On 7 December 2022, German police arrested 52 people on suspicion of plotting a coup. Among them are those associated with the Reichsbürger (Citizens of the Reich) movement. Others are apparently opponents of the state’s strict anti-Covid 19 measures. What binds them is their rejection of the German democratic state. The Reichsbürger movement is a loosely organised network of Far-Right extremists and conspiracy theorists. Its members refuse to accept that the German Reich ended in 1945 and therefore deny the legitimacy of the post-WW2 Federal Republic of Germany and its constitution. They believe the country is an ‘administrative structure’ of the allied Western powers – the US, the UK and France.
Among those who were arrested is the alleged ringleader, a 71-year-old aristocrat, Heinrich XIII, Prince of Reuß; Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a former Bundestag MP for the Far-Right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD); and Rüdiger von Pescatore, a 69-year-old retired army officer. According to the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) – Germany’s domestic intelligence services – others included “active and former members of the armed forces [Bundeswehrangehörige] and police officers [Polizeibedienstete]”.
The BfV’s press release stated that the group planned to overthrow the German democratic state through military means and had tried to recruit members of the police. Connections with the AfD – which has seats in the Federal Parliament and state parliaments – and military, legal and law enforcement institutions, as well as the possession of weapons, appeared to make this movement a threat for Germany to take seriously. Although these currents were never likely to mount a successful coup, the prospect of violence and the loss of innocent lives was potentially significant.
Whilst many of the grievances articulated and individuals arrested appear specific to Germany, Reichsbürger has some parallels in other countries. Militia groups in the US have long developed their own interpretations of the American constitution, most notably when the Posse Comitatus argued legal authority rested with the local sheriff, not with state or federal law enforcement agencies. In the UK, a small number of sovereigntists have sought to reject legislation that they believe does not sit within section 61 of the Magna Carta, thus allowing them to ignore ‘unjust laws’. In 2011, activists attempted to arrest a judge in Birkenhead at a bankruptcy hearing. More recently, such arguments fuelled defiance of COVID legislation, whether by individuals or businesses.
Whilst in the UK such positions may be seen as part of a broader conspiracist milieu, when established over time or by weight of numbers, the rejection of established legal and constitutional structures can become a much more serious matter. In Ireland, for example, some Irish Republicans have historically taken the view – rooted in their rejection of the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty – that the governments of both Ireland and Northern Ireland are illegitimate. This position justified abstentionism from Stormont and the Dáil for decades, with the IRA’s Army Council deemed the only legitimate government of Ireland. It is a view still held by dissident Republicans, who continue to use violence in order to achieve their political aims – last November one such group left a bomb outside a police station in Londonderry. Two days previously, the New IRA tried to kill two officers in Strabane, Co Tyrone.
The Far-Right: a broader movement
The perceived grievances of Reichsbürger are rooted in Germany’s unique history of Nazism and defeat in WW2. It has nationalist aspirations for a restoration of the German Empire. But this does not typify the Far-Right. For some of its critics – which even include neo-Nazis – Reichsbürger is a crew of clowns. Other Far-Right groups in Germany and across Europe have transnational aspirations, seeking not to revive old maps but to create a new one with the creation of white ‘ethno-homelands’. These latter Far-Right groups are becoming increasingly networked across the continent, sharing perspectives, values, and grievance-based narratives such as the ‘Great Replacement’. This networking is taking place both virtually and physically.
The German government’s high-profile action against the Reichsbürger thus does not represent a bold new initiative to tackle the Far-Right. As analysis from Princeton argues, Reichsbürger’s target was the German government itself, so its robust response was unsurprising. Will the German government now take further steps to tackle other, even more serious groups who do far more to incite hatred and division?
It is vital that language about terrorist threats be in line with the facts. Thus on 19 December, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, stated: “it has been demonstrated that the biggest threat of terrorism today, in Western countries, come from the extreme right, neo‑Nazism and white supremacy … [W]hat has happened in Germany is just one of the examples of this threat to … democratic societies around the world”. This message was relayed across the world without question.
Yet, Guterres’s statement was not supported by the most recent EU Terrorism Situation & Trend Report (TE-SAT), published in June 2022. The report noted that for 2021:
Most reported terrorist attacks were categorised as jihadist terrorism (11), of which three were completed attacks carried out in France, Spain and Germany, and eight were foiled respectively in France (4), Sweden (1), Hungary (1), Denmark (1) and Germany (1) …
There continues to be low numbers of completed, foiled and failed right-wing terrorist attacks. … In 2021, Member States did not report any completed right-wing attacks, while two attacks were thwarted in Sweden and Austria, and one attack failed in Belgium.
The Reichsbürger raids – and the discrepancy between the UN Secretary General’s words and the facts regarding Far-Right terrorism in the EU – serve as a reminder for the British government to better comprehend its own Far-Right problem and get its facts right. According to leaked comments published in The Guardian last year, the independent review of Prevent by William Shawcross will criticise what it sees as “individuals targeted for expressing mainstream rightwing views because the definition of neo-nazism has expanded too widely, while the focus on Islamist extremism has been too narrow.”
There is a need for clarity, public transparency and consistency in how Far-Right extremism is understood and defined across government departments. Current Prevent duty training defines “extreme right-wing ideology” as “the active or vocal support of ideologies that advocate discrimination or violence against minority groups” and divides it into cultural nationalism, white/(ethno-) nationalism, and white supremacism. But the soon-to-be-updated 2011 Prevent strategy implies that all “extreme right-wing groups” have a “white supremacist ideology [that] advocates the use of violence to address perceived social injustice” (5.36, p.20).
The risk of too fuzzy a definition may be exemplified by a Home-Office-funded research paper published by the Commission for Countering Extremism in 2019. It stated that the Far-Right is a “container term for a diverse set of views ranging from revolutionary neo-Nazism to radical right-wing populism that seeks to work (mostly) within established democratic systems”. Is this approach adopted by UK government bodies? If so, it is so broad as to be unhelpful.
Reichsbürger teaches us that the Far-Right – even one led by an aristocrat harping back to the past – seeks to overthrow the democratic state with the use of violence if necessary. Other Far-Right groups are even more radical. Of course, there is a spectrum of the Far-Right, but lumping together movements prepared to use violence to overthrow the democratic order with populists that seek political change within the democratic state hinders our understanding of the motives, modus operandi, and allure of the Far-Right.
It would also appear to be the case that the British Far-Right appears considerably weaker than its counterparts in countries such as the United States or Germany. (Of course, some of those who appear to have been the focus of attention by Prevent until now, could not be remotely considered Far-Right).
Islamist extremism still poses the most significant terrorist threat to the UK, as stated by the head of MI5, Ken McCallum in November 2022. But the threat from the Far-Right is still a serious and growing concern, accounting for a quarter of MI5’s caseload. Although McCallum observes “Islamist Terrorism remains the larger problem – about three quarters of our terrorist caseload”, the number of Far-Right-related referrals to the UK’s counter-radicalisation programme, Prevent, has increased significantly in recent years. According to the Home Office, “In the year ending March 2021, for the first time since comparable data are available (year ending March 2016), there were more Extreme-Right Wing referrals [25%] than Islamist referrals [22%].” But by what definition of the Far-Right are these referrals operating? And do Far-Right and Islamist referrals present equally credible threats of violence?