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A foiled coup plot reveals why members of Germany's far-right can seem 'invisible'


Today, German special forces arrested 25 suspected far-right extremists over a plot to overthrow the government. Prosecutors say the group was influenced by the Reichsburger, the Reich Citizens' Movement. Its core belief is that Germany's modern democratic government is not legitimate; that the German Reich, which fell after World War I, still exists. It's had a reputation as a crackpot movement. But Germany's head of domestic intelligence says the group has grown in the last year substantially and now presents a, quote, "high level of danger."

I want to bring in Katja Hoyer for more context on this. She is a German historian and author. Welcome.

KATJA HOYER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Do you agree with that assessment from Germany's domestic intelligence chief, that this group is growing and dangerous?

HOYER: I think it is. I mean, the new thing that we've seen today is that it is sort of increasingly organized in terms of getting hold of weapons, in terms of networking with influential people, getting hold of funds. And that's a new level of professionalism that previous incarnations just didn't have.

KELLY: Is it a cohesive movement? Do they have a clear leader?

HOYER: No, not at all. And this is, I think, something that has previously led to people underestimating it, because it is very fractured. Some believe, as you said earlier, that the German Reich didn't fall at the end of the First World War and needs to be reinstated. Some of them set that date much later, during the occupation after the Second World War. And some of them have got outright neo-Nazi tendencies. Others want to restore the monarchy. So it's a very disunited movement that currently doesn't have one centralized leadership.

KELLY: I was reading some of your excellent writing on this. And among the points you make which intrigues me is that these people don't necessarily fit the stereotype you might have. They don't look like whatever your image of a neo-Nazi is. Who are these people?

HOYER: Yeah, that's right. And that's also, I think, one of the more dangerous elements of this, is that they're not angry young men with shaved heads and black boots, you know, who go out and march. But a lot of the people, for instance, that were arrested today are judges, lawyers, teachers. That makes this movement somewhat invisible. So this might be the person that, you know, lives next to you or that teaches your children. So they've evolved, I would say, into a much, much more socially diverse movement from, you know, what people consider to be neo-Nazis in the 1990s.

KELLY: Are there connections between groups like this in Germany and the American far right and conspiracy theorists, groups like QAnon, for example?

HOYER: Yeah. QAnon is an interesting one because Germany is in fact the second largest community for the movement online. So in terms of the amount of people subscribing to QAnon channels, Germany is quite prolific in that respect. But it combines this idea that the state isn't legitimate with a preexisting kind of conspiracy theory that you see with QAnon. So many people followed Trump and Trumpism in particular and sort of believed that Trump would finally come and sort of liberate Germany from foreign occupation. And he was the savior figure in many ways, as he is with the QAnon movement in the U.S.

KELLY: Fascinating. Germany, of course, has a unique relationship with the far right, a unique history. I was born in Germany. I've spent time there. I have always been struck by how generations of Germans have worked to distance themselves from the Nazi party, from World War II history. When you look at Germany today, what strikes you about the ability of the far right to find traction?

HOYER: Well, I think what you just said about, you know, the post-war culture of Germany is true for the vast, vast majority of Germans. It's easy to forget now in the kind of media coverage created by the arrests this morning 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 U.S., of skepticism towards centralized government. I think that's a residual thing that always exists, and it breaks out at times of crisis like we are currently experiencing.

KELLY: German historian and writer Katja Hoyer. Her latest book is "Blood And Iron: The Rise And Fall Of The German Empire 1871-1918." Thank you.

HOYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.