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23 December 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:52pm

Terror will not break Berlin’s open and tolerant spirit

Berliners know that extremist attacks are aimed at disrupting Germany’s welcoming attitude to refugees and asylum seekers.

By Paul Sullivan

Winding my way towards west Berlin on the S-Bahn the morning after an articulated lorry ploughed through an annual Christmas market, slaughtering 12 innocent people and injuring dozens of others, felt surreally like any other weekday morning. A typically diverse array of locals occupied the seats around me, most dressed in warm, dark-coloured clothing designed to do battle with the chilly temperatures, staring bleakly out at the city’s dull metallic skies or into the wan glow of their mobile phones.

Unlike in Paris and Brussels following recent attacks, there was no immediate sign of any increased security presence, though the site of the incident (Breitscheidplatz, close to the Berlin Zoo) was cordoned-off and busy with a mixture of armed police and clusters of onlookers who grimly surveyed the scene, took photos and added a flower or candle to one of the makeshift memorials.

The heavy fog that clung to the tops of the buildings wasn’t so usual though, and the way it shrouded the glass cupola of the famous Reichstag as the train carried me through the centre felt like an apt metaphor, on a morning during which many in the German capital were doubtless dwelling on the tragic events of the night before and pondering the possible political implications.

While many in the German and right-wing international media have been blaming Angela Merkel’s “open door” policy on migrants for the attack —  almost a million refugees and asylum seekers have entered the country since 2015 — Berliners have something of a special relationship with refugees. Some 80,000 are currently living here, more than any other German city, with around half residing in temporary shelters as they wait for their applications to be accepted or rejected: increasing numbers have been turned away in recent months, which many believe to be a political compromise after a series of smaller refugee-related attacks around the country.

The news that a Tunisian asylum seeker, who is reported to have been shot dead in Milan this morning, is the prime suspect for carrying out the attack confirms the fears expressed by the German Chancellor in her statement on Tuesday: “I know that it would be particularly difficult for all of us to bear if it would be confirmed that this deed was carried out by a person who sought protection and asylum in Germany,” she said. Merkel was aware that such a scenario would play directly into the hands of her critics — in particular the populist right-wing group AfD (Alternative for Germany), which has campaigned heavily on an anti-immigration platform since its formation in 2013. 

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For the most part, the city has drawn on its reputation as a tolerant, open and inherently multicultural place (its demographic includes significant Middle Eastern, Asian and Eastern European communities) to help many settle and integrate into the city. As well as shorter-term assistance such as donating clothes or food, there have also been longer-term, grassroots projects like the award-winning Give Something Back To Berlin, which encourages integration via regular language, cooking and social-themed meet-ups, as well as creative responses from refugees themselves, including an app created by Syrians that helps navigate Germany’s typically burdensome bureaucracy. Even the city’s clubbing community has made an effort with the Plus 1 campaign, which has raised over 125,000 euros by charging a minimal fee for guestlist spots and then donating it to refugee causes.

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The more intensive levels of integration already established in Berlin, as well as the famously world-weary attitude of its inhabitants — many of whose families have lived through war and division themselves — no doubt plays into the city’s somewhat muted reaction to the attack. Berliners know through their own experience that the vast majority of refugees just want an opportunity to live normal, regular lives without fear of being bombed or oppressed; they are aware that organised terrorist activities are aimed precisely at disrupting Germany’s “Willkommenskultur” (“welcome culture”) and a subsequent air of defiance — even nonchalance — has been discernible alongside the sadness and quiet air of caution.

Although the evening following the attacks saw the Christmas markets close early at the request of city officials, and various vigils take place around the city to pay tribute to those killed — including a major one inside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at the site of the attack, which has been a symbol of peace since being partially destroyed in the Second World War — the city has quickly returned to its typical pre-Christmas atmosphere.

By Wednesday the markets were open again and Berliners came out in force to visit them and show the world — and especially the terrorists — that they would not be abandoning their traditions or seasonal spirit so easily. The usual flurries of activity could be found around the shopping and cultural areas and Christmas decorations continued to shine from the city’s 19th-century tenements and GDR-era high rises.

Perhaps the most telling sign that terror will not shake the resolve of the locals, nor deter them from their collective desire to help those fleeing war-ravaged regions, came on Wednesday night when anti-refugee demonstrations at Breitscheidplatz were met with much larger counter-demonstrations demanding unity and a continued respect for human rights.

A German proverb states: “fear makes the wolf look bigger than he is”. While it seems the wolves have never been closer to the door, Berliners are doing their bit to resist fear and stay focused on humanity.

Paul Sullivan is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.