Hans-Georg Maassen is a man on a mission. Depending on who you ask, the bespectacled 58-year-old civil servant either wants to save the West from itself, win back conservative German voters from the far right – or take revenge for his humiliating departure in 2018 as Germany’s domestic spy chief.
After three years in the wilderness, Maassen has secured a Bundestag nomination for Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the eastern state of Thuringia.
Though election day is more than four months away, political Berlin is abuzz with speculation over what Maassen's parliamentary ambitions mean for the ailing centre-right CDU.
Its chairman Armin Laschet is largely powerless to intervene in local CDU Thuringia business.
Officials there insist that Maassen is the right man to keep local conservative voters from drifting right to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – in second place here with 23 per cent support and ahead of the CDU, which is in third place with 19 per cent.
But some wonder if the Thuringian CDU’s plan with Maassen is to build a wall against the AfD – or open a back door to political co-operation.
A year ago CDU members of Thuringia’s state parliament joined forces with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FPD) to elect the latter party’s leader as state premier.
The plan to oust the state’s left-wing leader was only possible by accepting AfD votes. It collapsed after a national outcry but a post-war line – do not co-operate with the far right – had been crossed.
Now Maassen’s bid for a Bundestag seat has revived fears in some quarters that future CDU-AfD flirtation is more likely.
As head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for Constitutional Protection (BfV), he held several meetings with senior AfD leaders. During these meetings he allegedly advised the party how it needed to change its messaging and behaviour to avoid coming under surveillance by his body.
That generated considerable blowback, but the final straw came in 2018, when Maassen described as "completely made up" media reports that far-right extremists chased migrants through the eastern city of Chemnitz.
This was an open challenge to chancellor Angela Merkel, who had already condemned the Chemnitz chase scenes, and the BfV chief was forcibly retired.
His planned return to public life has set alarm bells ringing. On live television Maassen was described as a "huge danger for democracy" by Luisa Neubauer, a leading figure with the German branch of Fridays for Future.
As they sat together on a talk show, Neubauer accused CDU leader Laschet of tolerating the former spy chief’s nomination and thereby “legitimising racist, anti-Semitic, identitarian as well as science-denial content”.
While Laschet struggled to counter the accusations, Maassen issued a statement the next day saying he “firmly rejects such unfounded claims”.
Neubauer and her allies refuse to back down, accusing him of associating with far-right groups online and off – and of pushing dog-whistle politics reminiscent of Trump strategist Stephen Bannon.
In a long essay for the right-wing magazine Cato, Maassen laid out his chief concerns: that a monied elite of “globalists” has joined forces with the “former socialist left” to trigger a “great reset” to restructure western society.
In this analysis, the end of “traditional lifestyles” is looming through a political agenda that prioritises climate protection and further immigration, while imposing politically correct locks on language and freedom of expression.
Proponents of this agenda – judges, university lecturers, managers, journalists, scientists, EU and UN bureaucrats – are, Maassen argued, “enemies of our democracy”.
That prompted a stern response from the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily: “The man who, until three years ago, was charged with protecting our constitution now has declared half of the population to be enemies of the constitution.”