German spy chief Maaßen removed from his post

The German government said Tuesday it was relieving controversial spy chief Hans-Georg Maaßen of his duties and moving him to a different post, defusing a row that had rocked Chancellor Angela Merkel's fragile coalition.

German spy chief Maaßen removed from his post
Maaßen at a Bundestag meeting earlier in September. Photo: DPA

“Mr Maaßen will become state secretary in the interior ministry,” Merkel and the leaders of her coalition partners announced in a statement.

Maaßen had come under great political and public pressure because of controversial statements about xenophobic riots in Chemnitz which broke out following the murder of a 35-year-old German man, allegedly by asylum seekers. One of the suspects was freed by a Chemnitz court Tuesday.

Further details are to be discussed on Wednesday. No initial details were given about who is to succeed Maaßen.

Hatred in the streets

The far-right attacks, which sparked revulsion in Germany and abroad, were sparked by a fatal stabbing of a German man over which police are holding a Syrian suspect and searching for an Iraqi man, after a court freed another initial Iraqi suspect Tuesday.

Days after the unrest, Maaßen questioned the authenticity of amateur video footage showing street violence and voiced doubt that racists had indeed”hunted down” foreigners – comments that directly contradicted Merkel, who had deplored the xenophobic attacks and “hatred in the streets”.

SPD leaders – as well as the opposition Greens, Free Democrats and Linke parties — have demanded the resignation or sacking of the spy chief for political meddling, and pointed to his repeated meetings with leaders of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Whatever Maaßen's true political leanings, the issue has quickly turned him into a martyr of Merkel haters and the far-right.

The AfD's Alice Weidel wrote on Facebook that “anyone who criticizes Merkel's illegal immigration policy is mercilessly put through the wringer by the mainstream parties”.

Deep chasms 

Maaßen has rejected accusations that he has supported AfD lawmakers with early access to unpublished data and advice on how to avoid surveillance byhis Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).

Social Democrat leader Andrea Nahles has charged that Maaßen had “provided material for right-wing conspiracy theorists” while SPD youth wing leader

Kevin Kühnert, 29, mockingly urged him to “throw in his tin foil hat”.

However, Maaßen has received the backing of his immediate boss, the CSU'shardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who has for three years been

Merkel's nemesis within the ruling grand coalition. Seehofer, a harsh critic of Merkel's 2015 decision to allow a mass influx of migrants and refugees, had in July brought the government to the brink of collapse with his threat to shutter national borders to asylum seekers.

With that bitter dispute barely papered over, the conflict over Maaßen's fate once more highlights the deep chasms within Merkel's coalition.

On one level, both major parties, the CDU and SPD, are distrustful partners stuck in a political marriage of convenience after the AfD, a one-time fringe party, poached millions of their voters in last year's elections.

 'Mother of all problems' 

But the rift is deepest between Merkel and Seehofer, whose own political future hangs in the balance as his CSU braces for potentially massive losses to the AfD in Bavarian state elections next month.

Last week Seehofer labelled the migration issue “the mother of all problems” in German politics — a comment read by many as a veiled reference to Merkel's nickname “Mutti”, or Mummy.

Die Welt daily reported Monday that Merkel had decided to let Maaßen go, quoting unnamed coalition sources.

According to the paper, this could have wider political ramifications: Maaßen  reportedly told a closed-door meeting of conservative lawmakers

“Horst Seehofer told me that if I fall, he falls too”. Merkel and Seehofer have for days declined to comment on the controversy publicly, other than to insist that the coalition will not break up over the issue.


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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.