A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Open Season


Is there a power struggle at the heart of Germany’s government? Actions taken by the head of the domestic intelligence service, Hans-Goerg Maassen, and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer suggest so.

© REUTERS/ Hannibal Hanschke

There is little to be seen of Angela Merkel these days. Of course, she receives visitors, and she is also traveling quite a bit. But in terms of shaping the news and setting the agenda, the German chancellor has retreated from the limelight, and her foes and critics—including officials from her own party and administration—are growing bolder.

No place represents Merkel’s loss of authority more acutely than Chemnitz, a city of 240,000 in Saxony. There, three young men from Syria and Iraq—admitted to Germany because of Merkel’s 2015 refugee policy—are suspected of stabbing a German-Cuban man to death at the end of August. After the killing, thousands of people marched through the city in protest, among them several far-right groups. Neo-Nazis chased and beat up dark-skinned foreigners, while others attacked journalists or showed the forbidden Hitler salute.

A horrified Merkel condemned the “hunt” (Hetzjagd in German) on foreigners. But Saxony’s state premier Michael Kretschmer, a politician of Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Party (CDU), publicly contradicted her. There had been “no mob, no Hetzjagd, and no pogrom,” Kretschmer said after a visit to Chemnitz. He did promise that demonstrators who had become “abusive” would be punished.

Kretschmer, at least, is an elected official, and as prime minister of Saxony, he is not under Merkel’s jurisdiction. But just after his intervention, one of the federal government’s top civil servants joined the chorus. Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the Germany’s domestic spy agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), gave an astonishing interview to the mass-circulation Bild tabloid.

No Proof?

In the interview, Maassen said that his service had no reliable information that any hunt had taken place in Chemnitz. Nor did they have proof that a video showing right-wing extremists pursuing and hitting foreigners was authentic. “According to my cautious assessment, there are good reasons to believe that this may be targeted misinformation, possibly to distract the public from the murder committed in Chemnitz,” Maassen said.

Maassen had not informed the chancellery before the interview—neither of his doubts about the events in Chemnitz, nor of his intention to make them public. His immediate superior, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, another outspoken critic of Merkel’s refugee policy, at first backed Maassen, but later did ask him to provide proof.

It’s the second time within weeks that Maassen’s impartiality and ability to serve as BfV chief has been called into question: a former member of the right-wing, populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) claimed that Maassen had advised the party on how to avoid being put under surveillance by his domestic intelligence agency. Maassen has denied doing so, but opposition lawmakers and some journalists have accused him of harboring a too-cozy relationship with Germany’s far-right. The daily Handelsblatt reported this week about alleged leaks to the AfD from within Maassen’s service.

On September 10, the head of the domestic intelligence service finally submitted a brief report to the interior ministry and the chancellery. It was major climb-down, according to news reports: Maassen was apparently forced to explain that he had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the video, but that it shouldn’t have been so readily believed without verifying its origin.

What sounds like a rather involved story about semantics and bureaucracy has two possible interpretations. The first is reasonably innocent: Maassen, who has long been worried about the security risks that Germany imported by allowing hundreds of thousands of young men into the country, simply made use of the Chemnitz incident to express his service’s unease. In this case, Maassen may still have to step down, but the affair would stop there.

In the second version, Maassen would have acted with at least some encouragement from his boss, Horst Seehofer. In this case, it wouldn’t just be about a rebellious and overreaching civil servant, but about a power struggle at the heart of Merkel’s government. Seehofer was the politician behind the last rebellion against the chancellor, too. Just before the summer break, he threatened to use his authority as interior minister to close off the border for refugees registered elsewhere in the EU, forcing Merkel to go, cap in hand, to beg for concessions from her EU colleagues.

The Bavarian Angle

In addition to leading the interior ministry, Horst Seehofer is also head of the CSU, the conservative Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats. It is facing regional elections in Bavaria on October 14, and the CSU, which has governed the state for more than 60 years, is doing badly in the polls. If that trend is confirmed in the elections, Seehofer’s party will need a coalition partner to continue governing, which, in Bavarian terms, would be a huge humiliation.

More importantly from Merkel’s perspective, Seehofer will almost certainly have to step down as head of his party if the elections go wrong for the CSU. Down the road, this may rid her of an increasingly unpleasant cabinet member. But in the short term, it means that Seehofer has little left to lose. And he has made no secret of the fact that he dislikes Merkel personally and considers her refugee policy a dreadful mistake. “I cannot work with that woman anymore,” Seehofer said in June.

It is unlikely that Seehofer will actively bring the chancellor down. Time is running short until the Bavarian elections, and Seehofer knows that voters would not thank the CSU for such a step. But he is forcing Merkel to tread extremely carefully, paralyzing the government and making it blatantly obvious how little power the chancellor has left.

Will she be able to recover her grip after October 14? That is certainly possible, though Merkel would need to become much more active and decisive than she has been since her re-election in 2017. But otherwise, bit by bit, her authority will continue to erode. In that case, few people would bet on her completing her current four-year term.

It’s an eventuality that the Social Democrats, her junior partner in government, seem to have factored into their policies already. Over the past several weeks, they have presented far-reaching proposals for new laws—a much more generous pensions system, for instance, or strict rent control for most cities—that are far more suitable to an opposition party or an election campaign than for being part of a stable coalition government.