Berlin, one year after attack

Stoic Germans flock to Christmas markets again

Visitors at a memorial event on Tuesday marking the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the Christmas market in Berlin.
Visitors at a memorial event on Tuesday marking the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the Christmas market in Berlin. PHOTOS: EPA-EFE, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
There is a strong police presence at key Christmas markets across Germany this year.
There is a strong police presence at key Christmas markets across Germany this year. PHOTOS: EPA-EFE, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Concrete security barriers in front of a giant decoration of the Christmas market in Dresden.
Concrete security barriers in front of a giant decoration of the Christmas market in Dresden.PHOTOS: EPA-EFE, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Stallholders and visitors alike refuse to allow last year's terror strike to dictate their lives

When Mr David Degen set up store last year for the first time at central Berlin's Breitscheidplatz Christmas market, little did he expect that the popular destination would become the scene of a terror attack.

Still, Mr Degen has returned this year to sell his magnetic key holders at the market, saying he felt safe.

"I have a pragmatic view of things. An attack is horrible, there's no question about that. But the way I see it, the chances of me getting into a car accident realistically speaking are far higher," he told The Straits Times.

"Since the attack, safety requirements have become more stringent," he said, noting that his wife had had a close shave, having just crossed to the side of the square five minutes before the attack.

Likewise, Albert, a glass trinket seller who has run a store at the market for the last 15 years, saw no reason to stay away this year.

"I was here, it happened there. There was chaos, people running everywhere. We closed up shop and went home," Albert, who declined to give his full name, recalled of the evening on Dec 19 last year when unsuccessful asylum seeker Anis Amri from Tunisia rammed a truck into the crowded Christmas market, killing 12 and injuring 70

A year on, Albert said, "everything is the same as before besides the fact that people talk about this thing". He planned to return again next year to set up shop.

AN ILLUSION

There are more police (officers) patrolling, but they can't do anything against a truck.

MR MATTHIAS MAIR, a vendor of southern Tirolean products at Breitscheidplatz.

Amri fled to Italy and was shot dead by police, four days after the only assault on a Christmas market by an Islamist in Germany.

In fact, most of the market's old-timers are back, hawking gluehwein (mulled wine), stollen, marzipan and wooden handicrafts typical of Christmas in Germany.

But unlike previous years, heavy concrete slabs ring many of the biggest markets across the country, to prevent a repeat of the assault claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group.

Several cities are using sand bags as bulwarks, with some of them wrapped up to look like presents.

Heavily armed police patrol key Christmas markets such as Breitscheidplatz and Christkindlmarkt in Munich. Plainclothes officers mingle with the crowds while some cities have installed CCTVs - providing surveillance uncommon in a country that values privacy highly.

Mr Matthias Mair, a vendor of southern Tirolean products at Breitscheidplatz, pointed to a police information booth just behind his stall, and noted that officers are very present this year.

But he believed that "all the security is just fake, it's just an illusion", pointing to tests showing that concrete slabs can be easily flung to a side by a heavy hauler.

"There are more police (officers) patrolling, but they can't do anything against a truck. It's an illusion to make people feel safer," he said.

While Mr Degen and Albert said visitorship has remained steady, Mr Mair observed that the market is not as busy as in past years.

"It feels like there's less going on. There is less of a crowd. Not sure why, it may be that all Christmas markets are seeing a drop in visitors. But it could also be that people are staying away from this market in particular because of what happened," he said.

Germans appear to have adopted a stoic attitude.

Berliner Mathias Linder, who was enjoying a sausage while leaning against one of the concrete slabs lining the back of the stand, said he saw no reason to change an age-old tradition. "This is what we do in the run-up to Christmas. Meeting friends at Christmas markets where we eat sausages or drink gluehwein."

Ms Alice Hartmann, who was visiting from Hamburg, said she hardly noticed the heavy security. In any case, she added, "staying at home out of fear is not a solution".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'Stoic Germans flock to Christmas markets again'. Print Edition | Subscribe