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German Minister Fires Divisive Spy Chief, but Still Faces Calls to Step Down

BERLIN — Germany’s interior minister faced calls for his resignation Tuesday, after his dismissal of a spy chief who had given fuel to right-wing and anti-immigrant sentiment failed to end a monthslong controversy that weakened the government.

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Christopher F. Schuetze
, New York Times

BERLIN — Germany’s interior minister faced calls for his resignation Tuesday, after his dismissal of a spy chief who had given fuel to right-wing and anti-immigrant sentiment failed to end a monthslong controversy that weakened the government.

The intelligence chief, Hans-Georg Maassen, became a hero to the growing far right in September, when he contradicted Chancellor Angela Merkel and questioned the validity of a video showing anti-immigrant protesters in the city of Chemnitz chasing people who appeared to be immigrants. At the time, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer — who has advocated a harder line on immigration than Merkel has — proposed moving Maassen to a position in his ministry, but resisted calls to fire him.

But it recently emerged that Maassen had blamed “radical-left forces” in the coalition government for plotting his demotion from the intelligence post he held for six years. He made that statement last month in a speech to a group of European colleagues, but it was only in the last few days that transcripts of his remarks appeared in the German news media.

The comments were “unacceptable” and “crossed a line,” and “precluded trusting cooperation,” Seehofer said in announcing Monday afternoon that Maassen would be dismissed from government service.

That did not quell criticism of Seehofer from political figures who said he should long ago have dismissed Maassen, whose words and actions prompted questions about whether Germany’s intelligence apparatus could be counted on to police the far right. On Tuesday, there were calls for Seehofer’s resignation from opposition lawmakers who sit on the parliamentary control committee, which oversees the country’s intelligence agencies and is expected to discuss both the spy chief and the interior minister during its scheduled meeting later in the day.

André Hahn, a Left party member, said that Seehofer posed “a threat to democracy.” Konstantin von Notz, a lawmaker of the Greens party, said that Seehofer “had been untenable for months for several reasons,” and compared the interior ministry to a rudderless ship, according to the German Press Agency.

Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian conservatives who are a part of Merkel’s coalition, had directly challenged her authority, trying to steer the government in a more anti-migrant direction and to fend off a challenge from the far-right party Alternative for Germany, known as AfD.

Instead, his seeming inability to censure Maassen was one of the reasons voters gave for the severe losses suffered by the conservatives in regional elections in two states last month. A recent national opinion poll showed the alliance of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and Seehofer’s Christian Social Union with the support of just 24.5 percent of the electorate, down from the 32.9 percent they won in last year’s general election, and the 41.5 percent they won in 2013.

Maassen had appeared to give cover to the right-wing demonstrators who rioted in Chemnitz, not only doubting the authenticity of the video but also questioning the chancellor’s use of the word “hounding” to describe the mob’s behavior.

Maassen had already faced criticism for what was seen as improper contact with the AfD, after allegations that he had coached members of the party on how to avoid his agency’s scrutiny.

Rather than fire Maassen in September, Seehofer said he would promote him to the post of state secretary in his ministry, with a significant pay raise, but he reversed that decision in the face of widespread outrage. Instead, Seehofer set out to shift Maassen to a lesser ministry post, but this week he abandoned that plan.

On Monday, Seehofer emphasized that his latest decision to let Maassen go signaled his willingness to advance the work of the governing coalition, which appears more fragile than ever since Merkel announced last week that she would give up her party’s leadership in December and would not run for another term as chancellor.

Thomas Haldenwang, previously a vice president of the domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, is to take over Maassen’s duties until a permanent successor is appointed.

In his leaked speech, Maassen presented himself as a victim of politics. He said that he was known as a “critic of idealistic, naïve and left-wing policy on foreigners and security,” and that this is why the news media and his opponents pushed him out of his job.

He also hinted that he might be interested in going into politics and at least one party jumped at the chance to embrace him. Jörg Meuthen, a senior member of the AfD, told the German daily Welt, “We are a democratic constitutional party and Mr. Maassen would be very welcome in a democratic constitutional party.”

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