Members of the Reich Citizens' Movement organize a lift at the Lustgarten in the city of Berlin, Germany on November 9, 2019. They deny the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany. Photo: Juergen Nowak.

What does Patriotic Union’s coup plan in Germany tell us about threats posed by far-right?

As the investigations are ongoing, not much is known of the real threat to democracy that this group posed. Nevertheless, the German authorities did take it very seriously, which could be an indication of the seriousness of the situation. Assessing the group and its coup plan, Jan Philipp Thomeczek underlines the fact that some members of the group had a security background, such as military or police experience, moreover many of them owned weapons and ammunition.

By Kim van Os*                                                                                                                          

On the 7th of December 2022, German authorities arrested 25 people for plotting to overthrow the German government. The group, called the Patriotic Union, was divided into a ‘Rat’ (Council) and a military branch, ready to take over the various ministerial posts. Their plan was to storm the Reichstag parliament building and seize power, using violence if necessary. The group planned to instate Heinrich XIII, a descendant of German royalty, as the Emperor of Germany. In addition to the arrest of 25 people, the police also seized weapons acquired by the group and Iridium satellite telephones. The latter are special telephones which work even when the electricity network collapses, something the group was also planning to do (Connolly, 2022).

Little is known about the ideology of this Patriotic Union. According to Jan Philipp Thomeczek, an expert on populism and the far-right in Germany, the Patriotic Union is a very heterogeneous group, and it is therefore quite hard to pin it down to a specific ideology. Its members are quite diverse, ranging from former and current soldiers, current and former members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist political party in Germany, to the people with an extremist background. In addition, the group does not have a manifesto or program. What however is known, states Thomeczek, is that the Reichsbürger movement had a strong influence within this group. Many of the members of the Patriotic Union came from the Reichsbürger movement, including the previously mentioned Heinrich XIII. 

The Reichsbürger (which translates to ‘Citizens of the Reich’), deny the existence of Germany’s post World War II Federal Republic, and do not accept the legality of Germany’s government. According to them, Germany is still controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. In one of their most influential publications, ‘21 Punkte zur tatsächlichen Situation in Deutschland – Analyse & Aufklärung’ (Translation: ‘21 points on the real situation in Germany – analysis & enlightenment’), they state the following: ‘Germany has not been a sovereign state since the end of the Second World War, but rather militarily occupied territory by the Allied forces, above all, as the main victorious power, that of the United States of America’ (21 Punkte…, 2022)

Although all Reichsbürger members share the same belief in that they do not accept the legality of Germany’s government, they do not all have the same ideology. According to the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, of the 23.000 Reichsbürger in Germany, 5 percent can be classified as far-right extremists. Among them are those with special military training, police agents and members of the military.  Although they might not all be classified as far-right, the origins of the group can be traced back to far-right ideology. For instance, the Reichsbürger passport is based on the Reich Citizenship Law of 1935. Under this law, only people of German or related blood were approved for Reich citizenship (Schlegel, 2019). Although this law specifically mentioned Jews as people not eligible for Reich citizenship, the law also excluded Black people and Roma and Sinti for Reich Citizenship (Facing History, 2022).

The use of violence by Reichsbürger is not unknown, in 2016 a member of the group killed a police officer and injured three others (Oltermann, 2016).  In 2020, members of the group took part in an attempt to storm the Reichstag during a protest against Covid measurements (The Guardian, 2020). In 2021, the BvF attributed around 1011 extremist crimes to them (Connolly, 2022). In recent years the Reichsbürger movement has grown, in 2016 the BfV estimated the group at 10.000, in 2022 the group was estimated at 23.000 members (DW, 2018; Goldenberg, 2022). 

According to Thomeczek, in addition to being influenced by the Reichsbürger movement, the Patriotic Union was also influenced by the QAnon conspiracy theory. The QAnon conspiracy theory dates back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Stanton, 2020). This fabricated antisemitic text was published in 1903 and discusses a Jewish plan of world domination. Although this conspiracy theory has been used throughout the centuries, most famously by Hitler, it resurfaced in the far-right sphere in the US in October 2017 on the internet platform 4chan under the name ‘QAnon’ (Wendling, 2021). QAnon adherents believe the world is controlled by satanic cannibalistic pedophiles and that the former US president Donald Trump was fighting against these people. Violence is not unknown to QAnon believers, many of the people who stormed the Capitol in the US were QAnon adherents (Wendling, 2021). At the same time, Thomeczek explains that the connection to QAnon should be regarded as a secondary feature of the Patriotic Union, as it is a very heterogeneous group. 

Thomeczek mentions that both the QAnon conspiracy theory as well as the Reichsbürger movement gained more attention during the Covid-19 pandemic because of their anti-lockdown standpoint. This is not surprising, explains Thomeczek, because if you believe in conspiracy theory about the German state or QAnon, something like a global pandemic really plays into the cards of conspiracy theories. Thomeczek argues that a connecting element between the QAnon conspiracy theory and the anti-covid protests is the so-called ‘protection of the children.’ According to Thomeczek, the rule that made it mandatory for children to wear masks ‘sparked a lot of protests among parents, because they thought it was dangerous for the children.’

Germany’s right-wing populist party AfD also had a strong anti-lockdown standpoint during the pandemic. Moreover, some of the members of the group planning the coup had connections to the AfD. According to Thomeczek, one of the most important AfD related figure in this group is Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, who served as a member of the AfD in the lower house of parliament between 2017 and 2021. Since June 2022 she has been a member of the AfD’s Court of Arbitration. At the same time, however, no official links between the group planning the coup and AfD have been found. On the website, the AfD, published the following sentence with regards to the planned coup: “Like most citizens, we only found out about the case today from the media. We condemn and strongly oppose such efforts. Now we have to wait for the investigation. We have complete trust in the authorities involved and demand a quick and complete clarification.”

The fact that they issued such a short statement is very interesting, according to Thomeczek, they did not even mention the Reichsbürger movement for instance. They are doing the bare minimum to distance themselves from the movement, because if they are somehow connected to the movement it could lead to a prohibition of the party, Thomeczek mentions. However, Thomeczek continues, the short statement shows that the extremism from this group is not a real issue for them, while they do strongly focus on Islamic extremism in their agenda. Thomeczek concludes by saying that, besides the former AfD members being included in the plot, there are no real connections between the AfD and the group organizing the coup. 

The AfD, which currently holds 78 seats in the Bundestag, has similar ideology as other right-wing populist parties in Europe such as Euroscepticism and anti-immigration standpoint. They differ in the sense that the AfD came into parliament relatively late in comparison with other right wing populist parties in Europe. Although some right-wing populist parties, such as the DVU and the Republicans, had some regional successes in the 1990s, as soon as they were linked to the national socialist past in some way, the potential to reach national successes died according to Thomeczek. This was the case until the AfD entered the scene. 

Thomeczek mentions that the AfD established themselves as a more moderate party but became more radical over the years. In 2013 they almost made it into parliament, back then the party was not extremely right-wing nor extremely populist. In the 2015 and 2016 state elections, the AfD managed to win seats in multiple states. According to Thomeczek, after 2015, the party became much more populist and radical, the party was ‘already somehow established and then radicalized and then it became even more successful, especially in East Germany.’ The presence of the AfD in East Germany seemed to have sucked up the potential for right-wing extremism. Which is interesting according to Thomeczek, because in East Germany there were some ‘right-wing extremist parties such as the National Democratic Party (NPD) in the 1990s and 2000s, and now that the AfD is there. A much more radical AfD, compared to some west German states, completely sucked up this potential for right wing extremism.’ Thomeczek argues that perhaps in the coming years, analysis will show whether AfD is still a populist party or if it has become extremist too and has become closer to parties such as the NPD. 

The real threat to democracy that the group organizing the coup posed is hard to tell. As the investigations are ongoing, not much is known of the real threat to democracy that this group posed. Nevertheless, the authorities did take it very seriously, which could be an indication of the seriousness of the situation. Thomeczek says that some members of the group had a security background, such as military or police experience, moreover many of them owned weapons and ammunition. In addition, the group was actively trying to recruit people from the military. Moreover, according to Thomeczek, ‘a quite important detail is that many of those people have the legal right to own a weapon, normally you don’t have that but if you are security force or hunter for example, you have that legal right,’ which indicates that they did not only owned weapons, but they also knew how to use them. Therefore, Thomeczek adds, ‘the potential for violence was definitely very high and if so, much violence is possible, is on the table, then it is definitely a big threat.’ At the same time, according to Thomeczek, it is difficult to tell how advanced the planned coup was, as the group was still working on their plan when it was uncovered. 

Although there may not be any clear link between the group planning the coup and the right-wing populist party, populist leaders can influence these types of groups because they often engage with conspiracy theories leading to the undermining of the legitimacy of democracy. Which is what happened in the US when Trump called the election results fraudulent, eventually leading to people storming the capitol and a more recent example of the storming of political buildings in Brasília in Brazil (Sullivan, 2023).

Moreover, the threat of far-right terrorism has been growing in recent years across the globe. According to US Homeland Security ‘white supremacists and other far-right-wing extremists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat facing the United States.’ In that sense, the plotted coup in Germany should be seen as a warning to pay close attention to extremist right-wing movements and the role that right-wing populists might play in this. 


(*) Kim van Os is an intern at European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) with a master’s degree in International Relations. Her main research interests are the relation between populism and far-right radicalization, gender, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia.  


References

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— (2020). “Anti-corona’ extremists try to storm German parliament.” The Guardian. August 29, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/29/berlin-braces-for-anti-coronavirus-protest-against-covid-19-restrictions (accessed on January 11, 2023).

— (2022). “21 Punkte zur tatsächlichen Situation in Deutschland.” https://docplayer.org/44630396-21-punkte-zur-tatsaechlichen-situation-in-deutschland.html (accessed on January 11, 2023). 

— (2022). “The Nuremberg Laws.” Facing History & Ourselves. April 28, 2022. https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/nuremberg-laws (accessed on January 11, 2023).

— (2022). “Bundesschiedsgericht.” https://web.archive.org/web/20221207081927/https://www.afd.de/partei/bundesschiedsgericht/ (accessed on January 11, 2023) 

Connolly, Kate. (2022). “Reichsbürger: the German conspiracy theorists at heart of alleged coup plot.” The Guardian.December 7, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/07/reichsburger-the-german-conspiracy-theorists-at-heart-of-alleged-coup-plot (accessed on January 11, 2023). 

Goldenberg, Rina. (2022).  “What is Germany’s ‘Reichsbürger’ movement?” DW. December 7, 2022. https://www.dw.com/en/what-is-germanys-reichsbürger-movement/a-36094740 (accessed on January 11, 2023). 

Oltermann, Philip. (2016). “Germany fears radicalisation of Reichsbürger movement after police attacks.” The Guardian.October 21, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/21/germany-fears-radicalisation-of-reichsburger-group-after-attacks-on-police (accessed on January 11, 2023). 

Schlegel, Linda. (2019). “’Germany does not exist!’: Analyzing the Reichsbürger Movement.”  European Eye on Radicalization. May 17, 2019. https://eeradicalization.com/germany-does-not-exist-analyzing-the-reichsburger-movement/ (accessed on January 11, 2023).

Stanton, Gregory. (2020). “QAnon is a Nazi Cult, Rebranded.” Just Security. September 9, 2020. https://www.justsecurity.org/72339/qanon-is-a-nazi-cult-rebranded/ (accessed on January 11, 2023). 

Sullivan, Helen. (2023). “Brazil congress attack: what we know so far.” The Guardian. 

January 9, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/09/brazil-congress-attack-stormed-invasion-jair-bolsonaro-supporters-what-we-know-so-far (accessed on January 11, 2023).

Wendling, Mike. (2021). “QAnon: What is it and where did it come from?” BBC News. January 6, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/53498434 (accessed on January 11, 2023).

Flowers and Candles at the Hanau shooting site as a remembrance to the victims of right extremist terror attack in Germany on February 20, 2020.

Extremist criminal offenses rise in Germany, intelligence report suggests

Right-wing extremism increased in Germany in 2019, the country’s domestic intelligence agency has reported, with over 32,000 extremists identified. The report also found that more suspects are prepared to use violence.

According to a news article published by Deutsche Welle (DW) on July 9, 2020, in Berlin, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and the head of Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) Thomas Haldenwang presented the organization’s most recent findings, which showed that right-wing extremism in Germany sharply increased last year. “Right-wing extremism poses the biggest threat to security in Germany,” the country’s interior minister said at the presentation of the 2019 report by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.

The report underlined that the BfV identified 32,080 right-wing extremists in Germany in 2019, up from 24,100 the year before. The BfV classified 13,000 of these cases as prepared to use violence, 300 more than in 2018. Right-wing extremism, racism and anti-Semitism continue to increase in Germany, Seehofer said. “These areas are the biggest threat to security in Germany,” he added. Seehofer also pointed to government action in 2019, saying no other government in Germany had done so much to fight far-right extremism.

Several extreme far-right organizations were banned in 2020 for views or activities deemed anti-constitutional. For the first time last year, the BfV report also reviewed the activities and member of the radical “Flügel”, or Wing, faction of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

The controversial faction officially disbanded earlier this year after the BfV put the group under surveillance. But the agency estimates there remains a membership of around 7,000 individuals, some 20 percent of the AfD. This accounts for a significant share of the increase in right-wing extremists recorded by the BfV in 2019.

“Racism and anti-Semitism emerge to a very considerable degree out of right-wing extremism,” Seehofer said. “Over 90percent of anti-Semitic incidents can be traced back to right-wing extremism. And therefore it is not an exaggeration to say this is the biggest security policy concern in our country.” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said a rise in criminal offences by far-right oriented individuals against foreigners and Muslims had also risen. “We have to remain vigilant and ready to act,” said Seehofer.

Individuals with far-right world views committed more than 22,300 offences in 2019, the interior ministry figures showed, including two murders, five attempted murders and almost 800 bodily injuries, a rise of almost 10 percent.

Thomas Haldenwang, head of the BfV domestic security agency, said antisemitic crime rose by 17 percent and 94percent of the offences raging from bodily harm to verbal abuse and antisemitic propaganda were carried out by far-right sympathisers. The report also found that criminal offences committed by far-left sympathisers had risen to 6,400, an increase of 40 percent. This included two attempted murders and 355 bodily harm offences.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government was forced to act in 2019 on right-wing political violence after the killing of a pro-immigration politician and an attack on a synagogue and a kebab shop by an antisemitic gunman, which left two dead. The government imposed tougher rules on gun ownership and stricter monitoring of hate speech online, responding to a rise in hate crime.

Germany was also shaken by the killing in February 2020 of eight women and a man with foreign background in a shooting spree at Shisha bars in the western city of Hanau by a gunman espousing conspiracy theories and deeply racist views. The killings will appear in 2020’s report.

AfD demonstrated with slogan "Stop Islamization" in Rostock on May 14, 2018. AfD, Alternative for Germany, is a right wing political party in Germany.

Germany’s far-right AfD fires official over a ​racist migrant comment

Germany’s populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party fired an official on September 28, 2020 who had been caught on a hidden camera discussing gassing refugees.

According to a news article by Reuters’ Thomas Escritt, in footage, recorded secretly by ProSieben television in February2020, Christian Lueth, then a party spokesman, was filmed in a Berlin cafe talking to someone he believed to be a sympathiser about the challenges the AfD faced.

Asked if the AfD wanted to see more immigrants, he replied: “Yes.” “Because then things go better for the AfD. We can still shoot them all afterwards,” he said. “Or gas them, whichever you like. I don’t care either way!”

Die Zeit newspaper said it was shown the footage, which it said was filmed by Lisa Licentia, a right-wing YouTube personality who had decided to leave the far-right scene. Die Zeit said nothing indicated Lueth was joking.

German media reported that Lueth was dismissed as an employee of the party’s parliamentary group. Lueth was already suspended from his position as party spokesman in April, over an email in which he wrote that the word “fascist” was overused.

The AfD entered Germany’s parliament in an election in 2017 and is now the largest party opposing Angela Merkel’s government, a right-left grand coalition. The far right party has been monitored by the security services, and other parties consider it beyond the pale. AfD officials strongly deny that it has links to neo-Nazi groups.

Concern is growing in Germany that potentially violent anti-immigrant nationalists may be gaining footholds in the uniformed services – a matter of huge sensitivity in a country still acutely aware of the World War Two genocide of millions of Jews and others by Hitler’s Nazis.

German prosecutors investigated in July 2020 a retired police officer suspected of sending threatening emails, signed with the name of a gang of neo-Nazi killers, to prominent figures of immigrant background. The man and his wife were detained but then released while police searched seized computer storage devices.

The emails, including some sent to legislators of Turkish background, were signed “NSU 2.0”, a reference to the “National Socialist Underground” neo-Nazi gang, which murdered 10 people, mainly immigrants, between 2000 and 2007.

“The suspects, a former Bavarian police officer, 63, and his wife, 55, had previously come to the attention of police in connection with racially motivated crimes,” prosecutors in the city of Frankfurt said. “They are suspected of having sent emails with offensive, inflammatory and threatening contents to legislators and others.”

The interior minister of the state of Hesse said in early July 2020 he was aware of 69 such emails. One of the recipients was Aiman Mazyek, chair of the Central Council of Muslims, who published the text on Twitter: “Heil Hitler. Yours, NSU 2.0”.

Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders campaigns on behalf of his Freedom Party ahead of municipal elections in Spijkenisse, Netherlands on March 17 2018.

Dutch appeals court clears far-right leader Wilders of inciting hatred

Dutch politician Geert Wilders was acquitted by an appeals court on September 4, 2020 of discrimination, in a partial legal victory for the far-right populist who leads the opposition in parliament and who is known for his anti-Islam rhetoric.

According to news article written by Reuters’ Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch, the panel agreed with a lower court ruling from 2016 that dismissed the separate offense of inciting hatred and rejected a prosecution request that Wilders pay a fine of 5,000 euros ($5,900). However, it upheld his conviction for intentionally insulting Moroccans as a group.

Wilders is one of Europe’s most prominent far-right leaders and is polling in second place ahead of March elections. He has been a key figure in shaping the immigration debate in the Netherlands over the past decade, although he has never been in government.

“The court considers it proven that Wilders is guilty of group insult on March 19, 2014. The court will not impose any punishment or measure on him for this,” presiding judge J.M. Reinking said. “He is acquitted of the other facts.”

Moreover, in 2016 he was convicted of insulting a group and inciting discrimination. But the 56-year-old anti-Islam politician called the case a political show-trial and challenged the verdicts. He argued his comments should be protected by his right to freedom of speech.

Wilders, who has lived under constant police protection for more than a decade due to death threats, has “already paid a high price for years for expressing his opinion”, the presiding judge said. “The court cleared Wilders of ‘incitement to hatred or discrimination’ because Wilders’ intent was not aimed at encouraging his audience to do so,” the judges found.

Wilders, 56, said he would appeal the charge of ‘insulting a group’ for which he was convicted. “Of course we will appeal and we will go to the Supreme Court because the verdict and the guilty sentence are ridiculous.” “I’m very happy on the other hand that I was found innocent when it comes to charges of incitement of discrimination and hatred,“ he told journalists at the court.

Wilders, whose Freedom Party has at times topped national opinion polls, had argued he did nothing wrong, and merely expressed openly what many Dutch people think. He was convicted in 2016 of inciting discrimination at a campaign rally two years earlier, when he led supporters in asking whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the country. “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” his supporters chanted. “We’re going to take care of that,” Wilders said, smiling.

The judges in both the first trial and the appeal said Wilders had planned the remarks ahead of time, knowing they would be inflammatory and insulting to the 400,000 people of Moroccan heritage in the Netherlands. At the original trial in 2016, prosecutors took testimony from Dutch-Moroccans who said Wilders’ comments made them feel like “third-rate citizens”.

Wilders said on Twitter ahead of the verdict that his appeals trial would decide if the Netherlands had “become a corrupt banana republic where the leader of the opposition is sentenced in a political trial.” He said the judgment was being handed down at a heavily secured court near Schiphol airport “while Moroccans who set our cities on fire usually get away with it and never see the inside of a court.”

Wilders was previously prosecuted in 2011, over anti-Islam comments such as comparing the religion to Nazism and calling for a ban on the Koran. He was acquitted and the case was widely seen as giving the populist leader a publicity boost.