The controversy was triggered by Hans-Georg Maassen's response to far-right demonstrations in Chemnitz © Reuters

The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service is under growing pressure to resign after remarks he made were widely criticised for meddling in politics and down-playing the threat of rightwing extremism.

Senior leaders of the Social Democratic party (SPD) and the Greens on Monday renewed their calls for Hans-Georg Maassen to step down as president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) after comments he made casting doubt over reports of far-right attacks in the east German city of Chemnitz.

Criticism of his conduct has also come from members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc, though they have stopped short of demanding his resignation.

Robert Habeck, the leader of the Green party, told a German newspaper on Monday: “Maassen’s position is no longer tenable and he has to go to prevent further damage from those institutions that have meant to defend our constitution.”

Mr Maassen has long faced criticism from the left for his approach to rightwing extremism, including holding meetings with leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany and for his refusal to place the party under surveillance. The latest controversy was triggered by his public response to the recent far-right demonstrations in Chemnitz.

The demonstrations, which broke out after the killing of a German man, allegedly by asylum seekers from Iraq and Syria, saw widespread displays of neo-Nazi sentiment as well as violence against foreigners, leftwing demonstrators and journalists.

Both the killing and the subsequent far-right violence sparked universal condemnation from political leaders — but they also reignited a simmering row over the country’s immigration and refugee policy. 

A rightwing march in Chemnitz on Friday © AFP

Mr Maassen waded into the debate in an interview last week, in which he said there was no evidence that rightwing extremists had “hounded” foreigners. He also called into question the veracity of a widely-shared video showing a group of young German men attacking and chasing two foreigners in Chemnitz. Mr Maassen gave no evidence for his assertion. 

His intervention was seen as politically explosive because it contradicted statements made by Ms Merkel and by her official spokesman — both of whom had highlighted the apparent “hounding” of foreigners in Chemnitz. 

Horst Seehofer, the interior minister, said on Sunday that he had “full confidence” in Mr Maassen. On Monday, his ministry said it had received a report from the intelligence chief setting out his official position, but declined to provide details. Mr Seehofer, who is directly responsible for overseeing Mr Maassen´s agency, is a longstanding critic of the chancellor’s asylum policy, and has clashed repeatedly with Ms Merkel.

Marco Buschmann, a senior member of the opposition Free Democrats, said the incident illustrated the “worst government management in the history of the federal republic”. He added: “The head of an agency contradicts the head of government, Seehofer, the minister responsible, applauds, the coalition partner SPD laments and there is no sign of any process to clarify the situation.”

The events in Chemnitz have rattled the German public and the political scene, stoking fears of a further rightwing shift as well as concern over fresh outbreaks of violence.

On Sunday night, far-right protesters marched through the streets of Köthen, in eastern Germany, after the death of a 22-year-old German in a fight between two groups of young men. Two Afghans have been arrested in connection with the incident, though police have said the death was caused by a heart attack, not injuries sustained in the fight.

The march in Köthen was attended by an estimated 2,500 protesters, with video footage posted online showing some chanting “National Socialism Now!”. 

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