Berlin—Before the perpetrator of the bloody December 19 attack on a Berlin Christmas market, which killed 12 and injured 50, could even be identified, Germany’s right-wing populists knew exactly who was guilty: Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. And they lashed out at her at once, as if they’d been waiting impatiently for the moment to arrive—which in Berlin we knew that it would—tweeting the likes of “Merkel’s dead,” and “What has Merkel done to our country?”
This barrage hailed from Germany’s parliamentary far right, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which since its founding three years ago has charged into Germany’s regional legislatures and, running at about 12 percent in nationwide polls, will almost surely enter the Bundestag in the autumn 2017 national elections. Like its peers across the continent, its headline bugbears are Islam and immigration, and in the AfD’s case, Chancellor Merkel’s willingness to admit victims of political persecution and war into Germany, a right inscribed in Germany’s constitution, as well as EU and international law. “We shouldn’t be under any illusions. The milieu, which nurtures such acts,” claimed the AfD’s leader Frauke Petry—presumably referring to all of the refugees from Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East—“has been negligently and systematically imported into Germany over the last year and a half.” Germans simply aren’t safe in their own country, she wrote on her Facebook page the day after the assault. “It’s the chancellor’s duty to tell you this. Since she won’t do it, I will.”
Yet the far right, which one expects to blindside Merkel given any plausible opportunity, wasn’t alone—nor was it the only one cheering. Just a hair’s breadth behind it was, one would presume, a much less likely antagonist: Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The CSU runs on national slates together with the CDU and rules with it, too, such as in the Federal Republic’s current center-right government. The party has dominated politics in Bavaria since World War II. Even in the days of a divided Germany, the CSU functioned as an archconservative sparring partner of the CDU, at times critical of its big sister from the right, but in the end willing to fall into line. In contrast, Seehofer, with his party fully behind him, is unrelenting in his prosecution of Merkel, and he made no exception the morning after the carnage in Berlin. “We owe it to the victims, the aggrieved, and the entire population,” he said, “to rethink and readjust our immigration and security policies.” Clearly, in his mind the responsibility for the bloodshed lay not in Islamist fundamentalism, preposterous German security glitches, or political instability in the Middle East and North Africa, but rather in Angela Merkel’s flawed policies.
Seehofer is proving more than just a thorn in Merkel’s side—and his tormenting of her has already had Europe-wide ramifications, turning Merkel into the bête noire of the parties, politicos, and countries that insist on barricading their borders to keep refugees out. A slow-moving, bearlike man, the 67-year-old career politician barely opens his mouth when he speaks, grumbling curt sentences in a Bavarian dialect. Well-spoken or not, Merkel has no greater, more damaging, or more indefatigable detractor in all of Germany—or even in Europe. No one figure has done more to hurt Merkel on the issue of migration than Seehofer, who misses no opportunity to belittle her compromises in his direction (and there have been many) or scheme behind her back. He’s even invited Hungary’s autocratic, anti-refugee prime minster Viktor Orbàn to the CSU’s headquarters, and parlayed on his own with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Moscow.