The Failed Coup Plotters Yearning for the German Reich

Last week, German Special Forces and police arrested twenty-five people across the country for plotting what authorities have called a coup against the German state. The scheme, by turns sinister and farcical, called for executing or exiling current political leaders, and for sabotaging the electricity grid; many of the plotters were storing weapons. The group envisioned placing at the head of the country Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss, a descendant of one of the royal families of the former German Empire. Among those arrested was a member of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which has seen some modest political success during the past decade.

To talk about the plot, and how the German far right views the country’s past, I recently spoke by phone with Richard Evans, the Regius Professor Emeritus of history at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of many books on Germany, including a three-volume history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how imperial nostalgia manifests in modern Germany, how German monarchists view the Nazi era, and why—this recent plot notwithstanding—contemporary Germany has maintained a stronger immunity to right-wing extremism than many other Western countries.

What was your first thought when you heard about this plot?

I was quite surprised. Of course, I knew about the tiny right-wing group—the Reichsbürger, or Citizens of the Reich. It’s very difficult to take them seriously because their aims are so unrealistic. I suppose that they were organized enough to prepare a kind of coup attempt. I don’t think it had any chance of success whatsoever, but clearly they were prepared to use violence. And, in fact, there has been violence associated with these Reich citizens in the past couple of years. They have killed a policeman, for example. So, my thought was, well, how absurd, but also how horrible, really—that kind of violence in the service of fantasy is a dangerous thing.

What is this group harking back to?

The self-styled Reich citizens are a number of different groups with somewhat varying aims. But they have in common a belief that the present-day state of Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany, which was founded in the West in 1949 and then extended farther east with the collapse of Communism in 1989 and 1990, is illegitimate. Some of them believe that the Bismarckian Reich, created in 1871, is still the only legally legitimate all-German state, since it was illegally overthrown in a revolution at the end of the First World War. Some of them accept the Weimar Republic, which came into being through the revolution in 1918 and was destroyed by Hitler. But, as a consequence of all that, there are about twenty thousand members of the Reichsbürger movement, although it has half a dozen different and sometimes quarrelling subgroups.

Some of them refuse to pay taxes because they don’t believe the state is legitimate, and some of them actually print their own money, for example. They’ve even tried to issue their own driving licenses. Most of them are antisemitic. There are constant references to the role of the Rothschilds, for example, a classic antisemitic conspiracy theory. Many people haven’t noticed that they accept the Reich in its borders of, well, it varies, but the borders selected by Bismarck, the borders of 1871 and 1918, which includes quite a large chunk of northern Poland along the Baltic coast. They don’t accept the current borders, which are much truncated since the Second World War. So, these are the Reichsbürger. These are the self-styled Reich citizens.

Can you explain the importance of 1871 in German history, and what the period from 1871 to 1918 represents in the imperial mind?

Before 1871, Germany was not a united country. It was split up into thirty-nine separate states, varying from Prussia, which was a kingdom that covered most of north Germany, down to tiny little statelets, as it were, one of which was Reuss, whose hereditary prince, even though he didn’t have any power, is the leading figure in the Reichsbürger movement. So you had all these different states. And Bismarck, the nineteenth-century statesman, managed to unify Germany, but without Austria, by fighting three short, limited wars: one against Austria to chuck them out, one against Denmark over a part of north Germany, and one against France, which saw this new power arising on its flank and tried to stop it.

In 1871, with those three wars done, the German Reich, the German Empire, was founded. And that lasted up until 1918, when it was overthrown in revolution, after having lost the First World War, of course, just before. The First World War ended in a peace settlement—the Treaty of Versailles and associated treaties—which detached about thirteen per cent of this area and population from the German Empire and founded its successor state, the Weimar Republic, a genuine democracy, but one that was bogged down by failures of one sort and another, especially economic.

But what is the connection between Heinrich XIII, the so-called prince who tried to launch this coup, and the Kaiser, the head of the royal family that fell in 1918?

The German Reich was a federation of states of varying size, including Prussia. Three of them were city-republics; the rest of them were monarchies. And each of them had a hereditary prince or king. So the king of Prussia, a king of Bavaria, hereditary princes in an area of east-central Germany. And there were lots of kinds of principalities, including Reuss. The family that ruled this confederation of different states with a growing central power during the decades before the First World War was the Hohenzollern family. They had nothing to do with this at all.

One issue that may have prompted the prince of Reuss is the German unification in 1990, when East Germany was absorbed into West Germany with institutional continuity. The Federal Republic extended to the southeast, basically. And that opened up the whole issue of restitution of properties seized by the Soviet Union in its occupation of East Germany after the Second World War. Right now, the Hohenzollern family is trying to get back a lot of property that was nationalized, that was sequestered by the Soviet Union. And the prince of Reuss has also been trying to get back property, and he’s not really gotten anywhere.

How does the right wing in Germany today view the Weimar years?

Well, it’s kind of splintered. Only one part of the Reichsbürger movement accepts the Weimar Republic. Others don’t, including those who are behind the attempted coup. They really only accept the Bismarckian Reich, created in 1871. But the Weimar Republic’s technical name was, of course, the German Reich. I mean, it had a legal continuity in most ways with the Bismarckian Empire. The only thing is that the revolution of 1918 threw out all the princes, every single monarch, starting with the King of Prussia and the German Emperor. It went all the way down to the Reuss family and other families. There was a long debate in the Weimar Republic about whether their properties had to be sequestered or not. So, the Weimar Republic is seen by most of the Reichsbürger as illegitimate. In fact, in legal terms, of course, the institutions largely continued.

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