Germany’s domestic spy agency has placed the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany under formal scrutiny, suggesting it suspects the party of having ties to right-wing extremists.
The decision follows public statements by individual members such as Thuringia regional leader Björn Höcke, who lambasted the Berlin Holocaust Memorial in a speech two years ago and said Germany should make a “180-degree turn in remembrance policy.”
The Office for the Protection of the Constitution, in charge of monitoring and countering political and Islamist extremists, said it had reviewed 1,069 pages of material including dozens of speeches by AfD members and had decided to categorize the party as a “test case.”
That means it will continue a systematic review of public statements by AfD members and publications by the party, but will stop short of surveillance activities such as monitoring emails and phone calls and recruiting informants.
The move follows the dismissal of the agency’s controversial president Hans-Georg Maassen for publicly casting doubt on Chancellor Merkel’s statement that immigrants had been chased through the streets of Chemnitz during xenophobic unrest last summer in the wake of the killing of a local man, for which two immigrants were arrested as suspects.
Maassen had blocked closer scrutiny of the AfD last March. His successor, Thomas Haldenwang, said on Tuesday that statements by some AfD officials pointed to extremist tendencies. The party’s written policy statements by contrast, did not, he added.
The AfD rode public opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s generous migrant policy and became the third-strongest force in the Bundestag in the September 2017 election.
It supported the Chemnitz protests last year, fueling concern that it was joining forces with radicals on the far-right.
The agency’s move elicited approval from across the political spectrum. The government coalition, made up of Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), welcomed it, as well as the opposition Greens and Free Democrats.
Eva Högl, the deputy leader of the SPD’s parliamentary group, said it was obvious that parts of the AfD had direct links with right-wing extremists. “This is a first step that will put a stop to unconstitutional tendencies in the AfD,” she said.
Hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a vocal opponent of Merkel’s refugee policy who had initially shielded Maassen, said he shared the agency’s assessment of the AfD. “We regard it as plausible. And that is why I support these decisions,” he said, adding: “I strongly stress that this is not a decision by politicians but by the intelligence authorities.”
It’s a potential blow to the AfD’s standing with voters ahead of regional elections this year in Bremen and the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia – as well as the European Parliament elections in May.
An Austrian Nazi symbol
The agency has placed the AfD’s youth organization and a faction called The Wing under deeper scrutiny, classifying them as “suspect cases,” a designation that allows the agency to conduct surveillance.
The Wing was founded by Björn Höcke and by André Poggenburg. The latter, who resigned as regional leader in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt last year after coming under fire for labelling Turkish immigrants and their German descendants as “camel herders.” He left the party last week and set up his own party. Its symbol is the corn flower, which Austrian Nazis adopted as a secret sign in the 1930s.
The agency plans to investigate suspected links between the AfD’s youth arm and the German branch of the Identitarian movement, which has a strong presence in social media, regularly organizes flash-mob events and has been under surveillance as a “suspect case” since 2016.
The co-leader of the AfD’s parliamentary group, Alice Weidel, said: “It’s now evident why agency president Maassen had to go. He had to be removed to be able to construct a ‘test case AfD'.”
AfD co-chairman Alexander Gauland said the party would take legal action against the decision and said the agency had been put under political pressure.
The former leader of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, said the agency’s move to monitor the AfD could only be a first step towards putting it under deeper scrutiny.
“Anyone who downplays the crimes of the Nazi era and actively endangers democratic life cannot expect to be entitled to freely engage in political activity,” she said.