Germany Expected To Put Right-Wing AfD Under Surveillance For Violating Constitution

Jan 22, 2021
Originally published on January 25, 2021 12:34 am

Germany's Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, is constantly on the lookout for potential threats to Germany's democratic constitutional system, and it has wide-ranging powers when it finds them.

"This agency has the power — and not only to do surveillance on fringe groups, domestic terrorist threats, but also to keep an eye on any political institution, like a political party," said Melanie Amann of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and the author of a book about the Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

"Like if their program becomes more radical or if they notice that a political party, maybe that's even sitting in the parliament, goes into a direction that might be harmful to our political system."

The agency has wrapped up a two-year investigation into the Alternative for Germany, the country's largest right-wing opposition party, and is expected to announce soon that it will place the entire party under surveillance for posing a threat to Germany's political system and violating the constitution. The unprecedented move would mean that all AfD lawmakers, including several dozen in Germany's parliament, would be put under state surveillance.

The driving force behind the creation of the Verfassungsschutz agency and its surveillance powers was the American-led Allied forces, who, after World War II, helped write a new German Constitution with an eye toward preventing the return of Nazi ideology. That's why the first article of the constitution guarantees the right to human dignity — an article that the agency determined a far-right branch of the AfD violated. It placed that group, known as der Flügel ("The Wing"), under surveillance nearly a year ago.

Amann said the agency has identified instances of AfD politicians denigrating Muslim migrants to Germany. "They were all treated as potential terrorists," she said. "They were dehumanized in the speeches. They were compared to animals. The [agency] report made it quite clear that these people had crossed a line."

Some AfD politicians have also trivialized Germany's Nazi past. Speaking at an AfD event in 2017, the leader of the Flügel wing, Bjorn Höcke, called the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin a "monument of shame." A year later, AfD parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland likened Germany's Nazi era to "a speck of bird s*** in more than 1,000 years of successful German history."

"If you look at how the AfD has been behaving for some time now, it's clear it's acting against our democracy and our constitution," said Social Democrat parliamentarian Thomas Hitschler, a member of the parliamentary committee that reviews Germany's intelligence agencies. He said the Verfassungsschutz agency has spent two years gathering evidence to inform the decision that is expected to put the entire AfD under watch.

But AfD politician Georg Pazderski claims the process is political. The agency is run by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, staffed with members of her own conservative Christian Democratic Union party. Pazderski said the CDU is worried about how fast the AfD has become a presence in Germany's parliament; the party now has 88 members of 709 in the Bundestag, more than 12% representation.

"If you have an opposition party which is very successful within a very short time, we become a danger for the ruling parties," Pazderski said, "especially for the conservative CDU. And this is a reason why they are trying to stigmatize us and to really put us in the Nazi corner and also to spread strong rumors."

Hitschler insists the process is not political and the agency's findings must withstand tough legal scrutiny.

"Its decision must be so watertight legally that it will stand up in the courts," he said. "The AfD has legal recourse to contest the decision, and the agency isn't about to lose face in court with a poor case."

The AfD is already preparing for the decision. This week, the party published a position paper that represents a U-turn in how it sees immigrants, insisting that it is a party for all Germans, even naturalized citizens.

AfD politician Jens Maier, already under surveillance for being part of the Flügel, told NPR by email that last year's decision to put his section of the party under surveillance has had real consequences.

"A lot of members fear for their civil reputation or even their jobs, especially if they are employed in public service," he wrote. "This is clearly an unfair method to lower the election results of the AfD." Germany's federal elections are scheduled for September.

Der Spiegel's Amann says tightened surveillance on the AfD will affect civil servants such as police officers and military personnel, who may cancel their membership out of fear of losing their jobs.

While the Verfassungsschutz agency is able to tap phones and use informants to gather information on whomever it monitors, Maier said he hasn't noticed the surveillance. But he said it has changed the way he and his associates communicate.

"We don't talk about confidential topics on the phone or online anymore and people from the outside contacting us do so with care now, knowing that somebody is possibly listening," he wrote.

When Germany announces the AfD is under surveillance, Pazderski said it can expect an immediate lawsuit challenging the decision. And that, he said, may take years to resolve.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this report from Berlin.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To Germany now, where the government is expected to put the country's largest right-wing opposition party under surveillance. This means several dozen politicians in Germany's parliament may soon be monitored for racist and other unconstitutional behaviors that threaten Germany's political system. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: In German, it's called the Verfassungsschutz.

MELANIE AMANN: If you translate the name literally, it's called Agency for the Protection of the Constitution.

SCHMITZ: Melanie Amann is Berlin bureau chief of the German news magazine Der Spiegel. She says the Verfassungsschutz is on the lookout for potential threats to Germany's democratic constitutional system.

AMANN: This agency has the power not only to do surveillance on fringe groups, domestic terrorist threats, but also to keep an eye on any political institution, like a political party.

SCHMITZ: The driving force behind the creation of the agency and its surveillance powers were the American-led Allied forces, who, after World War II, helped write a new German constitution with an eye towards preventing the return of Nazi ideology. That's why the very first article of the constitution guarantees the right to human dignity. And now the Verfassungsschutz is on the verge of making an unprecedented move, placing Germany's largest right-wing opposition party, the Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, under surveillance for violating that very article of the constitution. This comes nearly a year after a far-right faction of the AfD, known as der Flugel, was put under surveillance by the Verfassungsschutz for the same reasons.

Amann, who has written a book about the AfD, says in its report, the agency provided examples of politicians denigrating Muslim migrants to Germany.

AMANN: For example, they were all treated as potential terrorists. They were dehumanized in the speeches. They were compared to animals.

SCHMITZ: AfD politicians also trivialized Germany's Nazi past.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BJORN HOCKE: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Speaking at an event in 2017, the leader of the Flugel faction, Bjorn Hocke, called the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin a monument of shame.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER GAULAND: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: A year later, AfD parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland likened Germany's Nazi era to a speck of bird droppings in more than a thousand years of what he called successful German history.

(APPLAUSE)

THOMAS HITSCHLER: (Through interpreter) If you look at how the AfD has been behaving for some time now, it's clear it's acting against our democracy and our constitution.

SCHMITZ: Social Democrat parliamentarian Thomas Hitschler is a member of the committee that keeps checks on Germany's intelligence agencies. He says the Verfassungsschutz has spent two years gathering evidence that'll inform their decision to put the AfD under watch. But AfD politician Georg Pazderski says the agency is run by Angela Merkel's government, staffed with members of her CDU party. He says the CDU is worried about how fast the AfD has become a presence in Germany's parliament. The party now has 88 members in the Bundestag.

GEORG PAZDERSKI: If you have an opposition party, which is very successful within a very short time, and we become a danger for the ruling parties, especially for the conservative CDU. And this is a reason why they are trying to stigmatize us, really to put us in the Nazi corner and also to spread wrong rumors.

SCHMITZ: But Social Democrat Hitschler says the process is not political and its findings must withstand legal scrutiny.

HITSCHLER: (Through interpreter) Its decision must be so watertight legally that it will stand up in the courts. The AfD have legal recourse to contest the decision, and the agency isn't about to lose face in court with a poor case.

SCHMITZ: AfD politician Jens Maier, already under surveillance for being part of the far-right Flugel wing, told NPR by email he's worried that civil servants like police officers will cancel their membership out of fear of losing their jobs. While the Verfassungsschutz is able to tap phones and use informants to gather information on whomever it monitors, Maier says he hasn't noticed the surveillance. Whenever Germany announces its decision, the AfD is expected to file a lawsuit challenging it, and that may take years to resolve. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMPARO'S "COASTAL DUSK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.