Berliners are standing strong in the face of last month’s attack on crowded market

by Cathrin Schaer / 16 January, 2017

A policeman walks at the Christmas market near the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedaechtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), the day after a terror attack, in central Berlin. Photo/Getty Images

Before a large truck was deliberately driven into a crowded Berlin Christmas market, this was going to be a column in praise of good ol’ German Yule.

Because no matter what critics say about their flat whites, red wines and salads – what other nation enjoys a “salad” made out of sausage meat and creamy dressing? – Germans do excel at Christmas.

Along with fairy lights virtually everywhere, snow if you’re lucky and giant heart-shaped ­ginger­bread biscuits you can wear like a tasty necklace, the Christmas markets are always a good time. They’re not just an excuse to drink glühwein – hot, sweetened red wine spiked with rum – before dark. They’re a tradition. Based on centuries-old, open-air seasonal markets, at which the peasants stocked up on food for winter, they evolved into places where local craftspeople could sell Christmas gifts as well.

Today, there are 60 or more in Berlin alone. There’s the one run by the ­artists’ ­collective in a rambling studio complex. There’s a medieval-themed market at a castle, where you drink mead by candlelight and watch the merry-go-round being hand-cranked by a burly bloke in a sheepskin vest. There’s the posh one in the middle of town, where you pay a three-euro entry fee to watch German lawyers getting drunk. Keeps the riff-raff out. Or the loud one at Alexanderplatz, with flashing lights, roller coasters and other scream-inducing rides, where all the food tastes the same and all your fellow Ferris wheel riders are drunken bogans.

One of the best is in a historic, tree-lined former village square in Rixdorf, a small suburb of the larger suburb of Neukölln. The rules are that only community organisations can have a stall and that they should sell handmade goods. So there are pony rides for kids, a flea market for ­hipsters and knitted pot holders for your gran. You’ll end up eating deep-fried potato pancakes made by the Berlin version of St John and buying home-brewed schnapps from vegan punks, felted slippers from an ­addiction counsellor’s office and exotic pickles at a Turkish community group’s stand.

Loaded with inappropriate-but-handmade gifts, and onto your third glühwein, you can’t help but marvel at the crowd. It feels like a village-within-a-city, a microcosmic example of what can make Berlin, a metropolis where many locals pride themselves on their live-and-let-live attitude, such a nice place to live.

After December 19, when a Tunisian man, a would-be refugee, used a truck to kill 12 people at a market, some tried to convince Berliners otherwise. Senior members of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, who are opposed to the Government’s refugee policy, described the victims as “Merkel’s dead”, cold-heartedly turning those downed Christmas trees into political fuel for their populist fires.

In his 1945 book The Open ­Society and Its Enemies, written in ­Christ­church, philosopher Karl Popper, an Austrian Jew who outlived the Nazis and Stalin, argued that an open society must be defended, that we must fight for the democratic values we prize and that we must do this daily.

Maybe that’s why Berliners, who also lived through the Nazi and Stalin eras, kept going to Christmas markets after the attack.

A day after the murders, YouTube star Rayk Anders addressed the ­terrorist in an emotional video from the site of the attack: “You picked the wrong city, you cowardly piece of shit,” he said. “Berlin has two world wars in its bones. Every old folks’ home in this city has somebody who remembers when corpses were stacked in the street. The people of Berlin will remain free,” he ranted. “You can never take that away.”

For many in Germany, which for all its modernity is still a “Christian country”, Christmas is about keeping the faith. After December 19, for many Berliners, going to the ­Christmas market was about keeping a different kind of faith. Long may that last.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the January 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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