Vigilante video ends badly for Germany’s spy chief
Hans-Georg Maassen removed from office after playing down far-right role in Chemnitz unrest
Hans-Georg Maassen: Germany’s domestic intelligence chief has been moved from his post after questioning the authenticity of a video appearing to show a vigilante attack. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA
For two weeks Hans-Georg Maassen, a Monty Python-loving German career technocrat, has been lead player in a political drama of his own making.
The trouble is that the 55-year-old is Germany’s domestic intelligence chief. After endless reports, with journalists deconstructing everything from his politics to his spectacles, chancellor Angela Merkel knew she had a problem.
Like children in a bygone era, intelligence bosses are supposed to be seen and not heard. But how to solve the Maassen problem without causing another?
The problems began in the early hours of August 26th when a 35-year-old man was stabbed after a skirmish in the Saxon city of Chemnitz.
The man died a short time later in hospital and police detained as chief suspects Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian asylum seekers.
When news of the fatal attack broke, Germany’s unresolved tensions over the 2015-2016 migration crisis – and its consequences – exploded back into the open.
The far-right, populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) stoked up latent security fears and rammed home their political platform, which is critical of mass immigration.
Thousands of neo-Nazis organised via social media and descended on the eastern German city for a “march of mourning”, facing off against far-left activists in a riot of bottles, fireworks, incitement and illegal Nazi salutes. Police were outnumbered and the city narrowly avoided further disaster.
The three weeks since have seen Germany locked in an emotional debate over far-right excesses and what, exactly, happened in Chemnitz.
After the stabbing and before the marches, did vigilantes really chase immigrants through the streets of the city? There were eyewitness reports of “foreigners out” chants in shops and on public transport. Then a video appeared online appearing to show a “Hetzjagd”: German-speaking men hounding a dark-skinned man down a street.
Media organisations reported on the video that appeared to be another depressing chapter of mob rule in a region no stranger to extremists.
The far-right AfD framed the days of protest in Chemnitz differently: as thousands of citizens concerned about their personal security, marching alongside a few empty vessels.
At this point Maassen intervened in the debate, saying his intelligence agency had “no reliable evidence” that any vigilante attacks had happened in Chemnitz. He also questioned the “authenticity” of the uploaded video, given its apparent far-left origins.
The trouble was that he did all this after Merkel – via her spokesman – condemned what appeared to be mob rule in the Chemnitz video.
Firing Maassen would elevate him to a martyr in far-right circles, Merkel knew
Maassen relativised his remarks days later, after a public backlash, and said he had not meant to question whether the video was real.
But the far-right cheered him on, embracing his remarks as proof of a mainstream conspiracy – on social media and in the corridors of power – against them and their supporters.
Firing Maassen would elevate him to a martyr in far-right circles, Merkel knew, but not firing him would infuriate her centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) coalition partners.
Their fury is less about what did or didn’t happen in Chemnitz and more about winning a power play with her centre-right Christian Democratic alliance.
Before the summer, Germany’s grand coalition came to the brink after a revolt on immigration by the third party in their coalition, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU).
Merkel’s political allies face a state election rout next month, with law-and-order voters drifting away to the AfD. To halt the slide, and preserve their parliamentary majority, the Bavarian CSU is now talking tough on migration and criminal immigrants.
Front and centre in this push is CSU leader Horst Seehofer – federal interior minister and Maassen’s boss.
But this was all too much for the SPD. After weeks of gunning for Seehofer, they settled on Maassen as an appropriate sacrificial offering and demanded his removal.
Even before this scandal the domestic intelligence agency and its head have attracted more headlines than was usual – or comfortable for the discretion-loving Merkel.
There were reports over Maassen’s meetings with AfD leaders, reportedly about how the far-right politicians could avoid being monitored by his agency.
He disputed media portrayal of the meetings, but this came after other allegations that Maassen’s agency ran moles in the far-right and Islamist scenes – and tried to bury them when their operations went awry.
On Tuesday, in an attempt to appease both coalition partners and end Maassen’s days in the headlines, Merkel took her intelligence chief out of circulation. She appointed him state secretary for security in the interior ministry, softening the blow with a reported 27 per cent pay rise.