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.


Jason Lefebvre

This is what I like most about academia, when it comes to addressing terrorism and it's effects on geopolitics - an unbiased, analytical look at the issues. Well done, Jeanine.

I tend to concur with Mr. Cotterill's comments below, in that Chancellor Merkel's response to yesterday's presumed terrorist attacks are more of a political motivation than anything else, given the surge in popularity from political parties such as the AfD, who are vehemently opposed to accepting refugees. I think Frau Merkel sees her current situation, with an election coming up in Germany, paralleling somewhat with what the world saw with the US elections. There appears to be such growing dissatisfaction among Germans, not only because of the spate of terrorist attacks that has taken place in recent months, but also the alleged spike in criminal activity associated with many refugees and migrants - to the point where every time incidents such as these take place in Germany, the AfD gains credibility. This is not at all dissimilar to how Donald Trump won the US election - tapping into people's basest fears on terrorism, then sitting back and letting the terrorist groups do what they do. I think right now, Frau Merkel is very aware of this and is now in damage control.

Strictly playing the 'Devil's Advocate' on the part of Frau Merkel's administration, I did want to address the idea of carrying out security screening checks on refugees, because in a way, I understand the dilemma the EU is faced with. What many do not know is that when a host nation carries out a security check on an individual requesting asylum or wishing to immigrate, much of this check requires the intelligence or police agencies of that host nation to contact their counterparts from the individual's country of origin. However, if the country of origin's police/intelligence agencies are non-existent, incompetent, corrupt, or uncooperative, the amount of information the host nation can glean from them is severely limited - meaning, the host nation would have no information on prior criminal activity, military records, terrorist activity other than what they (or an allied state) may already have on hand. So, the host country is now in a position on whether they want to err on the side of caution and turn away the unknown, based on the fear of what 'may' happen; or hope for the best and take everyone in, even if there are bad apples in the bunch. The Merkel administration has obviously chosen the latter. I hate to say it, but what we're seeing is the fallout from this.

From my own point of view, this conundrum is extremely dangerous, because it is these limitations of the current system that makes it so easy for terrorists or criminals to exploit. Aside from the native European people, the people who have the greatest potential to really lose out on this are the people who are fleeing war ravaged countries such as Syria and Iraq who actually DO need asylum.

Mark Singleton

Interesting article Jeanine, well done. One thing to note perhaps is that speeches such as these are normally written by full-time speech writers in consultation with the political director and chief of staff, not politicians. Whether crisis management lessons are applied, remains to be seen. I tend to think Merkel's team wanted to manage political fallout, pre-empting AfD's likely response.

Jeanine van Zuijdewijn

Stewart, thanks for your view on this.

I think you make a fair point about political motives that need to be acknowledged somewhere even though it was not the topic that I wanted to discuss, so I made these changes:

"Given the fact that Merkel has been facing a lot of criticism for Germany’s asylum news as early as possible.", adding - for political reasons -as well as the following sentence: "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.".

Surely, political reasons often play a major role and I would not claim that politicians/leaders are mainly inspired by insights from crisis management literature. The aim of this article, however, was to do exactly that: put it next to the insights from crisis management and leave this very sensitive (but nevertheless very necessary and inevitable!) political debate to others.

Stewart Cotterill

An interesting article about Merkel's response.

However, rather than deploying the classic crisis management literature to help the German people, I feel that she has responded in this way due to the pressure she is under domestically and politically.

If the perpetrator of the attack is found to be a migrant who came in to Germany during the time that Merkel said that Germany would accept the huge flow of humanity, then the "buck" surely stops with her and her decision making. She had no democratic mandate to open the German borders to these majority non-EU citizens, it was a decision purely of her making in my opinion. Therefore, any responsibility for the attack must lie, obviously, firstly, with the person who carried out the attack and secondly, the person who allowed a terrorist to enter her country without any checks on whether the person was suitable to be in that country, from a security point of view.

If the German people take solace in her words, due to their crisis management effect, then that is good. It is my opinion that Merkel has not deployed them for this reason, but to 'manage' her domestic political situation. Just another point of view. Doesn't mean I'm right!