Josef Joffe serves on the editorial council of the German weekly Die Zeit. He is also a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Germans are not renowned for their sense of humor, but this farce beats Monty Python. Imagine that President Trump had dismissed his FBI director by promoting him to undersecretary in the Justice Department, with a higher rank and salary.
This is precisely what happened in Berlin when German Chancellor Angela Merkel “fired” Hans-Georg Maassen, her chief of domestic intelligence, by elevating him to a higher office and remuneration. Dismissal has never been so sweet.
A splendid little victory for Merkel this charade was not. What was the sin committed by Maassen — who will now make 31,200 euros ($36,000) more per year than in his previous job? He had publicly contradicted the chancellor on an issue that has been roiling the country since Aug. 27.
This is when Germany experienced its own Charlottesville with pretty much the same plot and props. Emboldened by the alleged murder of a German man by asylum seekers from the Middle East, the ultra-right organized a march through Chemnitz, a town of 120,000 in former East Germany, complete with Hitler salutes and Nazi regalia. On the left, the “antifa” rolled in, eclipsing peaceful demonstrators.
The reporting of the liberal media abounded with fighting words like “mob,” “pogrom” and “hunting down humans,” just like dogs trying to bring down a fox. Exhibit A was a 19-second video purportedly showing thugs hunting down migrants. The chancellor and her spokesman appropriated the language.
Enter our hapless guardian of domestic security, Maassen, with a phrase that shook up the German political scene. He had no “solid information that such manhunt had actually occurred.” Nor could he vouch for the authenticity of the video. Perhaps, it was a fake. We still don’t know who put it online.
The video certainly did not prove such a heinous act. It shows a few young men, locals and foreigners, taunting and threatening one another. Then one of the Germans runs after a man, but turns back after a few paces. If that was a “pogrom,” what do we call the real thing, like the one in Odessa in 1905 when 2,500 Jews were murdered? Or the Kristallnacht pogrom against Germany’s Jews in 1938, with almost 100 dead?
Never mind the facts or history. The political battle was now joined on the national level, with Maassen as the designated fall guy. Call him a political amateur, a public servant who is not supposed to enter into the political fray, let alone gainsay the chancellor. That is neither smart nor loyal.
The morality play — civic good against neo-Nazi evil — now turned into a power play in Berlin where Merkel’s centrist Christian Democrats and her Bavarian sister party, the CSU, have coalesced into a tension-ridden alliance with the Social Democrats headed by Andrea Nahles. She quickly raised the ante. Maassen “will go,” she pronounced. Though the intelligence chief has dissed the chancellor, she now had a much nastier problem on her hands: her Bavarian affiliate CSU being chaired by her nemesis, Horst Seehofer.
A mean-spirited critic of Merkel’s refugee policy, Seehofer, who doubles as interior minister in Merkel’s cabinet, lined up behind his subordinate Maassen. The chancellor faced a perfect case of the devil and the deep blue sea. If Merkel kicked Seehofer’s protégé off the chessboard, her tormentor, not the most rational of men, might resign and possibly pull his CSU out of the coalition.
If Seehofer stayed, he would reveal himself as a weakling, which would damage the CSU’s chances in the Bavarian state elections in October. The poll figures presage heavy losses. But if Merkel held on to Maassen, the Social Democrats might abscond. Such was the horrifying coalition arithmetic at the beginning of this week.
By then, the Chemnitz riots were old news, and the intelligence chief was but a pawn in the struggle for power in Berlin. Merkel, already weakened by her lonely decision to let in a million refugees in 2015, faced ugly options all round. Hence the farce worthy of “Saturday Night Live.” She “fired” Maassen by elevating him. A more charitable take is this: She managed not to humiliate Seehofer; Nahles, who went out on a limb, could climb down without loss of face.
But in the longer run, this charade does not bode well for Merkel. She is not in control of her government, beset by two coalition partners who despise each other. They have now learned how to blackmail Merkel, who in her salad days would have noiselessly decapitated her rivals.
Don’t bet on Merkel outlasting the remaining three years of her term.