Terror in Berlin How the Attack Has Changed the Country

Terror attacks bring people together. That, at least, is what used to happen. But the attack in Berlin has followed a different script, with the gap between those content to wait for the facts and those eager to score political points now wider than ever before. A look back at 48 hours that changed the country. By SPIEGEL Staff


In the hours of uncertainty following the attack on the Christmas market at Berlin's Breitscheidplatz square on the evening of Dec. 19, two methods of viewing the incident quickly became apparent. There was the reflexive, impetuous reaction and the reflective, circumspect approach.

The impetuous took to their computers almost before the truck driver had finished cutting his deadly swath through the Christmas market stalls. Regardless of what was really going on in Berlin, those occupying a certain niche on the web were certain: "Islam-terror" had reached Berlin and a "Merkel Mohammedan" had killed innocent people. Muslims, it was claimed, were dancing for joy in the streets of immigrant neighborhoods like Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg and Berlin-Neukölln. Dec. 19, 2016 was the "beginning of the end" of the Christian West, they said, symbolized by the Christmas tree that had been run over in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

In those minutes -- during which the impetuous transformed hunch into certainty and certainty into rage -- the circumspect were just beginning to comprehend what had just happened on Breitscheidplatz. They saw the dead and injured next to a truck, which had been turned into a murder weapon. They knew absolutely nothing for sure. They knew it would take several days for even the most urgent questions to be answered with certainty -- and weeks, if not months, to clear up the underlying questions. And there was time needed to mourn the dead.

"Pray?! Do Something!!" the impetuous tweeted. They aren't interested in facts. Emotions are enough.

Even before the attack, bridging the gap between the circumspect and the impetuous had become difficult. The sexual assaults committed by immigrants on New Year's Eve in Cologne, the attacks in Ansbach and Würzburg, the Islamist bomb-maker arrested in Chemnitz, and the rape-murder apparently committed by a refugee in Freiburg: These were the milestones of the divide. Now, everyone is certain who is to blame: the establishment political parties, the populists, the lying press, the scaremongers, the do-gooders and the right-wingers. The two sides of the divide no longer have much to say to each other.

The Berlin attack has now demonstrated just how little overlap there is between these two parallel worlds. When it became known, in the late evening of Dec. 19, that the police had arrested a suspect from Pakistan, the parallel worlds seemed to be reconciled for a moment. The impetuous had already known that only a Muslim refugee could be the killer. And now the circumspect had actually caught one. Finally, they expressed what had long been obvious to the other side: that we are in a "state of war" and that it is naïve to "always see only the good in people."

But then, during the course of the day on Tuesday, the authorities began to have doubts about their suspect, and in the afternoon they announced: "We have the wrong man." The impetuous were able to explain this away in seconds. The political-journalistic PC-cartel, they believed, simply wasn't willing to accept the truth.

According to one version that was bouncing around one corner of the Internet, some scapegoat would undoubtedly be found. A user on a right-wing website wrote: "There must be a radical right-winger somewhere that this can be pinned on." The fact that investigators quickly identified a man from Tunisia as the alleged attacker did not change the truth as perceived by the impetuous.

Such is reality in this not-particularly-festive Christmas season. In the conspiracy-theory-filled world occupied by one side of the gap, mistakes aren't mistakes but cynically calculated moves. Whereas attacks at other times and in other places -- New York, Paris, London -- brought people together, many people this time chose to view the Berlin attack from their own ideological trench.

The same pattern was evident in Berlin politics. Even before detailed information about the attack became known, a debate erupted over Germany's refugee policy -- an eventuality that staff in the Chancellery had been concerned about for months. It used to be that politicians would hold back in moments of national disaster.

But the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was unwilling to spend too much time in mourning. CSU leader Horst Seehofer, always worried that his position could seem too nuanced for his fellow party members, instantly demanded "that we readjust our entire immigration and security policy."

Instead of standing behind the chancellor in the wake of a deadly act of terrorism, Seehofer instead demonstrated just how divided German conservatives are -- and how divided the country has become. It is already clear that the dispute over asylum and deportation will dominate next year's election campaign and could very well cost Angela Merkel the chancellorship.

"Now we stand together," Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU) said in the wake of the attack. It was a well-meaning statement. But it could hardly have been more inaccurate.

Can there be such a thing as truth in this situation, in this confrontation between rage and vulnerability? A SPIEGEL team attempted to find it in the days between the attack and editorial deadline on Wednesday night. As quickly and as thoroughly as possible, we came up with a reconstruction of 48 hours that will change the country's direction. It must remain incomplete, but it can help to understand why the impetuous approach may be seductive but doesn't necessarily lead to the desired result.


7 a.m., Berlin, Friedrich-Krause-Ufer in the district of Wedding

Lukasz U. has been on the road for a week and a half by the time he reaches the Berlin office of Thyssen-Krupp. U., 37, drives for a Polish shipping company owned by his cousin, Ariel Zurawski. His nickname in the company is "Inspector," because he is so conscientious about his work.

There are only a few days left until Christmas, and U. is in a hurry. He wants to make it back to Poland in time to buy his wife a present. He is carrying 25 tons of steel parts that he picked up in Italy and must now deliver to ThyssenKrupp at the Westhafen terminal in Berlin. But there are problems in the receiving department and he is told he'll have to wait until the next day to unload. He has no choice, so U. parks his truck alongside the nearby canal.

About 1 p.m., Friedrich-Krause-Ufer

U. calls his cousin and tells him that he is worried he'll run out of time to do his Christmas shopping. But his cousin reassures him and says he'll be home with his wife and 17-year-old son on Thursday. In the conversation, U. also talks about what he has seen in the industrial area where he is parked. It is, he says, a "strange place." Aside from the Thyssen-Krupp people, he says, there are "only Muslims" here. An office of the Berlin immigration authority is only a few buildings away and many asylum-seekers walk past the Thyssen-Krupp facility on their way there.

Afternoon, Berlin, library at the Free University of Berlin

Sebastian Kahl has just had a haircut. The 28-year-old works for a Left Party member of German parliament and he is also earning a master's degree in public economics. He has come to the library to finish a paper on incentive problems in physician compensation.

Afternoon, Friedrich-Krause-Ufer

At 3:44 p.m., someone tries to start the engine of U.'s Scania R 450. He tries again at 4:52 p.m., and then he lets the engine idle for 45 minutes. This information comes from an employee of the Polish shipping company. Modern trucks have an on-board computer that registers engine operation and vehicle movements.

What's going on? And where is Lukasz U.? His wife called him at 3 p.m., but they only spoke briefly because she was still at work. She says she'll call him back at 4 p.m., but when she does, U. doesn't answer. SPIEGEL learned that U. returned to the Thyssen-Krupp office at 5:30 p.m., perhaps in the hope that he would be allowed to unload his steel parts, but nothing came of it.

Early evening, somewhere in Berlin

Fabrizia Di L. is on her ways to the Christmas market at the Memorial Church. The 31-year-old is from Abruzzo, a mountainous region east of Rome. She is one of those Italians who are referred to at home as "cervelli in fuga," or fleeing talents -- students and creative minds who are frustrated by the calcified Italian economy and determined not to end up as permanent interns financially dependent on their parents. The yearning for a future drives them to Germany.

Fabrizia, a vivacious woman with a dark page-boy haircut and a small piercing in her nostril, posted the last entry on her Facebook account a few days ago: a video from the Italian cult film "La meglio gioventù," or "The Best of Youth." In the film, a professor drives a young student out of the country by asking whether he wants to stay in Italy forever, where everything "always remains the same, unmoving, in the hands of dinosaurs." That is precisely what Fabrizia does not want, which is why she moved to Berlin.

7:34 p.m., Friedrich-Krause-Ufer

The truck begins to move -- as determined by GPS data later analyzed by the company employee in Poland.

7:57 p.m., Berlin, a subway station near Breitscheidplatz

Sebastian Kahl walks up the steps at the subway station and sends a text message to his girlfriend Lana. Where should we meet? They've planned a family evening at the Christmas market with Lana's parents, who are visiting from Bosnia. At the entrance to the market, the group walks up to the first kiosk to get something to eat. Kahl orders an open-faced sandwich with olives and tomatoes.

As his food is being prepared, Kahl hears a loud bang, "like a firecracker." As he spins around, he sees a large, black monstrosity barreling towards him, and then it rushes past at what feels like a distance of just a few inches. He sees bodies flying through the air like dolls. The truck is dragging one person along the ground, and Kahl is certain that the person is already dead. He sees another Christmas market visitor slumped over on the ground in tattered clothing. For a second, he has the "totally absurd thought" that the person is drunk, until he sees the blood.


The truck driver "deliberately drove into the passageway between the stalls," says Kahl. He sees the truck driving "directly into the crowd." He hears screams and immediately remembers "the images from Nice," where a man killed almost 90 people with a truck in July.

Kahl, his girlfriend and her parents start running down the street, away from the market. They no longer see as the semi-trailer, after traveling about 60 meters, turns to the left and comes to a stop on Budapest Street.

8:25 p.m. Lobby of the Federal Chancellery

Aydan Özoguz, the German government's commissioner for integration, is awarding a prize called the Integration Medal for exemplary projects. Near the end of the event, Chancellor Angela Merkel joins the group and makes a brief statement. "Diversity makes us richer, not poorer," she says. A youth choir sings a song at the end of the ceremony, and then Merkel is told about the attack on Breitscheidplatz. "Something has happened in Berlin," Özoguz whispers into her ear. The young people haven't heard what happened yet and want to pose for selfies with the chancellor, but Merkel leaves in a hurry.

8:41 p.m., Berlin police headquarters

The Berlin police send out two tweets, one in German, one in English. The English one reads:

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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sandymartin2036 12/23/2016
1. Attack in Berlin
Everybody I know here in Columbus, Ohio is very sorry this has happened to you. We understand and feel your pain. Just a few miles from here a week or so ago, another one of these misguided muslim terrorists attacked our university students with deadly force. I have no remedy to offer you, just commiseration.
wall8ce 12/24/2016
2. Berlin attack
Firstly thank you Spiegel for writing this recent attack on Berlin not as a sensationalist front page headline grabbing news sellar,but a well researched factual report about the dreadful evening this all happened in Berlin and how so many suffered from all corners of Europe.Undoubtedly this is not the last we will hear of these tragic attacks? and more innocent lives will be lost before we can contain it,untill that day arrives unity and vigilance all across Europe will make us all safer Europeans
petertx 12/24/2016
3. Your nostalgia for old-style outrage
You say that "Terror attacks bring people together. That, at least, is what used to happen." There is a very simple explanation for why this terror attack did not bring people together. The government has been warned that their policies must change because those policies will led to terror attacks. The terror attacks have happened, but the policies still have not changed. So why should those who warned come together with those who did not heed? So when you say the attack should "bring people together", what you really mean is to bring people together so that they collectively do absolutely nothing to prevent yet more attacks.
mmvimem 12/25/2016
4. Circumspection
It is all well and good to talk of the impetuous and the circumspect, but it should be clear that the attack in Berlin is not new. It is consistent with the attack in Nice and other locations. This is not the first truck attack and this is not the first attack in Germany. It is true that the individual event needs to be investigated fully, but the need for re-evaluation of the immigration policy has been clear for many months and is based on much more than this particular incident. The talk of blood on Merkel's hands is not due to this incident alone. It is due to the lack of response to many things which are already clear, which is why her political opponents could be quite confident of their path before the information from this incident is clear. Characterizing this as impetuous is quite simplistic.
nsmith 12/25/2016
This was an accident waiting to happen. The only amazing thing is that it didn't happen before now. Hopefully Berlin has learned what kind of players they're dealing with. These people don't play fair. And they won't stop. Germany is a target. Wake-up. The "Willkommenskultur" is over.
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