Last week, the head of one of Germany’s most-criticized spy agencies repeated conspiracy theorists, saying he didn’t think foreigners were “hunted” after protests involving neo-Nazis in Chemnitz. This week, he is under pressure to resign.
On its website, the the Office for the Protection of the Constitution describes itself as “servants of democracy.” As such, Germans expect the head of the department should be politically neutral. But, thanks to his comments on recent events in Chemnitz, doubts about Hans-Georg Maassen’s impartiality are growing, as are cross-party calls for his resignation.
This week Mr. Maassen is being accused of being more sympathetic than he should be to Germany’s largest opposition party, the populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD. The accusations resulted from comments Mr. Maassen made in an interview with the Bild newspaper late last week. He said that he was completely unsure about what happened in Chemnitz, after demonstrations in response to the murder of a 35-year-old local. A Syrian and Iraqi were arrested in the case.
Arrest records, various videos, media reports and photos of protestors doing the Hitler salute appeared to prove that the protests in Chemnitz had included a violent, far-right element. Groups of anti-immigration protestors apparently “hunted” anyone who looked foreign through the town.
Mr. Maassen seemed to deny all that late last week, saying the BfV had “no reliable information about such hunts taking place” and that a widely-circulated video could well have been fake. A video like that was just distracting form the real issue – the murder – Mr. Maassen said.
His boss, Horst Seehofer, Germany’s Minister of the Interior, said over the weekend that it was correct for Mr. Maassen to review all the evidence and not just to any premature conclusions. But he also demanded Mr. Maassen to present a report supporting his arguments that the video was faked.
Mr. Maassen’s department, known as the BfV, is one of Germany’s spy offices and is tasked with monitoring extremist organizations that threaten Germany’s democratic institutions.
Mr. Maassen’s comments directly contradicted those of several senior politicians including those made by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Mr. Maassen’s comments were seen as an attack on her authority, as well as inappropriate for the head of an agency that maintains political neutrality.
Over the weekend, senior figures in the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD, a partner in Ms. Merkel’s ruling coalition, called on Mr. Maassen to resign. “Not for the first time, we must ask who or what he is protecting,” SPD vice-chair Ralf Stegner told Handelsblatt. “The head of the BfV must not arouse any doubt when it performs its duties and it should not be offering friendly advice.”
The BfV and its state-level equivalents have been under fire for years, in particular for their failure to prevent a series of right-wing terror attacks in the 2000s. Most recently, scandals have centered on Mr. Maassen meeting with senior AfD politicians to give them advice on how to avoid getting in trouble with the BfV, as well as what exactly the BfV knew about Amis Amri, the man who drove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016. The BfV apparently had an undercover agent monitoring Mr. Amri.
A spokesperson for the BfV categorically denied that either its federal or state offices have leaked information to the AfD, and dismissed suggestions that Mr. Maassen is an AfD sympathizer as “entirely without foundation.”