Thomas de Maizière Merkel's Mr. Fix-It

Germany’s interior minister and one of the German chancellor's closest advisers is at the heart of some of the fiercest debates raging in the country right now.
Germany's interior minister cuts a lonely figure.

Dead people float in the Mediterranean Sea. The German army's weapons don’t work properly. Something is brewing between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Federal Intelligence Service.

Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister, is at the heart of all these controversies – it is taking a visible toll on him.

Mr. de Maizière often appears heartless or out of touch. For example, he likened church asylum, the rules by which asylum seekers can take refuge in a church even without the correct paperwork, with sharia law. When discussions of how to save refugees trying to reach Europe from drowning, it was Mr. de Maizière who said that anyone helping the refugees was engaging in the illegal business of trafficking.

He describes himself as merely "keeping to the rules.”

Mr. de Maizière is methodical. He likes to analyze the context of events. Getting to the bottom of an issue is his preferred method. But what happens when the issues become increasingly complicated, the arguments grow polarized and the accepted rules change radically?

The latest debate to whirl around him are reports the German intelligence service helped American agencies spy on European companies and the Élysée Palace, the official home of the French president. People want to know: What did Mr. de Maizière know?

Perhaps that’s not the most important question. A more interesting question would be: Why him? And is he always involved in debates over  refugees and spying? All the topics are different in nature, but all have one thing in common. They are long-running, with no clear outcome.

The more refugees we help, the more refugees will come. The less we help, the greater the numbers who will drown.

These are problems that cannot be easily solved by analyzing issues and by coming up with pragmatic solutions. Yet Mr. de Maizière is the man closest to Angela Merkel and has known her for the longest period of time.

He is a “Merkel man” through and through. This has made him a target of the center left SPD, which is currently in a coalition with Ms. Merkel's party.

His political career almost ended in 2014, when he clung to the ill fated  reconnaissance drone program Euro Hawk, even though experts said repeatedly that the aircraft was too expensive and not fit to fly. He eventually cancelled the project, but his reputation was in tatters. He had once been the man no one could fault: an overly correct Prussian capable of accomplishing anything. While he found that image annoying –he once said that reading profiles about himself led him to think “I wouldn’t want to go for a beer with him” — it was a useful label and he took the loss of it hard.

But Ms. Merkel still decided to make him interior minister again, after elections in September 2014.

His cold manner is still a problem. Citizens want to see emotions in their politicians, but Mr. de Maizière is a private man. He believes he owes the state his intellectual input, but that his feelings belong only to him. He simply lacks the ability to show empathy and relate to the emotions of others.

But he is also an intelligent man and he has realized he must occasionally show more emotion. That’s why Mr. de Maizière is trying to display a little more humanity a little more openly these days. He tells moving stories of refugees he has met. He works to show that he is not a cold-blooded bureaucrat. He ponders additional legal avenues for asylum seekers and tries to calculate how many more refugees could find shelter in Germany.

He still has tough questions to answer on other subjects. Did he know about Americans asking Germany to cooperate with spying in 2008 and do nothing to stop it? Did he lie to parliament? What is he going to do about it now?

The man still has a long way to go.


 This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]