Lunatic fringes plot armed insurrection against the state
An attempted coup in Germany? Last week, we were stunned to hear news reports of more than 130 raids conducted by 3,000 police and special forces across 11 German states. Among those rounded up were a former MP, a prince, a lawyer, a pilot and a celebrity chef.
Coup plotters from the extreme-right Reichsburger movement had stockpiled arms and engaged in military training in readiness to storm Germany’s governing institutions and establish Heinrich XIII, Prince of Reuss, as the country’s monarch. In wire-tapped conversations, Heinrich was heard saying: “We’re going to wipe them out now, the time for fun is over.” Plotters discussed effecting a “system change” and “exterminating” their enemies.
In a nation of 83 million people, the Reichsburger movement, with its 21,000 members, remains a fringe entity. It rejects the legitimacy of the German state, believing that Hitler’s Reich never ended in 1945. Many hold their own passports and resist paying taxes. The group even maintains its own “Kingdom” in eastern Germany, which claims its own parallel institutions and currency. The Reichsburgers are closely associated with other neo-Nazi elements, such as the far-right Alternative for Germany.
At a time when the threat of Islamist extremism in Europe has waned, extreme-right activism, recruitment and terrorist activities are surging. Germany’s government warns that “right-wing terrorism is still the biggest threat to German democracy.” Experts warn of the increasing readiness of such groups to deploy armed violence. In 2021, Germany’s intelligence agency attributed more than 1,000 extremist crimes to Reichsburger-affiliated elements alone. Britain’s Metropolitan Police reports that 18 out of 20 people arrested last year for terrorism offences were influenced by extreme-right ideologies.
Far-right atrocities are already a reality: The massacre of 92 young Norwegians in 2011; the 2016 killing of UK MP Jo Cox and subsequent attack on Finsbury Park Mosque; the slaughter of 49 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand and the mass killing at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2019; and the gunning down of 10 Black shoppers and employees in Buffalo in 2022. The list goes on.
These radical demographics have been galvanized by the proliferation of anti-vaccine, anti-Semitic and QAnon conspiracy theories. The “great reset” conspiracy contends that the pandemic was an elite plot for imposing bio-social controls on the public. The “great replacement theory,” which argues that “globalists” are seeking to displace white Europeans with immigrants, is loudly espoused by media figures like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who has cornered the market in rabble-rousing hate speech.
This is the latest in a series of armed plots in Germany. In 2014, a group from the “Free State of Prussia” armed itself and established its own militia. In 2016, a police officer was shot dead by a Reichsburger member during a raid against an illegally hoarded weapons arsenal. In 2020, Reichsburgers participated in the storming of Berlin’s Reichstag building by elements protesting COVID-19 restrictions. This April, German authorities foiled a Reichsburger scheme to kidnap and kill the health minister. These extremist movements are disproportionately dangerous because of their absorption of members of the security forces and disaffected establishment figures.
France has acted against several far-right terror plots and a trial is currently ongoing of 12 individuals who allegedly plotted to kill President Emmanuel Macron, among other attacks. The far-right Portuguese New Social Order has become increasingly active.
The West’s political classes have flirted with the fires of populism for too long. It is well past time for urgent fire-prevention activities.
In June 2021, Italy announced the dismantling of the far-right Aryan Roman Order. Adherents had been observed plotting to attack a NATO facility. Yet Italian neo-fascists and disciples of Benito Mussolini now occupy the corridors of power following the electoral victory of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party. These electoral feats have inspired like-minded entities elsewhere, such as Spain’s extreme-right Vox party, which has its eye on electoral success in 2023. Sweden, Poland, Austria, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands and almost every other European state have seen these groups proliferate, both at the ballot box and in terrorist activism.
Far-right ideologies have become normalized, as even centrist parties feel drawn to adopt xenophobic, anti-immigrant policies and sup from the waters of alt-right populism. Britain’s Conservative Party has fueled an “anti-woke” post-Brexit climate of culture war, in which racist and reactionary attitudes flourish, perpetuated by the worst instincts of the tabloid media. Despite “hostile environment” policies that criminalize and stigmatize refugees and migrants, migration levels are unlikely to decrease, meaning that the tensions and polarization arising from these dynamics will not disappear any time soon.
The January 2021 storming of the US Congress has already inspired many European plots to overthrow the established order and is likely to continue serving as an inspiration for some time to come. It has increasingly become clear what an elaborately orchestrated event this was, reaching all the way up to the highest political office. Although much of the Republican political establishment that once aided and abetted Donald Trump is now keen to put him behind them, this leaves a highly radicalized proportion of the US electorate that buys into QAnon-inspired lunatic conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu may be loudly denouncing far-right American anti-Semitism, yet he is the one who is forming a government stuffed with fascists and neo-Nazis. With members of the far-right Religious Zionism party set to get key decision-making roles in Netanyahu’s Cabinet, there has already been a rise in settler attacks on Palestinians and moves for an escalation in settlement expansion activities. Extremists in the corridors of power embolden their extremist shock troops on the ground.
Far-right radicals are highly active on social media, disseminating racist propaganda and neo-fascist conspiracies. At a time when Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover has facilitated a surge in racist far-right online activity, action must be taken against notorious QAnon platforms like 4chan and Telegram’s “Terrorgram” network, where mass murderers are celebrated.
Too many Western political systems are built on naive assumptions that all parties are willing to play by the rules. These assumptions received a wake-up call with the systematic attempts to overturn the 2020 US presidential election result. All nations must reevaluate whether their institutions are sufficiently robust to repel such future challenges. Parties and individuals who reject pluralist democratic principles should not be allowed to participate in politics. Redoubled efforts are required to politically educate young people, so that they are not easily seduced by radical conspiracy theorists.
The Reichsburgers may be easy to ridicule as a lunatic fringe, but they are symptomatic of a growing demographic that openly flirts with fascist views and is willing to countenance the forcible overthrow of power.
This increasingly feels like the anarchic, polarized and politically volatile Europe of the 1920s and 1930s. We all know where that led. The West’s political classes have flirted with the fires of populism for too long. It is well past time for urgent fire-prevention activities, before this far-right inferno burns the entire democratic edifice to the ground.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.