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Image courtesy of Wikimedia/Kleinschmidt/MSC.

What the Recent Violent Attacks Mean for Germany

Kim Blumnau
Commentary, 11 August 2016
Defence, Industries and Society, Germany, Terrorism
Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maizière is set to announce new measures aimed at curbing terrorism after the Islamic State claimed two attacks in the country last month. Some may make a real difference, but many are intended to address the growing debate about the country’s immigration stance.

According to local media reports, the new measures will allow the deportation of migrants for being a threat to public security, speed up the deportation process of migrants convicted of crimes, and allow doctors to break the confidentiality agreement with a patient if they think they could be a risk for launching a terror attack. The recent attacks in the German cities of Würzburg, Munich, Reutlingen and Ansbach (three of which have been committed by migrants) have shaken Germany to the core, while simultaneously increasing the politically polarised debate that has simmered since Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country in 2015.

Some of the many questions that have followed from the recent wave of attacks are whether they are indeed fuelled by the ‘refugee crisis’, either partly as the result of an administration crisis rather than increased numbers of migrants, or whether the current climate of public alert about attacks has encouraged people with mental illness to gain notoriety by carrying out their own attacks. The attraction for mentally unstable people to gain global attention and paralyse whole cities is immense, whether they sympathise with Daesh or Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik or a different ideology. Similarities between current events and the Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who killed 150 people and himself by crashing into the Alps, are apparent. The possibilities of a ‘Werther-effect’, a spike of emulation suicides, should not be underestimated, as research has shown that following detailed reports of gun rampages there is often an increase in copycat crimes.

An article in July on Politico.eu presented a timeline of the attacks on Germany:

  • 18 July: Ax-wielding teenage asylum seeker from Afghanistan shot dead after injuring five people in an attack on a train. ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • 22 July: German-Iranian teenager goes on a shooting rampage in Munich, killing nine people, before shooting himself. He is said to have been obsessed with school shootings.
  • 24 July: Syrian asylum seeker arrested in Reutlingen after allegedly killing a Polish woman with a machete and injuring two other people. Police suggest it was a “crime of passion.”
  • 24 July: Failed Syrian asylum seeker blows himself up outside a music festival in Ansbach, injuring 15 people.

But what becomes evident is that these events are too complex to be simply listed. On the one hand, there are positive and encouraging examples of people like Aiham Shalghin, a Syrian law student and pool attendant, who are driving active integration work in Tübingen, but on the other, there are cases like those in Ansbach and Cologne, where people who came to Germany as refugees have committed crimes.

Yet neither of these negative examples allows us to draw conclusions as to the rights or wrongs of the German decision to take in large numbers of refugees since last summer, because, among them, there is, of course, every part of the mosaic of people.

Still, examples like these reveal the origins of the polarisation in German society. On one side are the supporters of Chancellor Merkel’s Willkommenskultur, the culture of hospitality, and on the other are the supporters of the angry far right, who feel that their opinions and grievances are being ignored. Recent events have not only highlighted the feelings of insecurity among many Germans who already believe that not only their homeland but even their traditional holiday destinations such as Turkey are no longer safe, but they have also boosted the stance of the far right who are now able to argue that Chancellor Merkel’s policies are responsible for the crisis of insecurity that has been brought upon Germany.

For the moment, it is essential for Chancellor Merkel to unify the nation and bring those who feel ignored by the political establishment back on board. This is necessary not only to secure her continued political primacy, with elections due next year, but also to prevent the far right from exploiting these sentiments further in their populist politics. The current crisis seems to emphasise Merkel’s weak side. In her response to the wave of attacks, Merkel defended her position and her refugee policies and fended off those who criticise her for staying silent. What she said is hardly a vision to carry Germany forward, although one conclusion is clear: the refugee crisis and how its challenges are dealt with will be emblematic of Merkel’s entire chancellorship. Many of her closest advisers told her that she would not politically survive the decision to open the borders temporarily last year, a decision that has never been officially rescinded, although in practice it was when borders were closed. So far, Merkel has outlasted her critics by steering the German economy through the financial crisis, which has brought her much praise, but the current situation is making different demands, and it remains unclear if she has the ability to capture people’s hearts.

Merkel has always convinced the electorate with her image as a technocratic rational politician; her decision to open the borders seemed very atypical, since it appeared to be led by feelings and emotion. Strongly criticised by her own party for that decision, Merkel is not the only political leader going against their own support base. Sahra Wagenkrecht, star of the left-wing party Die Linke, left her party base mortified when she announced after the attack in Ansbach that ‘now the state has to do everything to make people feel safe again’ and that ‘the immigration of refugees creates many more problems than Merkel’s “We Can Do It” attitude last autumn was suggesting’. Although many presume that Wagenknecht’s statements are based on political calculations, the irony of party leaders agreeing with the opposition against their own party line cannot be overlooked.

Maybe it would help if Merkel were to admit in public that it was a mistake to invite into Germany everyone who could make it, for such an admission may bring her closer to how many people feel. Still, her ‘We Can Do It’ attitude is needed, and upholding it should not be interpreted as underplaying the threat of terrorism facing Germany. Over the last few decades Germany has become more liberal and tolerant than ever, and the supporters of this Germany are paramount in this moment of insecurity. To speak up, not to be intimidated by the threat of terrorism, and to face the challenges of today, rather than be seduced by dark thoughts of a darker past.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia/Kleinschmidt/MSC.

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