Thomas de Maizière

The Silent Servant

Thomas de Maizière: Quietly tackling terror.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Thomas de Maizière is seen as a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel should she not stand in elections in 2017.

  • Facts


    • Thomas de Maizière served in state governments before joing Ms. Merkel’s cabinet in 2005.
    • He is in his second stint as interior minister, having also served as defense minister.
    • Current Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is also seen as a leadership contender.
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The German interior minister is not one to let his feelings show.

But on the day after the bloody attack on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris he shared a little of his state of mind with the public. “As interior minister, in such a situation you are emotionally on the edge of your seat,” he said.

The 60-year old’s ministerial responsibilities include the security of the country. Nowadays, that means being constantly ready for action, permanently under pressure and available around the clock, in case something should also happen on German soil.

And yet Mr. de Maizière remains amazingly relaxed, almost stoic, at least on the outside. He radiates calm where universal tension prevails and his demeanour is the opposite of a crusader against evil, a role many of his predecessors liked to play, such as Otto Schily after the 9/11 attacks.

Mr. de Maizière radiates calm where universal tension prevails.

Mr. de Maizière has held high state and federal government offices for almost 25 years. After German reunification in 1990, he served in state ministerial roles in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saxony, and since 2005 he has been a member of the federal government.

He previously held the office of interior minister between 2009 and 2011 before spending almost three years as defense minister, but in all those years the pressure was seldom as great as today. His occasionally blood-shot eyes reveal that the responsibility is weighing on him, and the stress of crisis management is physically taxing him.

The minister has been repeating the same line for the past few weeks: “We have cause for concern and precaution but not for fear and panic.” This highlights the fact that the threat from Islamist terrorists has not just been heightened since the Paris attacks.

But in the past few days the sentence has become a kind of mantra. At a weekend meeting of the executive committee of his party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, the senior party in Germany’s ruling coalition, Mr. de Maizière stressed that in the coming days copycat and retaliatory acts must be prevented at all costs. Otherwise a downward spiral will be set in motion.

He has frequently been reproached for his dispassionate, at times dry manner, and even now some in the CDU feel the need for a stronger showing. However, in difficult times like these, when terrorists, anti-Islamist demonstrators and counter demonstrators are putting the country under more tension than it has been for a long time, Mr. de Maizière’s level-headed manner is well received.

He admits, however, that there are limits to his powers. An attack in Germany “can’t be prevented, however good the police work,” he says.

With his soft-pedaling, Mr. de Maizière is seen as an antidote to his successor at the defense ministry, Ursula von der Leyen.

Yet the present conditions are allowing him to gain in stature. He was severely battered in 2013 when as minister of defense he was accused of wasting millions of euros in taypayers’ money buying Euro Hawk reconnaissance drones, which proved too dangerous to be flown in European air space.

Against his will, Chancellor Angela Merkel took the defense portfolio away from him after elections in 2013 and ordered him back to the interior ministry. But intimates report he is now content with the post and is doing a good job.

Naturally he was also busy before the Paris attack and had initiated many policies, but these things seldom became known to the public. Now Mr. de Maizière is even appearing on major talk shows, despite the fact he usually prefers to avoid the limelight – his last appearance was seven months ago.

On Sunday he was interviewed by Günther Jauch, one of Germany’s most famous hosts, and was afterwards praised for his non-partisan comments.

With his soft-pedaling, Mr. de Maizière is seen as an antidote to his successor at the defense ministry, Ursula von der Leyen, who actively courts the media. According to polls, he and Ms. von der Leyen have about equal standing with the public.

Within the CDU’s parliamentary group, however, Mr. de Maizière is probably enjoying higher approval ratings than his party colleague, who tends to go it alone. That could count for a lot should Ms. Merkel not run for chancellor again in 2017.

Mr. de Maizière refuses to reveal even to his close circle if he has higher political ambitions. He has more important things to worry about, for example the anti-Islamist movement Pegida, which week after week has taken to the streets of Dresden – his home town – to protest against rising immigration.

“That is shabby,” he rants. Another rare show of emotion from him.


Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt’s foreign policy correspondent, based in Berlin. To contact the author:

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