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A "coup d’état" against the federal government that never existed?

2023-05-18
Time to read: 8 min
Germany on the brink of the abyss - no, that was neither the headline in the German papers when the full extent of inflation and price hikes became known; nor when the consequences of the energy crisis became tangible; nor when the migration crisis reached its climax; nor in the many other cases where Germany's threatening downfall could be proved by some tangible figures. Instead, the television and printed media sported those exuberant headlines when the crazy goings-on of a clique composed of pensioners, conspiracy theorists and “Reichsbürger” (“Reich citizens”) were made public in December.

Let us first follow the narrative of the German media, according to which Germany narrowly escaped a coup d'état on 7 December 2022. A well-organised gang from the extreme right-wing scene had planned to overthrow the government and hoarded weapons and money to this end. 500,000 officials were deployed to avert their alleged goal: the abolition of the Federal Republic and the installation of a prince from the House of Reuss. The Social Democratic Federal Minister of the Interior, Nancy Faeser, concluded: “Our democracy remains defenceless! The largest anti-terrorist operation in our history  has prevented a coup d'état.”

One cannot overstate the consequences of such a pathos: The media have staged the incident as historically so outstanding that the Catilinarian conspiracy under Cicero appeared to be a mere footnote in history. The fact that the action has received so much recognition was mainly due to the complexes of a left-dominated media landscape that suspects at every corner the next National Socialist plotting to re-establish a Fourth Reich. This wild paranoia has now been seemingly confirmed by this incident.

There were several oddities that made the alleged coup seem implausible from the start. Already the interpretation as a "coup" seemed phoney: usually a coup requires participation of the military: not of second-rank federal army officers, but of its organised top. How a classic military coup works was shown by Turkey and several South American states in the 20th century. The farce staged by the media together with the "conspirators" has never involved a single influential person, but completely unknown and unimportant personalities who compensated their impotence with megalomaniac fantasies.

The idea that a monarchy could be re-established in Germany, with a fourth-rate would-be king - the chosen Prince Heinrich von Reuß comes from a mere collateral line of the former ruling Thuringian house - at its head, should already tell you all you need to know about the conspirators. A few years ago, they would not have been remanded in custody, but merely transferred to a sanatorium. Participants in the conspiracy even claimed to have spoken with extraterrestrials…

The term "Reichsbürger" derives from the fact that the "putschists" claimed that the German Reich did not perish in 1945, but continued to exist. Their representatives therefore do not see themselves bound by the law of the Federal Republic; they do not recognise it, some refer to it as a mere "limited liability company". Many of them are characterised less by National Socialist than by libertarian thinking: They see their living spaces as self-governing zones that they want to secure by force of arms.

Ironically, their fundamental thesis is based on a socialist rather than right-wing thesis: it was the GDR and its communist cadres who proclaimed the demise of the German Reich and judged the Federal Republic and the GDR as "successor states". The Federal Republic has always seen itself as "partly identical" with the German Reich, which means it is not a mere successor, but the Reich itself with limitations, of which the territorial extent and the name are the most prominent ones. This is evident not only in constitutional theories, but in the mere fact that the Federal Republic did not have to conclude all the treaties anew after 1949, and accepted and assumed all the rights and obligations it could at that time.

These paradoxes are, however, common in Reichsbürger thought, which is dubbed "right-wing extremist" by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the domestic secret service of the Federal Republic) despite hardly any evidence available, although ideologically such unambiguity can hardly be established. There is no demonstrable historical evidence for a line of continuity between the National Socialist and Reichsbürger thoughts. Rather, the latter represents a diffuse melting pot that includes extraterrestrialism, monarchism, Trump and Putin worship as well as anti-state, esoteric, anti-Catholic and anti-capitalist thought.

But the denunciation as a "right-wing coup" apparently has very clear reasons. The pensioners' “army” accommodates the left-wing federal government: By blowing it up in the media and politics, these confused old white men were presented as the new RAF (“Rote Armee-Fraktion”; a communist terror group), capable of committing terrorist attacks and hostage-taking like the Baader-Meinhof gang in the past. This is interesting because the Federal Republic of Germany of the 1970s, by hook or crook, enacted harsh laws to persecute the red squad in order to get hold of them - in reaction to such cases as the kidnapping and murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer.

In the case of the alleged “Reichsbürger putsch”, however, the state is reacting in exactly the opposite way: it is imputing to a group that did not even begin to commit the acts of the “German Autumn” that they would have committed precisely those acts if they only had been allowed to do so. What is more, on the basis of these imputed acts, the currently ruling left-liberal federal government has announced new laws.

For although in the meantime, it has become increasingly clear that the whole action was a PR show, new laws such as the tightening of civil service law remain in place. In future, civil servants can be removed from office because of a mere suspicion of right-wing extremism. This means that the state does not have to prove first that a civil servant is actually guilty of anti-constitutional activities; instead, the civil servant must prove his or her innocence in court in order to be reinstated. Such reversal of the burden of proof is unique in the Federal Republic: The rule of the constitution is replaced by the rule of the right political attitude. In the future, any unpopular conservative civil servants can be accused of actually sharing "Reichsbürger thinking", and then be replaced with conformist left-wing civil servants. There are no limits to arbitrariness anymore.

But it is not only the state that takes on a dubious role. The media, too, have branded everyone who expressed doubts about the story of the “Reichsbürger” Putsch as sympathisers of the group. The fact that practically all the major media were already present at the arrest of the failed pretender to the throne, Heinrich von Reuß, left doubts as to how "secret" this "secret operation" really was. Quite obviously, the press had been given hints, because the first big articles were written in no time at all. One did not even miss the opportunity to declare the hunting equipment of the arrested persons to be part of the arsenal of weapons - which also included a crossbow.

There is no question that the Reichsbürger are unpredictable and possibly dangerous. But they are definitely not the threat to the German state they were portrayed as on 7 December 2022, because the media interest has rapidly diminished after merely a few weeks. After months of pre-trial detention, there are virtually no results. In an interview with the Swiss NZZ, a high-ranking German intelligence expert said that there is a "stupid political pressure" to take action against "right-wingers" with all possible force, even when the facts on the ground are scanty.

Another unpleasant detail: as things stand, it looks like the group may have wanted to split up shortly before the events: there were clear internal differences among its members. Did the officers possibly seize the group in a hurry because a movement that they had been spying on for months threatened to break apart before being duly instrumentalised? This is speculation. But the question is no longer how dangerous the “Reichsbürger” truly are: Instead, it is whether the German state has capitalised on a moment of threat in order to bring its employees more "in line" than ever before.

 

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