Germany’s top spy: A tumultuous history with the far-right

Secret services typically work away from the limelight, but Germany's top domestic spy Hans-Georg Maaßen has repeatedly crashed into the public eye, with his latest outing pitting him directly against Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germany's top spy: A tumultuous history with the far-right
Maaßen at a meeting with Germany's security agencies on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

After anti-migrant protests rocked the eastern city of Chemnitz, Merkel firmly condemned a “hunt against foreigners” backed by videos circulating on social media.

But Maaßen, 55, in an interview with Germany's top-selling daily Bild last week, challenged the authenticity of at least one of the videos, sparking uproar.

SEE ALSO: Does Chemnitz video show a manhunt? Controversy continues over domestic intelligence head's statement

For critics, Maaßen's claim played into the hands of the far-right and his attitude was viewed as symptomatic of a domestic intelligence service riddled with far-right sympathizers.

As pressure mounted on him to prove the video was a fake, Maaßen denied questioning its authenticity and said his quarrel was with how the original poster on Twitter had oversold it as a “hunt against people” which he thought was intended to inflame tensions.

He is due to be grilled by two parliamentary committees later Wednesday, 
and the leader of the Social Democratic Party Andrea Nahles has suggested he should step down.

The episode has also reopened uncomfortable questions over a service that for long has struggled to escape a lingering whiff of the far-right.

Maaßen in August 2012 took over at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) after his predecessor was forced to quit as it emerged the service had shredded files on suspects of the deadly neo-Nazi cell NSU.

As BfV chief, Maaßen leads an agency charged with collecting and evaluating information on efforts to harm the democratic order or which jeopardize Germany's interests.

But among his key tasks following the NSU scandal was also to restore 
public confidence in an institution accused of being too lax with the 
far-right threat and too heavy-handed on extreme left activism.

Contacts with far right 

Married to a linguist from Japan, Maaßen was born in Mönchengladbach close to the Dutch border.

He headed the interior ministry's counter-terrorism team before being appointed domestic spy chief.

Recognizing that wars are increasingly waged in cyberspace, the former 
lawyer quickly boosted the BfV's digital armoury.

He has also repeatedly warned against Russian cyber-espionage, including raising eyebrows when he told a parliamentary inquiry that he thought NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was actually a Russian agent.

But he came under intense pressure following the attack at a Berlin Christmas market in 2016 when Tunisian failed asylum applicant Anis Amri drove a truck into crowds.

According to media reports, Maaßen wrongly claimed his service had no agent in Amri's circles, even though it had a source at a mosque the Tunisian frequented.

But it is his handling of the AfD that has proved most controversial, particularly as he was known to share the far-right party's opposition to Merkel's decision in 2015 to keep Germany's borders open to asylum seekers.

Despite repeated calls for the BfV to formerly place the AfD under surveillance, Maaßen has refused to do so.

A former AfD member has also accused him of having met repeatedly with the party's leaders to advise on how to avoid being placed under surveillance – an allegation Maaßen and the far-right group have denied.

AfD leader Alexander Gauland told journalists this week he had three 
conversations with Maaßen about “overall security evaluations”. Maaßen did not give him advice, he added.

But Gauland recounted the BfV chief told him “he could turn to him if there were any problems”, an offer he said he took up over suspicions of Russian infiltration in the party's parliamentary group.

Heribert Prantl of the Süddeutsche Zeitung noted that “among the worst things that can happen to a top domestic intelligence officer is for him to be accused of sympathy for a far-right party”.

“There is more doubt about whether he has put enough distance between 
himself and the AfD than whether there has been xenophobic incitement in Chemnitz,” Prantl said.

“Given the rather strange news about Hans-Georg Maaßen, one wonders whether the BfV should not take a closer look at its president.”


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German spy chief Maaßen removed from his post

The German government said Tuesday it was relieving controversial spy chief Hans-Georg Maaßen of his duties and moving him to a different post, defusing a row that had rocked Chancellor Angela Merkel's fragile coalition.

German spy chief Maaßen removed from his post
Maaßen at a Bundestag meeting earlier in September. Photo: DPA

“Mr Maaßen will become state secretary in the interior ministry,” Merkel and the leaders of her coalition partners announced in a statement.

Maaßen had come under great political and public pressure because of controversial statements about xenophobic riots in Chemnitz which broke out following the murder of a 35-year-old German man, allegedly by asylum seekers. One of the suspects was freed by a Chemnitz court Tuesday.

Further details are to be discussed on Wednesday. No initial details were given about who is to succeed Maaßen.

Hatred in the streets

The far-right attacks, which sparked revulsion in Germany and abroad, were sparked by a fatal stabbing of a German man over which police are holding a Syrian suspect and searching for an Iraqi man, after a court freed another initial Iraqi suspect Tuesday.

Days after the unrest, Maaßen questioned the authenticity of amateur video footage showing street violence and voiced doubt that racists had indeed”hunted down” foreigners – comments that directly contradicted Merkel, who had deplored the xenophobic attacks and “hatred in the streets”.

SPD leaders – as well as the opposition Greens, Free Democrats and Linke parties — have demanded the resignation or sacking of the spy chief for political meddling, and pointed to his repeated meetings with leaders of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Whatever Maaßen's true political leanings, the issue has quickly turned him into a martyr of Merkel haters and the far-right.

The AfD's Alice Weidel wrote on Facebook that “anyone who criticizes Merkel's illegal immigration policy is mercilessly put through the wringer by the mainstream parties”.

Deep chasms 

Maaßen has rejected accusations that he has supported AfD lawmakers with early access to unpublished data and advice on how to avoid surveillance byhis Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).

Social Democrat leader Andrea Nahles has charged that Maaßen had “provided material for right-wing conspiracy theorists” while SPD youth wing leader

Kevin Kühnert, 29, mockingly urged him to “throw in his tin foil hat”.

However, Maaßen has received the backing of his immediate boss, the CSU'shardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who has for three years been

Merkel's nemesis within the ruling grand coalition. Seehofer, a harsh critic of Merkel's 2015 decision to allow a mass influx of migrants and refugees, had in July brought the government to the brink of collapse with his threat to shutter national borders to asylum seekers.

With that bitter dispute barely papered over, the conflict over Maaßen's fate once more highlights the deep chasms within Merkel's coalition.

On one level, both major parties, the CDU and SPD, are distrustful partners stuck in a political marriage of convenience after the AfD, a one-time fringe party, poached millions of their voters in last year's elections.

 'Mother of all problems' 

But the rift is deepest between Merkel and Seehofer, whose own political future hangs in the balance as his CSU braces for potentially massive losses to the AfD in Bavarian state elections next month.

Last week Seehofer labelled the migration issue “the mother of all problems” in German politics — a comment read by many as a veiled reference to Merkel's nickname “Mutti”, or Mummy.

Die Welt daily reported Monday that Merkel had decided to let Maaßen go, quoting unnamed coalition sources.

According to the paper, this could have wider political ramifications: Maaßen  reportedly told a closed-door meeting of conservative lawmakers

“Horst Seehofer told me that if I fall, he falls too”. Merkel and Seehofer have for days declined to comment on the controversy publicly, other than to insist that the coalition will not break up over the issue.