For some, last night’s horrific incident in Berlin was less a tragedy than a political opportunity. After German police stated that they were treating the lorry crash as a “presumed terrorist attack”, Angela Merkel’s opponents wasted no time in blaming her. Frauke Petry, the chair of the the nationalist Alternative für Deutschland, declared: “We cannot be under any illusion. The milieu in which such crimes are able to thrive has been imported here systematically over the past one and a half years”.
That was a reference to Merkel’s liberal refugee policy, which the AfD has long opposed. German media has reported that the suspect is a Pakistani or Afghan who arrived in the country earlier this year and lived in a Berlin refugee camp. Petry continued: “This incident is not singular and will happen again. We only need to look to France to know that.” The barely veiled hope was that further attacks could lift the AfD to the heights of Front National. Petry warned that Germany’s “Christian tradition” under threat and that it was a country “divided over the immigration question”.
Nigel Farage was even less ambiguous, tweeting: “Terrible news from Berlin but no surprise. Events like these will be the Merkel legacy.” He later told LBC: “Let’s be honest about this. Mrs Merkel made one of the worst policy decisions we’ve seen from a European politician in the last 70 years when she unconditionally said in the middle of 2015 ‘as many as want to come, can come’. And there was no vetting, there was no checking, and there were people like me standing up for months ahead of that saying we should not let our compassion imperil our safety and indeed our civilisation. And I think, frankly, people like Mrs Merkel out to take responsibility for what’s happened.”
Though they are fewer in number than sometimes suggested, there are German voters who will agree. In recent opinion polls, the AfD has polled as high as 15 per cent (though its support remains modest by European standards). Ahead of next year’s German election, Merkel and other Christian Democrats have adopted a more defensive tone.
Stephan Mayer, the home affairs spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, told the Today programme: “It would be absolutely unfair now to draw any conclusions before all the facts lay on the table. We had a period of time especially in the autumn of 2015 in which there was an uncontrolled and unregistered influx to Germany of approximately 900,000 refugees and asylum seekers. This was a period of mis-control of not controlling our borders. But we amended very intensively our German federal law.”
But Merkel, who yesterday attended an award ceremony to celebrate the International Day of Migrants, took a robust stance in response. She said in Berlin: “I know that it would be particularly hard to bear for all of us if it was confirmed that a person committed this crime who asked for protection and asylum in Germany. This would be particularly repugnant in the face of the many many Germans who have dedicated themselves day after day to helping refugees, and in the face of the many people who actually need our protection and try to integrate into our country.”
Merkel’s response echoed that of Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg following Anders Breivik’s massacre in 2011. “We do not want to allow ourselves to be paralysed by terror. Although it might be difficult we will find the strength to continue living life as we want to live it in Germany – in freedom, openness and together.”
Though Merkel’s opponents wish otherwise, there is no reason to believe this will prove a transformative moment in Germany’s history.