The first I heard was a text message from a friend in London, around 9 p.m. When I opened my laptop it was already filled with images of the Gedächtniskirche in the centre of former West Berlin, its broken spire left there after the war as a memorial. But now, in front of it, a lorry had been driven into one of Berlin’s busiest Christmas markets: the wooden huts festooned with fairy lights were surrounded by the blue and red lights of the ambulances, fire engines and police cars. Blood stained the pavement and windswept reporters repeated the little information they had. Nine dead, many injured, the lorry’s passenger killed at the scene. The driver in custody. Was it worse that we weren’t even surprised?
I received more messages: ‘Are you safe?’ ‘Thinking of you.’ ‘Let us know you are OK.’ This isn’t the age of no news is good news. I had visited that Christmas market a couple of weeks ago with my children and driven past it at the weekend, but last night we were at home on the other side of Berlin. We were fine. Even though the authorities didn’t confirm it was a terrorist attack until early in the morning, we thought: so this is how it goes – Paris, Brussels, Nice, Munich, Ansbach and now here.
On Tuesday, confusion ran high – publicly at least. It seems that the Pakistani asylum seeker they caught last night wasn’t the man driving the truck. The passenger, a lorry driver from Poland, might have been stabbed before the lorry crashed. The lorry had been moved three times yesterday afternoon, as if someone were practising driving it. Over breakfast, I tried to find the right way to explain to my six-year-old twins the reason we wouldn’t be going to the Christmas market after all this afternoon. ‘But, Mummy, why don’t they just ban all lorries from Berlin until Christmas?’
In spite of the unknown, or because of it, within less than 24 hours the attack has become part of many agendas. On Facebook, a smiling photo of a couple holding a heart-shaped biscuit with ‘Frohe Weihnachten’ iced across it tells us to defy the terror and keep going to Christmas markets. A friend complains that the social network’s ‘safety check’ function is heightening our sense of fear. Frauke Petry, the chairwoman of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, said on social media this morning: ‘Germany is a divided country on the question of immigration. Terror will unite us.’ Uncontrolled immigration must stop, her post continued, and mosques preaching jihad must be closed down.
In my office, we flitted between news and the sort of work you can do with only half your mind on it. A colleague said she felt sick when she read Trump’s response. The handful of us who had been in London in 2005 compared notes.
This afternoon Merkel said that yesterday’s attack would be particularly repugnant if it is confirmed to have been carried out by someone who entered the country as a refugee. Germany has accepted more than a million refugees and in my Berlin neighbourhood they have been met with a great deal of good will. Pegida is the exception; donating clothes, volunteering at refugee centres, accepting that your child will have fewer sports lessons because the gym is being used to house new arrivals, these are the new norms. There may be a sense of atonement in this fervour: a generation of Germans relish the chance to belong to a welcoming nation when other countries are turning their backs. Even though I doubted myself, I don’t suppose I was the only one naively hoping Germany might be spared because of #refugeeswelcome.
Inside the Gedächtniskirche’s old tower, just beside where the lorry struck, are the restored golden mosaics from the original church, laid in the first years of the 20th century to tell a story of Germany before Kaiser Wilhelm I. Alongside symbols of reconciliation – a cross of nails from Coventry, a Russian Orthodox cross – the stylised angels and kings in ermine line up in solemn procession until the walls crumble to the blue air.
Just now, the headlines on my phone tell me the initial suspect has been released; the police are still hunting.