Germany’s Far Right Gets Their Day in Court

by May 2024
Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss and his lawyers during the trial in Frankfurt, May 21, 2024. Photo credit: Boris Roessler/Pool via REUTERS.

When he was arrested by German federal police in December 2022, the 72-year-old tweed-jacketed Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss may have looked like a harmless old aristocrat. But on May 21, he went on trial in Frankfurt for plotting a coup d’état to topple the German government on what he called “Day X.” In all, three trials are taking place of several hundred members of a far-right grouping called Reichsbürger, or citizens of the Reich, who deny the legitimacy of the Federal Government of Germany (they claim it is simply a puppet state created by the wartime allies after World War II) and pledge their loyalty to the borders that existed during the Third Reich in 1937. 

Reuss headed the “military wing” of the coup plotters who apparently intended to storm the Bundestag, or federal parliament, in Berlin to establish a new regime with him as its head.

These plans might appear to have more in common with opéra bouffe than a serious plot against democracy. But Germany’s past history had to weigh heavily upon the chiefs of the intelligence services who came down hard on Reuss and his associates. 

Germany’s first real democracy, the Weimar Republic, experienced several coup attempts. The first one arrived in March 1920, when the East Prussian right-wing politician Wolfgang Kapp led a putsch attempt in Berlin to topple the nascent German experiment in democracy, which emerged following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918 and Germany’s defeat in World War I. Together with General Erich Ludendorff, Kapp established a government that quickly collapsed in the face of a general strike. The Kapp putsch may have failed, but it showed the depth of antipathy toward Weimar among monarchists and the Reichswehr, or Germany army.

The Kapp putsch was a warmup for Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923. Once more the barrel-chested Ludendorff was part of the action, marching alongside Hitler in Munich. The putsch attempt failed after Bavarian police fired at Hitler and his followers. A wounded Hitler almost committed suicide, then went on trial and was sentenced to prison in Landsberg where he dictated Mein Kampf to his disciple Rudolf Hess. Once again, the putsch testified to the fragility of Weimar–a Bavarian justice system permeated with sympathy for the far right failed to expel Hitler from Bavaria (he was an Austrian citizen) and commuted his sentence after nine months. Hitler himself drew the conclusion that he could only come to power legally rather than through violence. In January 1933, in what amounted to a conspiracy by conservative elites who were convinced that they could manipulate Hitler, he was appointed chancellor by the aging president of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg. It was a catastrophic misjudgment. Within months Hitler established an absolute dictatorship that led Germany into an abyss.

Now, Prince Reuss has captured the political spotlight with his alleged attempt to stage a right-wing takeover. Prosecutors are accusing him of belonging to a “terrorist organization” and amassing a sizable arsenal of weapons, including almost 400 guns and 148,000 rounds of ammunition, some of which was concealed in the basement of Prince Reuss’ Waidmannsheil hunting lodge–a neo-Gothic castle located in the small town of Bad Lobenstein. Convinced that Germany is being run by a nefarious deep state, he and his followers seem to have believed that the death of Queen Elizabeth in September 2022 was a secret signal for them to begin active preparations for a coup attempt. 

Photo credit: Boris Roessler/dpa via Reuters Connect.

Just how dangerous was this motley crew of conspiracy theorists? Malte Lehming, a columnist at the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel observes, “there never was the danger of a violent overthrow from the group around Prince Reuss.” The trials serve to reassure Germans, as Lehming puts it, that “they remain on guard against extremist efforts from the right. The old truth remains: the longer Hitler is dead, the more he’s battled against.”

But the trials may also expose the inner workings of right-wing networks operating in Germany. Another defendant is Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a former judge and member of parliament for the far-right Alternative for Germany party. The party has sought to advance far-right themes into the political mainstream about hot-button issues such as immigration. The revelation that the party held a meeting in Potsdam, where it discussed a plan presented by the Austrian extremist Martin Sellner for deporting millions of asylum seekers and citizens, led directly to mass protests against it.

Alternative for Germany had been drawing strong poll numbers— it is in second place, with 18.3 percent in a recent poll for the upcoming elections in early June to the European parliament, behind the Christian Democrats—but has suffered some blows recently. On top of stories about its being infiltrated by Chinese and Russian agents comes the statement of its leading candidate for the European Union election, Maximilian Krah, to an Italian newspaper that membership in the SS did not mean that an individual was “automatically a criminal.” Krah has now been banned by the party from campaigning. What’s more, Marine Le Pen’s far-right French party, National Rally, stated on May 21 that it would refuse to cooperate with the Alternative for Germany in the European Parliament.

The political right is on the upswing in much of Europe. But in Germany it may have peaked. As the trials of the Reichsbürger progress in Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich, they may well provide a salutary warning. There is room for optimism. The right is not being treated with kid gloves and is starting to fracture under the exposure of its malign activities. Unlike Weimar, the Federal Republic is moving firmly to protect German democracy from its domestic saboteurs.

Jacob Heilbrunn
Jacob Heilbrunn is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, editor of The National Interest and editor-at-large of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. His book, America Last: The Right's Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators, was published in 2024.
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