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Sunday 25 March 2018

The unfazed Germans keep calm and carry on

The smaller scale of the attacks and their more tenuous links to Islamic terrorism means Germany is not quite in a state of panic about recent atrocities. But disquiet about Chancellor Merkel's liberal refugee policy is growing. Dave Keating reports from Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

For several years, Germans have looked on as terrorist attacks hit their neighbours.

There was a feeling that it was only a matter of time before such incidents crossed the border. Even still, many wanted to believe that the circumstances in countries like France, Belgium and Britain were fundamentally different from the situation in Germany.

Such a notion was challenged last week. Germany was hit by not one, but four attacks in just a few days. It comes in the context of a wave of terrorism across Europe this year. These attacks have taken on increased frequency this summer, particularly in France.

As the facts emerged last week, it became clear that the German attacks were not related to each other, and only two had even a tenuous connection to Islamist terrorism. But all the incidents had a connection to refugees, and that has spooked a country already on edge about the welcoming asylum policy put in place by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

So far, the political and media reaction has been restrained. Merkel remained on holiday after the attacks rather than rushing back to Berlin to hold dramatic crisis meetings, as has been the model in France. When it came time for her annual summer news conference on Thursday, she insisted she would not bend in her determination to take in refugees. She said some small changes to security would be considered, such as adding more police officers.

Her tepid response will not be enough for some. The events have made an already jittery nation more nervous about a refugee policy that has seen one million people enter the country in the past year.

Some people are questioning whether the country can really handle the influx.

"There's always been a lot of criticism about Merkel's refugee policy, but it's growing now because these are the first cases of refugees doing attacks," says Tobias, a 36-year-old who lives in Berlin and works in social media. "But the politicians are still being very cautious this week, they are not saying very much."

The first attack came in the Bavarian town of Würzburg, where a teenage asylum seeker from Afghanistan attacked people on a train with an axe, wounding four. He had arrived in Germany as an unaccompanied child refugee last year, first living in a refugee camp and then with a German foster family. Witnesses say he shouted "allahu akbar" before striking. After the incident, a group affiliated with the so-called Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) released a video of the attacker proclaiming himself to be an ISIS soldier.

Only a few days later, a lone gunman opened fire at a mall in Munich, killing 10 people and injuring 35. The perpetrator was another teenager, born in Germany. His parents fled there from Iran in the 1970s after the revolution, claiming asylum.

There was immediate speculation that the Munich attack was also related to ISIS. But it later became clear that the teenager had no connection to Islamist terrorism and was in fact obsessed with mass shootings carried out by white Europeans. It appears he picked the date of his attack because it was the five-year anniversary of the massacre by Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik.

Even before all the facts were known about the Munich attack, word came two days later that a 21-year-old Syrian asylum-seeker had attacked four people in the southern German city of Reutlingen, killing a pregnant Polish woman. That, too, turned out to be unrelated to Islamist terrorism. It was instead an episode of workplace violence (the woman was his co-worker). But before that information was clear, another attack had unfolded.

It came only hours later, again in southern Germany, in the Bavarian town of Ansbach. A 27-year-old Syrian refugee blew himself up outside a music festival. His crude explosive device injured 12, but killed only him. He had entered Germany two years earlier as a refugee. His request for asylum was denied several times, but his deportation was delayed because of his mental-health issues. He had been in and out of mental institutions and tried to kill himself two times before the attack.

In a video found on his mobile phone after the bombing, he claimed allegiance to ISIS. But there is no evidence he ever had any contact with the group.

The events have set Germany on edge, but it would be an exaggeration to say people are panicked. There is nothing even approaching the huge fear and anger felt in neighbouring France at the moment. It is, rather, a feeling of confusion.

Karena Detweiler lives in Munich, and says the shooting was frightening because details were so unclear. At one point, police said three gunmen could be on the loose in the city, when in fact there was only one and he was already dead. But she says the police reaction did make people feel safe.

"I was astounded how quickly, within hours, thousands of military, police and special-forces personnel from Germany and neighbouring countries descended on the city after the mall shooting," she says. "You never want to be in the middle of that kind of situation, but it was somewhat reassuring to see that when we needed the help of these specialised forces, they were there."

Now, she says, things have gone back to normal. "I have not noticed a big difference in how people are carrying out their day. I have noticed an increase in visible police presence. I work in the city centre, and I see a lot more police vehicles around than I did before."

Part of the reason for the relative calm is that as more information came out, it became clear that this was a traditional mass-shooting event rather than a terrorist attack.

"The Munich shooting was not related to the so-called IS but committed by a German, albeit with a migrant background, very much like the countless shootings in the USA, most of them committed by white Americans," says Sascha Rux, an architect who lives in Berlin. "The character, scale and intention of the attacks are very different [from what has happened in France], thus the reaction must be appropriately different. One feels concern, but no panic or increase of xenophobia.

"It is reassuring to see a strong sense of solidarity during and after the attacks among citizens Germans or not, on the one hand, and a 'keep calm and carry on' approach on the other," he adds. "Personally, I lived in London during the 7/7 attacks, which was very different both in character and in reaction."

The Germany attacks were vastly smaller in scale than what has been seen recently in neighbouring France and Belgium, and, for the most part, they were failures. While the attacks of 2015 and 2016 were co-ordinated, large-sale attacks by ISIS cells, the events in Germany have been small attempts by lone wolves. While the other attacks have had clear links with ISIS, the Germany links are tenuous or non-existent.

The difference in political reaction in the two countries may also be due to the fact that unlike in France, Germany does not have a powerful far-right to contend with. While Hollande must counter the increasing influence of the Front National, Merkel does not face the same level of threat from the significantly smaller Alternative for Germany party.

"I think we have a different situation in Germany, the integration of immigrants has been much better than in France," says Tobias. "France has a long history of attacks by immigrants, we do not. But if we had a very big attack with a lot of deaths, I think the politicians would not be as silent as they are being now."

Public-opinion polls show that support for Merkel's decision to grant asylum to all Syrian refugees remains high, despite recent events.

But there are increasing voices of disquiet, and the refugee connections in these recent events will inevitably inflame this. Wolfgang Bosbach, an MP from Merkel's own centre-right CDU party, warned this week that among the many migrants coming from Germany "are also persons who are a considerable danger for internal security".

Another Merkel ally, Bavarian politician Horst Seehofer, told a press conference that after the four violent attacks, Germans are "riled up" and "full of fear".

Such alarmist voices have been few and far between within Germany's centrist parties, and have mostly been confined to the far-left and far-right. But questions are being asked about Merkel's policy.

While Germans generally agree that taking in the refugees is the right thing to do, they are increasingly less certain that it is being done in an intelligent way. There has been concern that the refugees, scarred by their experiences in the Syrian war, will have psychological problems that Germany's mental-health facilities cannot accommodate. The recent attacks will only add to these fears. The concerns about mental-health converge with cultural concerns. These were exacerbated at the start of this year when a mob of around 2,000 men - many recent immigrants and asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq - sexually assaulted round 1,200 women in Cologne's main train station during New Year's Eve celebrations.

There is concern that young men coming from cultures with different attitudes toward women and who have been through the traumas of war might have difficulty adjusting to their new circumstances.

The Cologne incident also stoked distrust of the media's coverage of the refugee issue. The full extent of the incident only came to light recently after the leak of a police document. Many Germans are still furious about the media blackout following the incident. It took almost a week for German politicians and media to acknowledge that the event had occurred, and for days only people on social media were sharing the stories of what had happened.

"People have been using this word 'lugenpresse' (lying press) after New Year in Cologne, in the past week we are hearing it even more," says Tobias.

Unlike their cousins in France and Britain, the German media tends to be very cautious about stoking flames of hatred against immigrants. While French papers were emblazoned with fearful headlines about refugees the days after the Nice and Rouen attacks, no mainstream German paper dared to make a connection between the Ansbach attack and the refugee situation the day after it occurred.

"We have this idea that the media is not telling us the truth because they don't want the people to be angry with refugees," says Andrea, a graphic designer in Berlin. "People now go to social media to get their information."

It is on social media that anger with Merkel and with refugees is most visible, with the hashtag #MerkelSommer trending in Germany this week. It implies the summer of terrorist attacks is Merkel's fault. Things may be calm in the mainstream media for the moment, but the discourse on social media is growing more dramatic.

But Tobias says he does not believe this social-media chatter represents the majority of people in Germany.

"On social media people are shouting loudly, and the one who shouts loudest is heard the best. But I don't think the society as a whole is so hysterical."

Dave Keating is an American journalist based in Europe

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