Toronto witness says he worries suspected terror attack in Berlin will create a climate of fear

As Berlin recovers from the aftermath of a suspected terrorist attack, former Torontonians there worry it could give push the country further to the political right.

At least 12 people died Monday when a truck plowed into a Berlin Christmas market

A policeman with a submachine gun stands in front of a tree at the Christmas market in Berlin following the incident. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

At first, Imanuel Zadig Onnasch only saw the throng of holiday shoppers, backlit by strings of lights and the tiny huts filling Berlin's popular Christmas markets.

The truck was almost too dark to see, he said.

It kept its headlights off as it plowed into the mass of people gathered at the market Monday afternoon, Zadig Onnasch told CBC Toronto, of what he witnessed with a friend.

"Everything happened so fast, in a matter of seconds," he said. "There was panic breaking out, people were pretty much running away. There were injured people on the street and it took some time before the police arrived."

At least 12 people died and another 48 were injured.

Within moments, Zadig Onnasch said he began getting messages from his friends in Toronto. He had returned to Berlin just two weeks ago after spending a month in this city, where he's lived off-and-on since 2011.

A suspect has been arrested in the incident. Berlin's top security official, State Interior Minister Andreas Geisel, said that while he didn't want to speculate, the circumstances pointed to a terrorist attack.

The aftermath

Despite the number of high-profile terror attacks in Europe, Zadig Onnasch, a 29-year-old business consultant, said the German people have not been fearful of it happening in their own country.

"I'm just trying to recover," Zadig Onnasch said in a separate interview a few hours after the attack. "I never thought something like this could happen here."

Zadig Onnasch said that he worries more about the sense of terror such an attack provokes — and how it will affect political discourse.

"I'm more scared about the people around me, because if everything around them will be consumed by this fear that will start affecting my life," he said. "If I can't see friends, because they are scared. If people vote for certain parties and limit my rights as a citizen, that is what I'm mostly scared about."

Rise of the European right

There's been a shift to right in European politics in the past year — from the rhetoric and the results of the Brexit vote, the tone of the French presidential campaign to the criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's immigration and refugee policies.

And former Ontario resident Christian Nathler said he's concerned the attack on the market will only further divide the country — and give right-wing parties a soapbox. Nathler learned of the tragedy unfolding two kilometres away from him when he received a message from a friend in Toronto asking if he was safe.

"I think, unfortunately, they're going to have a lot more fuel for their campaign running up to next September," the former Midland, Ont., resident said. "I think, before they didn't have that landmark event that they could say, 'Look what happens when you have an open border or when you have a poorly thought out integration process.' And now they have that one thing that they can lean on."

Christian Nathler, a former Toronto student who now lives in Berlin, said he worries that the attack in the Christmas market will empower right-wing political parties. (Submitted by Christian Nathler)

Germans in Toronto

In Toronto, Germany's deputy consul general said staff observed a moment of silence.

"And, of course, all of the German community in Toronto and Ontario and Canada do have relatives in Berlin," Michael Lauber said. "And the first thoughts that we had were that there is a good chance, unfortunately, a very good chance, that somebody living here in Toronto having relatives back home may have lost a dear one."

The consulate had not received any calls about those concerned about family in Germany, he said, but he noted that his colleagues in Berlin have received hundreds, if not thousands, of calls from around the world.