For German women, 2016 has got off to a shocking start.
Dozens of women trying to see in the New Year in the centre of Cologne found themselves trapped in a crowd of some 1,000 men, who groped them, tore off their underwear, shouted lewd insults and threw fireworks at them.
To make matters worse, a series of sexual assaults that would normally make headline news went almost completely unreported for five days – and the scale of what happened that night in the western German city is only now emerging.
Women looking for reassurance from the authorities, therefore, were shocked when Henriette Reker, the mayor of Cologne and a survivor of a far-Right assassination attempt, said that German women should behave according to a certain ‘code of conduct’.
She made a public announcement advising women to travel in groups and stay at “arm’s length” from men they did not know to avoid such attacks happening to them.
‘This means they should go out and have fun, but they need to be better prepared, especially with the Cologne carnival coming up.
‘For this, we will publish online guidelines that these young women can read through to prepare themselves,” she said.
Her comments have been condemned and met with accusations of victim blaming by women’s rights campaigners.
To cap it all, a Cologne city councillor – far-Right activist Judith Wolter – has written an open letter declaring the city centre unsafe and a “no-go area” for women.
It may seem alarmist, but this is all highly unusual in a country where women are generally used to a high degree of personal safety. In recent years, the number of rape cases and associated offences in Germany has fallen by around 8 per cent.
In Hamburg, where a series of attacks also took place on New Year’s Eve, bouncers warned women not to leave nightclubs because of an increasingly hostile crowd on the streets.
But the warning was so unusual that several women ignored it and were sexually assaulted by those waiting outside.
The reason so many women in Cologne were caught up in the violence was because they believed the area around the main station would be safe.
Police have now confirmed that sex attacks took place in three cities: Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart. So far around 120 women have come forward, claiming to be victims.
The first accounts are now trickling out of Germany. Witnesses have told newspapers that men were entering bars and clubs, grabbing women’s backsides.
One woman only identified at Katia L, 28, told the Cologne tabloid Express that she and three friends were stopped by a group of ‘foreign looking men’ outside the station.
“Suddenly I felt a hand on my bottom, then on my breasts, then I was groped everywhere. ‘It was horrible. Although we screamed and flailed about, the guys didn’t stop. I was beside myself and think that I was touched about 100 times.”
Evelyn, 24 and a student from Rheinland-Pfalz, was also at Cologne train station.
As reported in newspaper Bild, she said: “I had a knee-length skirt on, and suddenly I felt a hand on my backside under my dress. I turned round immediately and saw a grinning face.”
She fled into the cathedral where she was surrounded again. “The only English they knew was “Hey Baby”. I was grabbed and held by the arm and it was a nightmare. We were trapped in a mass of people.”
Eighteen-year-old Michelle told German television channel N-TVthat she was surrounded by a group of 30 men, “who were full of anger, and we had to make sure that none of us were pulled away by them. They were groping us and we were trying to get away as quickly as possible.”
Lea Westkamp, 19, added: ‘I was surrounded and helpless. I could do nothing. These men were all over me.’
While a series of sexual assaults this serious seems unlikely in the UK, it is equally unlikely that any major British city would have so small a police presence in its centre on New Year’s Eve.
Officers in Cologne were overwhelmed by crowds of men. Witnesses described them watching helplessly and one unnamed policeman told Bild newspaper: “If you spoke to a suspect you were immediately surrounded by his friends. It was threatening.”
What makes this highly unusual situation even more combustible are police reports that the crowd of attackers was made up of men “of North African or Arab appearance”.
There have been allegations of a police cover-up for fear of setting off racial tensions.
The sexual assaults were barely reported by the German press until five days after they took place, and a former interior minister has accused the media of observing a “news blackout” and “code of silence” because of the ethnicity of those involved.
At the heart of this is the possibility that the perpetrators may be among the 1.1m asylum-seekers who arrived in Germany last year under Angela Merkel’s widely-criticised “open-door” refugee policy – something that’s already threatened to rock her seemingly unshakeable Chancellorship.
The government has been quick to announce there is no evidence that refugees were involved. The far-Right was as quick to say that there’s no evidence they weren’t.
Many German women are now beginning to voice fears that their personal safety is being compromised in the name of political correctness.
On Tuesday night, hundreds of protestors gathered in front of the cathedral in Cologne, demanding for more respect for women.
Female demonstrators waved signs reading: ‘Mrs Merkel. What are you doing? This is scary’.
Ms Reker, who only last year was hailed as a heroine after she survived an assassination attempt over her support for refugees, has been widely mocked for her advice to German women in the wake of the assaults.
“It’s not women who have to change their behaviour, but the men who are so rough,” Manuela Schwesig, the German minister for families, said. “The days in which women couldn’t wear miniskirts are over.”
“Politically correct excuses just make people angry,” Christian Pfeifferm a leading German criminologist, told Weltnewspaper.
“What bothered me in the recent reporting of Cologne was the bland assertion that it wasn’t refugees….This is as if they were afraid of the possibility.”
Now, though, the taboo appears to have been broken. Thomas de Maiziere, the interior minister, has called for asylum-seekers who break the law in Germany to be deported.
For the women caught up in Cologne’s New Year’s Eve catastrophe, it’s not the answer and does little to make them less apprehensive about the year ahead.