Germany’s dangerous crackdown on dissent

Olaf Scholz’s unpopular government is undermining democratic freedoms.

Uwe Steinhoff

Topics Identity Politics Politics World

Want to read spiked ad-free? Become a spiked supporter.

The German government is in deep trouble. Polling shows that chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ‘traffic light’ coalition – comprised of the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats – is the least-popular government since surveys began in 1997. Given that a staggering 76 per cent of Germans are dissatisfied with its performance, it might well be the least-popular administration since the Second World War.

The reasons for this are simple. German industry is in steep decline, communities are financially overburdened by illegal migration, and there has been a disproportionate increase in violent crime against women, Jews and gay people. In short, life for the average German is getting worse.

Popular discontent started to come to a head in January this year, when German farmers took to the streets to protest against tax hikes and green regulations on agriculture. The government, backed by left-leaning broadcasters, did its best to groundlessly tarnish these protests as vehicles for the ‘far right’. But this backfired. The attempts to smear the protesters only reinforced the sense of popular anger.

Then, in late January, the coalition won some respite when a scandal broke involving one of its chief opponents, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Investigative journalists at Correctiv magazine revealed that senior AfD aides attended a ‘secret meeting’ with various figures from the so-called new right. Attendees allegedly discussed, among other things, proposals for mass deportations of migrants – including German citizens who are descendents of migrants. The AfD quickly distanced itself from these proposals and sacked the aides in attendance. Since then, the story has largely unravelled. New evidence suggests that Correctiv’s claims about the deportation ‘plot’ were an exaggeration.

Nevertheless, the governing coalition, supported by mainstream media, was determined not to let this scandal go to waste. It seemed intent on using it to clamp down on its opponents in the name of combatting right-wing extremism. Anti-AfD rallies were held across Germany, with one in Potsdam near Berlin even attended by Scholz himself. Several government figures, cheered on by the mainstream media, restated their calls to ban the AfD outright.

Most alarmingly, the government has seized this opportunity to push its divisive Democracy Promotion Bill. Despite its name, this Orwellian proposal actually seeks to curtail democracy, free speech and party competition at the expense of the right and in favour of Germany’s left / green elites. In effect, the bill will allow the government to allocate more funding to bodies combatting what it deems to be ‘extremism’. Among the projects promised more money are the so-called Meldesysteme. These are online reporting portals that allow people to report their fellow citizens for saying supposedly unacceptable ‘right-wing’ things, such as that there are only two sexes or that transwomen are men.

This bill has been criticised by politicians across Germany’s political spectrum. Wolfgang Kubicki, vice-president of the German parliament and a member of the liberal Free Democrats, has called it an attack on freedom of expression. Mathias Brodkorb, a former minister for the Social Democrats in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, has denounced it as a ‘disgrace for democracy’.

Family minister Lisa Paus of the Green Party has defended the Democracy Promotion Bill, and the online reporting portals in particular. She claims these are necessary to establish ‘criminal liability’ for expressions of so-called hate speech. This is a deeply disingenuous argument. It is difficult to escape the impression that, far from fostering democracy, Germany’s government is protecting itself from opposition.

Indeed, Nancy Faeser, the Social Democrat minister of the interior, is proposing even more authoritarian measures. One involves threatening those who finance what might be deemed ‘right-wing extremist’ organisations. Another measure would give the Verfassungsschutz (BfV), Germany’s federal security service, the power to remove supposed right-wing extremists from public employment.

Thomas Haldenwang, the president of the BfV, has fully embraced this politicisation of the security services. Indeed, he had already abandoned any pretence of neutrality by attacking the AfD in the past. Speaking at a press conference alongside Faeser last month, Haldenwang argued that, to defend democracy, state power should not only be ‘directed against’ acts of violence, but also against ‘shifting verbal and mental’ acts. In other words, German elites are openly arguing that the secret services should act as the thoughtpolice.

At the start of 2023, Haldenwang’s BfV even redefined extremism to mean ‘delegitimisation of the state relevant to the protection of the constitution’. Critics rightly regard this vague definition as a thinly veiled attempt of the BvF to criminalise criticism of the government. Some are calling for reform of the BfV, while others are now calling for its outright abolition, so outrageous has the political interference become.

Some of those criticising the German government and the BfV, including ex-BfV employees, are paying a heavy price for speaking out. Last month, it was reported that the BfV has started ‘gathering material’ on Hans-Georg Maassen, Haldenwang’s predecessor and an outspoken critic of extremism in the Green Party. The ‘gathering of material’ appears to have started in February this year, after Maassen announced that his Werteunion (Values Union), founded as a conservative faction of the centre-right CDU, would become its own political party.

It seems that as the German voters have turned against the government the government has become increasingly authoritarian. If Scholz and his coalition were really so worried about the erosion of democracy, then they should start by looking in the mirror.

Uwe Steinhoff is a professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Identity Politics Politics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today