In its infancy after the first world war, German democracy was no stranger to far-right attempted coups. The Weimar Republic was shaken in 1920 by the Kapp putsch and in 1923 by Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall putsch. But all that belonged to a distant, unhappy past — until government agencies disclosed on Wednesday that they had thwarted what, on the face of things, looks like the largest radical rightwing conspiracy in the Federal Republic’s 73-year history.
For sure, many of the plotters appear to be bunglers, weirdos and nostalgists rather than skilled professional revolutionaries. In the remote event that they had succeeded in overthrowing the government, the new head of state was to have been Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss, a 71-year-old descendant of minor royalty. To the relief of most German citizens and Berlin’s allies abroad, the threat was far less serious than that posed by the ultra-right malcontents of the 1920s.
Investigators said the plotters may have intended to mount an armed attack on the Bundestag, the federal parliament in Berlin. But any such plans were nipped in the bud long before Germany faced an assault on its legislature akin to the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021. In short, German democracy remains alive and well, one of the most robust systems in the western world and unquestionably Germany’s strongest since the birth of the modern nation-state in 1871.
That said, certain facts about the case give cause for concern. The authorities carried out raids at more than 130 sites in 11 of Germany’s 16 states, arresting 25 people. The plot extended beyond areas of the old communist east where shadowy neo-Nazi networks have operated since reunification in 1990.
Moreover, many conspirators had military training and some were former members of the Bundeswehr, the armed forces. It was a reminder of Germany’s persistent troubles with rightwing extremism in the military and security services. In July 2020 the government ordered the disbandment of an elite commando unit on the grounds that soldiers had concealed the extremist activities of some of their comrades.
Finally, prosecutors said the plotters were motivated partly by American-style conspiracy theories such as QAnon and hostility to the “deep state”, alleged to control the government in democracies. Heinrich is said to have contacted Russian officials for the purpose of setting up a new political order in Germany. There is no evidence so far of support for the plot from Russia or US extremists. Still, it seems the conspirators were swimming in the same turbid seas of malicious anti-democratic fantasies and seditious scheming where the international far right makes its home.
If the plot was always likely to fall apart, its discovery nonetheless lends force to the argument set out in October 2020 by Horst Seehofer, Germany’s then interior minister. Speaking eight months after an extreme rightwing gunman killed 11 people in Hanau, he said: “Far-right extremism is the biggest threat our country is currently facing.”
For many years, this problem was obscured by acts of Islamist terrorism, such as the 2016 attack on a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people. However, small far-right groups were active in Germany long before that. One such group, which styled itself the National Socialist Underground, murdered nine immigrants and a police officer between 2000 and 2007 in a killing spree that was misread by the authorities as a probable turf war among organised crime groups.
Extremists such as those arrested this week have no representation in the Bundestag and practically no public support. Even the less radical but hard-right Alternative for Germany party saw its vote fall in last year’s national elections. Still, no democracy can afford complacency — a lesson Germans, more than most of us, know only too well.