I’ve been going to Christmas markets since I was a child in Hannover in the 1970s – I love the stalls, the smells, the twinkly lights and the kitschy music. I own many knitted hats, carved wooden animals and artisanal candles. And now I take my own children to a traditional German Christmas market in Leeds, England.
In December 2014, I was invited to Berlin for a conference on how to commemorate the centenary of World War I as a collective European memory rather than in ways that reinforced nationalism. I was keen to accept the invitation because I thought the topic was important, but a major draw was the chance to be in Berlin in the run-up to Christmas – and, on December 19 that year, I was at the lovely market on Gendarmenmarkt, enjoying the twinkly lights and the cheesy music and the cosy feeling of goodwill to all. It makes the horror of what happened on Monday feel very personal.
There are still a lot of question marks over the Christmas market attack in Berlin. It remains unclear who did it or why, although the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said she assumes it was a “terror attack”.
Whatever the outcome of investigations that follow, a key part of German cultural life that touches the whole world has been attacked in this shocking event. The Christkindlmarkt has a long tradition in Germany and a long reach abroad. They began in the 14th century as pop-up markets to allow householders to buy in what they needed for winter – and they grew in popularity when they expanded to include toys, trinkets and treats. Nowadays, they are synonymous with festive cheer in towns, cities and villages throughout Germany. Indeed, the tradition has spread to other nations – and every year the “German market” travels to towns and cities around the world.
They are a magnet for tourists, too. The biggest and the most renowned – such as the markets in Munich, Nuremberg, Dresden and Cologne – attract thousands of seasonal visitors and bring millions of Euros into the local economy each year. It’s a huge part of the German brand – ask people what they associate with Germany and the list usually includes football, beer and Christmas markets.
In Berlin, there are 60 annual Christmas markets, all with distinctive characteristics that reflect the nature of the neighbourhood: the hip stalls at the Lucia Christmas Market in Prenzlauer Berg in the southern suburbs, the high-end craft and gourmet snacks at the Opernpalais or the cheerful tat of Alexanderplatz, or Alex as it is known to Berliners, in the city’s Mitte district.
Breitscheidplatz, where the attack took place, is close to the Ku’Damm, the heart of Berlin’s shopping centre in the city’s west and right next to the Gedächtniskirche, that powerful symbol of Germany’s rebirth after the dark days of the Third Reich and a warning against the destruction caused by war.
This apparent attack strikes at the heart of a nation’s identity and seems to be an assault on Christmas itself. The images of wooden stalls crushed under the wheels of a huge lorry, the eye-witness accounts of revelry turning to horror and bodies laid under Christmas trees are all too vivid and all too poignant.
Attacks on the public are intended to create fear and terror, to stop us feeling safe and to make us believe that there is a war being waged on Western values of tolerance, openness and democracy.
At the time of writing, there is a great deal of speculation, a lot of confusion about who exactly drove a lorry into a happy crowd and why. But whoever it was and whatever the twisted reasons, this attack shouldn’t be used to feed into the divisive worldview that places “us” against “them”, whoever “they” happen to be.
There have been some ugly responses among the expressions of sorrow and sympathy on social media, blaming immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, blaming multiculturalism, blaming Angela Merkel and calling for tougher security and greater intolerance of difference.
None of these things are helpful. This hurts all of us – of all faiths and none – who care about human suffering and human pain. At this delicate moment, it is vital for Germany that speculation and fear do not drive political agendas and make us forget the spirit of togetherness and community that the country’s Christmas markets have always done so much to foster.