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Extremism experts say Germany's far-right actors are familiar


We're still learning details about a far-right group's planned coup in Germany. There was stunning news last week that 25 people had been arrested for allegedly trying to overthrow the German government. NPR's Sergio Olmos has been looking into the details of what the group was planning and how the plotters may be connected to other extremist groups. Hey, Sergio.


SHAPIRO: Start by reminding us what we know about what happened last week, what the plotters were trying to do.

OLMOS: The raids last week were among the largest in German post-war history. Three thousand officers searched 130 properties, making 25 arrests and more expected to come. At the heart of all this is this far-right group called the Reichsburger, or citizens of the Reich. They deny the legitimacy of the German government. In some ways, they're similar to the sovereign citizens movement here in the U.S. It sounds far-fetched. Nobody thinks that this group had a realistic shot of storming Parliament and bringing down the government.

Institutions are quite strong, but they made a professional attempt at it. They really did plan this out. Some of the people arrested were a judge, a doctor, former members of the military including from the special forces. They were so organized to the point that some of the documents seized were nondisclosure agreements of people they approached to try to recruit for, among other things, forming 280 armed groups across Germany to begin, quote, "arresting and executing" certain people after the coup.

SHAPIRO: Wow. What more can you tell us about the people who were behind this planned coup?

OLMOS: One of the leaders arrested is a 71-year-old aristocrat. He's got royal blood lineage. He's trying to restore the greatness of the German empire. But this movement has been around for years at the fringe in German society, mostly irrelevant. But something else has happened in the last few years, something we're all familiar with - the pandemic and the mainstreaming of far-right conspiracy theories, the most popular which is QAnon. Let's listen to Miro Dittrich. He's a senior researcher in Germany at the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy.

MIRO DITTRICH: And with the internet, we've seen just a global community of an alternative reality emerging. For example, Germany has the biggest non-English-speaking QAnon online community in the world, and they are quite heavily influenced by the narratives that come from the U.S.

OLMOS: That narrative in the U.S. has been shaped over the last few years by the rise of Donald Trump, far-right ideas moving into the mainstream, as we said, to the point where conspiracies are no longer fringe. Fifteen percent of Americans and 1 in 4 Republicans say they believe in QAnon, according to research from the Public Religion Research Institute done last year.

SHAPIRO: So this was a plot in Germany fed by ideas from the U.S. Does it extend beyond that? Like, are we talking about a global far-right movement?

OLMOS: Yeah, that's what extremism experts are warning about. This isn't an outlier but part of a trend, not just in one or two countries but worldwide. I talked to Heidi Beirich. She's with the nonprofit Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. Here's how she put it.

HEIDI BEIRICH: Extremism, both in the form of anti-government ideologies, which is what this Reichsburger movement is in Germany, and which we have here in the form of militias and groups like the Oath Keepers, and in terms of white supremacy, is a rising threat in many, many countries. Almost every country in Europe is seeing a rise in far-right activism, far-right political parties and basically a lot of activity among extremists.

OLMOS: So what we're seeing are fringe ideas and rhetoric enter the mainstream. And it's important to remember these are fundamentally anti-democratic forces. It's not about making a change at the ballot box. It's about change through violent force. So these groups are learning and taking inspiration from each other, even when they fail. It's a cross-pollination happening globally. And the idea of storming the German Parliament is similar, you know, to what we saw here on January 6 with the riots at the Capitol. And just today, three men were handed down sentences for their part in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, underscoring the climate of political violence here in the U.S.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national security correspondent Sergio Olmos. Thanks a lot.

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

Sergio Olmos