- Number of police officers doubled for five-day celebrations
- Germany's fourth-biggest city expects up to 1 million people
The German city of Cologne, the scene of mass sexual assaults on women by criminal gangs on New Year’s Eve, is stepping up security to avoid a repeat occurrence during Carnival, the five-day pre-Lenten festival starting Thursday.
Authorities are doubling the number of police officers on duty from last year, adding about 2,500 reinforcements when the main festivities get under way at 11:11 a.m. The city is forking out almost 500,000 euros ($550,000) and contributing 400 public order staff and security services to aid law enforcement as tens of thousands of alcohol-fueled revelers take to the streets.
“Merriment and fear are not a good mix,” said Juergen Mathies, Cologne’s police chief. Police are setting up security points in the city and nearby Dusseldorf, offering refuge to women. Thursday is dubbed “Weiberfastnacht,” or Women’s Carnival, when throngs of costumed females converge and cut off the ties of unsuspecting men in jest.
In keeping with the Carnival tradition, Cologne’s Mayor Henriette Reker will hand over the keys to the town hall to a trio of “fools,” the Prince, the Peasant and the Virgin -- typically a man in drag -- who then “rule” the city for the duration of the festival. Authorities expect as many as one million people to join in the celebrations on Rose Monday, the highpoint of the revelry.
A failure by police to respond to the New Year’s Eve molests, leaving many of the victims to fend for themselves, has contributed to criticism about the city’s handling of the incident. The public outrage has also impacted the refugee debate in Germany, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy coming under increasing attack, posing the biggest threat to her leadership since she came to power in 2005.
Witnesses and police described the Cologne assailants as “mostly young men, between 18 and 35 years of age, mainly from North African and Arab regions.” With five state elections looming in Germany this year, political opponents and members of Merkel’s Christian Democrat bloc are challenging her stance as the influx of refugees continues unabated following the arrival of more than 1 million migrants last year.
At the same time, ordinary Germans have flocked to the aid of refugees, volunteering to help house and integrate new arrivals and teach them the language and local customs.
Politics feature strongly in the Carnival season, which ends with the onset of the Christian Lenten fasting period on Ash Wednesday, also known as Political Ash Wednesday.
While political leaders are often lampooned at pageants and public meetings, all major parties also use the occasion to make jibes at their opponents, staging rallies and making acerbic speeches, with the Rhineland region and the state of Bavaria at the center of the action.
Bavaria is home to the Christian Social Union, the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and a main entry point for refugees coming to Germany. CSU leader Horst Seehofer has become Merkel’s main antagonist in the refugee crisis, publicly berating her on her policies.
More than 1,000 criminal charges have been filed in relation to the Cologne assaults, and 11 people are in custody, most of whom are asylum seekers, according to the prosecutors office. Women complained of being robbed, groped and in one case raped as they passed through a group of about 1,000 men at the foot of the city’s landmark Gothic cathedral, where throngs of people had gathered to ring in the New Year.
“Incidents such as on New Year’s Eve must never happen again,” Mayor Reker said at a press conference on Monday. “The eyes of the world will be looking to see how Cologne manages this challenge.”