On Dec. 7, authorities across Germany arrested at least 25 people in connection to a conspiracy to storm the Bundestag, attack the German power grid, and overthrow the German government. At least 25 others have been accused of involvement in the plot.
The conspirators modeled this attack, which they had been planning since November 2021, on the aborted attack by far-right supporters of former President Donald Trump on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 of that year. But this isn’t a local imitation of an American original, although it combines German ideas with U.S. influence. It’s an intensely German group, rooted in a bizarre interpretation of German history.
This confluence of the local and the global is characteristic of German right-wing extremism, and it can produce unexpected results, as I’ve written before for Foreign Policy. Within these global linkages, many conspiracy theories—on the far left as well as the far right—have been incorporated into the QAnon intellectual space, and German conspiracy theories are no exception.
In this case, the conspirators are members of a disparate movement known as Reichsbürger, or “citizens of the Reich”. (This word can be plural or singular.) The Reich in this case is the Second Reich, the German empire that stood from 1871 to 1918.The ideology behind this movement has been promoted since the 1970s, when the jurist—and Holocaust denier—Manfred Roeder spread it in an attempt to revive both National Socialism and pre-Nazi imperial Germany.
The group’s basic idea is that the Federal Republic of Germany, the modern German government, does not exist. It maintains that the Third Reich, the Wilhelmine government’s successor—this complex of ideas seems to elide the Weimar Republic–was never formally dissolved in 1945, and that the modern German government is a tool of the Allied occupation, which is still ongoing. This belief system thereby combines hidden nostalgia for the Third Reich with overt nostalgia for the Second; for instance, many Reichsbürger followers want Germany to return to its 1937 borders. There is a powerful strain of antisemitism in it. These people have been compared to American and Canadian sovereign citizens; like sovereign citizens, many do not pay taxes. And like sovereign citizens, they can be violent: Reichsbürger were responsible for one murder in 2016 and nine in 2020.
In a dark reflection of German society in general, this conspiracy theory is profoundly legalistic. Reichsbürger believe that the republic is not a state but a private company founded in 1949 by the Allies, while the German Reich exists legally but without institutions—so the movement’s followers have taken it upon themselves to form “provisional” institutions. This pathological legalism appeals to people involved with Germany’s ordinary legalism: many members are former police officers, military officers, and civil servants. The people arrested on Dec. 7 include a former member of the Bundestag from the far-right AfD party, former East German state security, and former members of the German special forces.
They also included several German nobles, including one of the ringleaders, Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuss zu Köstritz. He is a minor noble—a very minor one. He is a prince, but the German states were once almost as thick with princes as Saudi Arabia—although for very different reasons. His princely status does not mean that he is related to the monarchy of the former empire, the family of the former Kaiser; it means that his family used to head principalities. (The Kaiser’s family is the Hohenzollerns. This Heinrich is a Reuss-Köstritz, although U.S. papers have mistaken him for a Reuss-Greiz, a branch of this multipartite family that ended legally in 1918 when its last head abdicated.) As with the vast majority of German nobles, even the word “aristocratic” is pushing it.
What has been keeping former East German state security, members of the far-right AfD party, monarchists without a monarch, fascists inside the German special forces, anti-vaccine activists, and believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory together?
One element is the unique politics of East Germany. The house of Reuss, in all eight of its parts, is Thuringian, and East German aristocrats felt betrayed after the reunification of Germany in 1990. They had hoped that reunification would mean a restoration of their status and their property, much of which was seized by East Germany’s communist government. That this did not happen radicalized many of them, just as East Germans more generally felt betrayed by the reunification.
But the East German radical fringe has also been shifting as it incorporates concepts from the global far right. In a rapid move away from 70 years of East German history, AfD adopted an anti-vaccine stance in late 2021 under the influence of the Querdenker movement and far-right groups in the United States. The worldwide far right may claim that it is for those left behind by globalism, that it is anti-United States, that it is anti-European Union, but right-wing extremists also “imagine themselves as participants in a global struggle against a global enemy”.
And yet the Reichsbürger movement remains intensely German. Linda Schlegel, writing for European Eye on Radicalization, describes the movement’s fixation on the fin de siècle German Empire as a form of displacement: “It is based on the wish to display patriotism overtly”, which many Germans still feel is taboo. Patriotism for the 19th century is safe, since National Socialism remains harmlessly in the future, as long as you ignore what Manfred Roeder believed. In this interpretation, Reichsbürger are yet another expression of the German attempt to come to grips with the historical trauma not only of having suffered evil, which can be expressed, but of having done it—which cannot.
In this context, the Dec. 7 conspirators’ beliefs as expressed in the official government statement made on their arrest are fascinating.
Like their QAnon cousins, this group believes that Germany is currently governed by members of a so-called deep state, which is their responsibility to fight against as part of a network of American-inflected domestic defense cells—in German, they were described with the same word that is used to translate “Homeland Security”.
But in another tortuous circle in Germany’s agonizing attempt to put its past finally behind it, this group also believes that the deep state is opposed by the “Alliance”, “a technically superior secret society of governments, intelligence services and militaries of different states, including the Russian Federation and the United States of America”. The intervention of this Alliance is imminent, since it is already in Germany.
This conspiratorial group therefore has awaited liberation by the United States and Russia, which it believes is their responsibility to aid. The group was supposed to form “a (military) transitional government” that “should negotiate the new state order in Germany with the victorious Allied powers of World War II”. In addition to having a Russian lover, Heinrich XIII had already made contact with a Russian individual for this purpose. That is to say, this little group has been roleplaying the formation of a nondemocratic German social order, to capitulate at its head.
Is this not Freud’s return of the repressed? These people sought to destroy the German constitutional democratic order in the name of an ideology developed originally by former Nazis, but also to negotiate a surrender agreement once again with the United States and Russia—and this time get it right. Even German visions of victory turn into compulsive repetitions of defeat.
Lucian Staiano-Daniels is a scholar of 17th century military history, who was most recently a Dan David Prize Fellow at Tel Aviv University. He is finishing a book on the historical social anthropology of early seventeenth century common soldiers. His most recent academic article was Masters in the Things of War: Rethinking Military Justice during the Thirty Years War.