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Germans face 'the summer of fear and anger' after four attacks in a week

Germany, which has taken in more refugees than any other European country, is reeling over deadly attacks by some of them.
Centinaia di persone durante una manifestazione a Berlino, il 30 luglio scorso. Sullo striscione, la scritta “Berlino! Meglio senza nazisti” [foto di Joerg Carstensen/EPA]

Two weeks ago, Inga Rauber went on an excursion with her girlfriends to the historic German town of Würzburg, riding on a train through lush forests and Bavarian farmland, one of the wealthiest regions in Europe's biggest economy. Just days later, the 64-year-old housewife was shaken to the core: on the same rail line, an Afghan refugee went after passengers with an ax.

It was one of four high-profile attacks in Germany which killed 10 people over a few days, three of them by men who had entered the country seeking asylum. Two have been claimed by the Islamic State


"I knew it could have been one of us," Rauber, who lives in Lahnau, a town of 8,000 in central Germany, said.

The attack stoked her fears about the country's recent refugee influx, mirroring the unease of a nation that has so far been more welcoming of refugees than anybody else in the European Union. Like more than half of German citizens, Rauber now opposes Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to welcome more than 1.1 million refugees in the past year — the largest number by far of any European country.

"There's no way to find a political language or analysis sober enough to explain to people what's going on"

"At first I thought of course, we have to help the refugees," Rauber said, "but then people started coming into the country with no control and no one knew how many there were or if they had a dangerous background. This uncontrolled influx has been frightening."

The people of Lahnau, she said, are worried, too.

"At the beginning there was a welcoming culture, but now so many people … are anxious," Rauber said. "When I go to the bakery, the women there are saying, 'they have to go, they have to go.'"

Thirty-nine percent of Germans feel less safe than before the attacks and 57 percent say Merkel's refugee policy has failed, according to a poll this Wednesday by the market research company Emnid. This spring, before the recent spate of attacks, 73 percent of Germans surveyed said they feared terrorism.


To quell the fears, Merkel delivered a calm but firm speech Thursday, in which she defended her open-door policy but also emphasized precautions the government would take, laid out in a nine-point plan. She said Germany would conduct joint terrorism trainings for the police and military, add more police to the streets, investigate early signs of radicalization among individuals, and introduce faster deportation for asylum seekers whose requests were rejected.

"Today, as in the past, I am convinced that we can do it — to live up to our historic task, which is a historic test in the age of globalization," Merkel said. "All of this puts a great test before us. It tests our way of life, our sense of freedom and democracy."

"Her main aim is to restore trust and to give people the feeling of trust," Astrid Ziebarth, a migration policy expert for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said.

Merkel's speech — and the public's reaction — have centered around her open-door policy for Syrian refugees, which she began last fall as a response to the crowds of desperate refugees appearing at the nation's borders. But there isn't a real link between the policy and the attacks, Ziebarth said, and in any case very few refugees are currently entering the country, because of an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to limit migration.

"When we look at the four cases last week none of those people came with the open-door policy, but they came before," Ziebarth said of their varied backgrounds. A teenage shooter who killed nine people in Munich was born in Germany; the perpetrators in Ansbach, Würzburg, and Reutlingen entered the country before last fall.


Still, the attacks created a perception of insecurity tied to refugees, which is also driving support in the polls for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and its xenophobic platform.

Related: Germany's Far-Right AfD Party Is Scaring Europe, And Rising in the Polls

"There's no way to find a political language or analysis sober enough to explain to people what's going on," Mario Munster, a political campaign consultant based in Berlin who has worked most recently with the Social Democrats, said. "One year later the situation changed from the summer of welcoming to the summer of fear and anger."

German society is deeply divided on the issue of what to do about refugees, in the absence of a national plan for their integration. Finding housing, schooling and work for refugees is left largely to local authorities. "If you talk to mayors in their cities, they have to deal," Munster said. "There is no plan. They have them inside shelters, but there is no plan to find long term solutions for them."

Even within families — including the Raubers — there are opposing beliefs.

"I really supported Merkel's plan, and I haven't changed my feelings at all," Inga's husband Hans, a retired policeman, said, adding that he doesn't feel more anxious after the recent attacks. "I think it's foreseeable that an attack might happen — this is the natural reaction to exclusion," he said, referring to inadequate integration into German society. And the Raubers' daughter Mona has grown so dedicated to the refugee cause that she is studying them for her master's thesis in Berlin.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, a segment of Germans has grabbed onto the refugee influx as a way to express prejudice against all Middle Eastern-born people.

"Many are very scared, because it's just too much"

"There are too many that came in. A big problem is we can no longer finance them," Katrin, who runs a real estate office in East Berlin and spoke on condition that her last name not be used, said. "We posted job openings and they sent us Turks, Arabs. They did not come to work, they just went away for two hours because they felt like the work is too hard … or too dirty for them."

"Many are very scared," she said of her fellow Germans, "because it's just too much."

As refugees navigate this unpredictable stew of attitudes, some have become hesitant to share their identities with strangers.

"When I meet a person for the first time I try to not to tell them I'm a refugee so they feel comfortable because if I tell them at the beginning they might get scared," Zain Hazzouri, 22, a Syrian who migrated to Berlin after fleeing Aleppo 10 months ago, said. "The [attackers] did what they did not because they're refugees, but because they're psycho."

Refugees, some of whom come from Syria, and their supporters demonstrate with posters saying 'They aren't acting in my name' in Würzburg, Germany, on July 20. Photo by Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/EPA

Still, Hazzouri might be considered an ideal example of integration. He takes every day intensive German-language classes funded by the federal government, is preparing to study computer science at a Berlin university, and has made a close group of German friends.

"I feel really comfortable here because Berlin is multicultural and has lots of nationalities," he said. "I don't feel at home but also not like a stranger."

Mohammad Al-Asri, who also recently arrived in Berlin from Syria and is also studying intensive German, is worried that the recent incidents "hurt every refugee" in the country.

"They came here and got everything they needed. How could they do this?" Al-Asri, 22, said the attackers. "No country is like Germany. Other countries don't offer so many possibilities for us to start a new life."