The scenes from the eastern German city of Chemnitz last week shocked and frightened many Germans: Extremists chasing foreigners, threatening journalists and police, and raising their hands in forbidden Nazi salutes. The search for answers – who is responsible for this horror? – and solutions – what can we do about it? – began almost immediately.
This week one suggestion calls for monitoring of the populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. One of the party’s more controversial leaders, Bjorn Hoecke, attended one of the marches in Chemnitz last week, ostensibly to protest the murder of a 35-year-old local; police are holding a Syrian and an Iraqi over the stabbing death. Practically speaking, the marches were organized by far-right, anti-immigrant groups and included neo-Nazi cells.
Consequently, this week politicians from Germany’s more mainstream parties were calling for closer surveillance of the AfD’s links with these kinds of groups. If it happens, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution would be given the job.
A toothless organization?
Historically, this office, known as the BfV, has had the task of monitoring extremism in Germany. The BfV is almost unique in Europe (Hungary and Austria also have something similar) and was created in 1950 by Allied powers to surveil a resurgent Communist party as well as keep an eye out for any kind of Nazi party revival after World War II. It was set up under the auspices of protecting Germany’s brand new constitution.
In Germany, there is a division of powers between various security agencies and the BfV doesn’t end up doing much other than observing. As a ministry, it is overseen by more ministries and parliamentary committees than many other agencies; its officers cannot make arrests; and, although it can request private information such as bank accounts and flight details, and even send in spies or solicit informants, a lot of its observational work is apparently done using open or public sources – that includes newspaper reports and Facebook posts. Additionally, it is not allowed to spy on private individuals, just groups. And only groups that have systematically engaged in anti-constitutional behavior.
Another of the BfV’s duties is to keep the public informed – every year it publishes a report on extremist activities, which usually results in a spree of headlines about whether or not there are more Islamist, neo-Nazi or anti-fascist extremists roaming the land.
According to German law, to become a candidate for observation by the BfV or any one of its 16 state-government subsidiaries, a group must have done one or all of the following: Made efforts that could be construed as being against Germany’s democratic order, or against the country’s security and the peaceful coexistence of the German people. There are also other things that cause a group or person to fall onto the BfV’s radar, but in this case, the AfD is being accused most of the latter.
One of the examples: A call for vigilante justice from AfD politician, Markus Frohnmaier’s Twitter account: “If the state cannot protect its citizens, then people should take to the street and protect themselves. It’s that simple!”
Another example: A Facebook post from an AfD office in central Germany, near Frankfurt, saying that journalists should think carefully about the fact that in past revolutions, their offices were stormed. “By the time the mood finally changes, it will be too late,” the post said.
Most members of the country’s more centrist parties who commented said it was time to officially observe the AfD more closely. “The refugee question continues to divide the community and the AfD is riding this wave in an increasingly radical way,” Social Democrat Thomas Oppermann, vice president of the German parliament, told local media. “That is why the BfV should be watching collaboration between the AfD and neo-Nazis very closely.”
As Armin Schuster, the CDU’s expert on interior policy, pointed out, the AfD has always been a case for the BfV. The head of the AfD “has to distance himself from one of his members’ faux pas at least once a month,” Mr. Schuster noted.
Many ordinary Germans seem to agree. An online survey by Civey researchers found that more than 57 percent of respondents thought the AfD definitely, or quite likely, warranted closer observation.
Not everyone was so sure though. Christian Lindner, head of the neo-liberal Free Democrats, thought the BfV probably should keep a closer watch on the AfD but, as he argued, “nobody should get the impression that the democratic parties are trying to rid themselves of the tough competition by using the BfV.”
The interior ministry does not appear to be ready to task the BfV with watching the AfD. The main problem is whether the AfD, as a whole, is guilty of anti-constitutional behavior, or whether it’s just a handful of naughtier members. “Of course we have to always look carefully – and that’s what the BfV does – to see whether what party members say, or whether there’s cooperation with certain groups, and if this is happening in individual cases or on a party-wide basis,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer explained. Currently, he does not think this is the case.
What good can the BfV actually do?
The BfV has, in the past, observed the left-wing Die Linke party. In 2012, the agency, which had been watching the party since 2009, revealed that it had been surveilling more than a third of the parliamentary faction at the time to check if they had links to left-wing extremists. In 2014, politicians took the issue to court and a judge decided that the surveillance was no longer justified.
It’s hard to tell what immediate difference BfV observation made to the party. The agency’s headline-making annual report is mostly seen as a type of early warning system; the BfV has no executive powers but they can find, interpret and then share evidence with the public prosecutor and other agencies, which could lead to a legal case if there is some criminal behavior. Organizations that have found themselves mentioned in the BfV annual report – from anti-capitalist clubs to squatters to lobby groups for the Turkish government – say being in there can prejudice everything from members’ job applications to university scholarships.
“It’s the symbolism,” says Constantin Goschler, a professor of history at the Ruhr University Bochum, who co-wrote a book “Keine neue Gestapo” (“No New Gestapo”) on the history of the BfV. “This party could be anti-constitutional or dangerous to democracy. It sends a clear signal.”
Of course, Mr. Goschler doesn’t think voters are anxiously waiting to see if their chosen party has appeared in the annual BfV report. “But it makes a party look untrustworthy,” he says. It is unclear what impact the years-long BfV surveillance had on the Die Linke party. But it would definitely have made them less acceptable as coalition partners in government, Mr. Goschler points out, something that is becoming more important as German politics fragments and all parties lose the chance to gain an outright majority.
Obviously, it is hard to know whether getting a mention in the BfV report would worry those AfD members calling for a violent revolution on the streets of Chemnitz. It might not. But what it would do is provide “a clear demarcation for those who want to commit to the Afd,” Mr. Goschler concludes.
Cathrin Schaer is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org