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Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Right-wing populism poses new problem for German intel

November 22, 2016

German authorities are unsure how to deal with the new rise of the populist right, according to a leaked paper. The boundaries between extremist margins and the "decent, middle" of society are dissolving.


A report leaked from a meeting of Germany's domestic intelligence agencies has revealed some uncertainty about how to deal with the rise of the populist far-right in the country.

All 17 agencies of the domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV, representing Germany's 16 states plus the federal government), met in Cologne late last week to discuss the threat presented by the new populist  movement in the country - embodied on a political level by the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

But it soon became clear that the officials were unsure about the best strategy. According to a report in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung," the federal agency's 12-page guide to the state agencies was withdrawn at the last minute by BfV chief Hans-Georg Maassen on the grounds that it was not yet ready. Instead, the meeting went on to discuss just one particular strand of the far-right threat - the so-called "Reichsbürger" movement, one of whose members killed a police officer in October.

Not only that, the contents of the unready paper - leaked to the SZ - showed just how muddy the waters had become at the right end of Germany's political spectrum, and how difficult this made the BfV's job. Distinguishing between an extremist threat and democratic opposition has become harder than ever.

Hans-Georg Maaßen PK Verfassungsschutz
Maassen withdrew the new paper on right-wing populism at the last minuteImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K.Nietfeld

New plan necessary

The document proposed that the intel agencies should loosen their own criteria and begin to conduct surveillance beyond the "hardcore" neo-Nazi groups. Data should also be gathered on individual members of movements like PEGIDA and political parties like the AfD, the paper argued, describing these as a "bridge spectrum" between extremism and democracy.

"But the existence of this bridge spectrum also proves that though the theory of a sharp 'extremist - democratic' distinction is right for the Verfassungsschutz authorities, it is not always apparent in reality," the BfV wrote in the paper. Though PEGIDA and AfD members might indeed believe in the principles of the German constitution, they could still be described as "radical," the paper said, as quoted in the SZ.

"What this news reflects is that the borders are getting blurry," said Hans Vorländer, a Dresden-based political scientist and authority on Germany's far-right. "That makes things very difficult. In the case of PEGIDA, they were not officially under surveillance, but I can't imagine that was always the case because some far-right organizations joined those marches."

But watching individuals rather than groups raises its own problems. "You'd have to have information about these individuals," said Vorländer. "And to do that you need to watch the groups and find anti-constitutional actions among them. Or you'd need concrete evidence against those individuals."

The fact that extremism is becoming more difficult to isolate does not mean that Germans have suddenly become more right-wing, said Matthias Quent, director of the Thuringia-based Institute for Democracy and Civil Society. It's the fact that the AfD has legitimized these views.

"It's not a new problem," Quent told DW. "We have studies from decades ago that show that 13 percent of Germans have an extremist far-right view of the world. What is new is that it is possible to organize this into protest parties. It's actually worth welcoming that this reality has reached the Verfassungsschutz."

"This problem shows a fundamental flaw in the Verfassungsschutz as an instrument, and the not-always-transparent way things are judged there," he added.

Deutschland de Maiziere und Maaßen präsentieren den Verfassungschutzbericht 2016
The BfV presents a report on extremist movements every yearImage: picture alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

Watching the AfD

Some prominent German politicians - notably Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel - have called for the AfD to be put on the BfV's watch list, though so far intelligence agencies have resisted it. (It would not be unprecedented - the Left party, the successor to the East German communists, was under BfV watch from its foundation in 2007 to 2014).

Quent said it would be futile anyway, since it wasn't the job of intelligence agencies to police these societal boundaries, but rather to prevent violence. Not that this task is much easier - police data shows that around half of the people suspected of attacking refugee homes, for example, have no connections to hardcore neo-Nazi groups. "The idea that there is an extremist margin and a clean, mainstream middle doesn't work anymore," said Quent. "But the solution to that can't be to place a quarter of the population under surveillance."

That's why, he says, it makes no sense to put the AfD as an organization under the BfV's watch. "It's legitimate, and it's part of the freedom of speech to articulate a fundamental position against the state," he said. "But you have to oppose it politically, and not with intelligence services. Even if the AfD were put under surveillance, the potential in society that they can mobilize wouldn't disappear."

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