The German interior minister loves the law and worships order. But his failure to embrace the chaos of the refugee crisis appears to be his undoing.
Hard times for the once bulletproof politician Thomas de Maizière.

A work by artist Olaf Holzapfel hangs in Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière's office in Berlin. He sees it whenever he glances up from his desk. At first, the painting appears to be nothing more than a square yellow surface. But upon closer inspection, it proves to be a delicate pattern. They are construction plans – precise but nameless and seamless, a labyrinth without an exit, a structure without a goal.

Mr. De Maizière is looking very closely at the painting now. Disorder in order, he says, suggesting an interpretation of the work. He pauses for a moment, wrinkles his brow and then changes his mind. No, he says, order in disorder, that would be a better title. His face becomes more relaxed. Yes, he says, that's the way it should be.

If it were only that easy.

As interior minister, Mr. de Maizière's job involves the law and, of course, order. In normal times, no one could have been better suited for the task than Mr. de Maizière. A descendant of Huguenot immigrants, he is a man without passions, except one: to execute policy in a predictable and precise manner. He once turned this Prussian notion of dutifully serving the state into a political art form.

Or rather, in ordinary times he did.

But now Schengen is on the brink of ruin. And Germany's coalition government is struggling more than ever against a relentless flood of refugees, but especially against a no less relentless flood of proposals, counter-proposals, attacks and interjections from its three member parties. Meanwhile, petulant European partners are making governing more difficult. There is also talk of ousting the chancellor.

Even Mr. de Maizière's remarks have taken on a dramatic tone. "We are running out of time," he warned last week. By "we" he meant the German government, its E.U. partners and himself. That's because there is also a crisis of sorts surrounding Mr. de Maizière about his political performance in all of this.

He and Ms. Merkel are considered to be responsible for months of unregulated immigration and sketchy registration last fall. He is also being blamed for conditions in the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, or BAMF, a sub-agency of his ministry. At BAMF headquarters in Nuremberg, there are still hundreds of thousands of asylum applications waiting to be processed, and the agency lacks both personnel and an adequate IT system. This is his fault. To make things worse, the minister has made some memorably clumsy remarks.

We should not feed the illusion that there are simple answers. Thomas de Maizière, German Interior Minister

In his former role as defense minister, he was referred to as the chancellor in reserve, at least until the scandal surrounding the Eurohawk drone. As head of the Chancellery, the office he once said was his dream job, he was a virtuoso machinist of power. But little is left of that power today. His performance during the refugee crisis has been characterized by a feeling of impotence.

It is Wednesday of last week, and Mr. de Maizière is trying to take a break from the state of emergency outside. The view beyond his window looks peacefully frozen. But it is impossible to find a moment of peace in the current situation. He is merely sitting in the eye of the hurricane. Austria has just announced that it is imposing a cap on asylum applications.

The circumstances are tugging away at him, with the "we-can-do-this" chancellor on the one side and frantic members of their conservatives on the other. Many are looking for a plan from Mr. de Maizière. But there is no plan, even as ever more refugees cross into Germany, increasing the pressure. And he has been frequently ill in recent months.

"People expect national solutions, but with an international problem like the wave of refugees, national solutions alone are not productive," says Mr. de Maizière. "We should not feed the illusion that there are simple answers."

Then he's off to the Technical University of Dresden where, as an honorary professor, he teaches a seminar. But even there he is unable to shake off the crisis.

He intends to talk about asylum law and search for credible answers, the sort of thing he does well. "Our legal system, especially asylum law, is designed for the clever management of individual cases, not for mass phenomena," he says.

Mr. de Maizière survived earlier tests. As an advisor to his cousin Lothar, Mr. de Maizière, then 36, played an important role in German reunification. As head of the Chancellery, he calmly kept things running during the 2008/2009 financial crisis. But when it comes to the refugee crisis, it seems clear that Mr. de Maizière is not up to the challenge.

But his performance surely cannot be good enough for him, because "a conservative begins by setting standards for himself," as he once wrote. And because a de Maizière sets very high standards for himself.

But what is holding him back? What makes him seem so insecure and uneasy at the moment?

It probably has something to do with what Chancellor Angela Merkel said. "We can do it – it's the sort of sentence I would never have uttered," he says. One person who believes this spent four years with him at the same cabinet table, someone who knows him well and respects him, but doesn’t want to attract attention.

Mr. de Maizière is deeply loyal to the woman, who he has known for a quarter of a century. He would never admit it if he believed that the historic decision, reached in September 2015, when Ms. Merkel abraded the European asylum system, was both a humanitarian feat and a national policy disaster. He is torn between humanitarian benevolence and legal toughness. But he is held responsible for being caught in the middle like this. And for Mr. de Maizière, it would be impossible to simply allow it to roll off his shoulders.

Ulrich Schröder, the head of the KfW banking group, is a good, old friend. He and Mr. de Maizière have known each other since they were both students in Münster, in northern Germany. Mr. Schröder is part of a trusted group of former members of the Association of Christian Democratic Students (RCDS), who still get together regularly. He gave a long speech at Mr. de Maizière's 60th birthday celebration. "He loves it when things are systematic, and he acts deliberately, cautiously and judiciously," says Mr. Schröder. "This is very difficult in the current volatile political situation."

Lothar de Maizière takes it a step further. The last prime minister of the German Democratic Republic, he chose his cousin from the West when, during the turmoil of the reunification period, he needed someone at his side who he could "trust blindly." When he is asked why is cousin Thomas is doing so poorly at the moment, he says: "He believes deeply in the sovereignty of justice, in the power of the law. At the moment, however, reality is not obeying the rules of justice and the law. This truly gets under his skin."

In a quiet moment, Thomas de Maizière once said something to his closest confidant outside politics, cellist Jan Vogler: "You're lucky that you're not a politician." He wouldn't allow anyone to gaze more deeply into his soul, except his wife Martina. But deep inside, he must be aggrieved by the circumstances that are washing over him and his impressive career, allowing his strengths to mutate into weaknesses.

Certain individuals are associated with what has happened to him. Only five years ago, it was taken for granted that Mr. de Maizière should stand in for Wolfgang Schäuble, who had fallen ill, during important European Union meetings in Brussels. A few months ago, however, the chancellor appointed the current head of the Chancellery, Peter Altmaier, to the key role of chief refugee coordinator. And then she appointed Frank-Jürgen Weise, a man with a sense of mission, to serve as crisis manager at the BAMF, essentially placing him on par with Mr. de Maizière, the head of the agency.

With the interior minister now outflanked, Mr. Weise is asking the questions and providing the answers that everyone is waiting for, though in the past someone like Mr. De Maizière would have been brought in to stabilize things.

Naturally, the interior minister defends his performance. "More positions for the BAMF, and sooner – yes, in retrospect it would have been the right thing to do," he says. "Nevertheless, this increase in the numbers was not foreseeable." BAMF officials insist the opposite is true.

He gave a speech in mid-December, at the CDU national convention in Karlsruhe, that was hardly noticed. The interior minister stood calmly at the lectern and said something that was intended for his party and for citizens, but that was in fact just as applicable to himself: "Those who deny change are changed themselves."

It was a remarkable statement for someone like him, someone who loves consistency, tradition and form, because it provides a foothold and a direction. As defense minister, he was famous for his precise instructions for the layout of documents: Arial, 12 point, 1.5-line spacing. As a student, Mr. de Maizière held an annual tea during the Advent season. He served cookies, and his guests were expected to listen devoutly to Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio.

Giving the family the status it deserved, music and art, cultivating friendships and good manners, a life as civilized and neat as chamber music – those are his constants. Mr. De Maizière would not define narrow-mindedness as an insult, but as the mark of someone who is unfashionably true to his principles.

An old friend says that Mr. de Maizière has what it takes to be the perfect state secretary. This is why he "believed, for much too long, that the refugee crisis could be solved at his desk." But that is no longer enough.

In his office, Mr. de Maizière recalls a saying by Wolfgang Schäuble. You only learn politics under pressure, he once said. But the look on his face says something different: If it were only that easy.


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