Angela Merkel vows to improve support for families after government was accused of failing to support victims of terrorist attack.
Germany’s leaders have admitted that the government failed to provide adequate support to relatives of the victims of last year’s terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market, and acknowledged security gaps in the run-up to the atrocity.
A year after Anis Amri, a Tunisian whose asylum application had been turned down months before, rammed a truck into the crowded market at the Breitscheidplatz, killing 12 people and wounding 70, the authorities have been criticised for security failings and their clumsy handling of the aftermath of the assault.
After being accused of failing to personally contact families of victims, the chancellor, Angela Merkel, met them for the first time on Monday.
“The talks were very open and, from the part of those affected, no holds barred, and pointed to the weakness of our country in this situation,” Merkel said as Germany held a day of solemn commemoration for the victims on Tuesday.
“Today is a day of sadness, but also a day of our will to make better things that did not work well,” she said, adding that she had offered to meet the bereaved again in a few months.
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier also told the bereaved and emergency workers at a private church memorial that “it is true that some support came late and remained unsatisfactory”.
“Many family members and injured – many of you – felt abandoned by the state,” he added, recalling the words of a woman whose daughter was killed in the attack.
“I can’t get those words out of my head,” he said, insisting the relatives’ appeal to be heard had “triggered something and set it in motion”.
In the hours after the assault, which was claimed by Islamic State, politicians had put on a brave front and repeated the mantra that Germany would not be cowed by terror. But Steinmeier said such rhetoric had done little for the victims.
“So soon after the attack … these words don’t sound simply defiant and self-confident, but also strangely cold and detached,” he said.
To mark the anniversary, the popular Christmas market was shut all day as the tributes to victims took place.
At midday, Merkel joined relatives in inaugurating a memorial – a 14-metre (46-ft) golden crack in the ground engraved with the victims’ names.
During the evening, there will be a public ecumenical prayer at 8.02pm (1902 GMT) – the exact time when Amri drove his truck into the crowded square – when people can light candles and the church’s bells will chime for 12 minutes.
However, the run-up to the commemoration has been marred by criticism of the authorities by families of the victims.
An open letter by some of the bereaved accused Merkel of failing to personally offer condolences.
In an editorial in the Tagesspiegel newspaper, the justice minister, Heiko Maas, apologised.
“We were not sufficiently prepared to deal with the consequences of such a terror attack,” he wrote. “For that, we can only apologise to the victims and their surviving relatives.”
Kurt Beck, who was commissioned by the government to examine the handling of the aftermath, last week outlined a litany of official failings, including taking up to three days to inform anxious relatives that their loved ones had died, and sending the bereaved late-payment warnings for autopsy bills.
Police also faced criticism after it emerged that Amri, who arrived in Germany in 2015 and registered under numerous identities, should have been deported.
On Sunday, the Welt am Sonntag newspaper said the Tunisian had been under closer surveillance by Germany’s secret service than previously thought, suggesting the authorities might have left him free in order to detect his instigators.
Amri was shot and killed four days after the attack by police in Italy, where he had previously lived.