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An attack on German stability

Wagener Volker Kommentarbild App
Volker Wagener
December 21, 2016

The political desecration has already begun, conflating the Berlin attack with refugee policy. All we know for certain is that such terrible crimes destabilize the country, says DW's Volker Wagener.

Deutschland Neun Tote und viele Verletzte auf Berliner Weihnachtsmarkt
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party knew immediately: "These are Merkel's dead." The uncrowned champions of spreading oversimplified wisdom wasted no time in offering an opinion. Apparently, this is their way of mobilizing simple minds even as victims lie in hospital beds fighting for their lives. Not that such shamelessness comes unexpectedly - quite the opposite. Crisis situations, especially human tragedies, are a regular launch pad for crude accusations and calls for a political change of course.

The attack in Berlin, however, represents a turning point. German society, content for decades, at times even self-satisfied, is nervous. In general, people see Chancellor Angela Merkel as a level-headed guarantor of stability in an age of multiple crises. But she is also seen as the cause of societal polarization, a criticism that has only been exacerbated by her refugee policies. It is impossible to separate the so-called "welcome culture" from German authorities' partial loss of control when dealing with refugees. So impossible that many are no longer sure whether the situation that Merkel kicked off with her cry of "We can do this!" was good or bad.   

The symbolic act of killing

This much is clear: It was an attack - one with symbolic character. Anyone who brings death and devastation to Berlin, and further, to a Christmas market, knows exactly what they aim to achieve. Germany, still seen as an honest broker pursuing a rather reserved foreign policy around the world, has now been identified by Islamic terrorists as a major enemy. There has not been an attack on this scale in Germany since the 1980 Oktoberfest bombing in Munich, in which a neo-Nazi killed 13 people and injured over 200 more. The time and place of the attack were also symbolic. The attacker struck in the heart of Berlin, the secret center of European power, and at a Christmas market. Despite being of a commercial nature, such markets are also the site of a specifically Christian ritual. Since the attack, the abstract fear of terror in Germany has become very real. 

Debate over security continues

That has brought forth actual, and self-proclaimed security policymakers. It was to be expected that some would propose deploying the army to ensure order. The motto is always the same, "we can give it a try," and ignores the fact that the constitution forbids a domestic deployment of the army. Worse still is the looming debate about connections between the arrival of refugees and the threat of terrorism - if such a connection even exists.

Wagener Volker Kommentarbild App
DW's Volker Wagener

With calls for a readjustment of refugee and security policies, Horst Seehofer, the leader of Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), quickly reopened the can of worms that the chancellor struggled so hard to close just a few weeks ago. Citizens' cries for more security are certainly justified, but the truck attacks in Nice and Berlin demonstrate a bitter reality: A 40-ton vehicle can become a tool for mass murder in the hands of one person - whether refugees come into a country or not.

Can the chancellor do this?

One need not be a misguided AfD adherent to recognize that German rule of law has been gravely injured - a fact that makes it easy for populists to further incite fear. The uncontrolled influx of immigrants in 2015, the New Year's Eve debacle in Cologne and now the dead of Breitscheidplatz in Berlin are all seen by citizens as evidence that the state has failed them - even if it is an illusion to believe that the government can somehow control unforeseen events.

But something has changed: Political priorities will shift. The federal government has a core mission again. Angela Merkel knows what will be expected of her. The main issue of the upcoming election campaign is now domestic security. Merkel will have to restore peoples' trust in government to keep voters from veering right, into the arms of the populists. Should she fail, the attacker's victory would be to have sown doubt, and to have destabilized consensus within a democratic society.

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