A Year After Berlin Terror Attack, German Christmas Markets Feature Heightened Security
For decades, Germany’s Christmas markets have featured mulled wine, carousels and hand-carved gifts. This year, concrete blocks, surveillance cameras and plainclothes police officers also will be part of the scene, a year after a deadly attack here.
German authorities have stepped up security around the beloved seasonal festivals in a bid to prevent a repeat of last year’s Berlin Christmas market attack that left 12 people dead.
But many security experts say the efforts may do little to deter attackers and could even increase casualties should things go wrong. In fact, they say, a genuine security upgrade for the country’s galaxy of Christmas markets would be expensive, intrusive and might not work.
Take concrete barriers, said Chris Phillips, former head of the U.K.’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office. “If a vehicle hits a block and the block explodes, it’s extremely dangerous.…Shards of flying concrete will kill people.” He said police are too focused on past threats instead of anticipating the militants’ next moves. Islamic state fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, for instance, may try to replicate the truck and car bombs they used there.
“Historically, we’ve seen tactics used on battlefields move to urban environments,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of security studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Germany’s more-than-1,450 Christmas markets are big business, attracting at least 85 million visitors a year and generating sales of more than €1 billion ($1.17 billion), according to the German Showmen’s Association. Planning for markets in big cities like Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt takes months.
In a country that puts up heavy restrictions on the use of video surveillance, cameras are making their first appearances at several markets this year. Uniformed police armed with automatic pistols patrol the city center while undercover police mingle with the crowds, supported by private security guards.
Authorities and organizers fear a repeat of attacks in Paris, Brussels and Copenhagen, where marauding gunmen wreaked havoc. This month, police found a cache of nearly 200 bullets in a garage near a Christmas market in Berlin. A police spokeswoman said no arrests have been made and an investigation is continuing.
Heavily armed helicopter SWAT teams are on standby in barracks across Germany.
In the past, authorities resisted tighter security, arguing they would cause unnecessary alarm. This changed Dec. 19, 2016, when Anis Amri, a rejected asylum seeker from Tunisia, drug dealer and known radical, plowed a hijacked truck into a Christmas market on Breitscheidplatz, near the Berlin Zoo.
Cologne’s main Christmas market no longer allows revelers to bring rucksacks or suitcases. Roads through Frankfurt’s main city center are blocked by checkpoints, parked vans and two-deep rows of concrete blocks.
“There are police here. There are no vehicles,” said Len Doucette, a 68-year-old retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer from Ottawa, Ontario, sightseeing at a Frankfurt Christmas market with friends. “I feel very safe.”
Stephan Borghorst, a 49-year-old researcher at the German parliament, was philosophical about the risks while strolling through a Berlin market.
“The probability of being killed in a terrorist attack is about the same as being stuck by lightning,” he said. “I’m not going to hide at home.”
German cities could follow the lead of New York and London and turn to permanent antitruck defenses disguised as street furniture, including crash-resistant bollards, sculptures and benches, Mr. Phillips said.
Encircling markets would be the best way of protecting them, Mr. Hoffman said. A more-intrusive option would be airport-style security checkpoints.
Organizers say such measures would cost too much and kill the spirit of markets that typically sprawl across city centers. Even unassuming barriers masquerading as street furniture would block city streets for the 11 months of the year when the markets don’t operate.
Retractable bollards would have stopped last year’s rampage and still allowed traffic to flow freely for the remainder of the year. The British Embassy in Berlin has been shielded by such bollards since a 2003 truck-bomb attack on the British consulate and HSBC headquarters in Istanbul that killed 30 people.
But at a cost of as much as £12,000 ($15,986) per bollard, according to their British manufacturer ATG Access, they are too expensive for most of Germany’s small Christmas markets, organizers said. Fortifying the 200-yard north and south flanks of Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz would cost well over €2 million.
That is too much for the market organizers, who have asked Berlin’s city council to help cover this year’s additional security costs.
In Lübeck on Germany’s Baltic coast, organizers spent €20,000 on 80 bags of sand and gravel, which they painted to look “Christmassy,” a spokeswoman for the market said.
“For a lack of a better alternative, these temporary barriers are useful.” said Raphael Bossong, a security expert at the German Institute for International and Security in Berlin. “It’s important to maintain confidence.”
Given the costs, German cities say they are doing their best with the means they have.
“There is no total security,” said Albert Ritter, president of the Berlin-based German Showmen’s Association. “If someone wants to do something criminal, they will find a way.”