Attack on Berlin Christmas market strikes at heart of German tradition

A truck attack that killed 12 people and wounded several dozen is likely to fuel support for populists and criticism of German Chancellor Merkel. 

Michael Sohn/Associated Press
People attend a victims memorial service at the St. Hedwig Cathedral in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016 the day after a truck ran into a crowded Christmas market and killed a dozen people.

The suspected terrorist who drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin Monday night, killing 12 and wounding 48 others, some gravely, struck at the heart of German tradition: the much-loved Christkindlmarkt, or Christmas market.

Dismissed as kitschy by some and overly commercial in some instances, the Christmas market as a concept still has a powerful sway over German sentiment. Twinkling white lights, a capella music, trimmed huts selling wooden ornaments made by hand: they hail all the way back to 1434, to Dresden’s Striezelmarkt.

I remember meeting Roland Schweizer, a burly man with a gap-toothed smile selling iced gingerbread cookies and mounds of sugared almonds at a Christmas market in Stuttgart three years ago. As a boy, he helped his father at the same stand. "Without the Christmas market, there is no Christmas," he told me, speaking for many Germans. "This is worth preserving.”

Early Tuesday, Berlin police tweeted that the truck driver intentionally veered into the crowd, in what was likely a terrorist attack.

Amid rising nationalism and discomfort over immigration in many corners in the West, the attack is likely to provide an easy weapon against German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who opponents criticize for opening borders to crowds of immigrants without proper vetting. It could further bolster populists in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, all of which face elections in 2017. Already in Britain, Nigel Farage, a member of Parliament from the populist UKIP, tweeted "Terrible news from Berlin but no surprise. Events like these will be the Merkel legacy."

The evening attack occurred just as revelers were sipping warm drinks and eating sausages at the market at Breitscheidplatz, near the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church that lay in ruins after World War II.

Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said that the man they arrested in connection to the attack is from Pakistan and entered Germany Dec. 31, 2015, coming to Berlin in February. It is possible he entered the country as part of a wave of more than a million refugees and migrants claiming asylum in Europe. But Berlin police say the suspect denies any role, and urged Germans to be alert to the possibility that the perpetrator is still free.

The attack caps a particularly turbulent year for Europe, evoking July's terrorist attack in Nice, France, when a man drove a 19-ton truck straight into a crowd that was gathering for a fireworks display on Bastille Day. He killed 86 people. Germany had been spared such a mega attack, although four separate incidents this summer became known as “black July.”

At the same time, politics has entered new territory. Britain voted to leave the European Union in June; Donald Trump has been elected US president, in part on pledges to sharply curtail immigration; and populism is on the rise. The yearning for a calmer time is powerful.

That speaks to the allure of the Christmas market. Stephen Nissenbaum, author of "The Battle for Christmas," told me that type of longing has always underpinned the “Christmas spirit.” People have always looked backward at the magical hold Christmas had over them as children, or generally to a time they perceive as simpler, he says. "People have always been looking for something real in a changing modern world," Mr. Nissenbaum told me. "People have been feeling that and saying that at least since the 1830s."

One longtime producer of Christmas markets in Germany, reached by phone, said he was too shaken to talk.

Hitting a Christmas market is powerfully symbolic for Germans, just as attacking Bastille Day festivities was for the French, or hitting cafes for Parisians, as terrorists did Nov. 13, 2015.

François-Bernard Huyghe, a senior researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris, says that terrorists – although it’s not been confirmed in this case who is behind this attack in Berlin – are not necessarily hitting these places as symbols of a nation.

“They want to kill as many people as they can. It is very logical that they would choose very crowded places when people are celebrating, like Bastille Day or Christmas, or it could be football or a rock concert,” he says.

Terrorists have struck at religion in Europe, killing a priest in Normandy this summer and targeting a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015. An attack on Christmas is perceived not in overtly religious terms but as an attack on a way of life. Millions are drawn to Germany’s markets each year – so popular they are now reproduced around Europe and even the United States.

The US State Department in November issued a warning that terrorists in Europe were focusing “on the upcoming holiday season and associated events,” including outdoor markets.

Last week, officials said a 12-year-old boy attempted to set off a bomb at another market in Ludwigshafen. Markets in Germany have been shut down for the day out of respect for the victims, but are expected to reopen for the rest of the season, although under much heavier security – in Germany, France, and beyond.

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