Maaßen profile: The curious case of the spy who gave too much away

For a spymaster, Hans-Georg Maaßen seemed unusually receptive to the media - while secret agents typically work in the shadows, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency gave more interviews than any of this predecessors.

Maaßen profile: The curious case of the spy who gave too much away
Hans-Georg Maaßen leaving the Bundestag following a meeting on September 12th. Photo: DPA

As it turned out, it was an interview with Germany's best-selling daily Bild that cost the 55-year-old his job.

But the saga doesn't end there, as Maaßen will now take up a position as state secretary in the Interior Ministry – effectively a promotion as Zeit reports that he will earn €2,580 more per month in the new job.

After anti-migrant protests rocked the eastern city of Chemnitz in late August, Merkel firmly condemned a “hunt against foreigners” backed by videos circulating on social media, but Maaßen challenged the authenticity of at least one of the videos.

For critics, Maaßen's claim played into the hands of the far-right, such as the AfD party, which immediately seized on the spy chief's assessment to blast Merkel and mainstream media for maligning it and other like-minded protesters.

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 post on Twitter had oversold it as a “hunt against people” which he thought was intended to inflame tensions.

But the uproar raised questions over Maaßen 's neutrality, particularly as he has made no secret of his opposition to Merkel's liberal refugee policy that has allowed in more than a million asylum seekers since 2015.

It also made him a hero of right-wing extremists claiming Maaßen was a maverick with the courage to criticize Merkel, now in her 13th year as chancellor.

Legal expertise 

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

The man with the round gold-rim glasses who favours three-piece suits is a trained lawyer who wrote a thesis on “the legal status of the asylum seeker in international law”.

He was heading the interior ministry's counter-terrorism team when the US was ready to free Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen and German resident, from Guantanamo Bay after finding that accusations against him were groundless.

Berlin was reluctant to take Kurnaz back, and Maaßen at the time found the legal justification to bolster Germany's case as he argued successfully that the Turkish man had lost his residency rights because he had been away for more than six months from Germany – although this was due to Kurnaz's imprisonment.

Maaßen took over in 2012 as chief of Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BvF) in the aftermath of a devastating neo-Nazi cell scandal.

The agency's reputation was in tatters after it was revealed it shredded files related to suspects in the NSU (National Socialist Underground) cell that carried out a series of racist murders.

Maaßen said he felt like the “city building director of Cologne after World War II” as he took the helm.

Over the last six years, Maaßen  turned the agency back into a respectable intelligence institution that politicians and the media turn to for assessments on risks for Germany.

With an eye on the Islamist threat, he viewed skeptically Merkel's decision in 2015 to keep Germany's borders open to asylum seekers.

He had warned as early as September 2015 that Islamists may recruit asylum seekers under the cover of providing humanitarian assistance.

But he came under intense pressure following a terror attack at a Berlin Christmas market in 2016 when Tunisian failed asylum applicant Anis Amri rammed 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.

Contacts with the AfD 

But it is his handling of the far-right AfD party that has proved most controversial.

Despite repeated calls for the BfV to formally 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 give advice 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.

On Thursday,an AfD MP revealed that Maaßen  gave him unpublished official data. The BfV rejected the claim.

For critics, the allegations made Maaßen 's position untenable.

Heribert Prantl of the daily Sueddeutsche 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”.

New position

Despite the controversy, Maaßen has in fact landed on his feet. In a statement released late on Tuesday, the German government wrote: “The Office of the President of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution will be re-filled.

“In future Mr. Maaßen will become a state secretary in the Interior Ministry. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has high regard for Mr. Maaßen's abilities on questions of domestic security, but he will not be responsible for the BfV within the ministry.”

There has already been some criticizm over the move by commentators who have questioned how Maaßen has been given this job despite the reservations over his behaviour.

However, it remains to be seen if Maaßen will continue to face intense scrutiny – and who will fill his shoes as top spy. 

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Why are some Germans turning towards the far-right?

With the AfD taking second place in several polls, Lecturer in German Studies Alexander Clarkson told The Local why the pandemic and a feeling of constant crisis has normalised the far-right in Germany.

Why are some Germans turning towards the far-right?

The farright Alternative for Germany (AfD) have established themselves as second place in the national polls, with significant polling leads across most of east Germany and a number of victories in mayoral and district council races that have shocked many in mainstream German society.

Last week a study, called the FES Mitte, showed that the number of right-wing extremists in Germany had practically tripled in a few years, while also showing rises in homophobia, xenophobia and belief in conspiracy theories.

READ ALSO: Number of right-wing extremists in Germany ‘triples’

But what’s behind this?

The study’s co-author Beate Küpper blamed the rise in these attitudes on the rise of an increasingly confident and aggressive populism, which blames “the system” and “migration” for society’s problems, as well as the “multiple crises” that Germany has experienced in recent years, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and the energy crisis caused by the country’s reliance on Russian gas, imports of which were stopped after Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Alexander Clarkson, lecturer in German studies at King’s College London and a specialist in migration, thinks that the pandemic could have been more influential than people realise in the AfD’s radicalisation, while warning that there might never be a “return to normal” on some of the issues that motivate AfD voters.

An AfD supporter holds a "campaign finale" leaflet that shows the portraits of the top Hessian AfD candidates for the state election.

An AfD supporter holds a “campaign finale” leaflet that shows the portraits of the top Hessian AfD candidates for the state election. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

Due to the shared centre ground between most parties on issues such as climate change or supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, the AfD can portray themselves as the only actual alternative for Germany on a whole range of issues, such as protesting the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, migration or climate-friendly measures that might be costly for citizens in the short term.

“With regard to migration, the AfD can say ‘we’re the only representative of this voice’ as there are political dynamics where governments talk tough on migration but need to take them in for economic reasons,” said Clarkson.

“We need to look at specifics of the last few years – the pandemic, the war and the sudden surge in climate protection legislation like the Heizungsgesetzt,” Clarkson continued, talking of the controversial heating law that saw raucous protests in Bavaria would have started to phase out gas and oil boilers by next year but was watered down.

But the academic thinks that the pandemic played a large and so-far understudied role in how farright ideas have spread across Germany.

“The Covid pandemic plays a central role,” he said. “Life was really bizarre and screwed up. You have farright movements telling you that this democratic state is just a facade … and then the government tells people to stay in the homes, you have a [largely justified] highly coercive policy by a democratic state. But then the far around can turn around and say ‘I told you so – they did lock you in your homes.’

“People underestimated how much distrust of the state flowed out of the pandemic. Then the AfD can work with that when huge changes [like large-scale migration and climate protection legislation] are demanded quickly. The pandemic allowed the AfD to survive the 2021 election, but it radicalised the AfD’s base, so as additional crises come in, it opens up a much wider range of the electorate to these ideas.”

READ ALSO: Why are the far-right AfD doing so well in German polls?

And then instead of returning to normal, straight after the pandemic Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine became the next crisis, which is stressful for citizens. “We didn’t return to normality, we returned to crisis. Normal keeps not happening,” said Clarkson, warning that we may have to get used to living in multiple crises.

Amid a controversial cover of the news magazine Der Spiegel, which has been compared to both a 1920s antisemitic advert and a poster by Nigel Farage during the Brexit campaign, the topic of migration is once again causing huge political debate in Germany, as rising numbers of migrants and asylum seekers come to the country, alongside over a million Ukrainian refugees who will stay in Germany, particularly in places where there has been very little diversity previously.

But despite fluctuations in polls, Clarkson warns that we shouldn’t take the idea Germany is getting significantly more right wing at face value.

“The [conservative Christian Democrats] CDU going to the centre and abandoning claims to pre-1937 beyond the Oder-Niesse line, or say LGBT rights or shifts on issues of migration, all of this stuff is transforming what it means to be centre-right,” he said. 

Clarkson said one problem centres on what is viewed as far-right in Germany and that this can change. 

“Racist views that are now rightly classified as farright were pretty normal in the 1980s in the CDU, and even the [social democratic] SPD,” he said.