Democracy Under Pressure Germany Balances Liberty and Security in Face of Terror
In the wake of the Berlin terror attack, leading German politicians have begun demanding changes to the country's security architecture. With fall elections approaching, the issue is set to dominate the campaign. But there's also a danger of going too far. By SPIEGEL Staff
Twice a year, interior ministers from Germany's 16 states gather for a conference somewhere in Germany, with the most prominent guest being Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière. Before the official discussions begin, de Maizière, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), meets with those state interior ministers who are likewise members of the CDU. Over wine and beer, they talk about what's on their mind.
In 2016, de Maizière repeatedly brought up his ideas for a new security architecture for Germany, according to meeting participants. Should the federal government be responsible for deporting rejected asylum-seekers instead of the states? Should the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) be granted greater powers? Are the structures of the country's domestic intelligence agency still up to date?
He posed his queries carefully and cautiously, as is his style. His counterparts sipped from their wine glasses, some mumbling noncommittally: We'll see, maybe but probably not. They were friendly, but dismissive.
De Maizière, however, was not deterred, continuing to talk about his ideas in the federal cabinet, with parliamentarians and with the heads of security agencies. Some agreed with him, but most were circumspect. And ultimately, his vision was shelved -- until last Tuesday. Finally, he felt the time was ripe to go public.
In a guest editorial for the influential daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the federal interior minister surprised his party and the entire country with his concept of a "strong state." At almost the exact same time, Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Merkel's junior coalition partner, presented a paper with his own ideas for a revamped security policy. Gabriel, who is Merkel's vice chancellor, demanded a tougher approach to potentially violent Salafists. "I am in favor of zero tolerance," he told SPIEGEL in an interview this week. Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer, the powerful governor of Bavaria, have likewise reiterated earlier promises that Germany must demonstrate increased severity.
The leaders of Germany's current governing coalition are all seeking to present themselves as decisive defenders of the country's democracy. And with elections approaching in fall 2017, they are aware that the campaign is likely to focus heavily on security policy. Their proposals are aimed at improving protection against the dangers of terrorism, but they will also go a long way toward determining who will occupy which position following the September general election.
The words they choose to outline their ideas may at times seem reserved, but the policies they envision are radical -- even those from de Maizière, who is otherwise a vocal proponent of prudence.
Germany, de Maizière wrote in his op-ed, is not sufficiently prepared for the crises and catastrophes of our times. The interior minister currently oversees more than 60,000 people working for the Federal Criminal Police Office, the federal police force, the domestic intelligence agency BfV and other agencies, and he believes changes are necessary. The federal government, he now believes, needs greater leverage to control all of the country's security agencies. He says that more video surveillance is needed as is the expanded use of facial recognition technology and beefed-up personnel. The state, he believes, must become stronger.
A Rethinking of German Federalism
Demands such as those now being made by de Maizière haven't been seen in Germany since 2001, when then-Interior Minister Otto Schily presented a list of far-reaching security measures following the attacks in the United States. But de Maizière is also calling for a rethinking of German federalism. And unsurprisingly, German states, which are afforded a fair degree of autonomy under the current arrangement, are unimpressed. "I don't understand why he has done this," says Peter Beuth, interior minister of the state of Hesse and a member of the CDU. The idea of completely revamping the country's security architecture is "absurd," he says.
Saxony-Anhalt Governor Reiner Haseloff, likewise of the CDU, says: "The federalist system in Germany has proven itself. We should resist the temptation to call it into question in the face of the terrorist threat."
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Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz of the SPD also rebuffed the initiative from Berlin. "We don't need any short-term security debates," he says. "The police in the states do excellent work. The same is true for the state chapters of the BfV." It is much more important, he says, to finally carry out the deportation of rejected asylum-seekers and negotiate effective repatriation agreements with reluctant countries," he continues. "That is the most important task facing the federal government and, first and foremost, the federal interior minister."
What, then, is correct? Is Germany unprepared? Or do the country's security agencies do "excellent work?"
Like the U.S. following 9/11, France after the attacks in Paris and Belgium after the attacks in Brussels, Germany must now find a response to the Dec. 19, 2016, Christmas market attack. It must analyze the mistakes that made the attack possible and draw the correct consequences.
But which ones are they? War, imprisonment without trial, torture and a monstrous Homeland Security ministry like in the U.S.? Bombing campaigns against Islamic State, a semi-permanent state of emergency and house searches without a warrant as in France? Heavily armed soldiers in pedestrian zones like in Belgium? Likely not, but what should be the response? What should the German answer be? What works best for the country? Radical restructuring or minor fixes in many areas?
The Correct Equilibrium
The image of the gray semi-truck in the middle of an idyllically decorated square marks a turning point for Germany. Islamist terror has arrived in full force. It is no longer merely apparent in the form of arrests and investigations, no longer present in speeches about "abstract threats" and the serious expressions on the faces of security agency heads following the comparatively minor attacks of last summer. Islamist terror has now struck at the heart of German culture -- a Christmas market shortly before Christmas Eve.
And the facts speak for themselves: German security agencies were unable to prevent the attack despite the fact that its perpetrator, Anis Amri, had been known for months to be an Islamist threat. Numerous agencies had files on him, they were aware of his contacts to Islamic State and they knew that he had searched the internet for bomb-building instructions.
It is never easy for a democracy to find the correct equilibrium between freedom and security, but Germany thus far has done an adequate job of balancing out political reflexes. Often in recent years, security has had the upper hand, but freedom has also come out ahead in some areas. Germany's Constitutional Court has frequently served as a corrective in the ongoing duel.
The question regarding German democracy's ability to defend itself is one that has faced the country since democracy was reestablished following World War II. An early debate took place in 1967, when the country passed the Emergency Acts, enabling the federal government to take action in crises ranging from natural disasters to internal uprisings. A decade later, a series of attacks committed by the leftist Red Army Faction terrorized the country, leading to investigators resorting to widespread dragnet investigations and proposing the adoption of comprehensive surveillance.
Now, such issues are back, following several relaxed years during which Germans preferred a weak state, privatized state facilities, expressed skepticism regarding the expansion of security agencies and supported the vision of a cosmopolitan, pluralistic society that allowed substantial freedoms to all lifestyles and mindsets, even those that were extreme. It was a country that didn't need to defend itself because nobody was seriously threatening it.
A Humanitarian Gesture
The country could also afford to be lackadaisical in the enforcement of its own laws. The country, for example, was not particularly vigilant when it came to enforcing its asylum and deportation laws. Rejected asylum-seekers were only rarely returned to their home countries against their will and many were allowed to remain. As long as the numbers of migrants coming to the country was low, such patience was not particularly controversial: It was seen as a humanitarian gesture.
The state's more forceful side was rarely visible, and when it did make an appearance, it was seen as sinister. Examples include the annual demonstrations against radioactive waste deliveries to the Gorleben depot, the police response to the often violent May 1 demonstrations in Berlin and the authorities' reaction to protests against the new train station in Stuttgart. The water cannon became the strongest symbol of the state's strength.
There were, of course, other instances when the state flexed its muscles, but they were largely invisible. It was active in its surveillance of our society's data networks, for example, as the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden demonstrated.
There have long been two types of fear characterizing Germany, each holding the other in check: The fear of the state and the fear of external enemies and terrorists. One can accurately say that it has been best for the country when neither the one nor the other got the upper hand.
Now, however, the pendulum is swinging towards the fear of external enemies. The discussion is focusing on the threat facing the state and its citizens and not the threat represented by the state itself. Even the Green Party is calling for more security and police presence, something unthinkable just a few years ago. Party co-chair Cem Özdemir has said that his party will play a constructive role in the discussion over Interior Minister de Maizière's proposals.
The shift was also noticeable in the relative lack of criticism aimed at Cologne police for resorting to racial profiling to prevent a repeat of last new year's eve sexual assaults. The debate's paradigm has shifted.
Desire for a Stronger State
Another contributor to that shift is that the societal framework is no longer as stable as it once was. Germany's economy may be doing well, its unemployment rate low and crime sinking, but cracks in the idyllic facade are forming. The gulf between those in favor of welcoming refugees and those who follow the Islamophobic Pegida movement cannot be overcome and the glue holding society together seems to be weakening. Furthermore, many countries and regions surrounding Germany are likewise showing signs of instability: Authoritarianism is taking hold to Germany's east and allies to the west are turning away. The European Union's weakness is also fueling the desire for a stronger state.
Still, even as Germany focuses on becoming tougher and strengthening its security apparatus, it should not ignore other factors that have likewise made the country strong. German history is full of strong, self-confident principalities that have limited the power of the central state, even as far back as the Holy Roman Empire. And the country's darkest hours have always come when that central state has made a grab for more power. At the outbreak of World War I, German Emperor Wilhelm II announced that he no longer recognized any political parties: "Today we are all German brothers and only German brothers." Not long later came Adolf Hitler, who, shortly before launching World War II, proclaimed: "In this moment, the entire German Volk will unite with me." Germany must remain vigilant to the dangers from within because its first experiment with democracy during the Weimar Republic was destroyed from within. Social scientists Karl Loewenstein and Karl Mannheim knew what they were talking about when they developed the term "militant democracy" while in exile during World War II.
The true meaning of that term for the present day, however, can only be determined once the mistakes made in the case of Anis Amri have been fully analyzed. Last year, several officials gathered in the offices of North Rhine-Westphalia's State Criminal Police Office in Düsseldorf to collect what they knew about Anis Amri and to produce a profile. It included information such as his date and place of birth, how he arrived to Germany, where he lived, with whom he had contact, where he traveled in the country and what he might be planning. As of Feb. 17, 2016, he was officially considered to be someone who might seek to carry out an Islamist terror attack.
- Part 1: Germany Balances Liberty and Security in Face of Terror
- Part 2: Where Did German Security Agencies Go Wrong?