The president of Germany's fire brigade association has stepped down amid allegations of far-right sympathy among the organization's ranks. He described the scandal as the biggest crisis in the brigade's history.
Hartmut Ziebs, president of the German fire brigade association (DFV), has stepped down after claiming that he suffered weeks of abuse because he warned that the fire brigade might be undermined by far-right movements.
Ziebs made the announcement at a meeting of the association of fire brigades in North Rhine-Westphalia (VdF-NRW) in Wuppertal on Saturday, the association revealed in a statement. He blamed his decision on continued intrigues and obstruction of his work, according to the DPA news agency.
Caught in a long-running acrimonious row with the DFV's presidential council, Ziebs called on all the vice-presidents to resign with him and not to replace him. "The only way to lead the DFV out of the worst crisis in its history is through a complete new beginning," he said.
"The limit of what I can expect my family to take has long since been overstepped," he added, before telling his deputies: "Clear the way, like I have, for a real new beginning at the DFV, which is only possible with the resignation of all of us."
AfD supporters in the fire brigade
The rumbling row within the association became public in mid-November, when five of the seven vice-presidents called on Ziebs to resign after he allegedly linked prominent DFV leaders with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Ziebs, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told journalist Dorothee Torebko at the time that he considered the "partially right-wing nationalist tendencies in the AfD" a "threat to democracy," and that "it would be dramatic if the fire brigade slipped into that." He then said that Michael Klein, head of the DFV in Rhineland-Palatinate, had called on local fire brigades to ask for donations from the AfD.
As the taz newspaper reported, Klein vehemently denied this, and embarked on a legal battle against Ziebs, demanding up to €500,000 ($556,000) in compensation. The row culminated in a crisis meeting in early November, when the five vice-presidents demanded Ziebs resign, and he refused.
But the vice-presidents also attempted to clarify their position in a further statement, saying they too were "very clearly and unambiguously against racism, intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia and right-wing radicalism as well as parties on that spectrum."
Ziebs also tried to deescalate the row somewhat in early December, when he told Der Spiegel that he did not accuse the DFV council of harboring far-right sympathies and had no "concrete evidence" of far-right tendencies in the fire brigade. He said he had only sought to warn against infiltration. He added that his criticism of the AfD was limited to the right-wing nationalist tendencies within it, not the party itself.
Nevertheless, he added that "there are certainly attempts from right-wing nationalists to find a foothold in our organization," noting that a local fire brigade in the western region of Westerwald received criticism for inviting an AfD functionary to speak at an event. "Someone like that should not be given a platform in the fire brigade," Ziebs told Der Spiegel.
As the row went public, Ziebs received at least two threatening emails, which are now being investigated by police. According to a report by the RND newspaper network, one email, which came from the email address of a voluntary fire brigade in the western city of Dortmund, called for Ziebs to be "whipped daily" and "chased into fires without protective equipment." Another mail called the president "traitorous vermin."
"Of course that makes me worried that something could really happen to me at home," Ziebs told RND at the time. "Now when I take my dog for a walk in the dark, I do get an uneasy feeling."
In response to the row, the AfD has criticized Ziebs for allegedly undermining the political neutrality of the fire brigade. "At the end of the day, what is important is that they can rely on each other in a serious situation, not that they have the same political views," party spokesman Heiner Merz told RND in November.
The DFV represents some 1.3 million members of the German fire brigade, both voluntary and professional, and regularly sends representatives to political hearings in the German Parliament to represent the interests of fire officers. So far, Ziebs said, there have been no surveys of the political views among members.