After – or despite – a violent week, Germany still turns to Merkel

Populists have tried to gain political footing over a threat they say was magnified by the chancellor’s 'open door' refugee policy. But many say that Merkel might actually gain politically after the attacks.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference in Berlin today.

Just hours after two terrorists claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State brutally killed a priest in Normandy, French President François Hollande warned the nation that the “war would be long” but that France would win.

But after a spate of deadly attacks and terrorist attempts in Germany in less than a week, there’s been no such rhetoric. In fact, Chancellor Angela Merkel waited to respond to the first attack, a shooting rampage in Munich whose motives were initially unclear, on the following day – and without panic.

“The state and its security services will continue to do everything they can to protect the safety and security of all,” she told the nation.

The differing discourse reflects in part the greater menace that France faces after three major attacks in 18 months. But the caution displayed by Germany’s leader also reveals a cultural difference in a time of crisis.

Despite populist attempts to gain political footing over a threat they say was magnified by Chancellor Merkel’s “open door” refugee policy – and anger by some Germans who were skeptical about the policy – many say that she might actually gain politically rather than lose after the attacks, as might be expected.

“I think there’s a wide consensus among German political parties and politicians and the public that this kind of language of revenge or annihilation of militant threats is not what Germans would want to hear or what expresses their attitudes best,” says Paul Nolte, a German historian who's written extensively about Merkel.

'Black July'

It’s not that Germans fear terrorism any less than the French or Belgians or anyone else in Europe. More than three-quarters of Germans believe their country will experience another attack.

But Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, says that amid uncertainty – from the US presidential election to consequences after an unprecedented flow of Muslim refugees into Europe last summer – Germans might seek out her steady hand. “A lot of mainstream Germans are happy to have someone who’s calm, composed, not overly rash, and so on. And I think that’s what’s driving the halfway steady support of her,” he says.

She will still be mightily tested, and major changes could yet be afoot. Florian Hartleb, an expert in populist movements in Germany, has dubbed this summer “Black July.” He calls it an unprecedented time period, perhaps only similar to the terror produced by the Red Army Faction that peaked in 1977 in what is known as the “German Autumn.” And the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) may rise, especially in local elections in September in Mecklenburg Western Pomerania in the east, where such extremism is widespread. 

“This is of course ground for populist or even extremist mobilization, the politics of fear and insecurity,” he says.

But such movement might be limited, especially if no major attack happens on German soil.  The pacifist culture sown here since World War II has made it a hesitant military player, and while Germany is suddenly in the sights of terrorists, that hesitance hasn’t yet shifted.

Instead there have been calls to increase police presence, intelligence services, and screenings of asylum seekers. Thomas Jäger, a professor of political science at the University of Cologne, says that Germans believe that increased military action in Syria would only increase their chances of becoming targets. 

“It’s a paradox: a majority in Germany believes that you cannot fight terrorism with military means but recognizes that fragile states and dictators alike sponsor terrorism,” he says. “Today the reaction is securing the borders, controlling the suspects, more intelligence at home, etc. The discussion about the consequences has not reached the field of foreign policy.”

A range of attacks

There is also an understanding that despite the four attacks this month, all were very different.

An Afghan refugee first attempted to attack passengers with an ax on a train in Bavaria last week. Then a young gunman in Munich, a German-Iranian, killed nine at a mall attack. While at first the attack was thought to be terrorism, he fit the pattern of the mentally disturbed mass shooters more commonly seen in the US.

Then a Syrian refugee killed a female co-worker on the streets of Stuttgart, although it’s not considered to be terrorism-related. That same day, another Syrian refugee blew up himself in a suspected terrorism attempt outside a music festival in Ansbach, in Bavaria.

The only common denominator is that they are young men, says historian Nolte, which does not lend itself to simple solutions or declarations against one enemy. That means few expect Merkel to change course. Instead, it is anticipated that she’ll continue on several fronts, from seeking to reduce the number of refugees coming to Germany while adapting the country's security response.

“Despite now that we’ve had the first terrorism attack and suicide bomber attacks, there’s a widespread feeling that this is just one reason why we should feel uncertain. And there are other reasons for violence on the streets, and these reasons have to be addressed on different levels,” he says. “I think that more people realize it’s a more complicated situation.”

Not giving in

So far Germans seem to believe that Merkel is best poised to handle the crisis. Jürgen Fauth, who has spent the past week traveling throughout Germany and France with his family on trains, buses, and planes, says that the refugee crisis represents a security challenge.

But Germany can’t turn its back on refugees or the chancellor. “It’s the purpose of terrorism to make us feel scared and angry, but we have to stay open,” he says. “That’s the purpose: to unsettle us, to make us respond with anger, hatred and fear. I feel sadness but don’t want to give into anger.”

Wednesday’s front-page opinion piece in Der Tagesspiegel, a daily newspaper, reflected the national mood – one that is spooked but wants to avert political chaos, too. “Nobody is spared. No group can feel safe. Mistrust has become widespread. This is not a good sign. Worry and fear are the goals of terror: the perpetrators have succeeded,” the paper notes. “Politics must try to give people the feeling of security back. That will not be easy and can take a long time.”

Merkel’s popularity dipped after sexual assaults in Cologne and other cities during New Year’s Eve celebrations. But, in part because the number of asylum seekers arriving has dropped at the same time that other problems, like Brexit, have rocked Europe,  she regained her approval ratings. It was at a 10-month high, at 59 percent, just before “Black July.”

Polling from this week shows that if federal elections were held today, Merkel’s Christian Democrats would emerge with the most votes. The AfD have thus far not registered substantial gains.

• Sara Miller Llana reported from Spain.

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