BY KLAUS JURGENS
When German social media users woke up early last Wednesday morning after being alerted that police had just thwarted a coup plot, most readers likely thought they had been tricked into believing fake news.
A coup attempt in Germany? Absolutely impossible!
Then reality kicked in and kicked in fast as national television soon thereafter reported dozens of arrests, over a hundred homes and buildings searched, and 3,000 police involved in the action. It transpired that several media members had been embedded with the authorities while going about the arrests and once live footage was broadcast there were no more doubts: Someone somewhere had planned to storm the national parliament in Berlin, cut the power supply to create panic among the public and finally, install a new government. All this apparently not on the day of the arrests but potentially soon. Authorities announced that the surveillance had started almost a year ago and it had been decided due to credible alerts and proper investigations that now would be the moment to act.
The country and public opinion were divided: On one hand, after the number of arrests had been confirmed, some argued that a small group of people just north of 50 members would not have managed to even get close to parliament due to strict security measures. Hence it was quickly back to business as usual, including the World Cup. On the other hand, however, many underlined the seriousness of the accusations including arresting one former politician of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party who still had an access ID card to parliament and might have tricked security into believing that she and her gang are bona fine visitors. But then what – police and military would have stormed the premises at once, end of the story.
Yet the latter scenario triggered great concern among elected office holders and the electorate alike: Could there have been a hostage situation, would innocent people be killed, and above all else – were there others sitting idle in and around the capital Berlin and joining the terrorists on location?
Many questions remain but one thing is certain: Even if this group of individuals, including an aging aristocrat supposedly chosen to become the new head of government, reestablishing the German Empire from 1871 (!) failed before it ever took off there is an underlying mindset that needs to be addressed in all urgency and clarity. According to authorities, there are over 20,000 known sympathizers, including over 1,000 of them ready for violence, who flirt with denouncing the modern federal state and declaring its institutions null and void.
To illustrate this bizarre mindset, let us quote from Der Standard.de, mentioning a comment in Die Zeit newspaper online, saying that one of the arrested had taken to social media a short while before by posting that everything will turn, and current government prosecutors, judges and heads of government health centers would soon be tried in a process labeled Nuremberg 2.0.
Let us thus inspect that mindset in some more detail – who are the Reichsbürger (Citizens of the Empire), who is their support network of lateral thinkers (Querdenker) and what about links to U.S.-based QAnon?
First, the Reichsbürger. In a nutshell, those roughly known 20,000 sympathizers reject the existence of today’s German state and institutions, are anti-establishment, want to revert to a monarchy, are far-right oriented and in principle want to return to the past, according to them a glorified past. Some supporters of this lost network ask to return to Nazi Germany, while others go further back when Germany was still an empire. Thus, there is no coherent single platform or movement. Many would refrain from paying taxes or carrying ID cards.
Second, the Querdenker. Another group of individuals who are in principle against anything and everything government-inspired. They are not as outspoken as the Reichsbürger about which previous form of German government or dictatorship they prefer. They became more prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic and in particular after the German Constitutional Court ruled that even during lockdowns anti-lockdown demonstrations must be allowed by authorities. But it is obvious that voicing what may be considered legitimate citizens’ concerns about the way the pandemic was handled by authorities was used as a camouflage tactic by more radically inclined elements often infiltrating those manifestations – more radically inclined in a sense of promoting racism and xenophobia.
Third, the at least theoretical international linkage with and to QAnon. That group of mostly American individuals argues that their country is run by a Cabal intent on removing Donald Trump (at the time he was U.S. president) from power. They argue that everything is run by a “deep state,” a criminal sect of secret actors and interests. Much more needs to be written about all three groupings and their relative and real threats to society and democracy but as line space is limited, this short overview must unfortunately suffice.
Lunatics but not alone
Shrugging it all off would be a serious mistake. Granted, from what we know by now the attempted, or shall we say “thought or dreamed about” plot to topple the democratically elected German government, would have required much more professional coup preparations and not just one or two handfuls of people who, let us be honest, not necessarily appear to be the most sophisticated terrorist gang imaginable.
Yet this observation brings us back to the issue of the underlying – or shall we say “overarching” – mindset. Even if we acknowledge that this attempt was destined to fail from the onset those few dozen actors would have based their return to the past on assuming that a majority of Germans actually see it in a similar manner. Even considering such a ludicrous idea allows us to better dismantle and perhaps even understand the dangers inherent in Reichsbürger et.al. Turning the political and societal clocks backward either necessitates broad public support or a new form of Nazi-type dictatorship where the public is kept under complete control and all human rights and dignity are removed.
Broad public support – of course not. German democracy knows how to defend itself as we witnessed this week. Hence, only by installing a dictatorship were there any chances of winning the upper coup plotting hand so to speak. And the latter point is the key to making sure that a latent potential of using violence to topple the government is clearly identified, and properly addressed by and within society.
German democracy has defended itself and will continue to do so. But it seems it is in need of reinforcement; the benefits of living in a modern, multicultural, free society may perhaps have been taken for granted for too long. Schools, universities, employers, neighbors, media, politicians, everyone must now roll up their sleeves and explain to the electorate, young or old, exactly those benefits and advantages, and in contrast show as clearly to the public what Reichsbürger and similar groups or movements in reality plan and try to achieve.
Returning to the headline of this analysis: Lunatics? For sure. Alone? Not so sure.
Broad public support? Absolutely never. And that is the way it should be. Yet shrugging it all off – under no circumstance!