When Angela Merkel addressed a press conference in Berlin yesterday morning, only hours after the attack on the Christmas market and not far distant from it, she was unflinching. She took head-on the hardest question of how the country would feel if the perpetrator turned out to be one of the million refugees to whom she had offered protection not much more than a year ago.
It would be hard to bear, she said – in one version of a German phrase that has been variously translated as “particularly repugnant” and “sickening” – if it were a refugee. It would be an insult to all those who had helped refugees and all those who needed Germany’s protection. And that was it.
Christmas markets are as much a part of German national life as the 14 July festivities are French (in Nice nearly 100 people died in a similar attack). That makes Monday’s attack seem like an unmistakable act of terror, apparently motivated by jihadism.
It may well turn out to be someone who had come to the country as an asylum seeker. But Merkel’s appeal at that subdued press conference was for the country to distinguish between terrorists and refugees, and to keep faith with her version of what it is to be German. “We will find strength for the life we want to live in Germany – free, united and open.”
In one sense, everything the chancellor said was intensely political. She faces elections next September, and her fate is a preoccupation for all of Europe. Yet there is a difference between conveying a potent political message and politicking; and not so much as a zephyr of politicking appeared to ruffle the trademark Merkel demeanour – reassuringly impassive as a dumpling, as always.
There was no overt concession to those colleagues who fear that her refugee policy, the subject of so much criticism on the right, is likely to eat savagely into her – and their – majority. Nothing explicitly betrayed the challenge she will face from her partners in government, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), who are ramping up the pressure on her. There was certainly no nod in the direction of the far right’s charge that the casualties of Monday night’s attack were “Merkel’s dead”.
Merkel has established herself as the best and strongest voice of the values of a liberal Europe, and her steadfastness under pressure – at least her rhetorical steadfastness, for her policies have been modified to accommodate some of her critics’ concerns – is a beacon in a continent that is increasingly inward turning, nativist and afraid.
And every time she stands up for what postwar Europe represents, she consolidates Germany’s rebirth. When in her summer press conference, on 31 August last year, as thousands of refugees trekked northwards into Hungary, she told the world “We can do it”, and when a few days later she announced that no one would be stopped from seeking asylum, and when a few days after that she posed for a selfie with one of the refugees from the first train to draw into Munich station, for millions of people around the world she reset the image of her country.
Only months earlier, the Greeks had portrayed Merkel in a stormtrooper helmet. In September she seemed to banish the faint but lingering stench of 20th-century history for good. In its place came what Merkel called Germany’s “friendly, beautiful face”.
It has not been an easy 15 months, and Merkel has been forced into making concessions to her critics. But that merely makes her calm, mostly endorsed by other politicians, the more admirable yesterday.
As important, it was reflected in the actions of authority everywhere – in, for example, how quickly the police acknowledged they had picked up the wrong person. How tempting it must have been to hang on to the appearance of having speedily apprehended at least one of the perpetrators, and how attractive to the security forces who had, after all, failed in the most devastating way imaginable to try to redeem themselves.
It was there in the strong clear message that there would always be soft targets that could not be protected, and in the refusal to panic and shut down the hundreds of other Christmas fairs across the country. Of course security will be tighter; understandably some cities are erecting concrete blocks at the entrance to their shopping areas. Naturally there will be a more visible police presence. Yet out of the bloody carnage of violence and hate of Berlin on the Monday before Christmas comes the enviable impression of a country that is true to the values of liberal Europe.
Anne Perkins has been a leader writer, lobby correspondent and feature writer for the Guardian since 1997.