The so-called Citizens of the Reich (from our Hamburg correspondent)

When I saw the news the other day that a far-right coup with an elderly aristocrat as its figurehead had recently been thwarted in Germany, I felt as if I’d woken up trapped in a Tintin story. This was, however, no joke as far as the German security services were concerned. It seemed incredible that such a thing could happen there, and in the 21st century. My knowledge of German politics is very weak: fortunately, however, my old friend Owen Jones has lived in the country since the late 1980s so I asked him what on earth was going on – I’ll therefore let Penny Post’s Hamburg correspondent take up the story from here…

The co-ordinated nationwide raids on a number of addresses associated with the far-right “Reichsbürger” movement come as no great surprise. In many ways, the only surprise is that it’s taken so long. However it does appear that the security services were doing their job quite efficiently: gleaning as much intelligence information as possible before stepping into action when it became clear that the danger level was becoming precarious.

The movement itself is not new but originated in the 1980s. Until fairly recently the Reichsbürgers were generally regarded as harmless cranks. Cranks they most certainly are. Harmless? Sadly not.

“Reich” can be translated – depending on the context – as “realm” or “empire”. In this case, the latter is more accurate, and the inevitable association of the word with the Third Reich is anything but coincidental.

It seems to me that the group’s increased momentum in the recent past is down to three main factors.

The first of these is the rise of the populist AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland) political party. Their hard-right agenda is firmly based on an anti-immigration platform that reeks of an ideology of racial purity. Whilst this still has harrowing historical overtones for the majority of Germans, it has nonetheless attracted worrying levels of support, particularly amongst a younger, disillusioned sector of society and in the high-unemployment areas of the east.

The AfD are not fussy where they get their support, and their manifesto proposals have proved to be sufficiently right wing to attract a large number of figures previously associated with prohibited neo-nazi groups, including the Reichsbürgers.

The second thing that played into their hands was the “Querdenker” (“Cross-thinkers”) movement that emerged during protests against Covid restrictions. This is an umbrella group comprising more or less anyone who felt they had an axe to grind against the measures the government took to combat the pandemic. This was an international phenomenon, of course. In many ways, Covid was a gift to conspiracy theorists of all hues. I remember feeling both sickened and fascinated at the sight of long-haired hippies from communal farms marching alongside jackbooted skinheads with swastika tattoos on their demonstrations – and the Reichsbürgers were right in the thick of it.

The third – and most recent – factor that appears to have given the group a significant boost is their new-found attachment to QAnon, the hardline conspiracy theory nutter movement that emerged in the USA five years ago but is rapidly gathering followers around the world. The extent to which QAnon was implicated in the attempt to storm the Capitol by Trump supporters is well documented. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to conclude that it was a source of inspiration in the Reichsbürgers’ alarmingly barmy plan to stage an armed coup here.

I mentioned that security services seem to have acted decisively this week. However the fact remains that their focus in recent years has been prioritised elsewhere. The perceived threat of terrorism has been concentrated on Islamist extremists and on the hard left (a particular concern about the latter dating back to the days of the Baader/Meinhof gang and the Red Army Faction). Both of these are real threats, of course: but recent statistics show that the majority of violent politically motivated crimes in the last couple of years have come from the far right. A wake-up call was long overdue.

In recent weeks, the bête noir of the (largely right-wing) popular press has been the climate protests. Some of them are not even above deploying that much de-valued word “terrorist” in this context. That title could, with far more justification, be applied to the Reichsbürgers.

This morning I read the following satirical post (my translation): “We can all breathe easily again. The Reichsbürgers were only attempting to organise an armed paramilitary coup. There is no evidence to suggest that they were planning to glue themselves to the roads…”

Owen Jones

By the same author:

The Imp of Groeningen – a cautionary tale.
Pride comes before The Fall.
• Germany’s Jehovah’s Witnesses’ shooting.

The header image has been taken from this article on the same subject in ABC News Australia.

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