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Editorial: The chronicles of German extremism

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

By Ananya Sreekumar

On 7th December 2022, German Special Forces, in tandem with regional Police forces, conducted raids across the country and arrested twenty-five people for plotting a coup against the state. They were primarily members of the Reichsburger movement, while some were members of fringe neo-nazi groups. The plot involved executing or exiling current leaders, deliberately damaging an electricity grid, and using military-grade weapons to overthrow the German government. This group of far-right ex-military figures was led by "Prince Heinrich XIII", a 71-year-old Austrian disgraced aristocrat of the former German royal house of Reuss. They aimed to re-establish a German Empire in the tradition of the German Reich by instigating a civil war so that they could take power. This is just the beginning of one of the most outlandish coup plot(s) in recent history.

So what is the Reichsburger movement?

Reichburger, translated to “citizens of the Reich, “ consists of far-right extremists who cannot swallow the tough pill that the German Reich ended in 1945. They are anticonstitutionalists and revisionists who reject the modern German state and constitution. Naturally, they’re staunch conspiracy theorists and believe in QAnon. This American political conspiracy theory revolves around manufactured claims made by ‘Q’, who generally villainises anyone that challenges Donald Trump and heroises his power. Most members of the Rechsburger did not pay taxes in revolt against the government. While others printed their own counterfeit currency and attempted to issue driving licenses like a band of delinquent high schoolers.

The group rejects Germany’s current government as puppets of the “deep state”. Interior Minister Nancy Fraeser said the culprits embraced a fallacy based on conspiracy, were connected by a disdain for democracy and were convinced that Germany’s current constitution is invalid. They cannot fathom that Germany is a legitimate Federal Republic and that democracy is the reigning ideology, not monarchy— unsurprising when their leader is a bumbling old aristocrat. Funnily enough, the group had already begun formulating a leadership cabinet, and members had been selected to operate as the new health minister, justice minister and other such roles, with Heinrich slated to play the leader.

However, it is to be noted that most of the Reichsburgers do not want to reinstate the Third Reich. Much like dear old Kanye West and other ultra-right German groups, they are staunchly antisemitic and share the belief that the Nazis received too much heat in general public opinion. Still, they worship the Kaisers, not Hitler. They wish for Germany prior to 1918— the heyday of authoritarian leader Otto Von Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire.

It sounds ridiculous that a bevvy of conspiracy theorists yearning for the days of Bismarckian Germany could threaten the current administration so much that the German Special Forces felt the need to intervene. However, audacious their plot may seem, they are not to be trifled with. Reichsburger’s followers are heavily armed with ties to the military and law enforcement. They also have connections to members of the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland party— a party with seats in almost all state parliaments and the federal parliament. Hence, the idea of them taking hold of the Bundestag is not that far-fetched. Although their plotting was all for nought, this episode exposes the menace of far-right extremists in Germany today.

How much of a threat is far-right extremism to Germany?

Germany is ahead of the United States (the bar is that low) in tackling right-wing extremists from within by funding research, sophisticated intelligence operations, and civic agencies. The coalition government under Olaf Scholz has upped the ante compared to Angela Merkel’s conservative administration. However, critics say this is too little too late. In 2019, Germany recorded over fifteen times as many far-right attacks as it had in 1990, which only increased.

Germany did miss the mark as it has historically been fixated on left-wing extremism despite right-wing-extremist crimes being exceedingly worse and more extensive. Research conducted by The Washington Post shows that most political parties, especially the centre-right, minimise threats from far-right organisations. While centre-left parties fare better, it’s not a significant difference, and they do discount left-wing extremism. This shows that political parties are influenced by ideology and are partisan in circumstances where they ideally should not be– public safety and safeguarding the democratic process.

Similarly, government institutions that are meant to be politically neutral think of intelligence agencies and civil services and downplay far-right extremism when they operate under centre-right interior ministers. Their reports do not invoke as much alarm as they should regarding far-right organisations’ nefarious and dubious behaviours. This behaviour allows extremism to run amock and pervade the nation like toxic gas.

Where do we go from here?

While Scholz has highlighted right-wing extremism as a primary concern, it seems as if the problem has already reached the point where it is getting out of hand. Earlier this month, a 75-year-old woman, dubbed ‘Terror Granny’ by German media, was arrested along with her co-conspirators to overthrow the government. This time the plot involved hiring an actor to impersonate the Chancellor and address the public through a TV speech claiming he has been deposed. You truly cannot make this up. The Grandpa’s and Granny’s of Germany are taking their nostalgia and xenophobia a bit too seriously.

In all seriousness, such attempts to depose the government, while unbelievable, are grave threats when the perpetrators have access to military-grade weapons. How has it gotten to this point? How did Merkel’s administration ignore such a pervasive national security issue? Many questions remain.

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