BERLIN — For the first time in its postwar history, Germany has placed its main opposition party under surveillance, one of the most dramatic steps yet by a Western democracy to protect itself from the onslaught of far-right forces that have upset politics from Europe to the United States.
The decision by the domestic intelligence agency will now allow it to tap phones and other communications and monitor the movements of members of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which not only sits in the Federal Parliament but has become entrenched at all levels of politics in nearly every part of the nation.
It is among the most sweeping efforts yet to deal with the rise of far-right and neo-Nazi political movements within Western democracies, which are attempting more vigorously to constrain, ostracize or even legally prosecute those elements to prevent them from chipping away at the foundations of democratic institutions.
News of the move came on the same day that France banned Generation Identity, a militant youth movement considered dangerous for its slick rebranding of neo-Nazi concepts, and as lawmakers in the European Parliament in Brussels forced the party of Hungary’s semi-authoritarian leader Viktor Orban out of the mainstream conservative group.
Because of Germany’s Nazi history and the fact that Hitler rose by democratic means before swiftly moving to abolish democracy, the country designed its postwar political structures with built-in safeguards to protect against the rise of political forces — primarily another Nazi party — that could once again usurp the democracy from the inside.
The domestic intelligence agency, known as the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, is one of them. Its founding mission is to act as an early warning mechanism to protect the Constitution against budding threats.
“We take that mission very seriously,” Thomas Haldenwang, the president of the agency, said last year.
“We know from German history that far-right extremism didn’t just destroy human lives, it destroyed democracy,” he said. “Far-right extremism and far-right terrorism are currently the biggest danger for democracy in Germany.”
The Alternative for Germany, known by its German acronym AfD, the first far-right party to make it into Germany’s federal parliament since World War II, has become the most serious test for Germany’s postwar institutions yet.
The party won 13 percent of the vote in 2017, two years after Ms. Merkel welcomed over a million refugees into the country. During the pandemic, its support has shrunk to around 10 percent, but in Germany’s former Communist East it still scores twice that.
Despite noticeably radicalizing in recent years and closing ranks with neo-Nazis in street rallies, the AfD has pockets of support in state institutions like the police and the military, raising concerns about far-right infiltration at the heart of democracy.
AfD lawmakers routinely travel to Russia, where they are hosted at length by the foreign minister. They celebrated President Trump’s election and took photos with his ambassador during July 4 celebrations at the American embassy in Berlin. Stephen K. Bannon met AfD leader Jörg Meuthen in 2019.
More recently, several AfD members expressed sympathy for the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. “Trump is fighting the same political fight — you have to call it a culture war — as we in the Alternative for Germany are in Germany in opposition,” Martin Renner, an AfD lawmaker wrote on Facebook. The post has since been deleted.
At home, AfD leaders accuse Muslim immigrants of being criminals, attack the press, and dismiss the Nazi era as a “speck of bird poo in history.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, AfD officials have taken part in demonstrations that have at times turned violent, including last year when protesters tried to force their way into the Parliament building in an act that now seems a harbinger of the violence that shook the Capitol in Washington in January.
Yet, even as the AfD has become more radicalized, the party has established a presence in state and local legislatures across the country.
Increasingly concerned about the party’s positions, the domestic intelligence agency has spent two years scrutinizing the speeches and social media posts of AfD officials for evidence of extremism.
An assessment amounting to some 1,100 pages concluded that the party’s position violated key principles of liberal democracy, not least Article 1 of the German Constitution, which states that human dignity is unassailable, officials said.
A year ago the intelligence agency announced a first escalation, classifying both the most radical wing of the AfD associated with Björn Höcke, the party’s most notorious far-right firebrand, and its youth organization as extremist and said it would place some of its most influential leaders under surveillance.
Since then, this radical wing — despite being formally disbanded — appears to have only extended its influence in the party, officials say. At a recent party convention in December, the radical wing had the support of nearly half the delegates.
The latest decision by the intelligence agency to widen the spotlight to all party members stops short of classifying the AfD as extremist, but it clears the way for the agency to place it under surveillance to determine if it is.
Members of the AfD responded with outrage on Wednesday, vowing to take legal measures and insinuating that the move was politically motivated. Later this month, there are two hard-fought state elections, and in September national ballot will determine a new government.
“The intelligence agency is acting purely politically when it comes to the AfD,” wrote Alice Weidel, a prominent party leader, on Twitter. “Given the state and federal elections this year that is particularly remarkable.”
Another AfD lawmaker, Jürgen Braun, sounded a similar theme. “You know you’re living in Germany,” he wrote on Twitter, “when one and a half weeks ahead of two important state elections and a few months before the national election the domestic secret service declares the biggest opposition party to be suspicious,” he said.
But elsewhere in the political spectrum the decision met with widespread support.
“Against the backdrop of our experience in German history I can understand fully that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution has designated the AfD as a suspected case of far-right extremism,” tweeted Konstantin von Notz, a Green lawmaker and deputy president of the intelligence oversight committee in parliament. “Our democracy defends itself!”
It is not the first time that Germany’s intelligence agency has placed a political party under observation. In the 1950s, a successor party of the Nazi party was banned by the constitutional court, followed by the Communist Party of Germany. More recently the neo-Nazi National Party of Germany attracted state scrutiny as did members of the far-left Left Party.
The question of whether a government agency can put a democratically elected political party under surveillance — or even ban it — if the party is feared to be a threat to democracy has become the subject not just of fierce debate but a legal battle.
The decision to investigate the AfD as a potentially extremist group was reached last Thursday but was not publicly announced, pending an ongoing court case the AfD has brought to stop the measures against it.
The intelligence service told the court that pending the end of the court case, it would not use its observation powers on AfD lawmakers and party members running for office in upcoming elections.
Last month, an administrative court in Cologne ruled that the intelligence office, known here as the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or its German initials BfV, was allowed to start investigating the AfD for extremism.
The agency would not comment on the case on Wednesday. But German officials, who requested anonymity given the ongoing court battle, confirmed the decision.
“Due to the ongoing legal proceedings and out of respect for the court the BfV does not give any public statements on this matter,” the intelligence agency said in an emailed statement.
In a measure of decision’s scope and significance, it almost doubles the number of listed suspects of far-right extremism in the state’s official database.
In last year’s intelligence report, the intelligence agency said there were 32,080 individuals suspected of far-right extremism. That number already included 8,600 AfD members who belong to Mr. Höcke’s radical wing and to the party’s youth wing. Now another 24,000 AfD members will be added.
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.