After coming under heavy criticism for his questioning the authenticity of video footage showing far-right and neo-Nazi protesters in the German city of Chemnitz chasing migrants in the streets, the head of Germany’s BfN domestic intelligence services Hans-Georg Maassen has been forced to step down and to accept a reassignment in the interior ministry.
Maassen‘s removal came after several days of political infighting that was sparked by the 55-year-olds open challenge to German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s political credibility.
Merkel had accused the far-right Alternative for German (AfD) party of stirring up racial tensions in Chemnitz after a local resident fatally stabbed in late August. A Syrian and Iraqi national were arrested in connection to the murder and have been held in pre-trial detention for the last several weeks.
The AfD has since organised a series of public rallies that have included the targeted harassment of migrant and minority groups
Maassen publicly contradicted Merkel’s claims and argued that there was little evidence of organised far-right violence against immigrants following the Chemnitz events. He added further fuel to the fire by making an unsubstantiated claim that the footage which had made its way onto most social media networks and showed hate groups attacking non-ethnic Germans might have been the product of an intentional disinformation campaign.
His comments were quickly condemned by the rank and file of the German political establishment and Maassen found himself taking further criticism for sharing the confidential contents of an official report on political violence and hate crimes with AfD politicians, which Massen claimed did not violate the BfN’s rules for classified material.
Since the outbreak of the AfD-led violence in Chemnitz, the German state of Thuringia has launched a probe on the party’s activities with an eye on the possibility that the AfD may have violated German constitutional norms. The BfN’s offices in Lower Saxony and Bremen have launched their own probes into the AfD’s youth wing – the Young Alternative group.
In an unprecedented move for an intelligence chief in post-Reunification Germany, Maassen triggered a media firestorm by wading into the country’s contentious political climate by expressing his support for Merkel’s rival – Interior Minister and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Horst Seehofer – shortly after Massen’s comments about the Chemnitz events became public.
As the head of the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Social Democrats, Seehofer in June threatened to withdraw his party’s parliamentary support from the ruling coalition because of Merkel’s immigration asylum policy. With elections in Bavaria scheduled for October 14, Seehofer’s CSU has been keen to appeal to voters who are displeased with Merkel and who may be leaning towards voting for the stridently anti-immigrant AfD.
Reassignment or promotion?
Maassen’s dismissal was followed by an unusual move to reassign him as Deputy Minister of the Interior under Seehofer, a move that is for all intents and purposes a promotion. Seehofer had publicly stated that if Maasen was to be dismissed from his position with the BfN, Seehofer would, himself, also have to step down.
Lack of public trust
That is not the first time the BfV has been accused of links with the far-right. After being founded in 1949, the agency initially recruited from the ranks of the Nazi-era Reich Main Security Office.
Between 2000 and 2007 the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU) killed nine migrants and one police officer in Germany but the BfV failed to use its undercover officers to prosecute the group effectively.
An investigation ordered by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in January 2001 revealed that BfV informants were active in the leadership of the National Democratic Party (NPD) – the West German ultranationalist political entity that has remained active since reunification in 1990. The NPD was never charged with illegal activity as they acting outside of a state-run apparatus, though government officials were members of the party.