BERLIN—On the night before Christmas on Berlin’s U8 subway line between the central districts of Kreuzberg and Neukölln, a group of parka-clad teenagers were loitering in one of the cars looking for trouble, and then they found it.
As they they got out at Schönleinstraße, they spotted an intoxicated 37-year-old man sleeping on a long steel bench and decided to set fire to his clothes and the papers he was using as a blanket.
Other passengers rushed to extinguish the flames, saving the man’s life and what little he owned. It was an ugly event but not an extraordinary one. Berliners have long referred to the U8 line as the “Heroin Express,” and it has seen a fair share of criminal activity. Nor is it unusual for some people to act like assholes on other branches of Berlin’s public transport. Just a few weeks ago CCTV caught a man kicking a woman down a flight of stairs after she turned her back to him.
Still, young men setting a homeless man on fire on Christmas Eve, five days after the Berlin truck attack that slaughtered 12 people at a Christmas market, was unsettling, even for a city that likes to brag about how tough it is.
Then, one day later, the police arrested the culprits, and as fate would have it they had all come to Germany as refugees, six from Syria and one from Libya.
“These people didn’t do it because they are refugees, but because they are the way they are—young and brutalized,” Berlin’s Commissioner for Foreigners told Berliner Zeitung. Meanwhile, one social worker has gone public to point out that the majority of violent attacks on the homeless in the past two decades in Germany have come from the right: The motive usually being some kind of Patrick Bateman-style American (or German) psycho hatred for society’s worst off.
But, of course, that was not the end of the story.
On New Year’s Eve, as scores of police officers were checking the bags and confiscating firecrackers from all-too-enthusiastic partygoers throughout the country, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave her annual televised speech, appearing to the nation in her party mode: a shimmering, glittering, baby-blue jacket in place of the usual blazer, complemented by a Christmas tree brightening the background. But her words were earnest as ever.
The last year has been full of the “most difficult tests,” she said. Yes, it’s especially bitter when people commit terror attacks “who allegedly desire safety in our country.” But it was “right and important” to welcome those who needed protection. Urging “confidence,” she promised that her government would take action “where political and legal changes are necessary.”
After Tunisian illegal immigrant Anis Amri murdered 12 people by racing a truck through one of the capital’s biggest Christmas markets on Dec. 19 (and before the worrying snafus of Germany’s security services started coming to light), Merkel was hit with the accusation that by taking in refugees, she put her capital and all of Europe at the mercy of terrorism—a thesis with which, in fact, most Germans disagree.
Indeed, some characters on Germany’s far right immediately earned themselves flak for brandishing about the slur of Blutschuld, or bloodguilt—as if Merkel were as culpable for the Christmas market slaughter as Amri.
Two hours after the attack, when the identity of the truck driver was still unknown and before the blood even had a chance to dry, the parliament representative of the anti-migrant Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD), Marcus Pretzell, tweeted, “They (the victims) are Merkel’s dead!” And AfD politician Stefan Räpple took it one step further, posting an actual photo of hands covered in blood, with the words, “Merkel, there is blood on your hands!”
But can the Blutschuld images stick to Merkel, even for nine months until national elections? And even if they do, Merkel’s losses aren’t automatically the AfD’s gains, though the party does love to advertise itself as the “Alternative to Merkel.” Merkel knows she won’t win back those voters who are already sporting the unflattering “Merkel must go” stickers. As she said at the conservative party convention in December, she is not prepared to “jump through every hoop that is dangled in front of me.”
But there are many of those to come, it seems.
Since Merkel rolled back her open-door refugee policy, the upstart AfD party has cleverly been shifting its focus from protesting against incoming refugees to arguing that integration in Germany isn’t working, most notably by criticizing Islam.
Please don’t tell him “the culprit could also have been German,“ Berlin AfD politician Marc Vallendar commented on Facebook recently. “There are, plainly and simply, fundamental cultural differences between Europe and the Middle East. Not for nothing are these countries all engulfed in flames,“ he wrote.
Vallendar was referring to the gruesome incident on the U8 subway line.
Yet the habit of making bombastic claims is not to the taste of everyone in the party, it seems. As the AfD (initially founded as a eurosceptic party in 2013) moves further to the right, party representatives must do a tricky balancing act trying to keep radical supporters while also winning over the larger middle class. Seventy-five-year-old Deputy Chair Alexander Gauland, who spent decades in Merkel’s Conservative Party, is often lauded as the AfD’s number one honey trap for Germany’s dissatisfied conservative voters.
Gauland attended a candlelight vigil in front of the Kanzleramt, organized for various far right groups to commemorate the 12 dead three days after the atrocity and to protest against what some attendees were calling a “refugee invasion.”
Here, he told reporters, “I said myself that [Merkel’s] refugee policies are obviously responsible for this development. But I find it completely wrong to suggest, as Marcus Pretzell or apparently Stefan Räpple did, that the Chancellor is to be blamed with bloodguilt.”
Despite pre-circulated rumors that Gauland would be speaking at the vigil, the roughly 200 people who showed up had to instead make do with a man who was dressed as a priest but had flunked out of his trial period with the evangelical church (apparently because he’d been too sympathetic to right-wing extremism).
“Political decisions have been made, but they can be reversed—we Christians have a right to Widerstand (resistance),” the wannabe pastor told the crowd, some of whom were swinging the Wirmer flag from the late 1940s, a black and yellow cross on a red background.
(Partially due to concerns they’ll be blasted as National Socialist fans, the far right in Germany likes to style itself in the mold of Nazi-era resistance fighters like Josef Wirmer, executed after the failed Valkyrie plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Gauland once called Merkel the “Kanzler Dictator.”)
“Is that Gauland?” one man standing at the back asked.
“No he’s a priest,” his friend replied. The man grunted appreciatively.
The microphone was in bad condition, and easily drowned out by a group of counter-protesters, who turned up on the sidelines to holler, “Nazi propaganda!”
“Nazi propaganda—bullshit,” the man at the back muttered.
“They can’t even hear what he is saying,” another chimed in, to murmurs of consent.
One woman, wrapped in a thick black anorak, handed out “Merkel must go” stickers among the protesters: Merkel’s hangdog face, crossed out in red. The woman giggled. “Doesn’t she look beautiful?”
After prayers, a Bach piece began to play from the loudspeakers. Some people were holding candles, others lit up cigarettes. Two men used their cigarettes to light up torches, which they solemnly held in the air for a few minutes before the icy evening wind blew them out.