Berlin after the Attack: The Target of Two Evils

For several years now, the German federal and state security services have managed to just outpace a number of planned terrorist attacks in the country. 

Breaking up plot after plot just before it could be carried out, they had kept Germany’s citizens protected from the kinds of large-scale, murderous incidents that the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Spain and many others have sadly come to know. 

Until December 19, 2016.

But as we enter the major election year of 2017, it is now abundantly clear even to those who do not want to say it:  the Federal Republic of Germany is squarely in the crosshairs of two major threats – Islamist terrorism and Russian destabilization.  And Chancellor Angela Merkel is the bull’s eye in both targets. 

On the first, the recriminations have already begun.  They will only become louder, as this becomes the most domestically politicized of all the large-scale terrorist attacks we’ve seen in Europe.  And the Chancellor’s open-door policy to refugees last year will be made to blame.  If current reports about the attacker hold, the alleged Pakistani perpetrator came to Germany in the flood of refugees that began to rush into Germany in 2015 and then found his way to Berlin in 2016.  He was apparently questioned by authorities as part of his asylum process, but failed to appear in at least one instance, and was able to hatch and carry out yesterday’s attack under the radar of the police.

This – and other facts that will now emerge – will be used by the radical right in Germany in its campaign to bring Merkel down in the coming parliamentary elections.  The leader of the right-wing, xenophobic, pro-Putin and anti-American Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in North-Rhine Westphalia has already tweeted, calling the victims of the Berlin attack “Merkel’s dead.” While this kind of rhetoric has had a traditionally small audience, the danger now is that the number of people willing to listen may well grow, and that will only weaken the government in Berlin.

Yes, the Chancellor had already started to walk back 2015’s “Yes, We Can” liberal position on immigration.  At this month’s congress of her Christian-Democratic Union (CDU), she took a much stronger stand on, for example, women wearing full covering in Germany.  But no hardening of her position will be enough for the right-wing fringe – perhaps not even for those in her own party group.

As if this were not enough, Germany’s government faces an attack on another front, as well.  This one comes from Moscow and is designed to weaken Merkel because of her crucial role in keeping sanctions in place on the Russian Federation for its illegal annexation of Crimea and incursion into Eastern Ukraine. 

Over the last several weeks, leading German intelligence and security figures have publicly stated their conviction that Moscow will – not ‘might’ but ‘will’ – seek actively to subvert Germany’s coming parliamentary elections.  The director of the country’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution just this month confirmed that Russian cyberattacks have already been carried out, for example, on the Federal Parliament, and that they would continue with the express purpose of “discrediting political figures” (read:  Chancellor Merkel and other mainstream party leaders).  Just last month, the leader of the foreign intelligence service said, “We have evidence of cyberattacks that have no other purpose than triggering political uncertainty,” he added. “The perpetrators are interested in delegitimizing the democratic process as such…” 

With the AfD in a tight relationship with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, the combination of pressures on these two fronts will be the greatest test ever for the democratic political institutions of the Federal Republic, institutions designed in the aftermath of the Second World War and expanded after the fall of the Berlin wall to incorporate what had been Communist East Germany. 

None of this is purely theoretical to the United States.  Washington is not a disinterested figure, because Germany remains a crucial ally and partner in the transatlantic alliance and in the development of democratic institutions around the world (let’s not forget the 300 German casualties suffered in Afghanistan).  Attacks such as the one which wrecked the lives of so many people at a peaceful Christmas market in Berlin must bring us together to fight those who seek to destroy the way of life that Americans and German share.  In this sense, it is truer now than ever:  “Wir sind alle Berliner.”