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Analysis
Attack threatens Merkel's liberal position

Attack threatens Merkel's liberal position

The shattering of Germany's social contract

by Michael Stürmer in Berlin

Tue 20 Dec 2016

Germans, since time immemorial, have loved their trees. They love Christmas, with its warm glow, merry-making and the promise of a return to light after winter. The annual Christmas markets in every public square are the epitome of these traditions.

Monday’s attack on a Christmas market in the heart of Berlin killed 12 bystanders and left 48 wounded. An attacker hijacked a 40-tonne lorry, forced the Polish driver to run down members of the public, killed the driver and fled. The police were able to detain a suspect, a Pakistani national, though he denied involvement, and was freed last night.

The attack was highly symbolic, even more so than the recent incidents in the provinces, which were horrific episodes. The moral and political fallout of the attack in Berlin will follow a similar pattern to New York on 11 September 2001.

Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to maintain control of a fearful Germany with a sobering statement and call for justice. Her words were carefully chosen, but did not appeal to hearts and minds. Merkel, whose ‘welcome culture’ to immigrants of a year ago now sounds hollow and even threatening to many observers, has failed to reassure the nation.

Social media was virtually out of control, the grisly events magnified by the uncertainty of what comes next. Germans remember the dire warning by the federal police that it was mostly good luck which had so far prevented a major attack on the scale of those experienced in Paris or London.

Politically, the attack in Berlin is a serious juncture, adding to the rising tide of mistrust and uncertainty over the past three years. This has been most prominently exemplified by the ascent of the right-wing protest party Alternative for Germany, now here to stay. The chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union will pay the price. The Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s coalition partner, has already lost support among its core of lower middle-class voters.

Some politicians in the German federal states have spoken of low-intensity warfare. That goes too far, certainly for the time being. But suggestions like these indicate the shape of things to come. As a result of terrorism and the uncertain response of governments past and present, Germany faces the shattering of its social contract.

The country owes its citizens security of ‘life, liberty and estate’. In return, the citizens owe the state loyalty. This bond, which holds up every democratic polity, is coming undone.

Michael Stürmer is Chief Correspondent of Die Welt, a former Adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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