Demons creep up from Europe’s attic

‘Reichsbürger’ at a rally in Berlin: Neo-Nazi, or just a crackpot?

4 mins read
A pariticpant in a demonstration of right-wing populist and right-wing extremist groups wears a t-shirt written with 'The German Reich lives in us' on Washington Square at the central railway station in Berlin, Germany, 30 July 2016. [EPA/PAUL ZINKEN]

The visit of German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to New Delhi had an anti-climatic ending. Baerbock waxed eloquently about Germany as a paragon of democratic values and claimed affinity with India. She hoped to persuade Modi government to disengage from strategic partnership with “authoritarian” Russia. 

However, when Baerbock returned home, the cat was out of the bag — an (alleged) coup attempt in her country by the far-right nationalist group called Reichsbuerger” movement, which denies the existence of the modern German state and its trammels of democracy.

The Reichsbürgers use elements of the antisemitic conspiracy myths propagated by the Nazis and are wedded to the notion that Germany’s borders should be extended to include territories in Eastern Europe, which were occupied under Nazi rule. 

The active presence of right-wing networks within Germany’s security agencies and the German armed forces has been known for years. In July last year, then-Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer disbanded an entire company of the German army’s elite Special Commando Forces after several far-right incidents, where the banned Hitler salute had allegedly been used, and where far-right music was played at parties.

It is an open secret that followers of Nazi ideology found shelter in German society in the post-World War II years. Many people with Nazi background eventually rose to high positions. And they secretly helped each other to rehabilitate themselves and re-establish their credentials and prosper. Such incestuous relationships amongst the erstwhile Nazis enabled them a kind of privileges that far surpassed those of average Germans. 

The extremist ideology and revanchism found fertile soil in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany. If the economic crisis deepens in Germany, similar conditions can arise again. To be sure, extremism is on the rise in Germany.

That said, most people suspect that the crackdown on Reichsbürger is largely political theatre. Is a far-right coup possible in Germany— an armed insurrection “to eliminate the free democratic basic order” by attacking politicians, storming parliamentary buildings, overthrowing the federal government, dissolving the judiciary, and usurping the military? Impossible. 

So, what is the coalition government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz up to? Frankly, creating such conspiracy myths serves to fragment the political opinion, which is snowballing against the Scholz government’s policies. Second, the crackdown on Reichsbürger can cascade into a suppression of the political party Alternative for Democracy (AfD), which is steadily improving its electoral performance and is known for its opposition to the EU and atlanticism. Third, it is a useful distraction at a time when social unrest due to the economic crisis (blowback from Russia sanctions) may trigger political unrest. There are reports that the government has put the police forces on alert. 

In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine last week, Scholz openly espoused the cause of militarism. He wrote: “Germans are intent on becoming the guarantor of European security… The crucial role for Germany at this moment is to step up as one of the main providers of security in Europe by investing in our military, strengthening the European defence industry, beefing up our military presence on NATO’s eastern flank… Germany’s new role will require a new strategic culture, and the national security strategy that my government will adopt a few months from now will reflect this fact…

“This decision marks the starkest change in German security policy since the establishment of the Bundeswehr in 1955… These changes reflect a new mindset in German society… The Zeitenwende [tectonic shift] also led my government to reconsider a decades-old, well-established principle of German policy on arms exports. Today, for the first time in Germany’s recent history, we are delivering weapons into a war fought between two countries… And Germany will continue to uphold its commitment to NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, including by purchasing dual-capable F-35 fighter jets…” [Emphasis added.] 

He writes: “Germany stands ready to reach arrangements to sustain Ukraine’s security as part of a potential postwar peace settlement. We will not, however, accept the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory… To end this war, Russia must withdraw its troops.”

Scholz overreaches and overlooks not only Germany’s past history of aggression in Eastern Europe but also its weaknesses as a military power when he presents the country as a bulwark against Russia. Even assuming Scholz can find the money for such an ambitious militarisation programme, Germany would cause shockwaves throughout Europe if it were to go ahead with such a plan.

While embarking on this militaristic path, Germany is decoupling France. The Franco-German axis has been the mainstay of European politics for the past several decades. But Scholz’s European Sky Shield Initiative with14 other European states on creating a joint air defence system in Europe excludes France! On defence tech issues, Germany’s cooperation with France is fast fading into the background.

Paris is also upset that Scholz’s 200 billion euro subsidy for German industry was announced without consulting France. Again, Scholz’s November visit to Beijing signalling readiness to accept Chinese investment, ignored French President Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion to plan a joint Franco-German initiative toward China. 

All this signals Berlin’s ambition to assume the unification of European leadership in German hands, both in political and economic terms. A big question mark hangs over the future of the Aachen Treaty of 2018 signed by Macron and then Chancellor Angela Merkel. Scholz is espousing that the European Union should switch to majority voting instead of unanimity. Being an economic powerhouse, Germany wields immense clout and Scholz’s plan is to leverage it for establishing the country’s predominance in Europe. 

But it will meet with resistance. Hungary opposes further EU sanctions against Russia. It vetoed the EU Commission’s zest to borrow money (accumulate debt) to finance Ukraine’s sagging economy and to fight Russia. The recent statement by the French President Emmanuel Macron that any European security architecture should “guarantee” Russia’s interests also highlights the fault lines. 

Interestingly, the veto against the Schengen membership of Romania and Bulgaria has come from the Netherlands and Austria. The argument is that both countries have not implemented sufficiently robust systems to register refugees on their borders with non-EU countries. Refugee policy is where Europe is at its most vulnerable and divisive.   

Meanwhile, the centre of gravity in European politics and geo-strategy has lately shifted toward “Mitteleuropa” — Germany and its eastern neighbours — as the conflict in Ukraine accelerates. Whereas the Franco-German tandem used to be the engine of European integration, Paris and Berlin are now faced with the need to look for new points of support within the EU, even choosing alternative interlocutors. 

In the period ahead, Germany’s main focus of interests will be directed to the north-eastern borders of the European Union — Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland — which, coupled with continued military assistance to Ukraine, will mean greater “Atlanticisation” of the German strategy. 

From an Indian perspective, the Zeitenwende that Scholz speaks of in his essay also implies that Germany’s approach to the Indo-Pacific will be characterised by a reluctance to seek confrontation with China. 

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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