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A Summer of Angst in One of the World’s Safest Countries

BERLIN — Germany ranks in international studies as one of the safest, most peaceful countries in the world. Overall crime has declined for the better part of a decade, and statistics show that Germans have relatively few reasons to feel insecure.

But don’t tell that to Germans in what has become their summer of anxiety. Since June, a series of crimes — some violent and seemingly random, some targeted and political; some by migrants, and some aimed at them — have jangled nerves and amplified a sense of a nation straining at the seams.

The extent of German unease came to the fore of public debate last month after a man shoved a boy and his mother in front of an oncoming train in Frankfurt’s central station in broad daylight at the height of the summer travel season. She managed to roll to safety; her 8-year-old son was crushed and killed.

In the online discussion after the boy’s death, the Frankfurt police said on Twitter that the suspect was African, prompting an immediate outcry from members of the far-right, nationalist Alternative for Germany party, usually referred to by its German-language initials, AfD.

Security and immigration are key issues for AfD, and its members have condemned Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision four years ago to allow more than a million migrants into the country as a threat to public stability.

“Protect the citizens of our country for once and for all instead of this open-door ‘welcome culture,’” Alice Weidel, a leader of the party, wrote on Twitter after the boy died on July 29.

The suspect arrested, however, was not a beneficiary of Ms. Merkel’s migration policy, nor even a resident of Germany.

The man, identified only as Habte A., was a 40-year-old Eritrean who had been living, working and supporting a family in Switzerland for more than a decade, according to the police there. They had been looking for him, they said, because he had vanished after threatening neighbors in Zurich who thought he had psychological problems.

He remains in custody in Frankfurt, where he faces charges of murder and attempted murder.

While the case might have been treated as a tragedy born of mental illness, it set off a fevered round of anxiety in a society that prizes order and consensus but is increasingly politically polarized.

At a memorial service outside the train station, far-right supporters denouncing immigrants shouted at a crowd of hundreds who had gathered to honor the boy. The situation remained peaceful, but tense.

Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, responded by cutting short his summer vacation to huddle with his top security advisers in Berlin.

“The sense of security among people is very fraught, and incidents like that in Frankfurt contribute to it,” Mr. Seehofer told reporters after the meeting. He promised to increase security at train stations and to institute “intelligent” checks at the border with Switzerland.

“We have experienced a few things in recent weeks,” he added, without elaborating.

Experts point out, however, that such measures may do little to combat the roots of the nation’s anxiety, which lie much deeper in the German psyche and are linked to more intangible fears based in the past.

“Big disasters that happen in other places don’t happen in Germany,” said Ortwin Renn, director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam and a researcher in risk studies. “It’s all pretty benign compared to other parts of the world.”

“But throughout history, because of the many catastrophes, Germans are more sensitive,” he added, referring obliquely to World War II and the nation’s devastation and capitulation. ‘‘There is a higher tension and fear that something bad could happen.”

That history is now the baseline for a country increasingly divided between those who fear their security is under threat and long for an idealized past, and those who likewise crave stability but think that Germany must adapt, however uncomfortably, to changing times.

Those changes include Europe’s shifting politics, digitization and globalization. But for many on both sides, immigration has become the defining issue.

“We are living in a time of awakening, from the refugees to Brexit, Trump, Erdogan, climate change — suddenly Germans are feeling that they cannot stop time and remain in the protective bubble of prosperity that has been Germany of the past decade,” said Stephan Grünewald, a psychologist who has focused on this state of affairs.

“This has left behind a diffuse angst about the future,” he said.

Those fears are not entirely unfounded. While violent crime in Germany is down overall, according to government statistics, crimes committed by supporters of far-right ideology increased 14 percent from 2014 to 2018.

Of all crimes recorded last year, 39 percent overall were committed by non-German citizens, though they account for just 12 percent of Germany’s overall population.

Headlines from the summer’s start reflect those trends. In July, a public swimming pool in Düsseldorf shut early and began checking IDs after dozens of teenage boys and young men, whom the police described as having a “North African appearance,” were barred after a clash with employees and other patrons.

In the exclusive Munich suburb of Starnberg, it was the police who became targets of a group of drunken teenagers when an attempt to free a friend from detention turned into a riot.

In early June, Walter Lübcke, a representative of Ms. Merkel’s conservative party, was fatally shot on his front porch in what appears to be the first far-right political assassination in the country since the Nazi era.

Homes of members of both the AfD and the Left party, on the other end of the political spectrum, have been targeted with attempted arson and firecrackers as elections near in three eastern states.

Recent polls show the far-right party as the strongest force in the east, edging out the chancellor’s conservatives by one percentage point, less than a month before the first states, Brandenburg and Saxony, vote on Sept. 1.

All those events made headlines across Germany and fueled public debate and anxiety. A much more muted debate, however, ensued in the town of Wächtersbach, north of Frankfurt, when a German man opened fire on a 26-year-old from Eritrea — no relation to Habte A. — critically wounding him in a drive-by shooting that prosecutors described as racially motivated.

That attack took place a week before the boy was killed at the Frankfurt train station.

In a statement released through Jürgen Warncke, a lawyer, the 8-year-old’s parents said it “would be comforting” if their son’s death resulted in more security “in public places and at railway stations.”

The family has asked that their names, and their son’s, not be released to allow them to mourn in private.

Members of the AfD, however, want to be able to mourn him by name.

Eugen Ciresa, a member of Parliament for the party in Baden-Württemberg, refused to accept the child’s privacy, dubbing him “Oskar” in a post on Facebook that demanded, “Give the boy a name so he won’t be forgotten.”


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