‘They would not, could not, have known what was about to happen’

By Ewan McDonald

Berlin's main shopping street, K-Damm, lit up for Christmas. The market is to the right of the Christmas tree. Photo Ewan McDonald
Berlin's main shopping street, K-Damm, lit up for Christmas. The market is to the right of the Christmas tree. Photo Ewan McDonald
MiNDFOOD's senior writer describes the scene inside Berlin's Christmas market, scene of a terror attack yesterday

They would not, could not, have known what was about to happen.

It was a typical December night in Berlin – crisp, clear, windless. Above all, cold: heavy overcoats, brightly coloured scarves and mittens or black leather gloves, hats. Several layers underneath.

It would have been dark since 4.30; at 8.15, Breitscheidplatz square was ablaze and aloud and alive. Myriad coloured, flashing, strong white bulbs from the carousels, sausage and bakery stalls, mulled-wine bars; carols and familiar tunes from the children’s rides and the buskers, perhaps a choir; hundreds if not thousands of locals and visitors of all ages.

The square is to one side of Berlin’s main shopping street, Kurfuerstendamm or K-damm; think of Broadway, Newmarket, in Auckland; George St in Sydney; Bourke St Mall in Melbourne, then think of them a week before Christmas. The stores, the window displays, the giant frost-white lit Yule tree; all is, if not calm, all is bright.

At first glance just a few blocks of brutalist concrete in the teeming city, the “square” holds a special place in Berliners’ hearts. When the city was divided in the 1960s, those on the Western side lost their traditional meeting and shopping and partying places; they were on the Eastern side of the wall.

Crammed between tower blocks and multiplexes and $2 shops, and the historic church dedicated to Kaiser Wilhelm II, its spire bombed in World War II, the only place that wasn’t built on became the centre of their besieged community.

The Christmas “market” isn’t so much a market as a place to gather, chat, gossip, have a hot spicy wine or beer, take the kids or watch other people’s kids run around in that sheer, unbridled joy that every child deserves to have at this time. Funfairs and dozens of wooden huts selling food and drink, toys and kitsch. It runs from mid-morning to midnight throughout December, the Christian season of Advent that leads into Christmas.

It’s at its busiest around 8pm. Families have come to K-damm by bus and metro to Christmas-shop or enjoy the decorated windows; met up with the other half after work; office workers have given up for the day and gone to the square for an after-work noggin before the commute to the suburbs.

There are more than 60 Christmas markets in Berlin every December; this one is said to be the largest and the most beautiful. I don’t know if that’s true: I’ve seen only a couple.

But I do know that how it would have felt to have been in that jam-packed (or sausage and mustard-packed) square with locals and tourists of all ages. Because on 20 December 2014, two years ago to the day, I was one of them.

They would not, could not, have known what was about to happen.

Yesterday, a lorry ploughed into the crowded Breitscheidplatz Christmas market, killing 12 people and injuring 49.

So-called Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility through its self-styled news agency.

German officials suggested an armed perpetrator or perpetrators might be on the run.

The usual driver of the lorry, Polish citizen Lukasz Urban, was found dead on the passenger seat of the lorry, reportedly with gunshot and stab wounds to his body. No gun was recovered.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to punish those responsible for the attack “as harshly as the law requires”.

Her open-door policy on migration, which saw 890,000 asylum seekers arrive in Germany last year, has divided the country. A majority of Germans continue to back her.

But Merkel’s political opponents, notably the far right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), say she has compromised Germany’s security by letting in people without knowing who they are. It is a charge they will seek to press as Germany gears up for federal elections next year.

Germany’s main parties have all said they will shun any question of sharing power with the AfD.

Merkel has seen her support rise in recent polls. It is why the issue of who carried out the Berlin attack is vital for Merkel and her vision of a free, open Germany.

She expressed concern that the attacker might turn out to be an asylum seeker.

“I know that it would be particularly difficult for us all to bear if it turned out that the person who committed this act was someone who sought protection and asylum in Germany,” she said.



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