The case of Hans-Georg Maaßen – a success story for four, but a failure in public relations

Within the last two weeks, the German political debate has heated up. Due to a personal and political misstep by the head of an intelligence agency, the Grand Coalition between CDU, CSU and SPD was about to burst. MIA Student Jens Anderer reflects on the discrepancies between power politics, governmental trust, and public relations.

Hans Georg Maaßen has left his office in Cologne and moved to Berlin. The former president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the German Constitution (BfV) has a new job. As a result of engaging in day to day politics, he failed as the head of an intelligence agency. Last week, the party leaders announced he would become state secretary within the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI), earning about 3000€ more per month. That was the media story.

But, there is another story to tell. The case of Hans-Georg Maaßen is somehow a success story and a failure at the same time. It’s a success for all four leaders engaged in the negotiation of Maaßen’s personal faux pas and a perfect example of how power politics works. However, it’s a failure in terms of public opinion about government behaviour. It’s a tragedy for democratic trust, precisely the value Maaßen was protecting in his former position.

Directly contradicting official statements from the government, Maaßen called into question reports of immigrants being hounded in far-right protests in Chemnitz. His strange comments challenging the veracity of the reports had effectively left his fate to four people. Three of these people come from the governing ranks of the ‘Große Koalition’, namely the CDU, CSU and SPD: the respective leaders now had to decide on how to handle the precarious situation:

Upon sitting down to discuss the matters, Angela Merkel (CDU), Horst Seehofer (CSU) and Andrea Nahles (SPD) realised there was a fourth player missing from the game: Maaßen himself.

The positions were clear. Angela Merkel was neutral – neither disrupting alliances, nor engaged in creating new ones. Seehofer, in permanent fear of his own position and heritage, as well as frustrated about the most recent polls in Bavaria, had to regain political space and show personal strength. Nahles had to fulfil her parties demand to kick the intelligence boss out of office, and Maaßen, of course, didn’t see any reason to resign.

So what to do? How could one reconcile all four positions?

A good agreement is reached, when you can hear all the participants grinding their teeth after having signed the agreement. If we consider the case in isolation, the leaders didn’t flex their maximal political power. However, all four players reached another extreme, their maximal political will. In short, they didn’t get exactly what they might have wanted, but at least they could face their followers with a reasonable result.

Of course, you can argue, Merkel could have been stronger, forcing Maaßen to leave. But to what avail? Nahles could have insisted on dismissing Maaßen without compensation, but this would probably have led to the breakdown of the ‘Grand Coalition’. Though the consequence of such a breakdown would probably only have benefited the right-wing populist members of parliament – an outcome nobody strives for (well besides them).

In the end, all four players achieved what they wanted – no more, no less. Merkel doesn’t have to explain to her party, and to herself, why a loyal conservative party member made her stumble. Seehofer, the head of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, now has an ex-intelligence chief as a personal assistant. Nahles achieved the SPD position: Maaßen must go. Unfortunately, her party didn’t think about the possibility of such a political bailout, nor did Nahles herself. Still, she received what was written on her briefing paper. Finally, Maaßen – a 55 year old man with a straightforward career – wasn’t urged to overly victimise himself. Observing the case in isolation, the best possible outcome was reached.

So, where is the problem?

The failure lies in the assumption that bargaining in politics happens in isolation. The outcome isn’t only relevant for all four leaders personally, but has to be communicated to the wider public. At least in theory, politicians are representatives of the people, which is why every decision implies a certain degree of responsibility.

Whereas, Merkel, Seehofer, Nahles and Maaßen got what they wanted, this kind of decision made no sense at all for the general public.

The consequences have are to be seen. German newspapers and social media channels were overloaded with memes and tweets criticising a salary rise for a person who failed at his job: a situation far from reality of the average employee.

Besides, the decision as such was justified by the leaders, but at the very same moment they were finger-pointing to their counterparts, still grinding their teeth.

Merkel said it was ‘a correct and important decision’. Nahles argued, the outcome resulted in losing faith instead of rekindling it. The person to blame – Seehofer. Her plan – To renegotiate.  Seehofer disagreed, even when the public opinion was against Maaßen, he wouldn’t dismiss him as a result of, ‘having an employer’s duty to care about his employees’.

Out of public pressure, they renegotiated. Monday September 24th, Maaßen was introduced as special commissioner for homeland security, still directly working for Seehofer’s ministry. His salary was adjusted to what he had earned before: 11.577€ per month.

Meanwhile, for the first time since World War II, a right-wing party enjoys more support than the social democrats – thereby, becoming the second most supported party according to polls.

Real world problems were determined by a suspicious statement of a person, who by definition shouldn’t even be raising his voice in a political context. Hard power politics were reduced to soft indulgence. The political ability to react, decide and communicate dynamic events was neglected to a cult of personalities. Even Merkel admits failure, claiming they were too concerned with themselves.

In terms of isolated bargaining, the case of Hans-Georg Maaßen was a success. In terms of public relations, it’s a tragedy. Maaßen was the figurehead of constitutional and democratic trust. Now he has become the exact opposite.


Jens Anderer is currently studying his Master of International Affairs at the Hertie School of Governance. He graduated with a twofold Bachelor of social and economic sciences from University of Erfurt, Germany and Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina. He has been working for several institutions at home and abroad, such as trade unions, research, consultancies, network agencies and an environmental and human rights NGO.