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20 December 2016

In Berlin, the question now is who joins those mocking Angela Merkel’s vision for integration

A smashed window here, a non-white person accosted there: how long can this liberal city incubate itself from extremism after the Christmas market terrorist attack?

By Musa Okwonga

Berlin is a huge city. You’re reminded of this the night that an attack on civilians unfolds on the other side of town, and you don’t hear so much as a helicopter or siren. At the same time, when you wake the morning after the killings, you can see not-so-subtle changes. When your train rolls into the main station, you’ll find a group of heavily-armed police officers on the platform and concourse.

If you look online, you’ll see that the local authorities have already raided the Tempelhof refugee camp, where the suspected driver of the lorry – though police are now saying the alleged attacker may not be the man they are holding in custody – was registered as staying. Online, too, you’ll find countless messages from friends, anxious that you didn’t mark yourself safe on Facebook the night before.

In the city’s political halls, the leading figures are as worried as your Facebook friends. Angela Merkel, who recently confirmed that she will run for a fourth term as the country’s Chancellor, has been violently reminded that no good deed goes unpunished. Last year, Merkel was widely hailed as a hero for welcoming a million refugees to Germany as they fled conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet now, with the elections next year, she must contend with the prospect of the alleged attacker turning out to be one of these asylum seekers.

The far-right was never going to forgive Merkel for her pro-refugee policy, and neither were the Islamists. The former saw it as contrary to their puerile pipe-dream of a racially pure Germany. The latter saw it as a sabotage of their narrative that the West could never reach out to those from mostly Muslim countries. In their happy rush to mock Merkel, both are now clambering over the corpses of the dead.

The key question is who now joins them. The AfD party, which has argued for the reintroduction of Nazi terminology to political discourse, has enjoyed great success in local polls. Its campaign of fear and resentment saw it claim almost 14 per cent of Berlin alone. Now that the AfD has firmly positioned Merkel as the focus of national discontent, the next few months of this political climate stand to be uncomfortable for the Chancellor, the refugees and those who sympathise with them.

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Merkel will continue to count the cost of “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”): her famous statement, upon the arrival of the refugees, that Germany could integrate their newcomers despite all the doubters.

In the street, you’ll become especially attentive to the anecdotes that filter back to you every so often, hoping they’re not part of a trend. A smashed café window in the liberal enclave of Neukölln here, a non-white person racially abused or accosted in the street there. Meanwhile, on Facebook, you and your friends will continue to share tributes to your fellow Berliners; to strangers who were out enjoying their Monday evening just like you, and whose lives, all for the making of some political point, were cruelly and brutally torn away.