As 2016 draws to a close political violence is on the radar in Europe, on a scale that has not been seen in many countries since the 1970s. Shocked and appalled by Islamist-Inspired attacks and fearful of a far right backlash, politics across Europe is beginning to warp.
Germans have been bracing themselves for a dramatic terrorist attack – either by a disgruntled refugee, someone who posed as one in order to enter Germany, or possibly even by a member of Germany’s nativist far right – and this very fear has implications for German politics, hitherto among the most stable in Europe in the post-war era.
Klaus Bouillon, a minister in the western state of Saarland, bordering France, said: ‘We are in a state of war, although some people, who always only want to see good, do not want to see this.’ Harsh words for a man who is a member of chancellor Angela Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD) anti-immigrant political party was quick to lay blame for Monday’s tragedy at Merkel’s feet. Party chairman Alexander Gauland issued a statement demanding tougher border controls.
Others used more explosive rhetoric. AfD MEP Marcus Pretzell tweeted: ‘When will this cursed hypocrisy end? The dead belong to Merkel!’
Critics point to the fact that Germany endured three comparatively small scale Islamist-inspired terror attacks last year. Against that, the July 22 Munich attack, that left ten dead, perpetrated by Ali David Sonboly, appears to have been inspired by Norwegian far-right nativist Anders Brevik as well as US school shooters.
Speaking shortly after this week’s attack, Merkel held her ground. ‘We don’t want to live with fear or evil parlaying Germany, we don’t want to live with the inability to live together,’ she said.
Merkel did not take questions from reporters, but her position had already started to harden in the face of widespread criticism. Speaking in early December, Merkel said the refugee situation ‘can and should not be repeated’, and that ‘not every refugee can stay’.
Merkel’s troubles are neatly encapsulated by a pair of images: a year ago she was Time magazine’s person of the year, described as ‘chancellor for Europe’, and hailed for her compassion in opening Germany to refugees from the Middle East. Twelve months later and Donald Trump graces the front page of Time, named person of the year for leading the ‘divided states of America’.
2016 has been nothing if not turbulent: the Nice terror attack, the Brussels bombings, the massacre at a gay night-club in Orlando and the murder of MP Jo Cox all sent shockwaves around the world.
In addition, there has been civil war in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, as well as continued violence in Libya, strife in Egypt and political shocks in the West with the mainstream facing down challenges from an emboldened hard left and, especially, hard right.
But the question many Germans are asking this week is: why us?
The modern Federal Republic of Germany, built upon the rubble after losing the Second World War, was intentionally de-fanged and to this day is not a significant military power. In addition, cultural memory of the war has resulted in Germans typically being slower to support foreign interventions than other European nations.
Unlike France, which is a major military power and regularly intervenes militarily across the Middle East and Africa, Germany’s foreign entanglements are minimal, meaning the country cannot be accused of suffering ‘blowback’ from foreign wars. France too is home to major social problems that are unknown in Germany, including significant unemployment and clashes over the right to religious expression.
For a growing number of Germans today, the worry is that the country is simply a soft target – a view that will not be shifted by the mowing down of citizens celebrating Christmas. Indeed, holiday markets have been noted as potential terror sites in recent weeks, including in Paris where authorities in November said they foiled a plan to attack the Champs Élysées market. More than 60 markets in Germany were shuttered following Monday’s attack.
Speaking to a German holidaymaker in Nice in the days after the Bastille Day attack there, where 85 were left dead after ISIS-inspired Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel careened a lorry into revellers, I was struck by the fact that he felt Merkel’s move to bring almost a million refugees into Germany would protect the country from attacks. It turns out he was wrong: on Tuesday ISIS claimed the Berlin assault.
The question is: will it affect Germany’s election next year? Almost certainly – but it is difficult to imagine Merkel’s CDU failing to win enough seats to govern, at least in ‘grand coalition’. A poll conducted days before the Berlin attack found the AfD had 11% support, meaning even a dramatic growth would fail to unseat the CDU.
Siobhán Dowling, an editor at the newspaper Handelsblatt, Germany’s answer to the Financial Times, said that terror attacks could give a fillip to anti-immigrant parties in Germany, just as they have done in France, by changing the national dialogue.
‘What the AfD would love is for terror and immigration to be the main issues. The CDU wants to take about pensions and jobs, and the AfD has no policies in those areas,’ she said.
Dowling nonetheless says the CDU will likely be the largest party in next year’s federal election.
‘There’s a long time to run before the federal election next year,’ she said.
Despite this, Dowling said that the mood has changed in Germany, and Merkel’s decision to open the borders is no longer seen as an unalloyed good.
‘The Cologne attacks (sexual assaults reported during last New Year’s Eve) changed it from being waving-balloons-at-children to a more complex debate,’ she said.
Indeed, a rally was held by right wing street protest group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) a day before the Berlin attack, and was attended by AfD politician Andreas Wild, who said Germans did not want to live in an Islamic country.
French journalist Gil Mihaely, publisher of Causeur (The Conversationalist) magazine says he expects repercussions in a country not used to either immigration or, in recent history, conflict or immigration.
‘The French and British have had Italians and Poles and whatever for at least 150 years. Germany is not the same. The have the Turkish community of around 2.5 million out of 80 million people, but that’s all. I don’t think they have the cultural tools to deal with foreigners,’ he said.
Despite Berlin’s reputation for multiculturalism, the country as a whole is remarkably homogenous. Twenty percent of the Berlin population of 3.6 million is foreign-born, with about 48,000 immigrants moving to the city in 2015, including 11,500 from Syria. But within Germany immigration has been, until recently, relatively minor – and as is often the pattern, where there is little immigration, concerns about it are greatest.
Mihaely expects a backlash – if not at this election, then soon enough: ‘It will be much quicker than in France. They won’t wait 20 years.’
Kai Arzheimer, professor of political science at the University of Mainz said that German attitudes remain, on the whole, steeped in charity – though he had strong words for the AfD.
‘It’s really disgusting, actually. As we speak they’re organising a march [but] I don’t think people will fall for it. Not necessarily to immigration as such, but if you compare the reaction to the refugees it has been quite friendly,’ he said.
‘AfD will get a couple of points but that’s about it, if it’s a singular attack and not a sustained attack. I don’t think they’ll suddenly double or triple in strength,’ he said.
Arzheimer may be right, but one question lingers in the air: where will be next?
Who are the AfD?
Led by Frauke Petry, the 20,000 strong Alternative for Germany (AfD) started life as a eurosceptic party seeking not to leave the EU but to undo the euro currency following the chaos of the 2008 economic crisis. Despite only being founded in 2013, several leading members – including its founder – have left the party as it has moved rightward to become an anti-immigration party. Its rise has shocked foreign observers who have long viewed German extreme politics as little more than Cold War nostalgists on the left and a handful of absurd groupsicles on the far-right, with the vast majority of Germans content to view themselves in the political mainstream.
Germany is not the land of milk and honey for migrants, however; Turkish ‘guestworkers’ have long complained that they are marginalised by the mainstream. The former communist east, meanwhile, is not only home to its own integration problems – this time between former east and west Germans – but also higher unemployment and a sense of grievance that has fuelled sporadic spikes in neo-Nazism.