German Politics Marked by Heated Security Debates in 2007 | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.12.2007
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German Politics Marked by Heated Security Debates in 2007

The fight against terrorism and a slew of new security measures sparked frenzied debate in Germany this year, after the foiling of a major terrorist attack. But it wasn't all about Islamist terrorism.

A sniper with a gun looks through binoculars during a high-level state visit in Berlin

Security is one of Berlin's major priorities

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble consistently grabbed headlines this year as he rolled out new counter-terrorism proposals nearly every other week.

From the use of spying software on computers, deadly force in the skies to increased surveillance in the cities and the collection of citizens' biometric data, Schäuble polarized and provoked with his bulging catalogue of security measures.

Wolfgang Schäuble, German interior minister

Schäuble routinely hogged headlines in 2007

"The threat posed by terrorism exists here too. Whether we like it or not: we're not some blissful island," Schäuble said at the beginning of the year.

A setback and a triumph

In February, Germany's highest court, dealt a blow to Schäuble's plan for online searches, saying there was no legal basis for the measure and it thus violated the constitution.

The plan includes sending e-mails attached with Trojan horse software to suspected terrorists. Once opened, the software would secretly install itself onto a computer and send data to police computers as soon as the user went online. The program would also be able to monitor keystrokes, which would allow agents to track passwords used to call up information on external servers without the suspect realizing the search had taken place.

A computer

Online searches using spy software stirred controversy

The court's decision was welcomed by Germany's Social Democrats, the junior coalition partner to the conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU) of which Schäuble is a member. It also relieved many proponents of civil liberties who worried the measure would severely infringe privacy and personal freedom.

But a month later, the minister pushed through another controversial measure: a single computer database that allows both police and intelligence agencies easier access to a range of information on terrorism suspects, including membership in terrorist groups, firearms registration information as well as Internet and telecommunications data.

Giving both police and intelligence services equal access to personal information about suspects is a sensitive issue in Germany in light of abuses under the Nazis and by Communist East Germany.

Jörg Ziercke, head of Germany's Federal Criminal Office, insisted that the new tool was indispensable in fighting modern terrorism.

"The police must use this technological progress to keep up with perpetrators and should not allow them to claim cyberspace as a protective space for themselves," Ziercke said at the time. "We need this instrument particularly to uncover criminal networks in terrorism, organized crime, child pornography, economic crime, human trafficking and the arms trade."

Controversial use of force

In early September, the arrest of three suspected terrorists who allegedly planned attacks on the Frankfurt airport and an American military base bolstered Schäuble's demands for further far-reaching measures to boost security. They included proposals to deploy Germany's army, the Bundeswehr, within the country in the case of an emergency and to shoot down hijacked planes with terrorists on board if the aircraft were to be used as a weapon.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung

Jung sparked an uproar with proposals to shoot down hijacked planes

Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, a fellow CDU member, said he would not abide by a Federal Constitutional Court ruling and would give the command to shoot down a hijacked passenger plane to prevent it from being used in a terrorist attack similar to the ones that occurred in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

The proposal unleashed a storm of opposition in Germany among left-wing parties.

"Prevention and criminal prosecution is the job of the police and it should remain that way," said Claudia Roth, head of the opposition Green party. "This distinction has to be upheld and defended otherwise the rule of law will be buried."

One measure that passed, albeit in the face of tough opposition, was the decision to add fingerprints to Germany's biometric passports from Nov. 1. The radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip in the German biometric passport, which came into use in 2005, already includes facial recognition data.

Far-right crimes remain a worry

While fierce debate is expected to continue next year on Schäuble's security measures, Islamist terrorism wasn't the only topic that occupied the attention of German policymakers in 2007.

In May, Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution said it had registered 1,115 far-right crimes in 2006 -- an increase of nearly 10 percent against the previous year.

Singh Gorvinda, one of the victims of a racially-motivated attack in Mügeln, eastern Germany

One of the victims of the racially-motivated attack on Indians in August

A few high-profile racially-motivated crimes, including an attack on a group of Indians and an assault on a theater group by right-wing thugs in eastern Germany, made headlines.

The Social Democrats demanded a renewed ban on the far-right NPD party in the face of warnings that the Constitutional Court would throw out the case as it had four years previously.

Holger Hövelmann, interior minister of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, where most of the crimes were committed, warned that right-wing extremism posed a serious threat.

"Right-wing extremism in our country is no longer a marginal phenomenon in our society, rather it presents with us with a central challenge," Hövelmann said. "Largely unnoticed by the public, structures have emerged that question our free democratic principles. Right-wing extremism has gradually begun to seep into daily life."

A threat from the far left

Debates on domestic security were also dominated by the danger posed by radical left-wing groups. The discussion was fuelled by strong protests and demonstrations by anti-globalization groups in the run-up to the G8 summit in Germany in June.

The history of left-wing terrorism in Germany also played a big role as this year marked 30 years since the so-called "German autumn," when the left-wing terrorist group RAF unleashed a wave of violence and fear with high-profile kidnappings and murders of influential figures in the German establishment.

Hanns Martin Schleyer

Hanns Martin Schleyer was kidnapped and murdered by the RAF

Numerous retrospectives and massive media coverage kept alive the memory of the murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer, the president of the Federation of German Industries, and Federal Prosecutor Siegfried Buback.

Even as new court proceedings were opened against some left-wing terrorists, Brigitte Mohnhaupt, a former RAF terrorist, was released prematurely from prison after serving time for 24 years.

A new debate erupted over whether German President Horst Köhler should pardon former RAF terrorist, Christian Klar. After a long, public and controversial discussion, Köhler decided no to do so.

Terrorism, both from the past as well as future threats, is bound to grab a prominent place on Germany's political agenda in 2008 as well.

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