The Berlin Christmas Market Attack and the Likely Political Backlash

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Monday's devastating terrorist attack at a Berlin Christmas Market was bleakly inevitable.

With their wooden stalls, sickly sweet Glühwein, and fairground spirit, Christmas markets are a beloved German tradition. Every town has at least one (Berlin hosts about 60) and Germans of all ages annually flock to these crowded, festive gatherings despite the bitter cold.

Unfortunately, this mixture of nominally Christian iconography, crowded public venue and lax security also renders Christmas markets the perfect target for Muslim jihadists, from whose endless legions the culprit behind this latest outrage appears to have hailed. Ever since the great migrant wave of late summer 2015 reached Europe, speculative murmurings could often be heard about the potential for just such an attack, on a Christmas market in particular.

To be sure, most of the people who have come to the continent over the past 18 months arrived in desperation fleeing war, poverty or political instability across the vast expanse of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia (many of them arrived in search of better economic opportunities, thus necessitating use of the term "migrant" as opposed to "refugee," which has a specific legal definition and implies certain legal protections).

Yet when Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her country's doors to an unlimited number of Syrians last year, it was inevitable that more than a handful of jihadists would slip in amongst the vast waves of suffering humanity.

Until last summer, Germany had been immune to the Islamist violence that has afflicted Madrid, London, Paris, Brussels and other European cities. But the rise of the Islamic State, the continued existence of which provides an alluring recruitment tool to disillusioned European Muslims, has sharply increased the threat of jihadist terrorism across the continent. Now, even Germany is under assault.

The Christmas market attack — which killed 12 people and wounded dozens — bookends a tumultuous year in Germany. Last New Year's Eve, as many as 2,000 migrant men sexually assaulted over 1,000 women just outside Cologne's main train station. Police initially attempted to cover up the incident. Their motives — shielding Muslim immigrants from a xenophobic backlash — may have been benign, but the long-term effect has only redounded to the benefit of the far right.

And that, indeed, appears to be the most salient, albeit unintended, effect of Merkel's open-door policy. No one doubts her good intentions in wanting to make Germany a humanitarian superpower; Merkel grew up in communist East Germany and cherishes freedom more than most European leaders.

But good intentions are not in and of themselves sufficient in politics, especially in perilous times such as these.

Unsurprisingly, Germany's far right is blaming the chancellor for this week's violence. "These are Merkel's dead," a member of the European Parliament for the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party tweeted. Less than four years ago, when the AfD was focused mainly on extracting Germany from the Eurozone, it could not even meet the 5% threshold to enter the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. Today, after diverting its attentions to immigration and national identity, the party polls at around 15% and may very well become the country's third largest party come federal elections next fall.

The rapid advance of a far-right party from the margins to the mainstream is unprecedented in contemporary German politics, which is marked mainly for its consensus-building and stability. If the AfD performs as well as the German establishment fears, Merkel's legacy may be inadvertently spawning something which all of her postwar predecessors studiously avoided: a far-right parliamentary party.

Franz-Josef Strauss, the legendary leader of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, famously said that it was the responsibility of his political faction to ensure that no respectable, democratic party ever emerged to its right. As the rest of Western Europe saw the emergence and rise of populist, nationalist forces on the far right (like the National Front in France or Austria's Freedom Party), Germans seemed immune to the trend.

Today, however, that self-administered inoculation against far-right politics seems to be eroding. And part of the fault must lie with Merkel. Over her dozen years in power, she has cunningly moved the CDU more and more to the middle, increasing her electoral strength by appealing to centrist and even left-of-center voters. For a time, conservative voters were willing to tolerate these ideological deviations, as they had no other choice. Now, in the form of the AfD, the taboo that Strauss warned against has been breached.

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