Things should be going well for Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Friedrich Merz. Exactly a year ago the centre-right party shrugged off the Merkel era to elect as leader the ex-chancellor’s former ally turned political arch-enemy.
After the party’s loss of power in September 2021 after 16 years, the 67-year-old millionaire lawyer and part-time pilot has worked fast to pull the CDU back from a downward spiral.
It won two out of three big regional polls in 2022, can look forward to further big wins this year and is flying high in federal polls – at near 29 per cent – as Germany’s most popular political party.
All would be well if it weren’t for Hans-Georg Maassen. For six years until 2018 Maassen was president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency – the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) – until then chancellor Merkel fired him for contradicting her in public during a debate over far-right riots.
Maassen – a trained lawyer and lifelong civil servant – has since framed his forced departure as a “left-wing conspiracy” by a “naive” German political establishment.
Seeking a new political role, he failed in his Bundestag bid in 2021 and, critics say, has drifted into Germany’s far-right political badlands occupied by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
The CDU has demanded Maassen depart the party by Sunday for ‘continually using language from the world of anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists, even ethnic supremacist terminology’
As BfV head, Maassen courted controversy for perceived proximity to the AfD, advising its party leaders on how they should adapt their politics to circumvent the prospect of state surveillance by his agency.
Maassen insists he is a life-long CDU member: he joined in 1978 and is head of the so-called “Values Union”, an unofficial party grouping. It sees itself as a bulwark against its perceived Merkel-era drift to the centre – a drift the group, says Merz, has yet to correct.
“In Germany we have a Green ‘woke’ dominance in language, media and culture,” said Maassen in an interview on national radio this week. “My expectation is that the CDU find its way back to the fundamental positions of Kohl and Adenauer.”
His radio interview was triggered by tweets in which he warned that Germany’s “driving force in the political and media space” was “eliminatory racism against whites”.
“I reject ideological positions that demand the extinction of ... those with white skin colour – through mass immigration,” he added.
Asked on the radio about where he saw such dominant views in German media and society, Maassen said he was referring to a series of tweets by a little-known leftist campaigner.
These and other remarks were the final straw for the CDU: it has demanded Maassen depart the party by Sunday for “continually using language from the world of anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists, even ethnic supremacist terminology”.
Maassen says he will not leave and disputes claims his remarks are racist, because “they are what many people think”.
If he remains a member after Sunday, he will face an internal party investigation and potential removal. In post-war Germany such procedures have deliberately high hurdles, in part to avoid the rise of dictatorial parties such as Hitler’s National Socialists.
To rid themselves of Maassen, the CDU party rules say officials will have to show he “intentionally violates the statutes or significantly violates the principles or rules of the party and thereby causes serious damage to it”.
This is where things get awkward for the conservative Merz. As leader he has reached out to his party’s neglected right wing and warned on Sunday that Maassen’s “language and thinking have no place in the CDU”.
In this era of identity politics and heated culture wars, though, it’s not clear what Merz will do about the many others in the CDU who share Maassen’s views.