Recently, German security forces uncovered a right wing coup attempt and prevented a violent storming of parliament in Berlin. How great is the danger posed by right-wing extremists in Germany and what must happen politically to protect democracy in Germany?
On Wednesday, December 7, 2022, the largest counterterrorism operation in the history of postwar Germany was conducted in eleven of Germany’s 16 states, as well as in Austria and Italy. Approximately 3,000 officers were deployed in raids on the so-called “Reichsbürger” milieu, searching a total of 162 properties. By the end of the day, they had 25 suspects in custody.
The plotted coup was supposed to begin in the German parliament, the Bundestag. A small armed group was to forcibly enter the building, detain members of parliament and government officials in handcuffs, and create civil war-like conditions by attacking the nationwide power supply.
Almost two years after the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, German security authorities thwarted a coup attempt that also targeted the very heart of democracy, the parliament. There could be no clearer evidence of the interconnectedness of the global Far Right.
Who is behind the Reichbüger network?
Among the main suspects is a former Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Germany’s far right party) member of the Bundestag who had retaken the bench as a state judge, amidst protests by the government of Berlin. In spring of this year, German judiciary overruled the AfD’s objections to its federal section being classified as a suspected right-wing extremist entity. Its ideological proximity to the “Reichsbürger” scene is obvious. This is why the party has been making half-hearted attempts to distance itself from the quagmire of conspiracy ideologies and actual attack plots since its discovery by the German Attorney General and security authorities last Wednesday. The party chairwoman’s strategy is to play down the threat, which the coup attempt posed to the nation, lightly referring to the sweeping conspiracy plans as a “rollator coup” in reference to a popular brand of mobility aids, insinuating that it was planned by frail elders who posed no real danger.
Among the people placed in custody were also several (mostly former) members of the German military, including Special Forces, as well as a descendant of a German aristocratic family who they wanted to install as the new head of state. The group included lawyers, doctors, and opera singers ‒ people who certainly do not lack status and privilege. The German media still seem to be surprised that right-wing actors are from the “center of society”. In fact, extreme right-wing attitudes are not confined to the so-called fringes of society, to people who are seen as uneducated and disconnected. Right-wing extremism is a phenomenon that stretches across all social classes, and this is why everyone in Germany should be concerned.
Reactionary, anti-democratic fantasies are not a mere fringe political project that does not merit serious concern. Unlike rabble-rousing neo-Nazis in almost forgotten small towns, the so-called New Right and representatives of radicalized conservatism (as Austrian political scientist Natascha Strobl aptly calls it) are adept marketeers who know how to present themselves in German media. As they steadily shift the political discourse toward the right, even mainstream conservative politicians succumb to it: In recent months, this strategy has been increasingly evident in the statements of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party chairman Friedrich Merz, who for example harshly criticizes non-violent climate protestors while showcasing an astonishing silence regarding the recent anti-right-wing raids.
How much support do right-wing positions have in German society?
Recent studies, such as this year’s Leipzig Authoritarianism Study (which is co-funded by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung) or the Center Studies by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (which is close to the Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD) show that closed right-wing extremist worldviews are on the decline among the German population. At the same time, there is a decline among those who unequivocally reject right-wing positions, leaving a large range of intermediate positions, reflected in surveys by a greater number of “on the fence” responses.
Xenophobic narratives enjoy alarmingly strong support: More than half of the German population considers society to be “dangerously over-alienated”, which is an acute red flag. In addition, support for anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-feminist statements is on the rise. This – combined with a widespread dissatisfaction with everyday democratic practices, Covid-related social polarization, and fragmented views on the war of aggression against Ukraine, - creates a dangerous potpourri of authoritarian and anti-democratic sentiments within German society.
The potential for mobilization by right-wing extremist parties and groups is evident in protests against Covid measures as well as in so-called “Monday demonstrations”, which were initiated as early as the Russian annexation of Crimea, trying to build on the peace movement in the former GDR, but have been shaped by right-wing actors since then to the contrary. In Eastern German states, dozens of rallies have drawn more than 20,000 participants this fall. Actors from the extreme right-wing scene, including the AfD, are actively – and in many cases successfully – exploiting deep-rooted fears and complex conflict fault-lines for their own purposes. As right-wing extremism researcher Matthias Quent has warned, a new “fascist movement” might be forming on Germany’s streets as the New Right is deliberately trying to connect its ideology to certain democratic protests.
Reichsbürger and QAnon – united by conspiracy ideology
Radical right-wing positions have been, and still are, marketable to a significant portion of German society. By mashing up tidbits from various ideologies and conspiracy narratives constantly creating new, dangerous entrance points for radicalization.
The group which was exposed by the raids resorted to two set pieces here: On the one hand, they leveraged classic ideological tenets of the Reichsbürger scene, according to which the Federal Republic of Germany has been and still is under Allied occupation since the end of World War II, and hence, is not a legitimate state. The insurgents keenly linked this narrative with fragments of the QAnon conspiracy ideology, according to which an alleged “Deep State” is ruling the world and must be exposed and fought. In this context, they randomly pick current events to declare as harbingers of the impending ‘liberation struggle’ – Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, the death of the British Queen, natural events etc.
Although a study published in March 2022 by the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS) found that QAnon is virtually unknown as a movement in Germany, more than one in ten people in Germany agree with QAnon conspiracy narratives. Radicalization takes place primarily online, via Telegram and YouTube. It is therefore unsurprising that right-wing extremists are located at the “center of society”. The fight against extreme right-wing ideas has to take place across all social classes and age groups.
Three steps for action at the political level
So what needs to happen now?
- Further improve the security authorities’ analytical capabilities
The raids show that the German security authorities have learned from their serious failures of recent years and decades, e.g. the chain of murders committed by the so called 'National Socialist Underground'. Although there is still a long way to go, this time, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the police were not “blind in the Right eye”, as has so often been the case in the past.
According to the report of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, there are 23,000 “Reichsbürger” in Germany, 2,100 of whom are ready to use violence. The number of criminal and violent offenses has continued to rise recently. The Green parliamentary group has repeatedly criticized the fact that only a small percentage of “Reichsbürger” have been classified as right-wing extremists, despite their anti-constitutional and right-wing extremist aspirations. The murder of a police officer in 2016 has led to a general reassessment of the Reichsbürger scene, but its members are still too often downplayed as ‘nutcases’ – which also shows in current news coverage of the police raids. Germany needs a reality check here, and to make sure that right-wing ideology is clearly recognized and named wherever it presents itself, even in environments that do not seem right-wing extremist and anti-constitution at first sight.
- Promote prevention and democratic values
Democracy is not a spectator sport. It is under pressure from many sides. We must actively advocate for and strengthen our democracy. That is why this week, after many years of debate, a Democracy Promotion Act has finally been passed in Germany, aiming to strengthen civil society’s commitment to democracy and improve its funding situation in particular. A crucial aspect of this is opening political education and projects further to adults, which is crucial to combat conspiracy ideologies. As the current coup attempt proves again, the 50+ age group can be highly susceptible to radicalization – and lifelong learning encompasses civic education, too.
- Consistently prosecute criminal offenses
The current case of the Reichsbürger plot has shown, once again, that there is considerable potential for violence within the right-wing scene. The insurgents deliberately included a military branch in their organizational structure, which conducted firearms training. A total of 93 weapons were found, as well as other military equipment such as knives, stun guns, combat helmets, and night vision devices. Nearly 200 more firearms were found at the premises of a weapons dealer, who was also implicated. The military branch included veterans of the armed forces, some of them high-ranking and with specialized skills.
We in Germany therefore need to make the disarmament of anti-constitutionalists a priority, just as agreed at the beginning of the legislative period. Furthermore, it should be possible to remove right-wing extremist officials from office faster. Given the numerous right-wing chat groups used by the police and military in Germany exposed in recent years, this is an urgent requirement that was apparent for a long time. Hate and incitement of hate on the Internet must be prosecuted and online platforms must be held accountable.
We must also acknowledge that many conspiracy narratives offer an explanation for real-life injustices – and injustice can heat people’s inclination towards the (far) Right: This is why we need social policies, which aim at social balance and which battle inequalities.
Never underestimate the danger of violent anti-democratic forces – no matter how unserious they appear
The threat posed by a group or its actors is not measured by how realistic its visions and plans are. Right-wing extremist assassin Anders Breivik wrote a disturbing, misanthropic 1,516-page manifesto, which, among other things, suggests reestablishing the Order of the Knights Templar. One could undoubtedly describe this as the ramblings of an incoherent mind – if Breivik had not gone on to murder 77 people in Oslo and on the Norwegian island of Utøya on July 22, 2011.
A coup attempt, no matter how futile, by staunch, armed conspiracy believers with combat experience does pose a danger to human lives. The storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, has shown how quickly an attack on democracy, parliament, and all who work there can become a reality. The Bundestag was lucky that vigilant security authorities were able to prevent an attack. It will probably not be the last time.