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Is a far-right coup possible in Germany?

December 9, 2022

A militant group of Germany's far-right extremist Reichsbürger movement apparently planned to overthrow the government. Could such a coup succeed?

An person taken into police custody durin a raid against the Reichsbürger in Karlsruhe. December 7,2022
The raids against the far-right plotters have shaken GermanyImage: Uli Deck/dpa/picture alliance

"According to our findings, the association has set itself the goal of eliminating the existing state order in Germany, the free democratic basic order, using violence and military means." This is how Attorney General Peter Frank described the reasons that led to a major raid this week against supporters of the so-called Reichsbürger movement.

Members of the Reichsbürger movement deny the existence of the post-WW2 Federal Republic of Germany. They believe the current state is no more than an administrative construct still occupied by the Western powers — the US, the UK and France. For them, the 1937 borders of the German Empire still exist.

But what does the group mean by "eliminate the free democratic basic order"? It can mean attacking politicians, storming parliamentary buildings, overthrowing the federal government, dissolving the judiciary, and usurping the military.

Is such a thing even within the realm of possibility in today's Germany, with its more than 75 years of democracy, a constitution, firm structures, and separation of powers?

Concern over extremists in German state institutions

"The state is defensible, the absolute majority of citizens not only identify as democrats but also find democracy worth protecting," Andreas Zick, head of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at Bielefeld University, told DW.

Timo Reinfrank, executive director of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which aims to strengthen civil society against right-wing extremism, also confirmed: "A real coup d'etat can hardly succeed in Germany, the state order and the constitution are too solid for that."

Extremists with far-reaching connections

And yet: Political analysts this week have warned against underestimating the group that was arrested and the associated militant scene. The group is "insanely dangerous," warned Sebastian Fiedler, spokesman on criminal justice policy. for the ruling center-left Social Democrats (SPD). The Reichsbürger movement, as a whole, is capable and willing to carry out serious terrorist attacks against the state, says terrorism expert Peter R. Neumann.

What specifically makes the particular group that has been rooted out so dangerous? One reason is its composition, another is the ideology that binds them. The 25 people arrested this week apparently belong to a hodgepodge of extremists — among them are Reichsbürger and opponents of strict anti-COVID-19 measures who took to the streets in the past two years.

What they have in common is their rejection of the democratic state, though not all of them are figures on the fringe of society or far-right extremist radicals.

"They are in parts educated groups, they are people who pursue a profession, who move from the center into the scene and can build a parallel society there," says sociopsychologist Zick. "Over several years they were able to develop a cohesive milieu and forge and alliances to other groups."

Danger to the rule of law

Among those who were arrested is a judge and former Bundestag MP for the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). The group also included former army officers, aristocrats, and former members of the police. People, in other words, who have contacts, insights into democratic institutions, and financial resources. Several of them own and are able to use firearms, many of which were seized during the raid.

That makes those arrested and their supporters a threat to the rule of law, even if they can hardly bring the system to its knees. "It may not be able to launch a successful coup, but bits of ideology can be spread and be embraced by other extremist groups or even by individuals in the mainstream of society," Zick said.

Birgit Malsack-Winkemann speaking in the Bundestag
Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a judge and former AfD parliamentarian, was among the plotters who were arrested this weekImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

COVID protests brought extremists together

The sociologist warns that many people are united by what has become a dangerous ideological mix. Some of them believe there is a state within a state that operates in secret and they subscribe to antisemitic conspiracy theories. "Central to this is also that many of the groups virtually demand the system be overthrown, because they do not recognize the form of government and democracy at its core," Zick explained.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated protests in particular have contributed to a radicalization of the scene, many experts conclude. Some people have lost faith in the state and have become receptive to perceived struggles for freedom and to demands for the establishment of an alternative state.

"The coronavirus protests have brought together various groups from the middle-class center, right-wing populism, right-wing extremism, conspiracy-oriented and other milieus about ideologies of resistance and freedom," said Andreas Zick.

"It's certainly not classic right-wing extremists, but it's something I've been calling conspiracy extremism for some time now, in which case you could say more precisely right-wing conspiracy terrorism," explained the SPD's spokesman on criminal policy, Sebastian Fiedler.

Anti-government protests in Frankfurt Oder in October 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated protests have contributed to a radicalization among parts of the publicImage: Patrick Pleul/dpa/picture alliance

And politics and society have apparently not yet found a way to combat this. Fiedler said, for example, that the state authorities and politicians now understand quite well how radicalization in right-wing extremism and Islamism works and have set up deradicalization programs accordingly. But they have not yet begun to take action to deal with conspiracy myths. Conflict researcher Andreas Zick also advocates analyzing the groups to then develop a prevention plan.

Establishing a prevention plan seems more urgent than ever: it is precisely crises in a complex world that can push people away from democracy, which can sometimes seem tedious and complicated, and toward the simple explanations that make conspiracy myths so attractive.

"Extremism, in particular, is changing, and especially in times of crisis," Zick warned. "We tend to focus on the majority of the people, but it's small groups like terror cells that can make a state unstable."

This article was originally written in German.

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