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German far-right groups becoming increasingly organized, says a historian

A police officer observes participants in the demonstration of right-wing extremists and Reichsburger on March 20, 2021 in Berlin. German right-wing extremists and "Reich citizens" are growing in number and present a "high level of danger," according to German officials.
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Picture Alliance via Getty Images
A police officer observes participants in the demonstration of right-wing extremists and Reichsburger on March 20, 2021 in Berlin. German right-wing extremists and "Reich citizens" are growing in number and present a "high level of danger," according to German officials.

German special forces arrested 25 suspected far-right extremists on Wednesday over a plot to overthrow the government. Officials say suspects include people influenced by the Reichsbürger or "Reich Citizens" movement, which believes that Germany's modern democratic government is not legitimate.

Once derided as crackpots, the Reichsbürger conspiracy has increasingly become a source of concern for authorities. The head of Germany's domestic intelligence service said the movement has grown in the last year and presents a "high level of danger".

Katja Hoyer is a German historian and author of the book Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire, 1871 to 1918. Though she says it is not a cohesive movement, Hoyer sees a new level of what she calls "professionalism" in the movement's workings.

"It is increasingly organized in terms of getting hold of weapons, in terms of networking with influential people, getting hold of funds," Hoyer said.

Hoyer spoke with NPR about the kinds of people involved in the movement, why it's found a foothold in the country and its ties to the American far-right and conspiracy theorists.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On the people who make up the movement

One of the more dangerous elements of this [movement] is that they're not angry young men with shaved heads and black boots who go out, march and look like your [stereotypical] idea of a neo-Nazi. A lot of the people that were arrested are judges, lawyers, teachers – what you deem respectable, middle-class citizens. And that makes this movement somewhat invisible. So they've evolved, I would say, into a much, much more socially diverse movement from what people considered to be neo-Nazis in the 1990s.

On connections to American far right and conspiracy theorist groups like QAnon

Germany is, in fact, the second-largest community for [QAnon] online. So in terms of the amount of people subscribing to QAnon channels on Telegram and other social media channels Germany is quite prolific in that respect, which is surprising to many people. It combines this idea that the state isn't legitimate with a pre-existing conspiracy theory that you see with QAnon. This kind of idea that there's a worldwide pedophile ring that uses American military bases as its local infrastructure applies to Germany in their minds because of the pre-existing structures that are still there from the occupation period. And so many people followed Trump and Trumpism in particular, and so believed that Trump would finally come and liberate Germany from foreign occupation. And he was the savior figure in many ways, as he is with the union movement in the United States.

On why the far right has been able to find traction in Germany once more

It's easy to forget now in the kind of media coverage created by the arrest that they are, in fact, still relatively small amounts of people that we're talking about here. The reason I think why it's still a sizable movement – those conspiracy circles – is because many communities in Germany feel somewhat disenfranchised. There's a long history, as there is in the US, of skepticism towards centralized government where you have a federal state that has a lot of kind of local history and a lot of local suspicion toward centralized government in the capital. And I think that's a residual thing that always exists, and it breaks out at times of crisis like we are currently experiencing.

Radio story produced by Erika Ryan

Edited by Ashley Brown

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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