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Germany's far-right AfD and the 'Reichsbürger' movement

Helen Whittle
December 13, 2022

After a raid on members of a plot to violently overthrow the German state, questions are being asked about the links between the "Reichsbürger" movement the plotters belonged to, and the far-right populist AfD.

Far-right demonstrators on the steps of the Reichstag waving flags
In 2020, Germany's parliament building, the Reichstag, saw two intrusions of far-right protesters with AfD linksImage: JeanMW/imago images

"The truth is that the AfD has long been the parliamentary arm of anti-democratic movements," tweeted Katja Mast of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) after the arrest of the plotters on December 7.

News of the raid on members of the so-called "Reichsbürger" (Citizens of the Reich) network of conspiracy theorists and extremists has raised uncomfortable questions about its links to the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which currently polls at 15%.

At the center of the furor is former Bundestag member for the AfD, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, one of 25 suspects arrested in dawn raids across 11 German states last week. 

A member of parliament from 2017 to 2021, Malsack-Winkemann had privileged access to the complex of parliamentary buildings in Berlin — and highly sensitive knowledge of security arrangements there. The recent developments serve as a reminder of an incident in 2020 when aggressive demonstrators against COVID-19 restrictions managed to penetrate the Bundestag with visitors' passes obtained through AfD lawmakers. 

In January this year, a former far-right AfD lawmaker was charged in court after allegedly calling for the overthrow of the German state when he was part of the storming of the steps of the Reichstag in 2020.

The vice-chairman of the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) parliamentary faction, Konstantin Kuhle, has now called for a review of Bundestag access rights for all former AfD parliamentarians.

Birgit Malsack Winkemann of the AfD speaks in the Bundestag
Former AfD MP Birgit Malsack-Winkemann spoke out against refugees in her Bundestag speechesImage: REUTERS

Controversial figure

A sitting judge on the AfD party's Federal Arbitration Court, Malsack-Winkemann was earmarked to become justice minister in the new state headed by aristocrat and alleged ringleader of the group Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss.

Following her arrest, Malsack-Winkemann's name was quickly removed from the AfD's website.

"Operation Shadows," one of the largest police operations in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, did not elicit much of a reaction from AfD co-leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla

"We condemn such endeavors and emphatically reject them," they said in a brief statement, adding that they had "full confidence in the authorities involved." 

There was no mention of Birgit Malsack-Winkemann — who Alice Weidel once praised as a "great politician."

A cheerful Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla, co-chairs of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), in 2021
AfD leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla refused to comment on the Reichsbürger plotImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

AfD distracts from 'Reichsbürger' links

The statement from the party leadership was in stark contrast to the heated debate going on in AfD party chat forums, which are full of claims that the raids were merely a PR stunt orchestrated by the security services.

In a Facebook video, Hans-Thomas Tillschneider, a member of the state parliament in Saxony-Anhalt and the subject of monitoring by Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution  BfV, accused authorities of "conjuring up" a Reichsbürger terror group in order to "distract citizens" from a news story of a knife attack on two school girls in Illerkirchberg, in which the suspected perpetrator is a refugee.

Berlin AfD politician Georg Pazderski tweeted that the raids were "brilliantly staged and great cinema" and that Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser, "understood perfectly how to push the bloody crime of Illerkirchberg out of the headlines."

In a similar vein, AfD parliamentarian Petr Bystron tweeted: "Coup d'état' with 50 retirees? They wouldn't even take San Marino's city hall! The efforts to fabricate a 'threat from the right' are becoming increasingly absurd."

Björn Höcke attending a funeral march in 2018
AfD extremist Björn Höcke ridiculed the plotters and said he knew little about Malsack-WinkemannImage: Kai Horstmann/imago images

New alliances in Germany's far-right scene 

Just how real the threat posed by the alleged coup plotters was remains the subject of debate. 

The Reichsbürger network is said to include some 23,000 people in Germany, about 10% of which the authorities described as "orientated toward violence." 

In 2016, a member of the extremist network shot and killed a 32-year-old special forces officer during a raid on his home.

Among those arrested in last week's raid was a soldier in the Bundeswehr's Special Forces Command (KSK), as well as several Bundeswehr reservists.

A former police officer who was once responsible for the security of Jewish communities in Lower Saxony was also taken into custody. 

Experts on right-wing extremism have long warned about the links between the Reichsbürger, the AfD, and the so-called "Querdenker" movement since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic

The president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the eastern German state of Thuringia, Stephan Kramer, noted that so-called Reichsbürger had been seen together with members of the AfD and right-wing extremists at various demonstrations. 

He also said it was striking how AfD members "blatantly [use] Reichsbürger-parlance."

Harald Weyel (AfD) dismisses coup plot raid as 'hysteria'

AfD moving further to the right?

Meanwhile, calls for increased monitoring of the AfD by the BfV are growing. 

Bavaria's State Premier Markus Söder of the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU) described the AfD as "closely interwoven" with the Reichsbürger scene.

"It is increasingly developing into a rallying point for precisely such right-wing extremist forces as well, it downright attracts them," he said.

SPD co-leader Lars Klingbeil agreed: "The entire AfD belongs on the watch list of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, not in parliaments, courts or the civil service."

Notably, the International Auschwitz Committee has also called for closer monitoring of the AfD in the Bundestag as a result of the raid.

"It seems bizarre and ridiculous how the AfD is trying to sneak out these days from its years of support and incitement of the 'Reichsbürger' milieu," the committee's executive vice-president, Christoph Heubner, said.

Last week, the head of the AfD in Thuringia, extreme right-winger Björn Höcke, felt it necessary to advise party members to leave chat groups where discussion revolved around the supposed inefficacy of peaceful protest, and the need to "resort to other means." Political observers suggest that this indicates that the party really does have something to worry about in the current situation.   

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

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