Responding to terrorism: Merkel’s speech after the attack on the Christmas Market in Berlin Copyright: ARD, Tageschau.de

Responding to terrorism: Merkel’s speech after the attack on the Christmas Market in Berlin

On December 19, a lorry crashed into a Christmas Market in Berlin. How did German Chancellor Angela Merkel react to this the day after the attack?

On the evening of the 19th of December, a lorry crashed into a Christmas Market at the Breitscheidplatz in Berlin. Multiple people were wounded, and soon it would become known that many had died as well. The attack and videos that spread around the world seemed to be a horrible echo of the attack in Nice in July 2016, although details about the motives have yet to emerge.

The next morning (today) at 11:00, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech on national television (ARD). In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, leaders are confronted with the difficult task of responding to such devastating events. From the crisis management literature, we know that these speeches should have a number of goals: providing information of what has happened, calming the public while also showing empathy and acknowledge emotions such as anger that arise, explaining what this means to the country and those affected, and showing strength and determination.

Merkel’s speech contained a number of these classical elements that were ordered in the following way:

  • What has happened? (sense-making)
  • Showing empathy (victims, personnel)
  • What does it mean to Germany? (meaning-making)
  • What actions will be taken next?
  • How should we move on?

A few elements stand out. Firstly, Merkel did not provide the usual facts of “a lorry crashed into a Christmas Market” but called it a “ein sehr schwerer Tag” (very tough day) and directly commented on the deceased and the wounded. She called it an “Eine grausame und letztlich unbegreifliche Tat” (a cruel and incomprehensible act). Only later in her speech, she said that “Wir müssen von einem Terroranschlag ausgehen” – it was probably an act of terror.

She also directly responded to suspicions that the attacker was an asylum seeker. Given the fact that Merkel has been facing a lot of criticism for Germany’s asylum policies, she probably saw herself confronted - for political reasons - to react to this news as early as possible. Merkel said it was “hard to bear” if it would be confirmed that it was an asylum seeker now attacked the country he had asked for protection. The speeches that leaders write, of course, do not only follow "neutral" or academic insights from crisis management about what elements it should contain, but are often also (implicit) political statements.

Then she moved to the more technical part, explaining that she is in direct contact with the Minister of the Interior, the President and the Mayor of Berlin. In half an hour, a “Sicherheitskabinet” would be formed. Later today, she will visit the scene of attack. Instead of sending out the message that she would handle this, she clearly emphasized the fact that this would be done “zusammen” – together.

A key theme in her speech was the sentence that “I am thinking of”: she was thinking of the victims and their families, but also all the personnel that had to help at the scene. She also tried to convey the message that she understood the emotions of the general public with phrases like “Ich weiß, dass es für uns alle besonders schwer zu ertragen wäre.” (I know it would be very hard for us to live with the fact that…) and “Millionen von Menschen ‑ auch ich ‑ fragen sich heute Morgen: Wie können wir damit leben(…)” (millions of people – also I – are asking themselves this morning: how can we live with this). She admitted that she did not have an easy answer.

In fact, Merkel said that we will and cannot live with this. We must not be “paralysed by fear” , and, according to Merkel, Germans will regain the strength to continue to live the life that we want in Germany: free, together, and open.

It remains to be seen how the German population will react to this plea for openness and unity in the aftermath of this attack in the week before Christmas.

See the full speech below. Video source and copyright: ARD, Tageschau.de, click here for the original source.