Germany’s dramatic arrests of 25 people on charges that they planned to overthrow the government brought several head-turning details out into the public: The group wanted to make “Prince” Heinrich XIII of Reuss, a descendent of a fallen royal line, the head of state, and a former right-wing member of the Bundestag (the German parliament) the justice minister. It planned to organize blackouts across Germany to turn the population against the government and then arrest and handcuff members of the Bundestag. It had support from former members of the police and the military, and its followers were heavily armed.
But the detail that jumped out to many outside Germany, and made its way into headlines, was that QAnon was somehow involved. Not quite. The real ideological background of the group is a different conspiracy theory well known in Germany: the Reichsbürger (“Citizens of the Reich”). It’s based on the idea that the Federal Republic of Germany does not legally exist, but was actually created by the Allied forces after World War II to enforce the interests of the victorious powers. According to the conspiracy, the German Reich still exists, because Germany’s Basic Law is not a real constitution, never mind that it has been widely accepted here for decades.
What really makes this crude movement—which makes its own uniforms, passports, and money—so dangerous is that it has intersections with all sorts of groups that are against the government, a coalition of right-wing radicals who are anti-vaccination, anti-refugee, and pro-Russia. And thanks in part to this, it even has parliamentary representation in the form of the Alternative for Germany, or the AfD. That party has 10 percent of the vote in the Bundestag and is even stronger in the polls. In some states in the east of the country, it competes with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party of the former chancellor Angela Merkel, for first place in elections.
Indeed, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a former AfD member of the Bundestag, was among those arrested on Wednesday. Now a sitting judge, she was taken into custody in her villa in Berlin. Americans might think of her as a German Marjorie Taylor Greene. When I was a member of the Bundestag from 2009 to 2021, I watched her rise with alarm. She railed against immigrants and dealt in untold conspiracies. This woman was to become the country’s new justice minister—comparable to the United States attorney general—according to plans of the conspirators. (Just imagine U.S. Attorney General Marjorie Taylor Greene.)
If this all sounds like a fever dream of conspiracists, don’t let it. It’s to be taken very seriously. As our real justice minister, Marco Buschmann, put it, “there are many busybodies who tell confused stories after drinking alcohol,” but in this case, there was every reason to believe “the group wanted to take violent action.” Again and again, politicians are threatened in Germany. In June 2019, one local CDU politician, Walter Lübcke, was shot to death by a right-wing extremist. There have been right-wing extremist machinations inside German security agencies and in the Bundeswehr, our military. For far too long, ruling politicians turned a blind eye to this.
Now, politicians of all the democratic parties welcomed the action of the security authorities on Wednesday. They said it showed the strength of the German constitutional state in protecting democracy. But comparisons were also drawn to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. This week once again showed democracy in our two countries is not a law of nature, but must be protected and defended. We’re only just beginning to get a closer look at its enemies.