Democracy is at its most fragile during periods of economic crisis
Was Germany on the brink of experiencing its own January 6th moment today? German authorities arrested 25 individuals suspected of being a part of the “Reichsbürger” (Citizens of the Reich). Their aim? To storm the Berlin parliament and establish a new government around Prinz Heinrich XIII, a 71-year-old member of a former aristocratic German family, House Reuß.
The Reichsbürger is a far-Right fringe movement with an estimated 21,000 members across Germany and Austria. Among the wannabe revolutionaries are a former member of the Bundestag for the Right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany), a judge, and an ex-soldier of the KSK, the elite unit of the German army. Despite the relatively small size of this group, the people arrested have skills in the use of firearms and would have had access to the layout of the parliament. This meant that they could have wrought severe havoc and potential loss of life in their coup attempt.
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The ideology of the Reichsbürger is a wild amalgamation of conspiracy theories paired with a general rejection of the German state, as well as the belief that the “German Reich” never ceased existing and should be re-established with a revival of the monarchy and within the borders of 1919 or 1937. One of many splinter groups had similar plans in Austria, leading to arrests and prison sentences of 14 years in 2019. What all these groups share is the idea that both Germany and Austria are governed by a “deep state” acting against the interests of the people, a theory that has been gaining traction since the pandemic.
While one should not take such incidents lightly, the actual chances of a successful coup would have been very slim. None of the major institutions in Germany were successfully infiltrated, so the worst possible outcome would likely have been a hostage situation in the Bundestag. Neither the army, police nor those who are in charge of critical infrastructure are bound to have sworn allegiance to a 71-year-old self-declared monarch. Indeed, not even Heinrich’s family support him — he was disowned and labelled a “confused old man.”
It is, however, also a warning shot to the German political class to get their act together. Over 60% of Germans are dissatisfied with the current coalition government, and the city of Berlin has to re-run federal and local elections from September 2021 because on election day such chaos ensued – from missing ballots to unorganised voting places – that a court voided the results and ordered new elections.
German history is full of failed coup attempts, whether it be the Kapp Putsch of 1920 or Adolf Hitler’s first attempt in the failed Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923. The putschists were also widely mocked at the time, but the economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s paved the way for many of these fringe personalities to take over the government — mostly without a coup or other illegal methods.
The biggest threat to German democracy is not the strength of these radical movements, but the weakness of a government that more and more people feel no longer has their interests at heart. A revolution in the country might seem a far-fetched idea at the moment, but things can change quickly, as they did in the past.