Populist Plot Pops Up Across The Pond In Germany

On December 7, 2022, about 3000 German authorities arrested 25 people across three countries for their involvement in a potential coup attempt according to Reuters. The people planning the coup were “inspired by the Reichsbuerger and Qanon” far-right ideologies. German intel estimates that 21,000 people belong to the Reichsbuerger movement, but that only five percent are extremists. Those arrested last week are believed to be involved in recruiting, training, and planning for a violent plot to put an ex-member of a former royal German family in power. 

According to Reuters, the Reichsbuerger movement is made up of people who “do not recognize modern-day Germany as a legitimate state,” and believe that proper Germany still belongs to the monarchy or the Nazi military. A New York Times article explains that the Reichsbuerger movement was not a significant concern, but in recent years Qanon conspiracies and more far-right ideology have fueled the Reichsbuerger’s growth. The Reichsbuerger movement employs propaganda parallel to “the mythology and language Qanon uses,” like anti-immigrant and anti-vax ideologies and discussions about the ‘deep state.’ One German politician from the AfD, a right-wing party, went so far as to use “‘WWG1WGA’ which stands for the Qanon motto, “where we go one, we go all,” on social media.

The arrests and increase in extremist activity come at a time when populism and right-wing ideology is increasing in popularity – particularly in the West. The “Freedom in the World 2017” report from Freedom House found that “populist and nationalist forces [made] significant gains in democratic states” in 2016 decreasing political rights, civil liberties, or both, in typically ‘free’ countries. In recent elections, far-right politicians have made a showing in countries like the U.S., France, Italy, and Sweden. CNN shares a quote from Alice Stollmeyer, Executive Director of Defend Democracy “conservative voters have a greater need for stability. When our society changes, conservatives are psychologically tuned to see this as a threat.” If true, it makes sense that populism is growing, especially over the last two years, as climate crises, violence, technological advancements, shifting international power dynamics, and health crises are on the rise. 

Differences in ideology are important for societal growth, but as extremism rises, human rights and safe societies are put at risk. Miro Dittrich, a Senior Researcher at CeMAS, states in a Reuters interview, “more and more we see violent threats coming out of these conspiracy ideologues.” He goes on to say that the foiled German plot “had roots in the military, in the police, and even in the justice system.” Similarly, German political scientist, Hajo Funke, said in a New York Times article, “It has always been believed that only a small percentage of [Reichsbuerger members] are right-wing extremist; that was always wrong, and we are seeing now the mistake in downplaying this danger.” Pia Lamberty, co-chief of CeMAS, also said in a Reuters article, “What really stands out here is that we are talking about people with high positions in society…who have certain networks and accesses.” 

As populism becomes embedded in democratic systems, the big question is how can extremist ideology and actions be prevented. Sheri Berman, a political scientist at Bernard College, argues the avenue to do this is by strengthening “democratic norms and institutions.” In an article for Foreign Affairs, Berman analyzes the rise and fall of populism throughout Europe from WWII to now. She notes that the “steady moderation of Europe’s postwar communist parties” was due to the moderate governments’ abilities to create “unprecedented economic growth built on strong welfare states,” which killed “popular support for radicalism.” More recently, Berman acknowledges how Marine Le Pen changed National Front’s rhetoric and image to be more moderate and ultimately win “41 percent of the vote against incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron in April 2022.” The journey from extremism can be difficult and slow as it relies on democratic institutions being “effective and responsive.” But strong commitments to democracy and centralized government can force extremists to dial it back in order to have a seat at the political table.