Traditional German Christmas markets up security amid Paris fears


The shadow of events in Paris hangs over Monday’s opening of traditional Christmas markets throughout Germany. The markets – a favourite among locals and tourists alike for their trinkets and mulled wine – are expected to go ahead as planned. But there is anxiety among the public and state officials are working on the best ways to allay those fears.

Policing a traditional German Christmas market is usually straightforward. It means keeping an eye out for petty criminals like pickpockets, who love the markets as much as the legitimate visitors love the mulled wine.

This year could be more nerve-racking.

Following the Paris terrorist attacks, police and security guards will not merely be watching for light fingers straying into handbags and rucksacks, but also for more ominous behaviour. Many are concerned that the markets – which pop up all over Germany this time of the year and are open to all – could prove to be easy targets.

Local police forces have made announcements to this effect in many parts of the country, promising increased security measures and more officers on duty as many of the markets gear up to open on Monday.

In Berlin, mulled wine – or Gluehwein – is already on sale in the so-called Winter Worlds, which look much like Christmas markets, but are already open in places with high through-traffic, like Berlin’s Potsdam Square.

Visitors have mixed feelings about the situation following Friday’s attacks in Paris, which included shootings and bombings at bars and restaurants and left 129 dead.

“After the attacks, my 9-year-old son was a bit nervous,” says Walter Gildersleeve, 49. “Then I told him that a car accident was more likely than a terrorist attack.”

Gildersleeve insists that “one shouldn’t be intimidated.”

But a 27-year-old woman at the Winter World sees Paris as “a sign of things to come.”

Stephan Daehn, 31, recalls experiencing similar anxieties on the so-called Fan Miles set up during major football competitions to allow viewing on large screens. He adds that he has become “uneasy” at mass events.

Vanessa, visiting Berlin from Barcelona, says: “I’m thinking about it the whole time. You don’t feel safe, but what should one do?”

Organizers and the police throughout Germany are taking the concerns seriously. Reinhold Gall, interior minister of the south-western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, does not believe any Christmas markets will close.

“But we will discuss the security situation extremely carefully with the organizers,” he assures the public.

The interior minister of the eastern state of Thuringia, Holger Poppenhaeger, has announced specially devised security concepts and a greater police presence.

With the aim of retaining the traditional carefree atmosphere, plain clothes police will be deployed rather than uniformed officers.

With respect to the famous Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt (Christ Child Market) a police spokesman for the region in Bavaria says: “Our officers have all been alerted.” He adds that there are no concrete indications of an increased threat.

“Caution is required, but fear would be the wrong attitude,” says Berlin Interior Senator Frank Henkel. “If we are too frightened to go out of doors any more, then the terrorists will have won.”

The security issue is nothing new for the Christmas markets. Three years ago, there was a major terrorism scare during the run-up to Christmas.

“We went over the site with explosives sniffer dog during the night before opening,” says Gunda Kniep, who runs a well-known Berlin Christmas market on the central Gendarmenmarkt.

But she insists she remains confident. “I’m assuming that Germany is not at the focus for terrorists the way that other countries are,” Kniep says.

As visitors have to pay to enter her market, there are security guards at the four entrances. Additional guards will be patrolling inside.

But concerns about a repeat of Friday night’s events in Paris have led to a shortage of security personnel. “We can’t find any more guards,” Kniep says.

The large Christmas fair near Berlin’s huge Alexander Square is relying on increased police to ensure security.

“There is a strong police presence,” says Klaus Schneider, a spokesman for the operating company. In the event of a concrete threat, a bag check by security personnel will be instituted.

Schneider notes that Christmas markets do not face a particular threat. “Any gathering of people could be a target, like shopping centres or sports stadiums,” he says.

In any case, 100-per-cent checks on public events are simply not possible. “And for that reason, there is no absolute security,” Schneider says.