BERLIN – In the early hours of Wednesday 7 December, some 3,000 police officers raided more than 130 homes, offices and storerooms across Germany, as well as in Austria and Italy, and made 25 arrests. Their target was a far-right group apparently plotting a coup d’état. According to the federal prosecutor’s office, 27 further suspects are linked to this as-yet unnamed terror network. That same morning, Germany’s justice minister Marco Buschmann spoke of “suspicion that an armed attack on constitutional bodies was being planned”.
According to press reports the group had been preparing its coup since November 2021 and was gathered around the aristocrat Heinrich XIII, Prince Reuss of Greiz (the House of Reuss ruled parts of what is today Thuringia, central Germany, until its revolution in 1918). Further leaders included Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a judge and former MP for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, and “Rüdiger von P”, a former parachute commander from the German military. Several of the 52 suspects have military backgrounds and are suspected of stashing weapons, including one serving soldier from Germany’s elite Special Commando Forces (or KSK, whose barracks in the southern German town of Calw was among the sites raided this morning).
The group had set up a political “council” – effectively a shadow government in which Heinrich XIII was to be the head of state and Malsack-Winkemann would be justice minister – and a military wing under Rüdiger von P that had sought to recruit police officers and soldiers. The plans under consideration involved setting up militias around the country, disrupting the electricity grid, storming the Bundestag, taking MPs hostage and overthrowing the federal government. The newspaper Die Zeit reports that minutes before the raid this morning one suspect had posted on the messaging app Telegram: “Everything will change: the previous public prosecutors and judges as well as the responsible heads of the health authorities and their supervisors will soon find themselves in the dock in Nuremberg 2.0.”
According to the news magazine Der Spiegel, the group had held target practice, accumulated large sums of money and acquired satellite phones for the event of mobile network disruption. The magazine also reports that, as Germany’s new leader, Heinrich XIII intended to conduct negotiations with Russia and had already approached Russian authorities via his partner, a Russian national named “Vitalia B” who was also among those arrested – though no evidence exists of the Russian authorities responding.
The picture that has emerged is of a highly delusional group divorced from reality, but one that posed a genuine and violent threat to order in Germany. Die Zeit reports that investigators first learned of the plot in April when searching the home of a former paratrooper near Bayreuth in Bavaria, finding firearms, ammunition and magazines. Then came the link to the group: the former paratrooper had served under Rüdiger von P. The newspaper reports that investigators found “the [group] was not only better networked than initially assumed, but also surprisingly far advanced in wargaming a coup d’état”. The 25 arrested on Wednesday morning will appear before investigating judges at the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe.
More information on the plot will doubtless emerge over the coming days and weeks. But what it has illustrated is the fusion between old and new forms of extremism in Germany and beyond. The accused conspirators were in many respects a cross-section of the traditional far-right milieu in German politics. Many have links to the Reichsbürger (Reich citizens) scene – a fringe, anti-Semitic, monarchist movement dating back to 1985 that considers the federal republic not just illegitimate, but a fabrication; and insists that the old German Reich, within its old borders, never legally ceased to exist.
Nor is the involvement of far-right elements in the federal republic’s military and police entirely new, but rather a long-standing problem. In 2017 a German soldier was arrested having registered as a Syrian refugee in 2015 and planned to commit a false-flag terror attack to stir up anti-migrant sentiment; subsequent searches of barracks found an array of Nazi memorabilia and other extremist material. Since then there have been other high-profile cases of soldiers stashing weapons and far-right literature (including another soldier at the KSK). And as for the party-political far right, the AfD may have started life in 2013 as a so-called “professors’ party” opposed to eurozone bailouts, but it has gradually moved rightwards since and drawn in some people (often in its most extremist “Der Flügel” faction) with links to the older far-right scene from organisations such as the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). Seen in this light, figures like Heinrich XIII, Malsack-Winkemann and Rüdiger von P are all recognisable personae of the established German extremist right.
But they also mark the German right’s recent evolution into something more fluid, adaptive and susceptible to international extremist trends. Various plot suspects had reportedly attended protests against Covid-19 measures. Others had links to the QAnon conspiracy theory (itself a product of the Donald Trump-supporting online scene in the US). One, “Alex Q”, is said to be behind one of the most popular German QAnon channels on the messaging app Telegram. Malsack-Winkemann has over the course of her political career ranged across this new right, from QAnon and Trump to campaigns against refugees and Covid-19 vaccines.
This scene is sometimes grouped under the term Querdenker, which translates roughly as “diagonalist thinking”. It draws both on the notion of a Querfront (diagonal front) linking anti-establishment forces on both the hard left and hard right, but also on the broader idea of “alternative” or “lateral” thought. Over recent years, in Germany especially, it has incorporated a succession of divisive and often conspiracist topics, from opposition to migrants to QAnon to anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine stances. And now, against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine and high energy prices, campaigns for “peace” and against “climate dictatorship”. Writing on the movement last year, William Callison and Quinn Slobodian noted the heterogeneous mix at Querdenker rallies in Berlin in August 2020: “Hippies, antiwar activists, libertarians, constitutional loyalists, anti-state monarchists (Reichsbürger), neo-Nazis, alternative medicine practitioners, anti-vaccination campaigners, and apolitical left-liberals, among others.” At one of these rallies (addressed, as it happens, by Malsack-Winkemann) protesters stormed the steps of the Reichstag building – which houses the Bundestag – in scenes that foreshadowed the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.
The ability of this movement to evolve and draw in a broader spectrum of supporters has seen it reach parts of German society that the old right could not. A study published in August by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which monitors the far right, found that “the enemies of democracy in Germany are more self-confident than ever [in recent times] and are reaching more people with their agenda than ever before”. This merits reading alongside the latest Leipzig Authoritarianism Study, published in November, which found that the proportion of Germans with “a manifestly closed, right-wing extremist world view” has fallen sharply. Taken together, these two works of research point to both a strong democratic mainstream in the German population and, simultaneously, a more radical and ambitious fringe increasingly capable of drawing in elements that would not traditionally be classified as extremist. Such, it seems, is the complex sociological backdrop to the plot that was exposed on 7 December.
That plot itself also presents a mixed picture of the robustness of the German democratic order. On the one hand, it is a profoundly alarming wake-up call to the dangers posed by radical anti-system elements, however delusional these are. It points to the continued failure of the German state to grip the problem of extremism in parts of its military and police. It highlights the shame, particularly in a country with Germany’s past, of the AfD’s now-established presence in every state legislature and the Bundestag given the dark forces it clearly incubates.
On the other hand, it is also a tale of what the justice minister Buschmann called a “wehrhafte Demokratie” (a democracy capable of defending itself), one in which the forces of order have no compunction about monitoring groups like the one surrounding Heinrich XIII, and bringing them to justice after their threat becomes clear. Ultimately, no democracy can afford to be complacent about its own invulnerability or inevitability; constant vigilance is required to defend it. It is to be hoped that the shock of this morning’s revelations will prompt further action in the same spirit in Germany. The liberal MP Konstantin Kuhle, for example, has called for action against extremism among public officials: “Anyone who rejects or even wants to abolish the state order in Germany cannot be a civil servant. Public service law must be tightened up quickly here.” The Die Linke party MP Bernd Riexinger has called for the dissolution of the KSK given its endemic problem with right-wing extremism. Such proposals deserve close consideration. A wehrhafte Demokratie facing such clear threats cannot afford to stand still.
[See also: The ideologies of Europe’s far-right parties]