Remember the right-wing extremist coup that was crushed in December last year when 3000 security personnel raided a hunting lodge in Thuringia and 130 other addresses in Germany and Italy and arrested twenty-five members of a conspiracy to mount a right-wing putsch in the Federal Republic of Germany? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten. If so, here’s how it was reported by a thousand news outlets the next day:
BERLIN, Dec 7 (Reuters)—Germany on Wednesday detained 25 members and supporters of a far-right group that the prosecutor’s office said was preparing a violent overthrow of the state to install as national leader a prince who had sought backing from Russia. Prosecutors said the group was inspired by the deep state conspiracy theories of Germany’s Reichsbürger and QAnon, whose advocates were among those arrested after the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021.
It seemed to have everything—a seizure of the Bundestag! An aristocratic prince leading the coup! QAnon! Links to Russia! An apparent association with the January 6 “insurrection!” Surely Donald Trump must be in it somewhere? No? What a pity.
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Despite the worrying absence of the Donald—and can he prove it?—in the days that followed there was a mountain of commentary on the dire implications of this anti-constitutional outrage. As Germany’s Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said: “The investigations provide a glimpse into the abyss of a terrorist threat from the Reichsbürger milieu.”
Yet, as Friedrich Nietzsche could have told Minister Faeser (and indeed did): “If you look into the abyss long enough, the abyss will look into you.”
Ms Faeser duly called for strong action to defend the state, saying she wanted to reverse the burden of proof in the case of civil servants accused of being “enemies of the constitution”. The state would not then have the obligation to prove their guilt, which could be a “complicated” task. Ms Faeser had made the same proposal in 2016, but the political atmosphere had not been quite so favourable to it then, and she wasn’t about to allow a crisis to be wasted. So far there has been quite strong resistance to her proposal, not so much from political opponents (who are nervous of defending the civil rights of right-wingers) as from lawyers on traditional grounds of constitutional justice. But Ms Faeser, a game girl, is still trying.
About the monarchist coup itself, however, we have heard very little since December 7. Almost all the reports of it collected on a Google search stop around December 15. And what little we have heard about since then has been farcical rather than frightening.
The armaments promised to the media have so far been limited to a few hunting rifles. The coup-plotters were mostly elderly reactionaries from minor branches of aristocratic families dating back to Kaiser Wilhelm’s time. At least some of them want to restore a monarchical government, which would limit their appeal to most contemporary German right-wing extremists. Their only known link to Russia was that their “leader”, Prince Heinrich XIII of Heuss, took his girlfriend for a trip to Kaliningrad to visit the Russian consulate, but we don’t know if he even made it over the threshold.
Given all these circumstantial-cum-atmospheric details, it’s hard to imagine that the German security services lack the evidence to prove the plotters guilty of something even if they remain hampered by the burden of proof. But the coup plans are now looking even more unserious than those of the January 6 “insurrection”.
If the monarchist plotters had succeeded in seizing control of the Bundestag, they would have created nothing more than a short hostage crisis, as in the 1981 attempted “23F” coup in Madrid when military units loyal to Francoism shot up the Spanish Parliament during a vote for a new Prime Minister and held MPs captive for seventeen hours. That attempt at a putsch had a serious chance of success, since it occurred during Spain’s transition to democracy when a great deal of power remained with the armed forces, the King, and the more reactionary members of the post-Franco conservative party. Much of what transpired during the crisis is still murky. What is plain, however, is that the coup failed because very few political players wanted a second Spanish Civil War which alone could have reversed Spain’s trend to democracy. All the serious politicians united against the military putschists, who gave up after half a day and were taken to prison.
For Germany’s monarchist coup to succeed would have required even stronger and more widespread anti-democratic sentiment throughout the Federal Republic than was present in Spain in 1981. Germany’s liberal democracy has now existed for more than seventy years and it enjoys widespread respect at home and abroad. There is no widespread anti-democratic sentiment hostile to the Federal Republic to which the Reichsbürger movement could appeal in a crisis to compensate for its lack of seriousness in almost every other respect.
Research by my colleagues at the Danube Institute shows that the Reichsbürgers and similar movements add up to about 19,000 people in a nation of 80 million. They certainly hold anti-democratic and other objectionable and largely antiquated views—nostalgia for the Hohenzollerns and earlier Reichs rather than the Nazis. Most of their “political” activities consist of legal battles with the authorities over whether Germany is a state or still a territory occupied by the Allies, dynastic disputes, and property claims left over from wartime. But since two of their members were involved in gunfights leading to a death in 2016, they would be on police watch-lists. They have almost no presence in German public life.
All that was largely confirmed by a recent report from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution on media coverage of the Hunting Lodge coup. It began by noting ironically that the media seemed to be extremely well informed about the location and timing of the paramilitary siege of the coup plotters’ homes and meeting places even to the extent of accompanying armed security officers as they broke in.
Was it really worth the journalists’ time? The assault met no resistance and produced little beyond a “photo opportunity” of the prince being led out in non-military garb of tweed sports jacket, cravat and handcuffs. That a media silence about the raid has since descended suggests that the Reichsbürgers were fantasising about a coup for which they had neither arms, nor allies, nor realistic preparations.
In retrospect the raid to prevent a right-wing extremist coup looks more like a raid to demonstrate that right-wing extremists pose a dangerous threat to democracy. It’s not in principle foolish or wrong to take precautions against violence and terror in politics—but things take a trickier turn when we go from protecting ourselves against violence to conflating it with political ideas we oppose and then fail to define those ideas either clearly or narrowly. And that seems to have happened in the case of the meme that right-wing extremism is the most serious threat to democracy today.
The origins of that belief lie in the fact that the US political class and national security apparatus fell victim to an attack of Trump Derangement Syndrome in 2016 which led them to believe that Trump was a Russian “asset”. They transmitted that belief to their partners in the vast anti-disinformation web of electronic eavesdropping and censorship that had been established under previous administrations to fight terrorism. They weaponised the network to undermine and weaken his presidency. And when the Biden administration came in, they ramped up the network amd aimed it at the larger problem of Trump and MAGA Republicans who might get back into power and destroy democracy—something Trump had oddly not bothered to attempt when he’d been in power.
The problem is that right-wing extremism, while it may be a very bad thing, isn’t the most dangerous threat to democracy at home or abroad. There are a dozen more dangerous threats, from Antifa at home to jihadism abroad. And if much of your policy is based on a false belief, it’s going either to fail or to produce perverse results.
In the case of the Reichsbürgers, it seems likely to bring about a change in Germany’s legal practice that would penalise civil servants falsely accused of being hostile to the federal constitution. In the case of UK anti-terrorism policy, as an official report found, the false belief that right-wing terrorism was as large a threat as jihadism led to the misallocation of resources to fighting a secondary threat. In the case of the FBI, as some whistleblowers testified to Congress, the fact that its demand for right-wing extremism was larger than its supply led to local offices complaining that they were being asked by HQ to chase unicorns rather than to catch bad guys. And in the case of the vast anti-disinformation network, it led to a series of scandals, first among them Hamilton 68, which claimed to have discovered hundreds of Russian-affiliated accounts that had infiltrated Twitter to help Trump win the 2016 election. As the journalist who broke the story, Matt Taibbi, wrote: “None of it was true. After reviewing Hamilton 68’s secret list, Twitter’s safety officer, Yoel Roth, privately admitted that his company was allowing ‘real people’ to be ‘unilaterally labeled Russian stooges without evidence or recourse’.”
Sadly, most of the media outlets that had excitedly presented Hamilton 68’s scoops as the real deal were unable to find space for a correction. Result: a vast intelligence and censorship network that listens in for suspects praising motherhood and apple pie and then puts them on a no-fly list.