The exploitation of the Reichsbürger plot

Germany faces far bigger threats to its democracy than this gang of geriatric conspiracy theorists.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
Germany Correspondent

Topics World

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In December 2022, news of an impending coup against the German state shocked the public. Thousands of police officers carried out one of the biggest anti-terror operations in post-war German history, targeting members of the ultra-reactionary Reichsbürger movement. Last week, 17 months later, the first trial of these alleged coup-plotters finally got underway at Stuttgart’s High Court.

Of the 27 total Reichsbürger suspects, nine will stand trial in Stuttgart for membership of a terrorist organisation and preparation of high treason. The rest will be tried in Frankfurt and Munich in the coming months.

The Reichsbürger have been declared one of the biggest threats to the modern German state in its history. One public broadcaster dubbed the trial ‘a historic court case’. Images have been splashed across the papers showing defendants in handcuffs, sitting behind armoured glass and being escorted by armed police.

There is something disproportionate about the way this case is being treated. Are these trials really more historically significant than those against the far-left Red Army Faction terrorists in the 1980s and 1990s? Do the Reichsbürger really pose more of a threat to public safety than Islamist terrorists? Both Islamists and the Red Army Faction have certainly killed far more people than the Reichsbürger have.

For starters, it’s hard to feel too intimidated by this band of alleged insurgents. The suspected ringleader, Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss, who will stand trial in Frankfurt, is a 72-year-old estate agent and aristocrat. Had the coup been successful, Reuss was supposedly earmarked to be the head of a new German state. Another Reichsbürger ‘mastermind’ is Elisabeth R, a 75-year-old retired teacher who has written rambling books about a ‘Corona world war’ and a global Jewish conspiracy. Another suspect actually died of old age in custody before his trial could begin. This led members of the right-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) to dub the Reichsbürger plot the ‘Zimmer frame coup’.

The Reichsbürger do nonetheless have a violent history. In 2016, one member shot and killed an officer when police raided his home. In 2023, another officer was shot and seriously injured while trying to arrest suspected Reichsbürger member Markus L, who now stands trial in Stuttgart for attempted murder. All in all, 184 violent crimes can be attributed to the Reichsbürger.

Still, the German state seems to be far more worried about the Reichsbürger’s conspiratorial worldview than their actual capacity for violence. Indeed, this was the focus of the opening session in court last week. The public prosecutor explained that the central belief of the Reichsbürger is that the current Federal German Republic is illegitimate and controlled by a shadowy ‘deep state’. They claim that the German government has been kidnapping and sexually abusing children in underground tunnels, among other made-up crimes. In order to ‘save’ Germany from these (nonexistent) horrors, the Reichsbürger planned to launch a ‘Day X’, on which they would storm the Bundestag, violently depose its members and restore the monarchy.

There are supposedly around 25,000 Reichsbürger members in Germany. We certainly have a serious problem on our hands if that many people really do believe this reactionary, conspiratorial and anti-democratic nonsense. Much of what the attorney general presented in court last week had chilling echoes of the old anti-Semitic blood-libel trope. But as offensive and objectionable as these conspiracy theories may be, as one of the defence lawyers has pointed out, believing in them and spreading them is not in itself against German law.

The real question the court will have to decide is whether the Reichsbürger are indeed a terrorist organisation. And if so, whether the defendants are part of its ‘military wing’. Most importantly, it will have to prove that the Reichsbürger posed a serious and immediate threat to the German state.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt the last part in particular. In an interview from December last year, one of Reuss’s defence lawyers said he was certain that the government was never actually in any danger. He argues that the Reichsbürger had neither the manpower, the money, the weapons, nor the organisational structure for any kind of successful coup. The indictment does speak of more than 380 firearms that were found during the police raids (most of which were, apparently, legal hunting rifles). There were also 350 ‘slashing and stabbing weapons’ and 148,000 pieces of ammunition. This may be a significant arsenal, but it is hardly enough to take on the German police and military forces. Especially given the advanced age of many of the Reichsbürger.

Of course, the German state has every right to clamp down on any likely threat of violence. Those who have committed violence or plan to must face justice. But it is difficult to ignore the possibility that the government is exploiting the Reichsbürger plot for ulterior motives. After all, the whole episode was almost immediately seized upon to introduce further restrictions on gun ownership and to crack down on the activities of other right-wing groups.

The AfD, in particular, was targeted as a result of the Reichsbürger affair. The rise in the AfD’s popularity has sent shockwaves through the establishment. An alleged link between some AfD politicians and the Reichsbürger has provided the ideal opportunity for the established parties to call for the AfD to be banned. One of those arrested in December 2022 was Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, an AfD member of parliament. This led some politicians to raise the possibility of restricting AfD members from freely entering the Bundestag.

Germany’s coalition government is clearly desperate to present itself as a protector of democracy against its enemies. But if Germany is seriously worried about the state of its democracy, it shouldn’t just look at the Reichsbürger. This band of deranged conspiracy theorists is far from harmless. But perhaps the bigger threat comes from within the Bundestag itself – from those claiming to be ‘saving democracy’, while riding roughshod over democratic principles.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl is spiked’s Germany correspondent.

Picture by: Getty.

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