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German ‘Reichsbuerger’ coup plotters go on trial: Is democracy at stake?

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A high-profile trial of members of a far-right group accused of plotting a coup to overthrow the German government is set to begin in Frankfurt on May 21, amid concerns over growing “extremism” ahead of European and national elections.

The leaders of the so-called “Reichsbuerger” movement are expected to take the stand on Tuesday for planning in 2022 to restore the pre-World War I German empire and “forcibly eliminate the existing state order”.

The alleged plot – the most high-profile recent case of far-right violence – has raised concerns over rocketing support for radical ideologies.

While experts say the threat of a coup in Germany remains negligible, the trial takes place at a time when the German far-right is polling high for the European elections in June and national elections in 2025, which could give it a new launchpad to expand its influence.

Who are the members of the “Reichsbuerger” movement?

The Reichsbuerger (“Citizens of the Reich”) movement is largely seen as an eclectic mix of monarchy supporters and conspiracy theorists with a few thousand followers. German authorities say, however, that the movement has access to a large arsenal of weapons and is prepared to kill to take over the parliament building in Berlin.

A former member of parliament for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party – which is currently projected to come second in next year’s federal election – is also suspected of having been among its inner circle.

The movement is centred around the belief that the pre-World War I German Reich, or empire, has been usurped by modern political structures. As a result, it does not recognise the Federal Republic of Germany, its laws or its institutions, and instead claims the 1937 borders of the former German empire.

Often compared with the QAnon movement, the Reichsbuerger group espouses a mix of conspiracy theories, including the belief that the Federal Republic is not a state but a private company, and that Germany is still under occupation by the Allies. A secret international alliance must therefore take upon itself the task of setting it free from the “deep state”.

German authorities believe the Reichsbuerger movement to be led by Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss, a German businessman and former aristocrat who has peddled anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Coup plotters aimed to install Reuss as the head of state after their takeover.

Suspected members include the former AfD parliamentarian Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, who was to be appointed minister of justice, and a former special forces soldier, identified as Andreas M, who is accused of using his access to scout out army barracks.

How is the trial set up?

The proceedings are split among three courts in three cities. In all, 26 people are accused of belonging to the hardline network.

As part of the first set of proceedings to open in the sprawling court case, nine men appeared before a court in Stuttgart on April 29 for allegedly being part of the “military arm” of the group.

The second of the three cases is the most eagerly anticipated due to the defendant’s prominent role in the foiled coup. Reuss is set to appear before the court in Frankfurt on Tuesday, alongside other suspected senior members.

Seven men and two women – Reuss’s Russian girlfriend and former AfD parliamentarian Malsack-Winkemann – are on trial in these proceedings, which are expected to continue at least until January 2025.

A third trial in Munich will deal with eight more defendants accused of serving as the plot’s leadership council, which would have been tasked with forming a cabinet after the coup.

The suspected coup plotters face sentences of between one and 10 years if convicted. One man, identified as Markus L, could be sentenced to life imprisonment for shooting at police officers during his arrest.

Is Germany at risk of a new coup attempt?

German police arrested most of the group in raids across Germany in December 2022, before they could deploy what federal prosecutors said was a “massive arsenal of weapons”.

“The risk of a new coup in Germany is fairly low,” Samuel Clowes Huneke, a historian of modern Europe at George Mason University, told Al Jazeera. “Coup attempts of this nature are far less dangerous than attempts by the far-right to work through the democratic system.”

European Parliament elections next month are projected to see a significant shift to the right in many countries, with populist radical-right parties possibly forming a coalition that may have significant consequences for European policies.

In Germany, the far-right AfD is projected to become the second-largest party in a federal election in October 2025. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of former Chancellor Angela Merkel is slated to be the largest party.

The AfD’s popularity has remained steady despite revelations that senior party members attended a “secret” meeting in November where mass deportations of citizens of foreign origin were allegedly discussed. Earlier this month, a German court found sufficient evidence to justify the classification of the party as “extremist” and a threat to democracy.

Huneke underlined that while the AfD and Reichsbuerger movement were two distinct realities – with the former not sharing the latter’s monarchic nostalgia and the bulk of its conspiracy theories – their xenophobic ideology overlapped in the desire to keep Germany for Germans and to rethink how the former Nazi country memorialises the Holocaust.

The normalisation of the far-right in national settings across Europe also gives rise to fears of inclusion of more extreme groups, including a “long-simmering pan-European movement to try to restore monarchies to power”, Huneke said.

Therefore elections, rather than armed coups, appear to be the greater risk for modern-day democracies, the historian said. “Authoritarians in the 21st century have realised that it’s not very popular to run against democracy in the way the fascists in the 1920s and 1930s did,” Huneke said.

He cited Hungary and Russia as examples. “What we could see over time is a ‘managed democracy’, which has all the trappings of democracy but a control of key institutions that allows the ruling party to continue to do well,” Huneke said.

“It’s a much more subtle way of erecting quasi-dictatorships that over time can become much more dictatorial.”

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