BERLIN—When a trailer truck with a terrorist at the wheel barreled into a crowded Christmas fair in a public square in the heart of Germany’s capital on Monday, there were no more than five policemen on patrol there. The area was ringed with slender metal poles, not concrete barriers.
“We had some officers there to keep an eye on the market,” a police spokesman said. “We now see it wasn’t enough.”
The relatively light defenses, despite evidence of repeated plots by Islamic terrorists to target such holiday festivals, reflect Germany’s approach to security—one influenced by deep misgivings about the use of force by the state in reaction to the country’s fascist and communist past.
Monday’s carnage—12 people died and dozens of others were injured—has prompted serious questions about Germany’s security posture in the midst of a two-year terror scare spanning Europe.
Armed officers on Tuesday were deployed at the scene of the attack in Breitscheidplatz and other public places in Berlin. Cities and Christmas market operators around Germany said on Tuesday they would beef up protections.
Others—including the organizers of Nuremberg’s world-famous Christkindlesmarkt in southern Germany—said they already had. Still, before Monday, security around Germany’s beloved Christmas markets seemed designed more to deter pickpockets than jihadists.
When they opened late last month, most Christmas markets in the German capital showed little police presence, fencing or access control for visitors—a far cry from the heavily armed police and soldiers that patrol most landmarks in neighboring France.
This stance was maintained despite the arrest last week of a 12-year-old boy who planted two bombs that failed to detonate near a Christmas market in the city of Ludwigshafen—and a warning by the U.S. State Department last month about possible Islamist attacks on outdoor holiday festivals in Europe.
The minimal security isn’t limited to public events. Visitors to Angela Merkel’s Chancellery can generally enter the building without being searched if they were previously announced.
“It doesn’t change anything to have more police,” said Christian Becker, a 38-year-old tourist from Ulm who was visiting the sprawling Christmas market on Alexanderplatz in eastern Berlin. If the terrorists want to attack, they will, he said.
What to American eyes may appear like carelessness—or resignation—lies partly in the lack of a large-scale terrorist precedent in the country.
France had been a target of Middle Eastern groups long before the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo newsroom and the murderous rampage in Paris last November.
A series of bombings in Paris stores and public places in 1985 and 1986 attributed to Hezbollah claimed some 16 lives and left more than 300 wounded. In the mid-1990s, Algerian terrorists carried out two devastating bombings in the capital and hijacked an Air France flight.
Though Germany suffered a long campaign of far-left terror in the 1970s and 1980s, until this year, the most devastating Islamist attack on German soil was the killing of two U.S. servicemen at Frankfurt airport by a man from Kosovo in 2011. Two Islamist attacks this summer by recently arrived migrants from Syria and Afghanistan claimed no deaths.
The ambivalence toward conspicuous display of official force and surveillance has deep historical roots in Germany’s experience with Nazi and communist dictatorships. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, whose spire towers over the scene of Monday’s attack, is a scorched, bombed-out shell left as a reminder of the horrors of dictatorship and war.
While policemen are armed, they are rarely seen carrying assault rifles or submachine guns. Laws ban the deployment of the military on German soil, put severe limits on the cooperation between police and intelligence agencies at home, and limit video surveillance to train stations, public transport facilities and high-crime areas. Most large cities have no CCTV cameras on public streets.
Now, however, with one week left in the Christmas market season, the reluctant approach to policing seems set for an update.
“The security situation has changed considerably,” said Berlin’s police chief, Klaus Kandt, adding that police would start immediately installing concrete barriers outside large open markets. Armed police are to be stationed at the entrances to large markets, he said.
“We must talk about how we can increase passive security further in places frequented by many people—be it with concrete blocks or barriers,” Burkhard Lischka, a Social Democrat and member of the German parliament’s domestic affairs committee, said. “But of course, it’s impossible to barricade every single Christmas market in the country,” he added.
After consulting with the police early Tuesday, officials in Frankfurt, the country’s financial capital, said they would increase the number of police officers on the ground and set up mobile roadblocks at the market’s main entrances.
“Obviously, the mood isn’t the same anymore,” with visitor numbers below usual lunchtime levels, said Thomas Feda, director of Frankfurt’s Tourist and Congress Board, which organizes big festivals in the city. Before Monday’s attack, the city had been on track for about 3.3 million visitors, a record.
“Now, we’ve got to reassess the situation,” he said.
Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt, which drew more than two million visitors last year, opened Tuesday as planned. The city had already increased security measures following nonfatal attacks in Bavaria earlier this year and took steps that included blocking access roads with police vehicles.
Back in Berlin, the operator of the Christmas market on Gendarmenmarkt square said the market, one of the city’s most exclusive, had strengthened security this year, with four entrances where bags are checked and visitors are barred from bringing suitcases and large backpacks. It is also one of the city’s few fenced markets.
“I feel safe. I already see more police with machine guns,” Christian Hugler, a Berlin resident, said. Others in the capital weren’t as reassured.
Gert Ulrich, 32 years old, said “this was completely expected and it will happen again. It isn’t a question of police, it’s a question of politics.”
—Andrea Thomas and Ruth Bender contributed to this article.