German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has removed the country’s domestic spy chief, who has faced accusations of harbouring far-right sympathies – but transferred him to an essentially more senior role amid efforts to end an impasse over immigration that once more threatened the fragile ruling coalition.
Hans–Georg Maassen will become a senior official at the interior ministry once he leaves the BfV agency, the government said in a statement on Tuesday.
The move, which was derided by commentators a face-saving measure that amounted to nothing less than a promotion, lets Merkel’s fourth-term government live to see another day.
The chancellor’s Social Democratic coalition partners had insisted on Maassen’s departure as head of the BfV intelligence service, against the wishes of Interior Minister Horst Seehofer from her Bavarian CSU sister party.
Maassen was at the centre of a heated controversy after he raised doubts about the veracity of reports of far-right hooligans and neo-Nazis randomly attacking immigrants in the eastern city of Chemnitz in late August.
The far-right attacks in Chemnitz, which caused revulsion in Germany, were triggered by the fatal stabbing of a man over which police are holding a Syrian suspect and searching for an Iraqi man. A court freed another initial Iraqi suspect on Tuesday.
Days after the attacks, 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 – had 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.
“Maassen is no longer the top spy. This is good. But it is a farce that he is practically being promoted and that the SPD is going along with this,” said Dietmar Bartsch of the hard-left Die Linke party.
“This government has reached its end. It is an emergency government of the election losers.”
The news comes amid a deep rift 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.
Seehofer recently 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.
In its statement on Tuesday, the government said “Seehofer values (Maassen‘s) competence in the questions of public security”.
“Mr Maassen will not be in charge for supervising the BfV at the ministry.”