BERLIN (NYTIMES) - Germany's domestic intelligence agency took a first step on Tuesday (Jan 15) toward placing the far-right Alternative for Germany party under surveillance as a threat to the country's democracy, announcing that it would formally observe its youth wing, which it called "extremist".
It was the first time in Germany's postwar history that a party seated in parliament was put under such scrutiny, setting the stage for a looming battle between the state and a party whose strength has steadily grown even as its suspected associations with neo-Nazi groups have stirred concern.
The leaders of Alternative for Germany, or AfD, as the party is known, routinely attack the press, accuse Muslim immigrants of being criminals and question the principles of liberal democracy.
The warning on Tuesday was issued by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, an agency whose founding mission when it was established after World War II was to protect against the rise of political forces - primarily another Nazi party - that could once again threaten Germany's democracy.
The agency will now start observing the AfD's youth wing and a group of prominent party members, which includes a co-leader, Alexander Gauland, who last year referred to the Nazi era as "a mere bird poo of history".
It will also dedicate a team of agents to investigate whether the AfD ought to be placed under broader and more systematic surveillance, the new agency chief, Thomas Haldenwang, announced at a news conference.
"As the early warning system of democracy the Office for the Protection of the Constitution is obliged to act when there are actual indications for an anti-constitutional orientation of a party, or parts of a party," said Haldenwang, the president of the agency.
His office, he said, "has initial indications that the AfD's policies are against the liberal democratic order".
"We are conscious that this is a decision that carries political weight but we are obliged by our constitutional remit to act," he added.
AfD leaders responded with a mixture of outrage and repudiation, vowing to take legal measures against the decision and insinuating that the move was politically motivated.
The decision comes ahead of hard-fought European parliamentary elections and state ballots in three eastern German states, where the AfD is expected to do well.
"It is obvious that this could have implications for us and that we must take legal action against it," Gauland told reporters shortly after the announcement.
The German Constitution, which came into force in 1949, contains many protections against extremism. It includes provisions to monitor and even ban far-left and far-right parties.
In recent years, there was concern that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution was spectacularly failing its mission.
When an underground neo-Nazi group, the NSU, killed 10 immigrants over seven years through 2007, the agency first blamed other immigrants for the murders (which became known as the "kebab murders") and later destroyed documents pertaining to the case.
It eventually emerged that paid informers of the intelligence service helped hide the group's leaders and build up its network. The case has become a byword for the failure of Germany's postwar security apparatus to monitor and control far-right extremism.
More recently, Haldenwang's predecessor, Hans-Georg Maassen, was removed from his post as interior minister after playing down far-right violence during rioting in the eastern city of Chemnitz last summer.
Maassen, who had also met with several leading AfD members, reportedly advising them on how to evade observation, revived questions about whether Germany's security services were too sympathetic to the far right to monitor its links to neo-Nazi groups effectively.
Four months after taking office, Haldenwang appeared to take a less lenient approach.
Alice Weidel, the co-leader of the AfD, said as much on Tuesday.
"With Mr Maassen this decision would not have been possible," she said. "That's why he had to go."
As the prospect of formal scrutiny had increased in recent months, the AfD took measures to avoid attracting it. It had issued language guidelines to its members, urging them to avoid terminology that could be interpreted as anti-constitutional, and it had thrown out a number of members deemed too extreme.
One AfD lawmaker, who had his office in a building with far-right youth activists of the Generation Identity movement, which is already under observation by the intelligence service, moved out last fall.
But Haldenwang said his agency, which has been gathering 1,069 pages of material from speeches, Facebook pages and reports from regional intelligence offices since last spring, had numerous indications that at least parts of the party harbored revisionist and anti-democratic views.
He cited ethnic nationalism and references to terms like "knife-migrants," and other indiscriminate characterizations of migrants as criminal, uncivilized, backward and driven by sexual impulse.
He also mentioned links of AfD members to groups that are classified as extremist. The events in Chemnitz, in which AfD politicians marched side by side with such groups, was "a milestone" in his agency's decision to investigate the party, he said.
Whether the party would escape general observation would depend on its members' behavior in coming months, Haldenwang said.
"Either it continues on this path of separating itself from especially extremist members and moderates its wording - that would have a positive impact," he said, "or it will develop in another direction."
"I don't want to recommend anything to voters," he said. "Our decision may contribute to the AfD winning more voters or it may contribute to voters turning away from AfD."
In his news conference on Tuesday, Haldenwang quoted the first article of Germany's postwar constitution: "Human dignity is unassailable," he said, adding that protecting human dignity "is the duty I have embraced today".