Germany: Politics in times of terror

Initial reactions from the public have been marked by collective grief but not by calls for revenge.

The first victims of the terror attack in Berlin had not yet arrived at hospitals when a leading politician from Alternative für Deutschland declared who was responsible for the tragedy. 







Markus Pretzell, AfD party chairman in the state of Northrhine-Westphalia blamed the attack squarely on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer followed the next day, calling for a thorough revision of the migration and home affairs policy, reopening the political divisions between the two conservative parties, CDU (led by Angel Merkel) and the Bavarian CSU. Merkel herself emphasized in a personal statement on the morning after the attack that it would be particularly hard to bear if the perpetrator came from the refugee community in Germany, given “the huge numbers of Germans who work with dedication day in day out to care for refugees. And vis à vis the many people who genuinely need our protection, and who are making every effort to integrate in our country”.

Indeed, this attack, killing twelve and wounding almost 50 visitors to a Christmas market, is a serious challenge to Germany’s migration and refugee policy. It could well deepen the rift between conservative factions and fuel the rise of populism and support for the fringe AfD party. However, the initial reactions from the public, locally as well as nationally, were relatively calm, marked by collective grief but not calls for revenge.

Germany's political class and public do not have the worldview that led to the United States’ “war on terror”.  Terrorism is not seen as a military issue, but as a domestic security challenge to be dealt with by law enforcement and intelligence services. It is here where the government has to show its resolve and effectiveness.

Within two days of the incident, the Cabinet passed draft legislation to expand video surveillance in public places – a symbolically important demonstration of a rapid response, but one which will make little difference in practice. Berlin’s railways, subways, trams and buses are already CCTV monitored, as is the case in many other metropolitan area across the country. Equally, police and intelligence services have been on high alert since the Islamist terror attacks this summer, and information exchange and coordination of services have been continually upgraded.

The media and public will no doubt follow closely how the case is solved and whether there were shortfalls on the part of security or migration agencies. There are some indications that these services struggled to properly verify the identity and monitor the movements of all arrivals during the peak months of immigration, suggesting that there may yet be radicalized individuals hiding in the refugee communities across the country.

In close cooperation with the federal states, which maintain most of the police and all of the social services, the government will therefore have to demonstrate a re-establishment of order. It will have to address these security concerns at the same time as speeding up the processing of asylum applications as well as the return of those not qualifying to stay, and improving the integration of migrants in local communities.

To properly manage that challenge – which is manageable in a country as strong and well organized as Germany – will be a true test of German politics. And because the Left Party and even AfD are now in government at the state and local level, fringe politicians will have to bear some responsibility for the success or failure of this effort.

On the European level, this attack is likely to reinforce Berlin’s conviction in strengthening EU cooperation. It is evident to the German public that their security at home is shaped by the way the EU’s external borders are managed, giving Merkel an even stronger mandate to push for effective policies and joint commitments. And she will have to deliver on these if the open border scheme of Schengen is to survive.

This effort will likely focus on strengthening Europol, developing a European travel registry, and improving data collection and sharing between member states. The latest ruling of the European Court of Justice on telecommunications data storage will require legal adaptation in several member states anyway, providing an opportunity for greater coordination. The European Commission is also set to expand migration compacts with third countries, offering a chance to ‘Europeanize’ member states’ existing bilateral agreements.

In terms of Germany's external security and defense policy, however, the Berlin attack will have little impact. Though ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, the German response will not include a direct military role in the Middle East. Instead, Germany will look to continue improving its domestic security arrangements and to continue to push for EU-wide responses, in the knowledge that its domestic challenges will continue to be shaped by Europe-wide events.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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