Take Calls for a "Fourth Reich" SeriouslyRoundup
tags: far right, Nazism, coups, German history, Neonazis
Gavriel Rosenfeld is president of the Center for Jewish History and professor of history at Fairfield University. He is the author of The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and co-editor, of the forthcoming Fascism in America: Past and Present (Cambridge University Press).
Since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Americans have become increasingly concerned about the threat posed by fascist groups to the country’s democratic order. Meanwhile, one of the first countries to go fascist last century — Germany — is facing its own internal right-wing threat, as was made clear last week when German police arrested more than two dozen right-wing extremists plotting to violently overthrow the government. As odd as it may sound, both countries may be facing the same threat — the prospect of a “Fourth Reich.”
In Germany, the plotters who were arrested belong to the Reich Citizens’ Movement (Reichsbürgerbewegung), a loose-knit group of right-wing German radicals who believe the existing German government is illegitimate and needs to be replaced by a new and distinctly authoritarian “Reich.” Although details about the group’s plans are still emerging, press reports have breathlessly announced that Germany dodged a bullet and only just “averted … a Fourth Reich.” Others have noted with relief that plans to “reinstall a Fourth Reich” had been defeated with the arrest of the Reichsbürger movement’s ringleader, the German aristocrat and “would-be leader of the Fourth Reich,” Prince Heinrich XIII from the House of Reuss in the state of Thuringia.
Similar fears have recently been expressed in the United States. Since 2016, left-liberal commentators have voiced the fear that Trumpism threatens to give rise to a Fourth Reich in the United States. In pop culture the streaming series “Hunters,” starring Al Pacino, explores the premise of American neo-Nazis in the 1970s plotting to create a Fourth Reich in America.
The proliferation of references to a Fourth Reich is hardly new, though it is newly intense and widespread. Originally, the concept was coined by opponents of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, who sought to herald the vision of a fourth successor Reich as a democratic alternative to Nazism.
After World War II, however, the concept was reappropriated by unrepentant Nazis who hoped to recreate the authoritarian spirit of the Third Reich. Simultaneously, Western democracies used the concept of a Fourth Reich in admonitory fashion to warn against the possible postwar resurgence of Nazism. This history shows why it is critical to take those actors who seek to bring about a Fourth Reich seriously.
In 1945, the Nazi regime had collapsed, but many of its die-hard supporters wanted to prevent the creation of a democratic order in postwar Germany by reestablishing a new Reich. Between 1945 and 1947, various Nazi groups — led by fanatical “Werewolf” resistance forces, SS officers, Hitler Youth leaders and Wehrmacht veterans — challenged Allied troops with various coup attempts. All of them were eventually suppressed in actions long since forgotten, such as Operation Nursery and Operation Selection Board. But they were close calls that featured firefights between German and Allied forces across the country and culminated in the arrest of thousands of rebels.
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