Call to Centralize Security in Germany Broaches a Postwar Taboo

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BERLIN — As Germany struggles to respond to worsening attacks inspired by Islamic terrorists, the country’s top security official on Tuesday strongly advocated consolidating greater intelligence and security powers with the federal government, a taboo since World War II.

Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister and a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, argued that such a step was needed to steel the country against modern threats posed by terrorism, cyberattacks and an increased number of migrants seeking to enter the country.

The federal governments of Germany’s European partners and other established democracies already hold such powers, he noted, stressing that “it is time” to re-examine Germany’s security setup.

“We don’t have federal jurisdiction to deal with national catastrophes. The jurisdiction for the fight against international terrorism is fragmented,” he wrote in a guest column for the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the country’s leading newspapers.

“The security of the state must be able to be controlled by the state,” Mr. de Maizière argued.

Despite the country’s growing preoccupation with Islamic terrorism, the suggestions from Mr. de Maizière met immediate resistance in a country left deeply wary of centralized power by its traumatizing history with totalitarian government, both fascist and communist.

Yet Mr. de Maizière’s call presented the latest challenge to the consensus and structures, including NATO and the European Union, developed to ensure security and stable and prosperous democracies across Europe after World War II.

Those systems are now groaning under the weight of globalization and international terrorism, as well as the right-wing populist and nationalist movements that have arisen in Europe and the United States in reaction to them.

But whether Germans are ready to take such a step is far from clear, even as they grow more anxious about security threats, especially after the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin last month that killed 12. The episode continues to reverberate: On Tuesday, federal prosecutors said they had searched the homes of two people suspected of possibly having been in contact with the attacker in the days before the rampage.

The notion of revamping the organization of the government, which was deliberately decentralized by the allied powers that defeated Germany during World War II specifically to prevent another Hitler from rising, has come up repeatedly since Germany’s reunification in 1990. Just as many times, it has been rejected.

This time, the skepticism came most strongly from members of the opposition and the center-left Social Democrats, part of a right-left coalition government, but also from within the chancellor’s own conservative bloc.

“I think Mr. de Maizière is making a big mistake,” said Sigmar Gabriel, Ms. Merkel’s vice chancellor and head of the center-left Social Democrats.

Some experts questioned whether the column was also inspired by the mounting political pressures on Ms. Merkel’s government to respond forcefully to the Christmas market attack, as well as to criticism from the far right.

“It needs to show that it is willing to show that in the face of a new threat, it needs to react differently and be willing to rethink old taboos,” said Martin Kahl, a terrorism expert at the University of Hamburg.

Some rejected the idea of a fresh debate on the reorganization of power structures, saying it would take up time and resources badly needed to focus efforts on fighting terrorism, making the country more vulnerable.

Similar arguments have been made in opposition to more sweeping changes to the intelligence and security bureaucracy in France as the threat of terrorism has grown there.

“Such a debate at this time will only detract from the actual problem and challenges of quickly fighting terrorism,” said Joachim Herrmann, the state interior minister for Bavaria and a member of the Bavaria-only sister party to the chancellor’s Christian Democrats, the Christian Social Union.

“The reality is that the people who have carried out attacks in recent years have all lived in Germany for years,” Mr. Gabriel said. “They did not arrive as Islamic radicals, but radicalized in Germany, in Belgium, in France.

“Unfortunately, we need to focus on this and that means more prevention,” he added. “We need to ban Salafist mosques. We need to work together with the normal Muslim communities.”

One of the problems laid bare by the Dec. 19 attack on the Berlin market was the country’s inability to swiftly return migrants who did not qualify for asylum to their home countries.

Anis Amri, believed to have carried out the attack, was allowed to remain in the country because he did not have a valid travel document and his home country, Tunisia, initially refused to produce one.

To handle such cases, Mr. de Maizière suggested setting up federally controlled “departure centers,” which could be placed “close to German airports” to aid the process.

He argued that such measures were already possible within existing German law and suggested extending the period for which a person can be detained pending deportation beyond the current maximum of four days.

Opposition lawmakers sharply rejected that suggestion, insisting that the government had a responsibility to respect the human rights of each individual, even those who are to be deported.

“In a country governed by the rule of law, the end does not justify every means,” said Ulla Jelpke, an interior affairs expert with the left-wing Left Party.

She further criticized the plans as a “frontal assault” on the decentralization of powers that were set up to prevent another takeover like that of the Nazis.

Each of the country’s 16 states has its own intelligence service. Under the current balance of power, the states have full control over education, culture and their police, including the intelligence services.

Mr. de Maizière suggested handing oversight of all the domestic intelligence services fragmented among the country’s states to a federal authority, in a German version of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. de Maizière also called for expanding the capabilities of the federal police, including allowing them to act beyond the currently mandated 30 kilometers, or about 19 miles, from the border.

Christian Mölling, an expert with the security policy department of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, warned against forgetting the role played by the past in shaping many Germans’ attitudes about a centralized police force.

“Many Americans tend to look at modern Germany through a lens shaped by the former West Germany,” Mr. Mölling said.

“You need to keep in mind that this country has considerable experience with dictatorships, and consequently there is a significant tract of the population that does not wish to see the return of the secret police that was previously part of their daily life.”

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