Power to the people... or more power to Merkel?

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Today we are not doing a single in-depth article. Instead, we look at the big issue of the week - a controversial new pandemic law - plus three other pieces of news you should know about.

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Jörg & Axel

Four Things

1. Power to the people?

The Bundestag finally got to have its say on the management of the corona pandemic on Wednesday. In late March the parliament agreed that the country was facing “an epidemic of national significance” thus activating the Infektionsschutzgesetz - a law which hands power to the government to restrict basic freedoms without needing parliamentary consent. 

The one card parliament still has in its hand: it can vote to end this state of emergency at any time. The AfD and FDP parties both tried to do this during the summer when infection rates were low. But the other parties said it was too soon - the FDP in particular came in for hefty criticism for “playing with populism.”

But, the longer Angela Merkel imposes new restrictions after only consulting with state leaders, the more people have become unsettled by the extent of power in the hands of the executive. For months, constitutional experts have been demanding that the body elected by the people to check executive power finally be given a voice.

With discontent growing, Merkel’s government drafted a new paragraph for the Infektionsschutzgesetz, which was debated and then passed by the Bundestag on Wednesday.

So has Merkel, who is often accused of preferring Hinterzimmerpolitik to the ruff and tumble of parliamentary debate, seen the light? Well, not quite... She needed to be able to change the law for her own purposes - the Gesetz as it existed was too vague, meaning courts were overturning her decisions, such as a ban on hotel stays for tourists. 

  • The reform adds an extra paragraph which specifies that state governments can restrict when people leave their homes, as well as limit the amount of people they are allowed to meet, both in public and in private. It will also give legal protection to obligatory mask wearing, bans on hotel stays and business closures.

  • Opponents have taken this as proof of the government trying to reach further into the private rights of citizens. As the debate took paced, thousands of protesters played cat and mouse with police in central Berlin. Police used water cannons to try to disband the protests, many of whom weren’t wearing masks. Demonstrators cried that the new law was a second Ermächtigungsgesetz, the law the Reichstag passed in 1933 effectively turning Germany into a Führerstaat (see our piece on that law here.) The Nazi comparison was met with indignation from Foreign Minister Heiko Maas who responded that “whoever makes such outrageous comparisons is mocking the victims of National Socialism.”

  • There was also disruption inside the Reichstag. Political opponents say that the AfD smuggled “corona deniers” into the building, who intimidated MPs on their way to vote. The AfD also infuriated the Bundestag’s president by hanging mocked-up bereavement notifications on empty seats. The posters claimed that 18.11 was the day the German constitution died.

  • The FDP, AfD and Linke all voted against the law. Christian Linder, head of the FDP, described it as “a blank cheque for the government that doesn’t specify when and how the restrictions can be applied.” It would have passed through parliament with government votes (German MPs almost never rebel), but the Greens supported it too.

  • Legal experts have been critical of the wording. Professor Volker Boehme-Neßler, chair of public law at Oldenburg University, told Die Welt that the bill was basically just a rubber stamp for all the actions that the government had taken thus far. What it failed to do was clearly specify under what conditions restrictions could be imposed. “This law will undoubtedly come up before the constitutional court,” he concluded.

The government claims opponents have misinterpreted the legislation. “The new paragraph in the law is the opposite of an extension of executive power” they state, arguing that it imposes a framework by tying restrictions to infection rates. State broadcaster ARD agreed, calling the amendment “sensible and necessary.”

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2. Terror on Yom Kippur

The trial of a far-right fanatic who murdered two people after attempting to break into Halle synagogue is drawing to a close. The prosecution, in demanding a life sentence for attacker Stephan Balliet, described the crime as “one of the most despicable acts of anti-Semitism since the Second World War.”

The 28-year-old defendant has already admitted to trying to kill all 51 worshippers who were inside the synagogue during the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur. 

The start of the trial in July was greeted with enormous media attention, something that Balliet seemed to enjoy.

He was in his own words “a loser” who lived at home with his parents in a tiny bedroom which he rarely left. Ever since the refugee crisis of 2015 he had been convinced that a “population exchange” was going on - a far-right euphemism for an alleged genocide being committed against white Europeans. In his worldview, the Jews were bringing Arabs to Europe as part of a master plan to exploit and subjugate white Christians.

Balliet filmed the entire attack with a headcam. After he failed to get through the synagogue door, he instead turned his weapon on a woman who happened to be walking by. After murdering her, he drove to a kebab shop and shot a man he thought to be a Muslim. His victim was a dark-haired German called Kevin Schwarze.

Reading the reports from the courtroom is a strange experience. Balliet comes across as so detached from reality that he can’t distinguish between real people and a computer game. He smiled when watching the video he recorded of the killing spree and said that his only regret was that his gun didn’t work better. 

According to court reporters, he snickered and giggled throughout questioning. He knew that Germany was watching and his studied indifference to the horror he inflicted seemed like part of his plan.

Sabrina, an American exchange student who was in the synagogue at the time, responded to the attack in a way that left a lasting impression. She told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that she’d come to the trial expecting to find a monster, instead she was confronted with a weird, lost man. “Mainly I’d like to have said to him ‘drop this nonsense - let’s go and drink a coffee’.”

3. The gun that backfired:

“Yes, but..” is never a good way for a politician to answer a question from an inquisitive journalist. With “yes” Lorenz Caffier, interior minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern since 2006, admitted that he had bought a handgun from a member of a far-right terrorist group.

With “but” he justified the purchase with the fact that it was a perfectly legal hunting rifle and that neither he nor any authorities at the time, in 2018, had any idea that the arms dealer had connections to the far-right scene.

That explanation mattered little. After a week-long smear campaign against the CDU man, which included Twitter-accusations from a senior politician of die Linke claiming that Caffier “had a pact with Nazis”, he gave up and resigned on Tuesday. Caffier, who is known for his active stance against neo-Nazis, admitted that he could have handled the media crusade better, but insisted he had done nothing wrong.

Experienced politician that he is, he should have known that gambling away €560 million of taxpayer money is not a career killer in Germany, but tampering with your academic credentials or being mentioned in the same breath as a “Nazi” is. 

4. The heist of the century

It only took them a few minutes - at five in the morning two men broke into the Historisches Museum in Dresden, smashed open a display case, and snuck out with antique jewellery worth several hundred million Euros. A full year after the heist of the century, some 1,600 police officers raided 18 objects in Berlin this Tuesday controlled by members of the Remmo family, a notorious criminal clan.

Three men were arrested, one of them is already waiting to serve time for a similar coup - the theft of a 100-kilogram gold coin from Berlin’s Bode Museum. The whereabouts of the oversized coin and the jewellery are still unknown. “A huge success! No one should think that they above this state and its laws!” boasted Andreas Geisel, Berlin’s senator of the interior.

If the Remmo gangster hasn’t already made enough cash by selling on the jewellery and melted-down gold, we’d imagine someone at Babelsberg will pay good money for the film rights.

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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.