World News

A Year After the Berlin Market Attack, Germany Admits Mistakes

Posted December 19, 2017 5:30 p.m. EST

BERLIN — German authorities unveiled a new memorial in Berlin on Tuesday, honoring the 12 people killed in the terrorist attack at a Christmas market last year, but their families and some survivors accused the government of failing to deport the attacker before he could strike and of a lack of empathy and support since the attack.

Before the ceremony, Chancellor Angela Merkel joined members of the acting government, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and representatives from Berlin at a memorial service open only to survivors of the attack and the victims’ families. Michael Müller, the city’s mayor, dedicated the memorial in Breitscheid Square, where the attack took place.

It was a year to the day that the attacker, Anis Amri, drove a stolen truck into the crowded square, killing 12 people and injuring dozens of others. Amri, who died in a shootout with the Italian police days after the attack, had been under scrutiny by German security agencies for months before, but repeated opportunities to deport him were missed.

On Tuesday, Steinmeier offered an apology for the shortcomings of the German state and promised those present that their “complaints and warnings have not fallen on deaf ears.”

But it was the concessions from the chancellor, who met on Monday for the first time since the attack with several dozen people who lost family members or were injured, that many victims had waited to hear. Earlier this month, they complained in an open letter that German authorities, and Merkel specifically, had badly mishandled the events leading up to the attack and afterward.

For a leader who has been called the “Teflon chancellor” for her ability to emerge unscathed from difficult situations — including disputes with European leaders over the debt crisis in the eurozone and challenges from within her political party — the complaints this time appeared to hurt. Months after an inconclusive election in September that was largely viewed as a rebuke of her open-door refugee policy, Merkel has appeared more vulnerable politically than she has at any time in her 12 years in office.

Standing before the memorial steps that bear the names of the victims, Merkel, wrapped in a black wool coat, appeared visibly shaken.

“Today is a day of mourning,” Merkel said to reporters after the ceremony, “but also a day of concerted determination to improve.”

She described her meeting Monday as “very open and blunt,” adding that it “revealed the weaknesses that our government showed in such a situation.”

In the families’ letter, first published in the leading German weekly Der Spiegel, the relatives complained about the coldhearted letters they received from government workers in response to their complaints about challenges they faced coping with lives altered by the attack.

“Ms. Chancellor, the attack on the Breitscheid Square is a tragic result of the lack of political action of your government,” they wrote.

The survivors and victims’ relatives complained about the authorities’ letting Amri slip through their fingers, the chaotic response immediately following the attack and what they saw as a lack of financial compensation for their losses.

But above all, their anger was directed at the chancellor.

The day after the attack, she and other government representatives attended a memorial service to honor the victims. But at that time, many of their families said they were still waiting for confirmation that their loved ones had been killed. Several weeks later, in January, Joachim Gauck, then the German president, invited the families to the presidential palace for a personal meeting.

From Merkel, however, they heard nothing, the letter said: “Regarding how we as survivors were treated, we have to say, Ms. Chancellor, that nearly one year after the attack, you have not offered your condolences, either personally or in writing.”

In March, the government appointed a former governor, Kurt Beck, to represent the interests of the families and help them to deal with paperwork needed to apply for compensation. He was also asked to draw up a report for the government with recommendations for improvements, many of which addressed the survivors’ complaints.

“I don’t think there was any ill intent, but my impression is that none of us, not society and not the government, were spiritually prepared for the reality that such an attack could take place in Germany,” Beck said of the government’s handling of the situation, in an interview with ZDF television.

The assault on the popular Christmas market brought home to Germans the reality that as part of Europe they, too, are a target for mass terrorist attacks. Until that time, Belgium and France had been the primary European targets. The assault also bolstered critics of Merkel’s open-door immigration policy of 2015 who said it added to the country’s vulnerabilities.

But with attacks happening elsewhere in Europe, critics of Germany’s response could compare how other countries had managed the aftermath. Many looked to France, for example, where more than 1 million people heeded the call to take to the streets in a demonstration of solidarity after an attack in January 2015 left 17 people dead.

Another point of comparison was compensation for survivors. While the involvement of a vehicle in the Berlin attack allowed survivors to tap into a fund that compensates victims of traffic accidents, Beck said the amounts offered were still too low.

He recommended increasing the compensation in ways similar to the system used in France, where a fund for victims of terrorism was created in 1986 after a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1980s. It is funded largely by taxes on property insurance contracts.