As we celebrate Christmas – which in Germany, as in Poland, is celebrated tonight on Christmas Eve – Berliner’s are still mourning the terror attack on a beloved tradition across Germany: The Weihnachtsmarkt. This past Monday, a Tunisian man, Ansi Amri drove a stolen Polish truck into the crowds gathering at the annual Christmas Markt at the Breitscheidplatz in West Berlin. 12 people died during the attack, and in addition, the attacker murdered the Polish driver of the truck. The Italian police killed Ansi Amri yesterday, when he drew a gun during a routine stop. The German police continues its investigation into the planning of the attack and any potential accessories. The Tunisian intelligence in the meantime is investigating the terror cell in Tunisia, arresting the suspect’s nephew today. After Nice, this is the second attack that involved Tunisian nationals operating on behald of ISIS. For Germany, only time will tell the political consequences of the attack.
This attack struck close to home for me. Whether the attacker knew or not, he chose a place with historical significance among Berlin’s several Christmas market: the beset square, Breidscheidplatz, hosts the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which the Allies bombed in WWII. West Berliners decided to preserve the church as a ruin as a daily reminder never to forget the destruction the Germans of the past brought upon themselves. The place is thus emotionally charged and symbolic for Berliner’s at large. Before WWII, in the 1920, it was a cosmopolitan square, where Berlin’s alternative and sexually liberated crowds mingled, drawing the ire of the Nazi leadership. Then, when I was growing up in West Berlin, this was the buzzling commercial center of the walled in city, and where we would go as teenagers to have a coffee and people watch. After the wall came down, it went into disarray as all the hipness moved East, just to be recently reclaimed and renovated again. I doubt the attacker knew all this history. What he did intuit is that an attack on a beloved German tradition would open a wound that could change the political tide.
The political responses have been varied. As the event unfolded, chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at an event praising Germany’s solidarity focused Zeitgeist, saying that Germany’s diversity will strengthen the country. Now, everyone is holding their breath, whether the attack will put that Zeitgeist into question, especially with next year’s elections, set for October 22nd, looming.
The German government proceeded cautiously in the aftermath, waiting for conclusive evidence before utilizing the word terror attack and addressing the public. German President Joachim Gauck underlined the need for solidarity across the political divide in the face of an attack. When Merkel finally spoke, before the attacker had been identified, she described her response as aghast, appaled and deeply saddened. The chancellor spoke of mourning and of resolve to stand together in the face of an attack on German values. Should the attacker be a refugee, someone to whom Germany offered shelter, she added, it would be a detestable act, particularly hard to bear. While Amri turned out not to be a refugee, the government will now have to content with the failure to deport or track a person suspected of radical activity. Not full 48 hours after the attack, Merkel’s cabinet passed several measures to address security concerns, including an increase of video surveillance, which is particularly sensitive in Germany.
Berlin responded to the attack with dignified mourning: the flag flew at half-mast, and the city organized a solidarity concert.
Simultaneously, in the current political landscape, parties exhibited predictable posturing: In the first 24 hours, the German right-wing party, Alternative für Deutschland, true to its shock and awe strategies, blamed Merkel personally for the 12 deceased calling them “Merkel’s dead.” In their view, Merkel’s refugee policy permitted a state of lawlessness that cumulated in this terror attack. Shortly thereafter, the head of the Bavarian CSU, the sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, called for a review of the German immigration and security policy. His party further underlined that mass movements, such as the current refugee movement, entail risks that warrant government investigation. The CSU openly criticizes Merkel for having pushed the alliance too far from its security focused roots with her refugee policy. In Berlin, these responses were seen as a cheap way to utilize a national tragedy for political gain. Members of Merkel’s party were shocked that their sister party would merge the terror attack with the refugee policies. What crystalized in the aftermath of this attack is that with every political spat, the rift between these historically allied parties is growing. Election watchers, who may be nervous about Merkel's prospects in next year's elections will pay attention to this rift and the growing pull of the far-right party.
Meanwhile, the political opposition withheld immediate criticism within subsequent days, waiting until more details emerged. Berlin’s Social Affairs Senator from Die Linke, Germany’s far left party, expressed concern that the attack may lead to retribution attacks on refugees, calling for increased protection around shelters. The Green party called for security measures, which ought to be thoughtful and evidence based, and also cautioned against any restrictions of the current refugee policy. The SPD, once the main opposition party but today a mere shadow of itself, offered an uninspiring message that ‘everything needs to be done’ to fully investigate events. The German liberal party, the FDP, called the attack a failure of the German state, and the German intelligence services. They noted the fact that Amri had been previously surveilled, implying that the attack could have been prevented.
Out of all of these criticism, the latter is likely to hit the hardest in the near future: the German intelligence services will struggle to explain how they ceased to track someone, who they had previously investigated for potential terrorist attack plans and known links to a radical Salafist preacher.
Additionally, public scrutiny will focus in on deportations of non-refugees. In fact, Amri, a Tunisian whose application for asylum was declined, had been due to for deportation. However, since he had travelled without a valid Passport, Tunisia refused to acknowledge German’s request for deportation, leaving Amri in legal limbo. Without a doubt, this attack will put the pressure on German officials to process immigration applications faster, to streamline deportation procedures and seek deportation agreements with the North African states. Germany currently does not have any cooperation agreement with Tunisia, which could facilitate automatic deportation. Merkel called for the speedy deportation of Tunisians, who lack a permit to stay. In response, Tunisians organized protests outside of their parliament beseeching the government to refuse to take back any known terrorists.
The attack will likely lead to reforms of the current Duldung/ ‘Tolerated’ status of those, whose asylum application was rejected. Under German law, if an immigrant’s application was denied, but they are too sick to travel; may be in danger in the home country; or they are lacking the needed identification papers for the home country to accept and can prove that they are in the process of obtaining these papers (as was the case here), the applicant gets a so called Tolerated status. Duldung entails similar privileges as a refugee status: shelter, integration classes and financial support. Currently, they are about 168,000 people in Germany, who are staying as Tolerated individuals, and out of these, 37,000 could not be deported for lack of paper, as in the case of Amri. While Minister of Interior is proposing a reform of the Duldung status and the Minister of Justice even proposed a deportation detention, protections under German constitution will likely prevent radical change.
Time will tell, whether the attack will have consequences on the German Zeitgeist embracing solidarity and diversity, and on Merkel’s chances to continue her policies past fall of 2017. As deeply saddened by events as I am, I am also heartened by the tone of the political debate in Germany: while U.S. President-elect Trump immediately utilized the attack to renew calls for a Muslim registry, fomenting Islamophonia, most German politicians took the lead from police investigation, avoiding immediate politicization of the immigration and refugee debate and of Islam. Instead, they honed in on lapses by the German security services and loopholes within the current immigration system. In a globally increasingly polarized political climate, the German response is reassuring.
Since publishing, the SPD vice chair held a longer interview, in which he condemned the CSU's attempt to merge the refugee and security debate. Instead of a change of refugee policies, Germany needs to invest more in police, he added.