Richard Evans on the Ideology of the German Coup AttemptHistorians in the News
tags: far right, coups, German history
Last week, German Special Forces and police arrested twenty-five people across the country for plotting what authorities have called a coup against the German state. The scheme, by turns sinister and farcical, called for executing or exiling current political leaders, and for sabotaging the electricity grid; many of the plotters were storing weapons. The group envisioned placing at the head of the country Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss, a descendant of one of the royal families of the former German Empire. Among those arrested was a member of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which has seen some modest political success during the past decade.
To talk about the plot, and how the German far right views the country’s past, I recently spoke by phone with Richard Evans, the Regius Professor Emeritus of history at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of many books on Germany, including a three-volume history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how imperial nostalgia manifests in modern Germany, how German monarchists view the Nazi era, and why—this recent plot notwithstanding—contemporary Germany has maintained a stronger immunity to right-wing extremism than many other Western countries.
What was your first thought when you heard about this plot?
I was quite surprised. Of course, I knew about the tiny right-wing group—the Reichsbürger, or Citizens of the Reich. It’s very difficult to take them seriously because their aims are so unrealistic. I suppose that they were organized enough to prepare a kind of coup attempt. I don’t think it had any chance of success whatsoever, but clearly they were prepared to use violence. And, in fact, there has been violence associated with these Reich citizens in the past couple of years. They have killed a policeman, for example. So, my thought was, well, how absurd, but also how horrible, really—that kind of violence in the service of fantasy is a dangerous thing.
What is this group harking back to?
The self-styled Reich citizens are a number of different groups with somewhat varying aims. But they have in common a belief that the present-day state of Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany, which was founded in the West in 1949 and then extended farther east with the collapse of Communism in 1989 and 1990, is illegitimate. Some of them believe that the Bismarckian Reich, created in 1871, is still the only legally legitimate all-German state, since it was illegally overthrown in a revolution at the end of the First World War. Some of them accept the Weimar Republic, which came into being through the revolution in 1918 and was destroyed by Hitler. But, as a consequence of all that, there are about twenty thousand members of the Reichsbürger movement, although it has half a dozen different and sometimes quarrelling subgroups.
Some of them refuse to pay taxes because they don’t believe the state is legitimate, and some of them actually print their own money, for example. They’ve even tried to issue their own driving licenses. Most of them are antisemitic. There are constant references to the role of the Rothschilds, for example, a classic antisemitic conspiracy theory. Many people haven’t noticed that they accept the Reich in its borders of, well, it varies, but the borders selected by Bismarck, the borders of 1871 and 1918, which includes quite a large chunk of northern Poland along the Baltic coast. They don’t accept the current borders, which are much truncated since the Second World War. So, these are the Reichsbürger. These are the self-styled Reich citizens.
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