German former spy chief loses role after lambasting Merkel government

Hans-Georg Maassen criticised coalition’s ‘naive’ immigration policy in speech

 Hans-Georg Maassen during a presentation  in Berlin, Germany, in July 2018. File photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Hans-Georg Maassen during a presentation in Berlin, Germany, in July 2018. File photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

 

The former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has been sent into early retirement after sharply criticising Angela Merkel’s government in a farewell speech to fellow spy chiefs in Warsaw.

Hans-Georg Maassen was scheduled to take up a new job as an adviser to Horst Seehofer, the interior minister, under a deal reached in September that saw him step down as head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). The move followed a dispute over Mr Maassen’s stance on right-wing violence in the city of Chemnitz this summer.

But on Monday Mr Seehofer said he was instead pensioning off Mr Maassen following his speech in October in Warsaw at the Club de Berne, an intelligence-sharing forum for the spy agencies of the EU, Norway and Switzerland.

In it, Mr Maassen blamed his removal as spy chief on “radical left-wing forces” in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), junior partner in Ms Merkel’s governing coalition, and lambasted the government’s “idealistic, naive and left-wing” immigration policy.

In a statement on Monday, Mr Seehofer said Mr Maassen’s speech contained “unacceptable formulations”, adding: “Against this backdrop, he and I . . . can no longer work together on the basis of mutual trust, in any function whatsoever.” He admitted to being “rather disappointed on a personal level” with the intelligence chief.

The latest twist in the Maassen affair is a blow to Mr Seehofer, who had initially shielded him from SPD attacks and tried to keep him in his BfV post.

It comes less than a month after elections in Bavaria, in which the party Mr Seehofer leads, the Christian Social Union (CSU), lost its absolute majority and saw its share of the vote shrink by 10 percentage points to 37 per cent. He has since faced repeated demands for his resignation.

The Maassen affair blew up over the summer in the aftermath of an incident in the eastern city of Chemnitz, in which a German man was stabbed to death by suspected asylum seekers. The death triggered angry demonstrations by local rightwingers, some of whom made the Hitler salute and attacked foreigners.

In a newspaper interview a few days after the unrest, Mr Maassen cast doubt on the authenticity of videos showing locals chasing dark-skinned people through the streets of Chemnitz.

Furious reaction

The interview sparked a furious reaction in Berlin, with the SPD demanding his resignation. In the end, Germany’s coalition partners – the SPD, Dr Merkel’s CDU and the CSU – agreed to remove Mr Maassen as head of intelligence and appoint him as a special adviser to Mr Seehofer.

However, his position became untenable after the speech in Warsaw, in which he returned to the subject of the Chemnitz videos. “That politicians and media invent such ‘pogroms’, or at least distribute this false information without checking it first, was for me a new quality of fake news in Germany, ” he said, according to a text of the speech published by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

He said the scandal over his interview had been a “welcome opportunity for radical left-wing forces in the SPD, who from the very start were against a coalition with the CDU/CSU, to provoke a rift in this government coalition”.

“Since I am known as a critic of idealistic, naive and left-wing immigration and security policies, this was also an opportunity for my political opponents and for some media outlets to drive me from my job,” he added. He also said he was considering a career in politics.

Mr Seehofer said it was “unacceptable” to speak of radical left-wing forces in the SPD and to describe Germany’s immigration policy as “left-wing”.

He said it had always been his policy to defend people working in the ministries he led. “But when a political matter that was closed is then pursued further, and formulations are used which are unacceptable, then I must act,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018