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Germany foiled a far-right coup attempt. It still has a right-wing problem.

The German government hasn’t taken its increasing right-wing extremism as seriously as left-wing extremism. That’s been true for decades, our research finds.

Last week, German police arrested dozens associated with the far-right Reichsbürger movement on suspicion of plotting a coup. The large-scale raids were a muscular response in a country that has been accused of being slow to root out right-wing extremism.

But that doesn’t solve Germany’s problem with that phenomenon, our new data on intelligence agencies and political parties reveals.

What is the Reichsbürger and what are their goals?

The Reichsbürger (“citizens of the Reich”) is a loosely organized group consisting of far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who do not accept that the German Reich ended in 1945 and therefore do not consider the Federal Republic of Germany legitimate.

The idea that a band of conspiracy theorists and far-right revisionists might overthrow the government and restore the German monarchy may seem preposterous. But although a successful coup was unlikely, the episode nevertheless reveals the threats that far-right extremists pose in Germany today.

Reichsbürger followers are heavily armed, with ties to the military and law enforcement. They are also linked to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, a party with seats in the federal parliament and in nearly all state parliaments. Given this, the group could have attacked the Bundestag, much as the U.S. Capitol was attacked on Jan. 6, 2021.

German state and federal intelligence agencies have paid attention to the Reichsbürger, as we’ve found in our research, which we’ll detail below. Between 2015 and 2019, occurrences of the term Reichsbürger has increased sevenfold in these agencies’ public reports.

How serious is the far-right threat, and what is Germany doing to counter it?

Does this attention mean Germany is committed to fighting right-wing extremism?

Germany does more to fight homegrown right-wing extremism than does the United States, researching and funding such efforts in intelligence agencies, law enforcement, schools and civic organizations. Still, this may say more about the tepid U.S. response than about Germany’s dedication.

To be sure, over the past two years, the German government enhanced measures to respond to right-wing extremism. These call for increased funding for anti-extremism programs in a wider range of government institutions and nonprofit organizations.

Critics see this as long overdue. In 2019, Germany recorded more than 15 times as many far-right attacks as it had in 1990 (21,290 vs 1,380), according to intelligence agency figures. And they continue to increase. These attacks are as varied as “propaganda crimes” — such as the display of swastikas and raising the Hitler salute — and physical assaults and murders motivated by racism, antisemitism and antagonism toward Muslims.

Source: Annual reports of the Bundesverfassungsschutz (German federal intelligence agency)
Figure: Jeyhun Alizade, Rafaela Dancygier and Jonathan Homola
Source: Annual reports of the Bundesverfassungsschutz (German federal intelligence agency)
Figure: Jeyhun Alizade, Rafaela Dancygier and Jonathan Homola

For decades, Germany focused on left-wing extremism

Why has Germany missed this increase? One reason is historical. In the postwar years, the German government did not remove former Nazis from its institutions, including from intelligence and law enforcement agencies. During the first decades of the Cold War, the government focused on the battle against communism and on high-profile attacks by left-wing militants such as the Baader-Meinhof group and the 2 June Movement. That focus on left-wing extremism lingered, even as far-right terrorist movements grew and became radicalized.

But in the 2000s, a number of far-right attacks revealed egregious intelligence failures, suggesting that Germany wasn’t doing enough to combat right-wing extremism. For instance, a murderous gang of three calling itself the “Nationalist Socialist Underground” assassinated nine immigrants and a police officer from 2000 to 2007.

Such attacks have increased in the past few years, including: a synagogue shooting in the eastern city of Halle; 11 people — mostly with immigrant roots — slain near Frankfurt; a pro-immigrant politician assassinated; and far-right extremists discovered operating within the military, the police force and other security services.

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Does Germany have a problem tackling far-right extremism?

A German saying, “The state is blind in the right eye,” suggests some doubt about whether Germany takes far-right extremism seriously. This criticism dates to the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler, but the German government and society have transformed massively since then. Is it still fair to say that politicians, intelligence agencies and the police systematically downplay right-wing extremism?

To find out, we analyzed thousands of intelligence reports, parliamentary speeches, and police publications, going back as far as 1949 and covering the federal level and Germany’s 16 states. We compared Germany’s approaches to right-wing and left-wing extremism.

We find that even though right-wing-extremist crimes have far exceeded left-wing ones for decades, most political parties consistently minimize threats from the right — especially among center-right parties. Center-left parties are more varied and sometimes discount left-wing extremism.

In other words, political parties behave in partisan ways, even when it comes to threats to public safety and the democratic order.

But we also found that government institutions that are supposed to be politically neutral, such as the intelligence services, downplay far-right extremism. When intelligence agencies operate under center-right rather than center-left interior ministers, their public reports devote less attention to right-wing extremists and are more likely to treat their actions as less threatening. These reports let the German public know what groups endorse political extremism. When intelligence agencies do not properly communicate the nature of such threats to citizens, extremism can more easily spread.

We uncover similar ideological biases in law enforcement publications.

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The response to the Reichsbürger doesn’t tell us much about Germany’s fight against right-wing extremism

Our research indicates that politicians — especially center-right politicians — and the agencies they direct have not adequately alerted citizens to the far-right threat. One might be tempted to speculate that the center-left Social Democrat-led government’s efforts to crush the Reichsbürger shows a new seriousness about the far right. But the Reichsbürger’s target was the government itself, so the strong response is not surprising.

Rooting out a plot to restore imperial Germany does not mean the government will do the same to counter threats targeting ethnic and religious minorities.

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Jeyhun Alizade is a PhD candidate in politics at Princeton University.

Rafaela Dancygier (@rdancygier) is a professor of politics and public and international affairs, the director of the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice at Princeton University and the author of, most recently, “Dilemmas of Inclusion: Muslims in European Politics” (Princeton University Press, 2017).

Jonathan Homola (@j_homola) is an assistant professor of political science at Rice University.