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Does Germany need to protect its citizens from the lure of the right?
The question has sparked passion in Berlin this week as the domestic intelligence service, known by its German acronym BfV, is considering whether to put the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party under scrutiny on suspicion of right-wing extremism.
According to Germany constitution, “Parties which… their supporters behave in a manner aimed at undermining or eliminating the free… unconstitutional democratic order” and thus may be prohibited by the Federal Constitutional Court.
In order for the court to make such a decision, it needs evidence that BfV unearths first, which is why BfV has a wide range of ways to monitor a party once it is deemed worthy of “suspicion”. The appointment gives the authority the right to intercept members’ electronic communications and even implant undercover informants in party ranks.
While the AfD’s right-wing tendencies are no secret, the party is also the largest opposition group in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. That makes the decision whether to move the party closer to a ban extremely difficult. It also risks being seen as confirmation of one of the AfD’s core themes: that the “establishment” is out to get it.
Therefore, Home Minister Horst Seehofer has taken his time to assess the 1,000-page report sent to his ministry by BfV on whether there is any reason to put the AfD under scrutiny. Any legal setback later on will be embarrassing, like the two failed attempts to ban the neo-Nazi NPD party in 2003 and 2017, defeating Berlin to this day.
First attempt failed in 2003 when the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that a large number of BfV informants in the party, including its leadership, made it impossible to determine the extent to which the NPD had been externally controlled. Fourteen years later, the second attempt failed because judges considered the NPD a threat to democracy too insignificant to guarantee the prohibition of all parties.
Andrea Lindholz, who chairs the Bundestag’s interior committee and is a member of the Parliamentary Oversight Panel which controls Germany’s security services, expressed confidence that any decision to place the AfD under surveillance would be legally watertight. “The interior minister stressed the importance of ensuring that the decision is as safe as legally possible,” said Lindholz, a member of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the same party as Seehofer.
The debate over whether to put the AfD under scrutiny arises as Germany is once again reflecting on the darkest chapter in its history. On Wednesday, the German parliament commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day, with addresses by Holocaust survivors who spoke out against the AfD. Saturday marks Adolf Hitler’s 88th birthday as chancellor of the German Reich.
Germany’s handling of the case is also closely watched by countries across Europe, where the struggle to stifle the populist right-wing movement has become an enduring challenge.
After reports earlier this month that intelligence services were likely to be closely monitoring the entire AfD, the party reacted immediately. Worried about the possibility of being watched during an important election year, the AfD filed a lawsuit in a Cologne court to avoid being placed under official suspicion by the BfV.
A few days earlier, on January 21, AfD deputy chairman Jörg Meuthen, a member of parliament, published an pers conference, noting that an internal document from the Berlin state branch of the BfV concluded that “there is no sufficient factual indication of anti-constitutional aspirations on the part of AfD Berlin that can justify the elevation of the status of the suspect case. “
The fact that the AfD even had access to an internal newspaper led to irritation in Berlin, because it is highly recommended that there is a mole in the agency. Responding to the leak, Berlin’s Interior Minister, Andreas Geisel, said there were “methodological flaws” in the paper and suspended the head of the unit that compiled it.
Mainstream politicians say there are good reasons to consider putting the AfD under scrutiny. “There is no doubt that many statements by AfD politicians prove that this party is not a democratic alternative,” said Lindholz.
The lawmaker also cited the fact that a handful of people invited by AfD politicians tried to interfere with parliamentary processes last November, when the Bundestag changed a law, the Population Protection Act, to allow restrictions related to the coronavirus.
One of the offenders was filmed harassing Economy Minister Peter Altmaier. The incident sparked outrage in Berlin and across the country.
“The incident surrounding the Population Protection Act shows once again that within this party there are people who are insulting and abusing our liberal democracy,” said Lindholz.
Meanwhile, earlier this week, the BfV branch in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt decided to use the AfD under supervision at the regional level. Local parties have a reputation for hiding some of the AfD’s most radical members.
Back in Berlin, local media reported last week that according to sources at BfV, the person suspected of leaking internal documents to the AfD was a “Maaßen man, “An allusion to the former president of the agency Hans-Georg Maassen, who was sent into early retirement in 2018 amid allegations – which he denies – that he sympathizes with some of the AfD’s more radical views.
The issue of the alleged ideological proximity of Maaßen to AfD was also raised during a government press conference in Berlin this week, as the former chief spy worked for the law firm representing the AfD in a lawsuit the side filed in a Cologne court. An interior ministry spokesman said it should be checked whether the situation creates any legal problems.
But before the matter is taken any further, Maaßen announced Tuesday that he will do so quit working for a law firm because he can be a witness in this case.
Maaßen, a member of Angela Merkel’s CDU party but an outspoken critic of chancellor-centric currents, was once accused of advising the AfD to reduce its radicalism to become a more sustainable movement. He denies the allegations but his right-wing views, which he regularly broadcasts on Twitter and elsewhere, have earned him a reputation for being at least AfD-friendly.
Despite Maaßen’s role, calls for moderation in the AfD have grown louder in recent years, particularly from deputy leader Meuthen, who wants to allay fears that his party is a right-wing extremist ticking bomb. AfD publishes statement this month confirmed that the entire party was “fully committed to [a definition of] the German people as the sum of all German citizens “and not, as many extremists wish, the” blood “problem.
The declaration was signed by Meuthen, deputy leader Alice Weidel and many other senior AfD politicians, including Björn Höcke, the AfD leader in the eastern state of Thuringia who became famous for making frequent racist and fascist statements. Höcke, who has neo-Nazi ties and has been overseen by the BfV since last year, is also one of the AfD’s far-right extremist leaders. wing Faction (“wing”), which officially disbanded in April 2020.
But doubts remain as to whether the former radical members of the faction have really stopped collaborating and wielding influence in the party.
“Many members [Flügel], who are classified as right-wing extremists, are still active in this party, ”said Lindholz. “Höcke is still the leader of the parliamentary group in the state parliament of Thuringia. Surely all this indicates that the sudden dissolution wing in the end only fig leaves born out of necessity. “