February 9, 2024

IntelBrief: Can Germany Stem a Strengthening Far-Right?

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

Bottom Line Up Front

  • As the far-right appears to be strengthening across Europe, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency (BfD) has reportedly designated its former chief, Hans-Georg Maassen, as an “observation case” on suspicion of right-wing extremism.
  • The BfD has identified right-wing extremism as Germany’s top security threat, underscored by its investigation into its former chief as well as its extremist classification of three state branches of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and its youth wing.
  • The recent revelation of a meeting between AfD leaders, members of Maassen’s new right-wing party, and prominent far-right figures to discuss a “remigration” plan for immigrants highlights the interwoven and strengthening connections within the broader European far-right milieu.
  • Although severe backlash and calls to ban the AfD are mounting, the party’s demonstrated resiliency in the past, coupled with the resonance of far-right messaging with the electorate, indicate that support for the party will potentially continue in upcoming regional elections in Germany this year.

As the far-right appears to be strengthening across Europe, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfD), has reportedly designated its former chief as an “observation case” on suspicion of right-wing extremism. Although the BfD has not commented on the individual case stating personal rights protections, Hans-Georg Maassen published a letter from the BfD confirming he was under investigation on his website. Maassen was forced from his position as Director General of the BfD in 2018 after he was accused of downplaying far-right violence against migrants in the eastern German city of Chemnitz. This, coupled with revelations that he advised the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) on how to avoid the BfD’s scrutiny while he was still leading the agency, led to accusations he was protecting right-wing extremists in the country. Since leaving office, Maassen has become increasingly vocal – and extreme – on the supposed dangers of migrants, comments which have turned him into an icon among the German far-right. In November, for example, he stated in an interview with a Swiss newspaper that Germany needed “chemotherapy” to treat the “cancer” of too many immigrants. Maassen’s apparent prestige among numerous figures on the far-right was cited by the BfD in its letter on Maassen’s designation, as well as his belief in antisemitic conspiracy theories and his alleged sympathy for the Reichsbürger movement, whose failed attempt at a coup d’etat was thwarted by the agency in December 2022. Although Maassen’s suspected sympathies for the far-right and his virulent antisemitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric have been debated in public for some time, the increased scrutiny of the former BfD chief by the agency he once led is an evocative symbol, and, perhaps most acutely, an indication of the pervasive threat posed by far-right extremism in Germany.

Under Maassen’s successor, Thomas Haldenwang, the BfD has identified right-wing extremism as Germany’s top security threat. In addition to its investigation into Maassen, the agency has classified three state branches of the AfD and its youth wing as extremist organizations. A German court upheld the latter’s extremist classification in a decision announced Monday after the AfD’s “Young Alternative” sought to have the classification removed. The court stated that the youth wing propagated an “ethno-nationalist view” of German society and referenced its connections to the ‘Identitarian Movement’ - a pan-European, ethno-nationalist, far-right political ideology whose adherents have previously organized military-style training camps. The court’s stated reasons for its decision underscore expert assessments that the Young Alternative’s membership is showing increasing signs of radicalization.

Prominent members of the Identitarian Movement, including leader Martin Sellner, AfD members and politicians, and other far-right figures reportedly attended a meeting in November to discuss the forcible deportation of millions of immigrants from Germany, including naturalized German citizens. Sellner presented a “remigration” vision to senior AfD leaders, pitching his “masterplan” for deportations in the event that the AfD were to come to power, according to the research institute Correctiv and later confirmed by Sellner to German media. The meeting allegedly included a discussion of sending asylum seekers, non-Germans with residency rights, and “non-assimilated” German citizens to a “model state” in North Africa. Figures during the meeting also reportedly praised Maassen for his views. Members of the right-wing Values Union party – which Maassen launched late January – were also in attendance, highlighting the interwoven connections of figures within the European far-right milieu. Moreover, the presence of Sellner, widely known for his far-right activism and being a proponent of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, demonstrates the strengthening transnational ties of the far-right across Europe, perhaps most starkly between right-wing populist politicians and figures considered on the fringe, such as extremists like Sellner.

Recalling painful memories from Nazi-era Germany, the revelations of the November meeting resulted in an estimated 1.2 million people demonstrating in various anti-AfD protests the weekend following the report’s release – including in Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, and Hamburg. As the public outrage and mass protests have mounted, the German authorities are considering an entry ban for Sellner, an Austrian citizen, due to his role in the meeting. Representatives from Germany’s interior ministry, the entity with the power to make the decision for an entry ban, have confirmed they were examining the option and were in consultation with Germany’s security agencies. Sellner has previously been banned from entering the United Kingdom in 2018 and the United States in 2019 due to his connection to Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist who killed 51 people during a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. The presence of AfD members and politicians at the meeting—and those individuals' connections to senior party leadership—has resulted in mounting calls by protestors and some members of the German parliament to go even further and outright ban the far-right populist party. A provision in the German constitution allows for banning political parties that threaten the democratic order. AfD leaders have attempted to obfuscate their role in the meeting by downplaying their involvement. They have characterized the calls to ban the party as “left-wing activism” and a stymieing of the democratic process. AfD co-chairperson Alice Weidel accused politicians calling for the party’s ban as failing to “accept the possibility of a democratic transfer of power to the opposition.”

Yet, even as calls to ban the AfD increase, a complicated prospect at best, the far-right populist party is polling second nationally at around 20 percent, according to Politico data. The AfD has continued to build on its breakthrough successes last summer, with an AfD-backed candidate winning a mayoral race in the state of Saxony in mid-December. The party did narrowly lose a run-off district administrative election in late January in what was considered by some a potential bellwether of the party’s support in the wake of protests; however, the AfD has demonstrated its resiliency in the past despite previous blows to its image and reputation. Moreover, the far-right populist party and its counterparts in countries across Europe have shown their astute adeptness at capitalizing on voters’ anxieties over immigration, the financial and political consequences of the protracted conflict in Ukraine, and the cost-of-living crisis. As several of these issues, particularly migration, show no signs of abating, the resonance of far-right populist narratives and priorities may continue even amidst the current backlash. Whether this resonance translates to support for other far-right populist alternatives, such as Maassen’s new party, or, perhaps more likely, continues with the AfD as the controversy potentially recedes, remains to be seen. Three upcoming state elections in Germany, which the AfD has been poised to win, and the European Parliamentary elections in June may provide further litmus tests for the support of far-right populist parties, as well as the resiliency of its messaging and narratives with the German and broader European electorates.