MUNICH — Jörg Sobolewski could almost smell the roasted almonds and mulled wine wafting from the Christmas market on Monday. He considered going with his girlfriend, but with so much work to do before the holidays, decided he would stay in his Berlin apartment and go another day.
A few hours later, he heard the news: A truck had plowed through the market, killing 12 people and injuring 56 others. While German officials didn't declare the attack an act of terror until the following day, it was obvious to Sobolewski from that very moment.
“It actually didn’t surprise me at all,” Sobolewski, 27, said. “Even though we were basically importing people from terror-stricken countries, many Germans believed that we would be spared because we are so nice and welcoming. It was clear to me from the beginning that at one point this would happen, and it did.”
Sobolewski is Berlin regional manager of the right-wing political party Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, a new group that is steadily gaining ground in Germany — a country that has essentially shunned right-wing politics since World War II.
Similar to the Trump movement in its hard-line stance on immigration and political correctness, the AfD has been emboldened by the Berlin attack, seeing it as evidence of the party’s apocalyptic vision of the future under Germany’s current leader, Angela Merkel. In interviews, AfD members expressed fear for what they refer to as the Islamization of Europe.
The suspect in the rampage, a 24-year-old Tunisian man, was killed in a shootout with police early Friday. He was living in Germany legally, despite being under investigation for suspected terrorist activity in the country, because his deportation papers had not yet been processed. And yet Sobolewski puts the blame squarely on one German citizen: Chancellor Merkel.
“Her policy of open doors made this possible,” he said, referring to Merkel’s decision, announced in August 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, that Germany would welcome all migrants seeking asylum from war and violence.
While most European countries have held onto the Dublin Regulation, a European law requiring that asylum applications be processed in the first country a person enters, Merkel decided that Germany would accept refugees no matter where they’d landed first. Her policy has been heralded as a beacon of humanitarian liberalism in an increasingly conservative Europe. But it's also earned her scorn from some of her own people.
According to Kai Arzheimer, a political science professor at the University of Mainz and an expert on the AfD, many of the party’s members and supporters previously backed Merkel.
Within a year of Merkel’s announcement that Germany would welcome an unlimited number of refugees, nearly 1 million people took her up on the offer, entering Germany without background checks, and being met with generous social benefits. One of them was the alleged perpetrator of the Berlin attack, who first fled Tunisia for Italy, where he was imprisoned for four years, according to German media reports, before arriving in Germany.
The AfD has been accused of exploiting a tragic event for political gain, after party leaders issued statements immediately following the attack criticizing Merkel.
"When will the German rule of law strike back? When will this cursed hypocrisy end? These are Merkel's dead!" tweeted AfD politician Marcus Pretzell, a member of parliament and the domestic partner of AfD chairwoman Frauke Petry.
Even members of Merkel’s own coalition are criticizing her immigration policy. On Tuesday, Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer, chairman of the Christian Social Union (CSU), declared in Munich: “We owe it to the victims, their families and the entire populace to rethink and readjust our entire immigration and security policy.”
Yet it’s not just right-wing Germans who are angry at their government. Frustration is growing across the political spectrum over the government’s apparent bungling of the alleged suspect’s case.
"The authorities had him in their crosshairs and he still managed to vanish," read a headline in the respected liberal German news magazine Der Spiegel.
The AfD is hoping to capitalize on this anger, as it has done over the past two years.
Since the party’s establishment in 2013, their voice has been the loudest opposition against three-term Merkel, who is seeking re-election in 2017. When the AfD first emerged, it couldn't even reach the 5 percent mark needed to enter German parliament in that year’s elections.
That was before the refugee crisis of 2015 sent millions of migrants across European borders.