AT LEAST nine people died and at least 50 were injured when a lorry crashed into a Christmas market in central Berlin on December 19th. The truck ran into the market near the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church on Breitscheidplatz in the city’s central district of Charlottenburg, according to German police.
Police have not yet confirmed whether the incident was a deliberate attack or an accident. They have cordoned off the area and called on Berliners to “stay at home and not spread rumours”. One suspect died in an ambulance on the way to hospital, possibly of injuries sustained in the crash. Another suspect was arrested nearby in Tiergarten, approximately 20 minutes’ walk from the scene. He is being questioned.
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The owner of the lorry, a Polish hauler, says he had lost contact with his cousin, who had driven the truck, at around 4pm on Monday afternoon. He told a television station that he suspected that the lorry had been stolen.
Witnesses said the vehicle ploughed into the crowds at speed, travelling around 65kph (40mph), suggesting deliberate intent. This makes the incident reminiscent of this summer’s terror attack in Nice, when Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian French resident, deliberately drove a 19 tonne cargo truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais, killing 86 people and injuring more than 400.
Foreign leaders have expressed their condolences. The German government’s spokesperson wrote of “terrible news” on Twitter: “We are grieving for the dead and hope that the injured can be saved.” He was echoed by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister. Neither commented on whether the crash was deliberate, instead calling on people to wait for the results of the investigation.
However, Wolfgang Bosbach, a domestic security expert and an MP with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, told N-TV, a broadcaster, that everything pointed to a deliberate attack: “It was carried out not just with the greatest brutality and disastrous consequences but also with a deliberate symbolism. A few days before Christmas, in the middle of the German capital, amid happy, peaceful people. The message is clear: no matter where, no matter how, we can get you at any time.”
If the crash turns out to have been deliberate, it would be the first big terrorist attack to hit Germany in recent years. A suicide bombing at a music festival in Ansbach, southern Germany, in the summer killed only the attacker. A knife attack on a train near Wurzburg a few days earlier had left five people injured; the attacker was shot by police.
Both those attackers were refugees who had recently arrived in the country. As a result, the attacks in Ansbach and Wurzburg soured the mood in the country towards Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy.
Members of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) took to Twitter soon after to link the crash in Berlin to Germany’s generous refugee policy. Marcus Pretzell, the head of the North-Rhine Westphalian AfD, tweeted: “To the “let’s wait and see” faction: this is the result of “waiting and seeing”.” He also used the hashtag #LokalesEreignis (#localevent) to allude to the rape and murder of a medical student in Frankfurt in October, which nationalists said was insufficiently covered by mainstream media when the suspect turned out to be an Afghan refugee.
If the calamity of December 19th turns out to be an act of terrorism, Germany looks set to become a less welcoming place for refugees.