December 8, 2022
IntelBrief: Arrests in Germany Target Far-Right and Anti-Government Extremists
German special forces officers and police conducted sweeping raids throughout the country earlier this week, arresting more than two dozen individuals suspected of supporting a domestic terrorist organization that planned to overthrow the government. In total, approximately 3,000 security forces conducted more than 130 raids in eleven of Germany’s sixteen states, with officers from the Spezialeinsatzkommando (SEK, Special Task Force) and GSG 9 der Bundespolizei (a tactical unit of the German Federal Police).
An estimated 50 men and women are said to have been a part of the alleged plot to overthrow the German republic and replace it with a new state modelled on the Germany of 1871. United around their support for “Prince Heinrich XIII,” a minor aristocrat known for controversial and conspiracy-fueled views, the plotters had allegedly planned established a shadow government to be installed upon the coup d'état’s success. The group also allegedly had plans for the establishment of a military arm, which officials believe was made up of active and former members of the military, to eliminate democratic bodies at the local level. Among those arrested was a member of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, a far-right populist party that has surged in prominence since its 2013 founding and known for its anti-immigrant views. The individual has been identified in news reports as Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, who has served as a member of the Bundestag and now works as a judge at the Berlin district court. It is suspected she was to be lined up as the new justice minister in the shadow government. There was also a transnational element to the raids, with arrests in Italy and Austria, as well as a Russian citizen who attempted to make contact with the Russian government on behalf of some in the broader network.
The arrests targeted members of the Reichsbürger (Citizens of the Reich) network, which is akin to the sovereign citizen movement in the United States – a loosely organized collection of groups and individuals that believe they are not under the jurisdiction of the federal government and consider themselves exempt from U.S. law. The so-called “Citizens of the Reich,” a disparate set of small groups and individuals, reject the modern German state and refuse to pay taxes. The Reichsbürger members have close connections to far-right extremism in Germany and have cross-pollinated with Qanon conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and individuals opposed to COVID-19 lockdown measures. Many Reichsbürger members protested alongside these groups during mass street demonstrations against a vaccine mandate earlier this year, and some were present when protestors stormed the Reichstag – the German parliament – in August 2020. Although the movement has existed for some time, the German network coalesced during the pandemic as disinformation narratives proliferated online. Some of the ideology also overlaps with elements of the so-called ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, wherein Germany is controlled by corporations and Jewish elites are scheming to replace native Germans with migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
The suspected individuals in the plot labeled the modern German government the ‘Deep State,’ the same term used by far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists in the United States, which has become a net exporter of anti-government ideology. Following the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection, the symbolism of storming the U.S. seat of government resonated with extremists on a global scale. The plot demonstrates how QAnon has become a worldwide phenomenon, and in countries where it resonates, the conspiracy has adapted to local contexts and circumstances. In South Africa, for example, the conspiracy has gained numerous followers and adapted old apartheid mythologies, promulgating that the Black-majority government is conspiring against white South Africans and the country as a whole. Anti-government ideology has proven to be a receptacle for conspiracies and disinformation — COVID-19-related conspiracies and racial and ethnic-related tropes like ‘Great Replacement’ theory, serve as accelerants that contribute to broader instability and violence.
The arrests in Germany also shed light on the growing anti-democratic movement in the country, exemplified when protesters motivated by COVID-19 skepticism, conspiracies, and anti-government sentiment stormed the Reichstag. Although they were quickly repelled, the symbolism was not lost on those who understand the history of anti-democratic movements. There are legitimate concerns that what may start as anti-democratic or anti-government behavior can evolve and blend with concepts such as accelerationism to increase the likelihood of plots targeting politicians, a prospect that has impacted Germany directly. In June 2019, German pro-refugee politician Walter Lubcke was assassinated by a neo-Nazi, who prosecutors argued was motivated by political extremism, racism, and xenophobia.
Germany has been wracked by far-right extremist violence over the past several years. During a 2016 police raid, a Reichsbürger member opened fire on police, killing one and injuring four. In October 2019, a far-right terrorist attacked a synagogue in Halle, killing two and injuring several others. In 2020, a man killed nine people at two shisha bars in the city of Hanau; the suspect had posted xenophobic conspiracy theories online and was believed to have acted out of “right-wing extremist, racist motives.” In April 2022, there was a disrupted plot where far-right extremists were planning to kidnap German health minister Karl Lauerbach. As far-right conspiracy narratives continue to adapt and resonate with often disaffected individuals – the Reichbürger movement is estimated to have as many as 21,000 adherents – the potential for radicalization and movement toward violence remains a pressing threat.