The Assault on Germany's Christmas

This Christmas week has contained for me an unwelcome note of gloom and unease, with a recurring sequence of dark thoughts set in motion when I look at a gingerbread cookie, or at our gaily decorated Christmas tree or the stockings hanging by the chimney. I keep thinking about the deadly truck atstack on the Christmas market in Berlin. Reading about it, I experienced a very personal dread, one based in acute recollection. I know these markets well, from years spent living in Germany.  They were among the things I loved most about being there.

I’m not sure what the American equivalent to the Christkindlmarkt would be. The closest thing might be the Super Bowl – an event that almost everyone participates in, and that in its bruising competitiveness and glitzy extravagance expresses something uniquely American. Germans treasure their Christmas markets with a fervor that goes well beyond the holiday. The enchantment begins in childhood, and for many it lasts a lifetime.

A few winters ago, I visited Munich’s Christkindlmarkt in the medieval square of the Marienplatz. High in the Rathaus tower, the Glockenspiel put on its show, its wooden figures tooting horns and jousting on horses, as people thronged the market below. Amid warrens of quaintly decorated stands, the air was aswirl with scents of roasted almonds, coconut macaroons, and hot mulled Glühwein. Even a gluttony-hardened American stands agog in a German Christmas market. Picture five-pound fruit breads, two-foot-long sausages ensnared in comically tiny rolls, and a little old lady devouring a humongous dessert dumpling, called a Dampfnudel, as if in a fairy tale. All around you is a paradise of woodcraft: fantastically detailed doll houses; ornaments fashioned from finely-shaved wood curls; bread boards customized with heartfelt Oma-and-Opa tributes; and a vast display of carved Nativity figures. I fortified myself with a Feuerzangenbowle, a rum-and-wine drink spiced with orange and cinnamon, served in handle-less mugs ideal for handwarming. My table was serenaded by two guys in lederhosen playing Alphorns — ten-foot-long wooden horns whose unearthly music brims with mournful majesty.

There’s an easy Gemütlichkeit to the German Christmas market. Strangers share tables and conversation, and spontaneous outbursts of caroling are common. “You must understand that Munich isn’t really a city,“ two university students at a strudel wagon told me. “It’s a dorf – a really big village.” That’s a key observation. Much more than a place to buy stuff, the Christkindlmarkt is a cultural show in which Germans draw on the collective memory of village life and the traditions of artisanship and festive holiday foods, all combining to create that comforting sense of belonging and of being at home that Germans express in the untranslatable word, Heimat. It’s not Christmas being celebrated at the market, so much as Germanness.

Which is precisely the point, for a terrorist; those very scenes and rites of Germanness were the target of the man who drove that lethal truck into the crowd. And while gritty, unsentimental Berlin would not rank among German cities renowned for Christmas spirit, the site of the attack was shrewdly chosen for its special meaning – right by the Kaiser Wilhelm church, its fractured ruin, famous to all Germans, preserved as a memorial to the calamity of war.  Thus the target was a treasured cultural ritual set in a sacred historical spot. The Super Bowl and the Freedom Tower, wrapped into one.

In Germany the attack -- perpetrated by a Tunisian asylum-seeker who had been on various terror watch lists -- leaves ominous reverberations and an anxious wait for what comes next. A backlash against the government’s liberal refugee policy began in earnest after the notorious events in Cologne last New Year’s Eve, when scores of German women were assaulted and robbed by gangs of men of Arab origin, many of them asylum-seekers. That ugly event, with the crass prospect of sexual assaults committed by beneficiaries of German hospitality, outraged the nation, and certainly undercut the optimism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s slogan, uttered in her New Year’s address last year, “We Can Do It!” Can Germany do it? Visiting friends in Berlin last summer, I found none of the unqualified admiration for Merkel that many Americans feel, but rather a worry that she had naively committed Germany to a policy whose costs and consequences she did not foresee. Her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, summed up the broad skepticism by calling the refugee policy “a mistake” and saying of Merkel that “she had a heart, but no plan.”

Germany’s right wing, on the other hand, is heartless but brims with big plans, preparing for a major splash in elections both regional and national. This is alarming, and it’s also new. Right-wing parties in postwar Germany (the Republikaner, the NDP, the DVU) have always been fringe players, hounded by the government and shunned by the vast majority of citizens. But now the anti-immigrant party, Alternativ für Deutschland, has won legislative seats in half of the Länder, or German states. AfD started out four years ago as a kind of German Tea Party, focused mostly on pocketbook issues related to the Euro crisis and what it perceived to be overreach on the part of the European Union. But the refugee crisis breathed hot life into it, and into its leader, Frauke Petry, who last year made a stir when she exhorted border patrol agents to use firearms to stop illegal immigrants from crossing the border. And indeed, the AfD was quick to capitalize on the Berlin attack, with Petry referring provocatively to the victims as “Merkel’s dead.”

The AfD’s electoral success is a rebuke to Merkel’s policy. More important, it is calling forth nationalistic impulses long suppressed in Germany. In the 90s, when I lived there, you rarely saw a German flag, and many younger Germans claimed not even to know the words of their own national anthem. This kind of self-censorship was a reflex conditioned by the calamity of Nazi rule; history had shown how toxic ethnic nationalism could be, and Germans wanted none of it. That attitude persisted through social-democratic and conservative governments alike, all uniting against any attempt to reassert the old, Blut-und-Boden kind of Germanness – even a whiff of which would trigger loud alarms, sending the enormous fire engine of the German establishment speeding off in pursuit of even the slightest wisp of nationalist smoke.

That was then, this is now. Over recent years it has become “permissible,” the Germans say, to be patriotic again. Today’s backlash against Merkel's refugee policy taps into an underlying sense of das Volk that was there all along, but strictly quarantined. It is now being let back into the room. Across Europe, this ethnic conception of identity is clashing with a de facto diversity wrought by liberal immigration and refugee policies. Unlike the U.S., historically Germany is not an immigrant country, and in the völkisch conception of identity you can’t “become” German – you either are, or you aren’t. When I lived in there, I coached an inner-city boys’ basketball team, and my players included an Afro-German kid, Tony, whose father – an American soldier – was long gone, and who was being raised by his German mom and grandparents. Tony didn’t spoke a word of English, and was culturally and linguistically German, through and through; but his days were spent receiving compliments from Germans who would exclaim, in surprise, “You speak German so well!”

I’m not scolding those people, just pointing out how deep-seated is a sense of Germanness that excludes “foreigners,” even when they’re German. In Germany this problem has already been playing out over several decades via the country’s large Turkish population. Brought in decades ago as laborers, they stayed, and now constitute around 5% of the country’s population, a group for whom assimilation and acceptance have been problematic. The long-term presence of increasingly Germanized Turks posed the hope for Germany of dealing with the challenge of diversity gradually and incrementally. But the flood of refugees has changed everything, with the fear of Germany’s ethnic identity being overwhelmed by brown-skinned Muslims inflaming a nationalist reaction. “Our Europe is dying,” sober young Germans pronounce in one slickly produced right-wing video; “our future is being threatened. You populate our homeland with foreigners who we do not understand.”

Germany has not allowed that kind of sentiment into its political discourse in a long time. And you can expect to hear more of it. In this regard the attack on Berlin’s Christkindlmarkt was a stroke of evil genius, a gut punch expertly calculated to spur a visceral response in this nation of people so long steeled against visceral responses. What will happen? A German friend tells me that “everyone here is afraid the AfD will win a landslide victory next year.” And what then? The view offered by political prognosticators is dire, and suggests that much more than this or that election in Germany hangs in the balance; many seem to link the fate of Merkel – who is running for a fourth term in office -- to the precarious prospects of liberal governance itself. A front-page article in the Times notes that the attack in Berlin has rendered Merkel politically vulnerable, then starkly predicts that

a defeat for Ms. Merkel could have global consequences. With right-wing populism on the rise across Europe, Ms. Merkel has been seen as a bulwark against illiberal democracy. If she is weakened, and if next spring’s election in France produces a populist president, the already weak European Union could be badly, even fatally, wounded.

Such grim thoughts make me shudder to recall a wooden plaque I happened across at that Christmas market in Munich, carved with a mordant folk maxim in a rhymed couplet that I chuckled over at the time: Geniess das Leben ständing, Du bist länger tot als lebendig! “Enjoy life while you can, you’ll soon be a dead man.“ That doesn’t seem so funny now. In the aftermath of a vicious terror strike, my German friends nervously find themselves waking up to Christmas in a society many feel is trembling at the brink.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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