A Foiled Coup Attempt in Germany and the Danger of Conspiracy Theories
On Dec. 7, news broke that the German police had uncovered and foiled an alleged coup attempt aimed at storming the German Bundestag and toppling the government. In a nationwide raid, 3,000 police officers searched more than 130 homes throughout Germany and made 25 arrests. At the heart of the plot was a somewhat ideologically diverse network of the hard right; Reichsbürger, a loose movement of “citizens of the Reich” who reject the legitimacy of the post-1945 German government; former members of the German special forces; and proponents of various conspiracy theories, including QAnon. Prominent among the arrested were a member of German nobility, Prince Heinrich XIII, a former parliamentarian and sitting judge from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the former commander of a special forces unit in the Bundeswehr.
The coup was allegedly quite far along when the police intervened. And it consisted not only of an armed, paramilitary wing but also a political wing—a completely new development for watchers of German extremism. A shadow government with ministers and a head of state, the prince himself, had already been created, and the plotters were recruiting openly among current and former members of the security services. According to investigators, Prince Heinrich XIII had also sought to gain support among other German-speaking nobility and had traveled to Austria and Switzerland to seek financial donations. A German official called this mixture of nobility, military, and extremists “the most dangerous form of the Reichsbürger movement that we could ever imagine.” Though the chances that the coup would have ever succeeded are low, it seems certain that people would have died because of it.
But the alleged coup attempt being detected does not mean that the danger to German democracy is over. Far from it. For one, this is the second alleged act of right-wing terrorism to be uncovered this year; in April, a separate alleged plot to abduct German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach and commit bombings throughout Germany was uncovered. But more worryingly, the conspiratorial belief system that united the Dec. 7 plotters has gained a foothold in Germany throughout the past years of crises, starting with Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea through the coronavirus pandemic to today.
What does this belief system incorporate? At the outset, it is worth acknowledging that investigations into the alleged coup are still ongoing, but what has already been reported provides important initial insights into the role that the conspiracy theories played in motivating the alleged terrorist network. For one, the alleged coup plotters were united by the belief in a global conspiracy that sees dark forces behind all global and domestic events and so strongly desired to overthrow the existing system of governance that they were able to paper over ideological differences in pursuit of a common goal. Explicit anti-Semitism plays a role in this belief system: In a speech in 2019, Prince Heinrich XIII blamed the Rothschild family for financing all wars and the revolutions that toppled monarchies. Coronavirus conspiracies fit easily into this toxic mixture, too: The alleged plotters were allegedly also looking for seers who would be able to determine whether people had received “chip implants” and are thus “controlled” by Bill Gates and the pharmaceutical industry.
The coronavirus appears to have played an important role for the alleged plotters specifically and for the spread of conspiracy theories in Germany in general. Retired Col. Maximilian Eder, one of the people implicated in the network, had so prominently appeared at anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests that the Bundeswehr initiated disciplinary proceedings against him. In interviews conducted in Germany for a forthcoming paper to be published by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a parliamentary adviser in Baden-Württemberg who had studied the protests at length told me that because of the coronavirus protest movement, more people were closer to these conspiracy theories than before.
If the protests and the coronavirus were then a locus for the spread of these noxious conspiracy theories, significant numbers of Germans appear to have been exposed. In polling released in February 2022, 4.3 percent of Germans admitted to attending a coronavirus protest—more than 3.5 million people in a country of 83 million. A further 11.1 percent said they would be either “definitively” or “rather” ready to attend one, and another 7.1 percent admitted to playing with the idea. German domestic intelligence from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia estimated in January that between 50,000 and 100,000 people in their state alone were engaged in the online networks and chatrooms that formed the backbone of the protests.
And the protests were also a boon for the Reichsbürger movement, allowing it to reach a new high point. Reichsbürger appear to have been deeply enmeshed within a key organization behind the protests, Querdenken 711. Prominent figures from Querdenken 711 met with Peter Fitzek, a Reichsbürger who refers to himself as “his royal highness Peter the First,” in November 2020 to discuss “new possibilities and other strategies.” An alleged Reichsbürger, Stephan Bergmann, served as the press speaker of Querdenken 711. Another, Frank Schreibmüller, claimed to have taught the movement how to use Telegram, the platform that would serve as the protests’ digital backbone.
Does all of this mean that the people who attended these protests are now far-right extremists? No, absolutely not. Today, the AfD polls at roughly the same level nationwide, 10-14 percent, as it did in the 2021 federal election, 10.3 percent, and in the 2017 federal election, 12.6 percent. The Verfassungsschutz—Germany’s domestic intelligence service—estimates that between 2020 and 2021 the number of Reichsbürger increased only from approximately 20,000 to 21,000. And indeed, of those 21,000, only around 1,150 are deemed to be right-wing extremists.
But the coronavirus protests served as a means by which the deadly conspiracy theories that also animated the alleged plot spread, a place where largely average, middle-class Germans and hardened extremists and evangelists of conspiracy theories came into contact. Combined with their online fora, the protests were a mechanism through which normal Germans could radicalize into conspiratorial “freedom fighters” against an alleged dictatorial regime. Though these most radicalized individuals may not fit neatly into the right-wing extremism box, neither do they count as liberal democrats anymore. And as extremism expert Miro Dittrich put it, this mindset doesn’t just go away if the people stop going to protests.
But the spread of these conspiracy theories is a danger not only for the stability of Germany’s democracy but also for its national security. First, German society has become polarized around issues to do with the pandemic. In polling released in March 2022 by More in Common, 62 percent of Germans said that the divide over coronavirus vaccination, between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, was the biggest dividing line in German society, even greater than the divide between rich and poor. Further, in polling released in July, only 17 percent of Germans said that there was a broad consensus on many issues in Germany, and 49 percent said that differences on key issues were often irreconcilable. Germans’ faith in their government seems to have dropped as well—polling from September showed that only 29 percent of Germans have faith in the capability of their government.
Polarization and the splintering of society that it represents are key preconditions for the success of foreign influence operations, like those employed by Russia. Thus, it is no surprise that the groups that have been warped by conspiracy theories spread by the coronavirus protest movement have also proved susceptible to Russian propaganda.
An analysis conducted by the Süddeutsche Zeitung shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine revealed a near-instantaneous switch within groups that had previously focused on agitating against lockdowns and vaccinations to the war in Ukraine. It appears likely that some Russian efforts could have existed to steer these groups toward an anti-Ukraine posture: A conspiracy theory about Ukrainian biolabs that landed in German coronavirus protest channels shortly after the invasion can be traced back to a Russian Telegram channel where it appeared on Feb. 21. But even if no such efforts existed, the protest groups already turned to Russian propaganda as a source of information. Even before the February invasion, RT DE—the German-language wing of Russian propaganda outlet RT—had already become an “organic component” of the coronavirus protest scene in Germany.
The switch from coronavirus conspiracies to Russian propaganda seen in the coronavirus protest groups shows up through polling numbers as well. Twin polls released by the Center for Monitoring, Analysis, and Strategy in May and November reveal two disturbing facts. First, 56 percent of unvaccinated Germans and 56 percent of Germans who said that they were very ready to protest Germany’s approach to the coronavirus also believed Russian-aligned conspiracy theories about the war in Ukraine. And second, the number of people who believe these narratives has grown between May and November. For example, while only 12 percent of Germans fully and 20 percent partially believed the fiction that Vladimir Putin was acting against an alleged global elite in May, these proportions had increased to 18 percent and 26 percent, respectively, by November.
Germany is Europe’s largest economy, and breaking its support for Ukraine has been at the heart of Russia’s pressure campaign against Europe. What sort of benefit might the switch by these groups to a focus on Ukraine afford Putin?
Throughout the summer, German newspapers often pushed out headlines with warnings about a “hot” fall or winter as far-right and conspiratorial groups geared up to exploit the economic pain caused by the war and pressure the German government to weaken its support for Ukraine. And it appears that this message has been heard. In July, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock expressed her concern that “people’s revolts” could undermine German support for Ukraine. Germany’s billions of euros in energy subsidies might then be viewed also from the perspective of heading off this challenge. Despite best efforts by the various elements of this conspiratorial, illiberal scene, this has not come to pass. And in recent days at a closed-door event, a senior German official expressed confidence about Germany’s ability to weather the challenges posed by maintaining social cohesion and energy security.
So, how do an alleged coup attempt, coronavirus protests, and Russian propaganda efforts fit together? For one, these various forces—be they the German far right, the conspiracy theorists propagating myths about the coronavirus, or indeed the Russian security services—are united by their absolute opposition toward the German government. Thus, that Prince Heinrich XIII also made a visit to the Russian consulate in Leipzig on the Russian national holiday is rather unsurprising, even if the exact topics discussed and how he was received remain unknown.
But ultimately, the failed coup, absurd though it may appear, is just the most extreme end of a phenomenon that has been simmering at times below the surface and at times in plain view for the past several years: a slow but steady fraying of German society through a series of crises. Indeed, many of the conspiratorial and far-right actors that appeared at the coronavirus protests were known figures, with some having also appeared alongside the xenophobic PEGIDA—“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamification of the Occident”—protests that accompanied the 2015-2016 refugee crisis or the anti-U.S., anti-NATO peace marches that began after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
With each crisis, a different segment of the population might be activated, but each time a curious and diverse mixture of conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists appeared as well, also parroting a pro-Russian position. And each time a slew of noxious conspiracy theories and illiberal, extreme ideologies have spread, chipping away at different segments of the German population, warping their relationship with democracy and reality and rendering them seemingly all-too-willing to be exploited in a game of geopolitical chess.
The alleged coup revealed on Dec. 7 may have been foiled by the work of the German police and domestic intelligence. But the toxic ideas and beliefs that drove it and that continue to ensnare many Germans will continue to threaten German democracy and undermine its foreign policy.