Until recently, the conventional wisdom in Berlin held that a major terrorist attack attributed to one of the more than 1 million refugees and migrants allowed into Germany since mid-2015 would spell doom for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces a reelection bid in September.
Then, on Dec. 19, just such an attack occurred. A man plowed a stolen truck into a crowded outdoor Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people. Police sought a suspect who, they said, was a Tunisian refugee who had sought asylum in Germany. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
And then an odd thing happened.
Merkel’s popularity did not fall off a cliff. In fact, it has remained high in the month since the attack, and her reelection chances now seem brighter than ever. Although President Trump said she had made a “catastrophic mistake” by letting in so many refugees, there is little such rhetoric in Germany. Only the far-right German fringe has said Merkel had “blood on her hands” for the attack.
Germans have remained remarkably stoic and without any signs of panic or lust for revenge in the face of the worst terrorist attack to hit the country since a Palestinian group massacred 12 Israelis and a West German police officer at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Although much could change between now and September, opinion polls point to a fourth election win for Merkel, and pollsters say most Germans seem confident that her government is doing all it can to protect them.
A solemn and stunned Merkel made repeated visits to the site of the truck attack in the heart of west Berlin, often accompanied by her interior minister, justice minister and the mayor of Berlin. Even before it was clear that a refugee was suspected, she directly addressed the question of such a perfidious attack by a refugee Germany was trying to help.
“It’s hard for us to understand that the person who did this came to Germany in search of protection and asylum, if that’s confirmed,” Merkel said when the responsibility was still unclear on the day after the attack. “That would be especially sickening for all of those in Germany helping refugees and for those who came here to be protected and integrate themselves.”
It was also somehow reassuring to Germans to later learn that authorities had the suspect, Anis Amri, on their radar. That helped tranquilize fears in a country that cherishes order more than almost anything else. Many had been aghast when Merkel suspended all border controls for a few tumultuous months in late 2015 to allow in a million refugees with at most cursory background checks.
“Merkel and her allies have managed to convince the public that the terror attack in Berlin and the million refugees coming in are two completely separate and unrelated issues,” said Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “Germans can be extremely rational and they generally accepted that narrative. They yearn for calming leadership and they’ve got faith that she’ll find the appropriate answers to prevent it from happening again.”
After several smaller and partially bungled attacks in mid-2016 by Syrian and Afghan asylum-seekers in which only the assailants lost their lives, the December attack in Berlin shocked the country out of its complacency. Germany had for the most part been largely oblivious to the threat and fears that had plagued neighboring countries such as France and Belgium. Polls showed fear of terrorist attacks in Germany was far lower than in those neighboring countries, and Germans did not change their habits in response to attacks.
Amri, the 24-year-old suspect, had failed to obtain asylum in Germany after arriving in June 2015 from Italy and was on a list to be deported to Tunisia. But because he did not have a Tunisian passport and Tunisia at first denied he was a citizen, Amri was allowed to stay even though police kept him on a watchlist and under surveillance for months after he was linked to radical Islamists.
Amri was ultimately killed in a shootout with police in Milan, Italy. But the emergence of the disturbing details about police handling of his case, and his ability to slip between the cracks of competing state jurisdictions, has also helped Merkel, analysts believe, because few blame her for such ineptitude.
“The responsibility for the attack was spread around on a lot of different shoulders and so it didn’t all end up on Merkel,” said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University. “She also succeeded in turning the postmortem into technical questions, rather than political questions, such as why wasn’t he arrested before if he was under surveillance? And why wasn’t he deported to Tunisia?”
Indeed, many argue that Germany’s built-in security safeguards, designed to filter out a “threat to the state,” as Amri was labeled, are largely working. German authorities have identified some 500 such threats to the state, about half of whom are living in Germany; the other half are fighting for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Many of those in Germany have been placed under surveillance and others are in jail. State and federal authorities share their intelligence across Germany and throughout Europe — one of the important lessons learned in the wake of the 2016 attacks in Brussels, where a breakdown in information-sharing played a key role.
“There’s a large majority in Germany of people who say, ‘No, Merkel can’t be blamed for the terror attack,’” said Peter Matuschek, head of political research at the Forsa polling institute. The respected Forsa poll has found that Merkel’s popularity has risen slightly since December, as has support for her conservative party. Only 28% of German voters see a connection between the refugees and the terrorist threat, and 68% believe there is no link, according to Forsa.
“It’s quite clear that Germans have been calm and collected despite the attack,” Matuschek said. “There’s been no shift in support to the far-right parties. No shift away from Merkel. Hardly anyone has changed the way they do things, hardly anyone is doing anything any differently and there seems to be a prevailing sense of: Let’s not let this change our way of life.”
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.