What the German Coup Plotters Took from the American RightRoundup
tags: conspiracy theories, far right, coups, German history
Lucian Staiano-Daniels is a scholar of 17th century military history, who was most recently a Dan David Prize Fellow at Tel Aviv University. He is finishing a book on the historical social anthropology of early seventeenth century common soldiers. His most recent academic article was "Masters in the Things of War: Rethinking Military Justice during the Thirty Years War."
On Dec. 7, authorities across Germany arrested at least 25 people in connection to a conspiracy to storm the Bundestag, attack the German power grid, and overthrow the German government. At least 25 others have been accused of involvement in the plot.
The conspirators modeled this attack, which they had been planning since November 2021, on the aborted attack by far-right supporters of former President Donald Trump on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 of that year. But this isn’t a local imitation of an American original, although it combines German ideas with U.S. influence. It’s an intensely German group, rooted in a bizarre interpretation of German history.
This confluence of the local and the global is characteristic of German right-wing extremism, and it can produce unexpected results, as I’ve written before for Foreign Policy. Within these global linkages, many conspiracy theories—on the far left as well as the far right—have been incorporated into the QAnon intellectual space, and German conspiracy theories are no exception.
In this case, the conspirators are members of a disparate movement known as Reichsbürger, or “citizens of the Reich.” (This word can be plural or singular.) The Reich in this case is the Second Reich, the German empire that stood from 1871 to 1918.The ideology behind this movement has been promoted since the 1970s, when the jurist—and Holocaust denier—Manfred Roeder spread it in an attempt to revive both National Socialism and pre-Nazi imperial Germany.
The group’s basic idea is that the Federal Republic of Germany, the modern German government, does not exist. It maintains that the Third Reich, the Wilhelmine government’s successor—this complex of ideas seems to elide the Weimar Republic–was never formally dissolved in 1945, and that the modern German government is a tool of the Allied occupation, which is still ongoing. This belief system thereby combines hidden nostalgia for the Third Reich with overt nostalgia for the Second; for instance, many Reichsbürger followers want Germany to return to its 1937 borders. There is a powerful strain of antisemitism in it. These people have been compared to American and Canadian sovereign citizens; like sovereign citizens, many do not pay taxes. And like sovereign citizens, they can be violent: Reichsbürger were responsible for one murder in 2016 and nine in 2020.
In a dark reflection of German society in general, this conspiracy theory is profoundly legalistic. Reichsbürger believe that the republic is not a state but a private company founded in 1949 by the Allies, while the German Reich exists legally but without institutions—so the movement’s followers have taken it upon themselves to form “provisional” institutions. This pathological legalism appeals to people involved with Germany’s ordinary legalism: many members are former police officers, military officers, and civil servants. The people arrested on Dec. 7 include a former member of the Bundestag from the far-right AfD party, former East German state security, and former members of the German special forces.
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