It was the attack that Germany had been bracing itself for.
And it could have far-reaching political implications, particularly for Chancellor Angela Merkel, already fighting off a challenge from right-wing populists.
On Monday night, shortly after 8 p.m., a truck smashed into a crowded Christmas market in the heart of West Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring dozens more.
While the authorities were initially extremely careful not to jump to conclusions about the circumstances leading to the awful carnage, by Tuesday the Berlin police said that they were dealing with a “presumed terror attack,” stating that their investigators were working on the assumption that the truck was intentionally driven into the crowd.
If that is confirmed, it would be the first time that a terror attack has been carried out in the German capital, and on a symbolic and also relatively soft target: the traditional Christmas market, where locals and tourists gather to drink mulled wine amid glittering fairy lights.
The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany was quick to single out who they blamed. Immediately after news of the incident emerged on Monday night, Marcus Pretzell, a member of the European Parliament for the party and partner of AfD leader Frauke Petry, tweeted: “When will the German rule of law strike back? When will this cursed hypocrisy end? These are Merkel’s dead!”
The deputy leader of the Social Democrats, Ralf Stegner, called the comment “unbelievable and disgusting!”
“Instead of respect for the victims, again disgusting political exploitation of this tragedy by the AfD and other right-wing agitators,” he tweeted.
Yet, for all the outrage heaped on the AfD, there is little doubt that the party is likely to profit from an attack in the heart of the German capital.
“Events like these will be the Merkel legacy.”
And for Angela Merkel, it could be political poison. Her conservative Christian Democrats had been tearing each other apart over the past year over her open-door refugee policy, while the Bavarian Christian Social Union has consistently attacked her for allowing close to 1 million asylum seekers to enter the country in one year.
Yet the two parties seemed to have buried the hatchet to some extent as they prepared for the 2017 election year, when Ms. Merkel will run for a fourth term in the federal vote in the fall.
The tensions with the CSU could reemerge. Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader and Bavarian premier who has repeatedly called for a cap on the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter Germany, said on Tuesday: “We owe it to the victims, the families and the population at large to rethink our entire immigration and security policy and establish it anew.”
The fact that initial reports say that the man arrested near the scene of the crime could be a refugee will only add to pressure on Ms. Merkel. According to the police, the suspect is believed to be a 23-year old Pakistani man who was residing in a refugee center in Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport, Reuters reported, citing security sources. He was known to police as having committed some petty crimes.
However, on Tuesday police said that the arrested man denied involvement and that it is not clear if he was the perpetrator. “It is uncertain if he was definitely the driver,” the head of the Berlin Police, Klaus Kandt, told reporters.
Earlier on Tuesday, giving a brief statement, a somber Ms. Merkel said: “I know it would be very difficult to accept if it were to be confirmed that a person who sought asylum and protection in Germany, committed this act. This would be especially appalling to all people who are working day in, day out to help the refugees and to all who really need our protection and make an effort to integrate.”
International critics already had the knives out, with Nigel Farage, the former leader of the euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party, tweeting: “Events like these will be the Merkel legacy.”
Geert Wilders, the head of the Dutch populist Party for Freedom (PVV), also took to the social media platform to react to the events in Berlin:
They hate and kill us.
And nobody protects us.
Our leaders betray us.
We need a political revolution.
And defend our people.#BerlinAttack
— Geert Wilders (@geertwilderspvv) December 20, 2016
Marine Le Pen, leader of the French right-wing Front National, released a statement on Tuesday in which she asked: “How many massacres and fatalities will have to happen until our governments stop letting a massive number of migrants into our borderless countries, although we’re perfectly aware that Islamist terrorists mingle among them?”
Ms. Merkel biggest critic, however, will be domestic. The right-wing AfD has grown from a fringe euroskeptic party to an anti-immigrant populist group and a major force in German politics. The latest poll, published by Forsa on Tuesday but conducted before the Monday attack, had given them 11 percent support.
The party has entered 10 of the country’s 16 state parliaments since its foundation in 2013, when it narrowly missed getting into the Bundestag. It is almost certain to succeed in winning seats in the lower house in next year’s election.
And a debate over terror and immigrants is likely to be to their advantage.
On Tuesday, the AfD leader, Frauke Petry condemned the attack and hit out at the chancellor. “The Christmas market was not an accidental target,” she said in a statement. “It is not only an attack on our freedom and our way of life, but on our Christian tradition.”
“Germany is no longer safe,” she continued. “It is the duty of the German chancellor to communicate this…But I tell you, she won’t do this.”
Ms. Merkel had already seen her once unassailable popularity tarnished after sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve and then further eroded after attacks during the summer by asylum seekers, including a suicide bomber at a music festival and a man wielding an ax on a train.
That popularity had started to bounce back. The mainstream parties have been hoping to concentrate on their strong points: bread and butter issues, like wages and pensions, issues where the AfD has little to say.
However, if the attack is confirmed to be carried out by an Islamist, the populist party can hope to score major successes, both in a number of state elections, including in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia next May and in the federal vote later in the year.
“Your guess would have to be it’s yet another extremist Islam attack, that’s going to continue to weaken Merkel, that’s going to continue to support the populists,” Ian Bremmer, president of New York-based political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said on Bloomberg TV.
However, Ms. Merkel could also persuade the population that her party is the best placed to provide security, argues Gero Neugebauer, professor of politics at the Free University in Berlin.
“In concrete terms, it will be advantageous for the CDU. The majority of the population sees the party as the most competent when it comes to law and order,” he told Handelsblatt Global.
“There will be a big discussion about more security. This discussion will swing between hysteria, represented by the AfD, and the attempt by the CDU to employ it as an election campaign issue, that gives it a profile as the party that stands for security.”
That has risks, argues terror expert Raffaello Pantucci. The CDU and Merkel can try to play the law and order card in the election, “but the reality is, if they’ve failed to deliver security so far, playing that card can be difficult and they can be attacked for that failure,” Mr. Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, told Handelsblatt Global.
While the authorities in Germany have tried to react with relative calm to previous incidents, “if you continue to have attacks like this then people get more worried and then you have to ramp up your security response in part to assuage people’s concerns.”
He argued that Chancellor Merkel has already done so over the past year but now, “she’ll have to do that more visibly.”
Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org