‘Mother’ of All Problems? Immigration Remark Reignites German Debate

BERLIN — The recent tension sparked by violent protests in the eastern German city of Chemnitz reached Angela Merkel’s government on Thursday, threatening a truce with the chancellor’s interior minister, who called immigration “the mother of all political problems.”

Ms. Merkel swiftly countered her minister’s comments, calling on Germans to continue working “step for step,” to solve problems related to immigration.

In an interview with RTL television, Ms. Merkel cited the 65,000 people who turned out for a rock concert on Monday in support of the family of a 35-year-old German killed in Chemnitz, as an example of the country’s success in integrating more than one million asylum seekers since 2015.

“We have achieved a lot in taking in refugees, but also face the question of how we deal with them in an orderly fashion,” Ms. Merkel said. “This task simply must be tackled.”

But the images of thousands of angry protesters in Chemnitz — some giving the Nazi salute and others chasing people deemed migrants down the street — told a different story.

The crowd’s anger at the suspects in the Chemnitz killing — a Syrian who had been granted asylum and an Iraqi who had been rejected — reflected how deeply the immigration issue has divided German society.

Although government statistics show that overall crime dropped more than 9 percent in 2017, violent crime went up by about 10 percent in 2015 and 2016, which officials attributed to the large numbers of young men who had entered the country seeking asylum.

“People are annoyed and outraged because of such homicides and I understand that,” Horst Seehofer, Germany’s top security official, told the Rheinische Post newspaper in an interview, speaking of the Aug. 26 attack in Chemnitz. He added that had he not been a minister, “I would have taken to the streets as a citizen, but of course not with the radicals.”

Mr. Seehofer, a leader of the Christian Social Union, a Bavaria-only branch of Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, added: “Migration is the mother of all political problems.”

The remark provoked outrage among members of the center-left Social Democrats, who govern with Ms. Merkel, and opposition politicians. Karamba Diaby, a Social Democratic lawmaker who was born in Senegal, pointed out that 19.7 million Germans have foreign or foreign-born parents.

And the comment came just months after Mr. Seehofer nearly toppled Ms. Merkel’s government over a demand that the country’s southern border with Austria be closed.

Next month, the southern state of Bavaria faces a crucial election, and recent polls show that support for the Christian Social Union, which won 47.7 percent of votes in 2013, has dropped by roughly 10 percentage points.

At the same time, the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD — which did not factor in the race five years ago — stands to win about 14 percent of the vote.

Images of AfD members marching alongside leaders of an anti-Islamist organization at a demonstration in Chemnitz led to calls to place the party under the observation of the country’s domestic intelligence services, a step reserved for organizations suspected of extremism that could threaten the country’s democratic principles.

“The AfD at times plays a role in heating things up,” Ms. Merkel said in the RTL interview.

“There have also been statements that I view very critically, such as recently where there was a call for a ‘silent revolution, in which journalists who don’t report what I want should disappear,’” the chancellor said, referring to a comment by the far-right party’s leader, Alexander Gauland, this week.

The intelligence agency in the eastern state of Thuringia said Thursday that it would gather information to determine whether there are grounds to place the local branch of the AfD under formal observation.

Such a step requires intelligence officials to record the party’s activities and statements, but stops short of allowing them to tap their communication channels or otherwise spy on them.

An evaluation of the information will determine whether there is sufficient evidence of “extremist ambitions,” which would lead to a formal observation. If nothing is found, the case will be closed.

Intelligence agencies in the western states of Lower Saxony and Bremen said on Monday that they had placed the youth wing of the AfD, the Young Alternative, under observation, accusing the organization of having ties to known far-right groups.

Thuringia’s intelligence service cited cooperation between AfD members in the state, as well as recent actions and writing by the party’s leader, Björn Höcke, who in the past year has questioned the country’s post-World War II tradition of remembrance and atonement for Nazi crimes.

That led to calls from within the AfD for his expulsion, which would have meant that security officials in Thuringia had to view him as an individual, and not speaking for the party.

But the AfD decided against kicking him out, leaving the party as a whole open to scrutiny, said Stephan Kramer, president of Thuringia’s intelligence agency, who nonetheless cautioned that his agency would observe only the party’s branch in Thuringia.

“We as the domestic intelligence agency will not be able to solve the problem of the AfD,” Mr. Kramer said. “But we cannot act as though what they are doing is child’s play.”

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