Berlin’s Zero Hour Is Also Angela Merkel’s

After an attack on the German capital, the chancellor’s moment of reckoning is upon her.

TOPSHOT - A policeman walks at the Christmas market near the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedaechtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), the day after a terror attack, in central Berlin, on December 20, 2016.
German police said they were treating as "a probable terrorist attack" the killing of 12 people when the speeding lorry cut a bloody swath through the packed Berlin Christmas market. / AFP / Tobias SCHWARZ        (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A policeman walks at the Christmas market near the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedaechtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), the day after a terror attack, in central Berlin, on December 20, 2016. German police said they were treating as "a probable terrorist attack" the killing of 12 people when the speeding lorry cut a bloody swath through the packed Berlin Christmas market. / AFP / Tobias SCHWARZ (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

In the back of our heads, we knew it was coming. There was no rational explanation for Berlin being spared the terror and bloodshed that have hit — and transformed for the grimmer — cities such as Paris, London, Istanbul, and New York. Smaller-scale attacks committed by Islamists of different stripes had occurred in other German cities and towns; others had been thwarted. Nevertheless, the news Monday night stunned and unnerved: 12 dead and some 50 injured when, at around 8 p.m., a tractor-trailer barreled into the Christmas market at the foot of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the Breitscheidplatz, one of central Berlin’s busiest squares.

The attack’s perpetrator probably didn’t pick out the location of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church with any more symbolism in mind than Christmas: Islam versus Christendom is the message that’s supposed to stick. Any one of the dozens of Christmas markets in Berlin probably would have done. The symbol the terrorist sought was Christianity’s holiest celebration in the center of Europe’s mightiest capital.

But the church destroyed in World War II and left a half ruin as an anti-war monument is loaded with symbolism. Like no other building or location in Berlin, if not all of Germany, it has since the war’s aftermath embodied the two maxims of the postwar Federal Republic: Nie wieder Krieg, nie wieder Faschismus — never again war, never again fascism. Monday’s carnage at the base of the church’s bomb-blackened shell is the first time since the war that blood has spilled on the square.

The question is whether Germany will now treat the Middle East’s instability, and the migration to Europe that has resulted from it, as a military crisis. That is what French President François Hollande did in the aftermath of the November 2015 killings in Paris, speaking of “war” and ordering airstrikes against Islamic State jihadis in Syria. Until now, Germany’s contribution has been taking in refugees and urging diplomacy to prevail.

Of course, we Berliners also knew that an attack was liable to happen – we were just willing to convince ourselves that it wouldn’t come tomorrow or the next day, but sometime in an indefinite future. The illusion that Berlin might just possibly escape the fate of its peers for another year is now definitively shattered. The full reality of 21st-century Europe finally arrived in its de facto capital — the home of a government that many critics charge has been out of step with the magnitude and military nature of the continent’s recent years of crisis.

Germany is now faced with the same conundrum as France and other European metropolises: How much liberty will be sacrificed in the name of security, in a city that basks in its international reputation as open-minded, tolerant, and proudly diverse? And how will the political class respond to the terrorist attack? Will establishment politicians, in an attempt to ward off the rise of right-wing populists, begin stigmatizing refugees and foreign nationals and beefing up the country’s borders?

This new reality was written across German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s weary face as she addressed the country Tuesday morning. No single figure is as associated with the plight of asylum-seekers in Europe as Merkel. Nor has any one politician in all of Europe been so roundly criticized as the chancellor for those policies. The fact that the initial suspect was admitted to Germany as an asylum applicant from Pakistan in February 2016 couldn’t be worse for the chancellor. (That he was later released by police, who say the real perpetrator is still at large, has done little to dim the public’s anxieties.)

In her short address, Merkel somberly expressed her grief and sorrow for the victims and outrage at the deed. “This is a very difficult day,” she said. Like millions of other Germans, she said she was horrified, shocked, and deeply saddened by the events. “Twelve people who were still among us yesterday, who were looking forward to Christmas, who had plans, are no longer here today,” she said. Emotion and empathy aren’t Merkel’s strong suit, but she struck the right chord and, in a hallmark of her crisis management, urged caution before all of the facts were known and any measures were taken in response.

At such a time when simple answers come easy, Merkel addressed the fact that the assailant appeared to be an asylum-seeker. “I know that it’s particularly difficult for us all to accept if the person who committed this act is one who asked for our protection and asylum in Germany,” she said. “This would be particularly heinous.” Very briefly, in just one sentence, she explicitly distinguished between the perpetrators of fundamentalist violence and the war refugees that require Germany’s aid and protection. She urged Germans not to confuse them. But she stopped short of underscoring that the lion’s share of the refugees in Germany are fleeing from the same religious fanaticism that appears to have motivated the assailant in Berlin. Or that turning on Muslim citizens and helpless refugees plays right into the hands of the fundamentalists. But this kind of point is apparently too off message for the moment.

This is the very fine line that Merkel has to walk today and in coming weeks — and she is under enormous pressure to do it deftly. She must address the grief, anger, and fears of ordinary Germans, lest she leave an emotional vacuum for populists to fill. She’ll need more than one 10-minute press conference to plausibly convey empathy for any Germans who may feel insecure, and as much help as she can get from other politicians, including those in her own party who have relentlessly attacked her government’s migration policies. Yet she also has to defend and justify those policies, which bear her name — and, at least until now, she has, without success, defiantly pressed the rest of the EU to adhere to.

Europe’s far-right, for its part, didn’t waste a minute to pounce on Merkel, the Germans first. A tweet published right after the attack by the nationalist populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) read simply: “What has Merkel done to our country?” Frauke Petry, the leader of the AfD, added: “We shouldn’t be under any illusions. The milieu, which nurutres such acts, has been negligently and systematically imported into Germany over the last one and a half years.” According to Petry, Germany is no longer safe. “It would be the duty of the chancellor to tell you this. Since she won’t do it, I will,” reads a photo she posted on her Facebook page. France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen even chipped in with a tweet — “Danke Merkel” — as did the former leader of the nationalist UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, who said, “Events like these will be the Merkel legacy.”

This is a zero-hour moment for Merkel. On the one hand, her chancellorship now hinges upon her response — she is entering the 2017 election year with less-than-unanimous approval, even in conservative ranks, a disenchantment fueled largely by discontent over migration. But the EU’s democratic credibility hangs in the balance, too. Germany, the EU’s mightiest country, has thus far, almost single-handedly, kept the EU from de facto revoking one of its most important principles: the right of persecuted people to political asylum. There’s nothing standing in the way of its effective negation than Angela Merkel. Should Merkel cave in to the intense pressure, the European Union will become an illiberal Fortress Europe without a chink in its armor, just as desperate refugees from Aleppo come knocking at the door.

For now, Berlin still doesn’t feel like a fortress. There are no soldiers on the streets, like those in France. My 6-year-old son’s kindergarten class proceeded Tuesday morning with its regularly scheduled class trip to see a Christmas film in a cinema that borders on one of the city’s smaller Christmas markets. Despite the teachers’ forced cheerfulness, there was no overreaction or hysterics.

But after Monday’s attack, the wars raging on Europe’s borders crept another step closer to the Germans. If it turns out to have been directed by a terrorist group in the Middle East, German foreign-policy makers must determine whether they can do more than just care for a small fraction of the victims of that region’s wars. The German military has yet to play much of a role at all in Syria. It pointedly opted out of the Libya intervention in 2011. Perhaps now that will change. Hopefully, even in that case, Germans will understand that it’s not a choice of either protecting war victims or fighting the Islamic State. After all, the victims of Aleppo in Syria and those dead on the Breitscheidplatz are the victims of the same ideology and terrorists.

This is a point that Merkel has to make as she soothes a wounded country and ensures its security. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church admonishes her to do them all at once.

Photo credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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