A few days after speaking to Bild, Maassen came under fire for directly contradicting Merkel. He soon walked back his comments, claiming he had been “misunderstood” and that he was merely challenging people’s interpretation of the video rather than its contents. But in Germany, it’s common practice for journalists to clear quotes from public officials before printing them—he and his staff likely knew what they were doing when they let Bild publish his words. “He, of all the people we have, must be the cold-blooded, cool, analytical guy and not turn himself into a pundit,” Techau told me. “That was a big misreading on his behalf, of the role he had to play in that situation.”
Fighting the far-right and neo-Nazi resurgence in Germany
Some figures in German politics and media have accused Maassen of being too cozy with the AfD: While it’s common for the intelligence chief to disclose various threats to political leaders and organizations, Maassen met repeatedly with the AfD leader Alexander Gauland (who called the Nazi era a “speck of bird poop” in Germany’s otherwise illustrious history) and also gave details of an intelligence report to an AfD member of Parliament. Media reports suggested that he even met with the ex–AfD leader Frauke Petry in 2015 to discuss how she could avoid surveillance, a claim Maassen has denied.
Maassen’s comments were also particularly controversial because Germany’s intelligence services have a “problematic” history of being negligent when it comes to the far right, Matthias Quent, the director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena, told me. The Verfassungsschutz was created when the country was still divided and West German officials saw communism as the primary threat. In the years since, it has been criticized for not acting against right-wing extremists with haste. After the AfD won 12.6 percent of the vote in Germany’s federal elections last year, that issue took on an increased urgency. Experts have gotten “the impression that the Verfassungsschutz, [when it comes to] the right, is blind,” Quent told me. “It has in its historical tradition this very special focus on the left, but lets the far right do what the far right is doing.”
After his interview with Bild, Maassen quickly became a hero for supporters of the far right, who viewed him as a brave truth teller willing to defy the so-called lügenpresse (“lying press,” a term that traces its roots back to the Nazi era). At a demonstration in Köthen, a city in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt, one protester held up a sign saying Thank you for the truth, Mr. Maassen.
But leaders of Germany’s other leading political parties, including the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), quickly called for Maassen’s ouster. Ultimately, Merkel, Seehofer, and the SPD came to an agreement: Maassen would leave his post as intelligence chief to take a more senior role in the interior ministry under Seehofer. German media and observers from across the political spectrum promptly panned that compromise. Quent called Maassen’s comments a “putsch attempt,” noting he was clearly trying to undermine Merkel and her very critical response to protesters’ actions in Chemnitz. “It’s absolutely irresponsible to promote him to an even better job with even more power than now for a failure and for spreading conspiracy ideas,” he said.
Techau noted, though, that the situation was indicative of both the current charged political atmosphere in Germany as well as the tensions between governing partners—all of which came to a head with Maassen’s controversy. “Maassen was the guy who was standing in the middle, and who became kind of the lightning rod for all of this,” Techau said. He was “the man onto which the whole dilemma was projected.”