Berlin is a dark city. At night, especially in winter, the streets are low-lit and quiet. On Monday evening, I walked a friend visiting from London through the Tiergarten, a 520-acre park thick with beech and oak trees, towards the central station. Less than two hours later, police arrested a man hiding out among those trees, supposedly attempting to flee the hell at Breitscheidplatz, a popular square in a commercial area of Charlottenburg, about a mile to the west. It's now unclear whether he was the driver – recent reports suggest he was an uninvolved civilian.
Details are still emerging about what happened at the Christmas market. Events already being stitched into the extraordinary narrative surrounding "Islamist terror", generally reserved for atrocities committed on European soil. One nice thing about the darkness, my friend pointed out, is that it makes the Christmas lights seem that much brighter.
Since Britain voted to leave the EU in June and the US elected Donald Trump to be its 45th president, I have been pompously reminding people in Berlin that we are living on an island, part of an archipelago of liberal values around which the sea is rising fast. As the news spread over Monday night – 12 people are now known to have died and 48 were injured after a 32-tonne goods lorry careered off the road and ploughed into a busy Christmas market – I tried to answer texts and worried phone calls, some of which quite honestly seemed a little OTT, until I discovered that one of my friends was unaccounted for and started doing exactly the same thing.
I was in shock. I felt a sickening panic not so much from my proximity to such a violent and upsetting loss of life, but because it meant accepting I’d been wrong. It meant the end of a kind of leftie fantasy: of safety, of special status, of an island sanctuary from the nastiness growing so rapidly elsewhere. In Berlin, reminders of how fragile tolerance and security can be are etched into the fabric of the city, from the small bronze “stumbling stone” plaques that commemorate the last known dwelling places of Jewish and other citizens murdered by the Nazis, to the remains of the Berlin Wall, which split the city for 28 years, as both physical and psychological scars.
Berliners famously relish their freedom but the city’s significance extends far beyond those who call the German capital home. It is a place to which misfits can flee: a sanctuary for gays, liberals, artists and weirdos of all stripes, a possibility for when things really turn ugly. It has been exemplary in welcoming refugees from war. Most people I know here have been involved somehow in making provisions, whether by teaching, cooking, or helping people settle, for those arriving from the Middle East – a distinction with Britain that is now being castigated but in fact encouraged my decision to move out here.
“Events like these will be Merkel’s legacy,” Nigel Farage said this morning. Britain’s ambassador to Batshitland seems to be taking his cue from the German far right. “These are Merkel’s deaths,” Marcus Pretzell, an MEP from the far-right AfD, tweeted less that 15 minutes after the lorry had careered into the crowd – its victims still crushed under its wheels, waiting for ambulances to arrive.
Perhaps most confusingly, the Donald made a number of imaginative leaps in his statement to the world, blaming “Isis and other Islamist terrorists [who] slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship”, apparently confusing a bunch of kitschy stalls where locals and tourists huddle together to eat confectionery and neck buckets of mulled wine with some act of Christian piety.
In 1928, the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels gave a speech in which he railed against the cinemas and bohemian hangouts that emerged during the Weimar era around the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, the bombed-out bell tower of which remains to this day the focal point of Breitscheidplatz. It’s one thing to enjoy the openness and freedom living in Berlin affords – whether that means parties that go on until dawn, fashion, art and hedonistic excess, or gathering together in a public square to give gifts and eat sweets in the run-up to Christmas – now is the time to defend the values that make it all possible. The coming days will be a test of openness, understanding and love, and I hope Germany will remain strong. Those are the only lights in a darkness like this.
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