Why Germany Created a Government Position of ‘Defender of Democracy’

Why Germany Created a Government Position of ‘Defender of Democracy’

Thomas Haldenwang, director of the German national intelligence agency, frowns at the faded colors of the flag of Hambach Castle, flown there during a pro-democracy march in 1832. Almost 200 years later, thousands of angry citizens have returned to the streets with the national colors, this time to protest the democratic values ​​upheld by their ancestors.

The irony is not lost on Haldenwang, especially since his job is to protect these principles and the statute they are part of — literally: he is in charge of the Constitution Protection Agency, as his department is known in Germany. His mission is to identify undemocratic individuals and organizations and keep them under surveillance.

“Our national symbols have been kidnapped by the enemies of liberal democracy, and that worries me. We need to get them back,” he says at the castle, in a rare public appearance to discuss threats to democracy in an auditorium packed with high school students.

At a time when the Ukrainian War, recession and rising energy prices conspire for the rise of the right, Haldenwang takes his job very seriously. In December, his department helped thwart a plan to overthrow the government, in one of Germany’s biggest post-war counterterrorism operations, the second of 2022. “I really see myself as a defender of democracy in the country. It is my constitutional mission, yes. , but personal too.”

Born in 1960, Haldenwang grew up in Wuppertal, in the west, at a time when Germans were just beginning to digest the Nazi past. At age 16, a young history teacher took her class to see the Dachau concentration camp memorial. The images of gaunt corpses left an impression on the young man, who volunteered to work at the Israeli kibbutz run by survivors of the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Many of these refused to converse with the young Germans, and those who did insisted on speaking English. For Haldenwang, the matter was personal, as his own grandfather had fought and died for Hitler’s army near Warsaw. “I was fully aware of the guilt of Nazi Germany, of the remorse that Germans felt. As descendants, we had a special responsibility not to allow that to be committed again.”

Indeed, “never again” became an integral part of post-war German identity, the only way forward for a country that wanted to redeem itself from a regime of murderous terror in the face of all valiant allies of a democratic West.

For Haldenwang, the mantra became motivation; the son of a textile executive and a housewife, he did the right thing and bought his first copy of the Constitution (from 1949) in his early twenties, pledging to dedicate his life to serving postwar German democracy. Unlike much of his generation, who preferred to avoid military service, he enlisted in the Navy before becoming a civil servant. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was sent to the former Communist East to help build democratic institutions before becoming interior minister and director of the intelligence service.

The body he has run since 2018 is the foundation of what Germans call a “defensive democracy” — geared up to protect against internal threats. Germany knows these intimidations better than any Western democracy. After all, Hitler’s Nazi Party rose to power after a democratic election and used it to abolish the system of government that elected him.

The authors of the Constitution gave the incipient institution robust instruments to make it last: an article allows the Justice to prohibit the existence of parties that claim to be enemies of the instrument; another stipulates that an individual may lose constitutional rights if he uses them to weaken or compromise the Charter; one even authorizes armed resistance against a dictator’s project if all other options fail.

Haldenwang, who now has ten editions of the Constitution on his shelf, likes to recite Article 1: “The dignity of the human being is incontestable.” He says, “That precept sums up my agency’s mission. We are democracy’s early warning mechanism.”

However, according to critics, when it comes to identifying ultra-right radicalism, the body is slow. Indeed, before Haldenwang took control, German politics seemed to turn a blind eye to the faction; since the fall of communism, more than 260 murders committed by its followers have been considered “isolated cases”.

The most explicit scandal occurred when a neo-Nazi terrorist group killed nine immigrants between 2000 and 2006 and went unnoticed until 2011, when it assumed responsibility for the crimes. Worse, paid agency informants were accused of helping him; the day after the identification, some officials destroyed several documents, in an action that suggested a deliberate attempt to cover up their involvement.

Haldenwang says that he began to realize the seriousness of the problem in the 2015-16 refugee crisis, when he was vice president of the organization he now directs. A practicing Christian, at the time he had supported Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome more than 1 million foreigners, defending her when even the heads of the federal police, foreign intelligence and the Ministry of the Interior said that the position endangered national security.

A vicious anti-immigration movement gained momentum, eventually bringing the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party to parliament for the first time since the Nazis; Haldenwang was terrified. “It was a watershed. From there, it was pretty clear that we had to act.”

Once sworn in, he wasted no time. Under his command, dozens of members of the burgeoning radical right-wing ecosystem — part of a think tank, a magazine, a startup — were classified as extremists and kept under surveillance. After three lethal terrorist attacks perpetrated by the faction, including the first assassination of a politician since the establishment of Nazism, monitoring was reinforced.

Even more surprising was Haldenwang putting the AfD itself under surveillance, in what was considered one of the most drastic actions taken by a Western democracy to protect itself from the far right. The party appealed but lost, and last March an administrative court in Cologne upheld the agency’s assessment of “unconstitutional activities within the AfD”.

Despite that, and even as his agency remains on high alert following December’s actions against the group accused of wanting to overthrow the government, Haldenwang retains unshakable confidence in Germany’s defensive democracy. “There are two ways to look at this operation: one by focusing on the serious threats to democracy; the other by praising our institutions and our security services, which have effectively dealt with these threats.”

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