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Dozens arrested in Germany under suspicion of a plot to overthrow the government

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

German authorities say they expect to make more arrests as they investigate an alleged plot to overthrow the government there. Thousands of police officers carried out raids throughout Germany yesterday. They arrested more than two dozen people suspected of planning to break into the seat of Germany's government, attack political leaders and seize control of the country. Among those arrested, an aristocrat, a soldier and a former member of parliament. We're joined now by Constanze Stelzenmuller. She is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on German foreign and security policy. Constanza, thanks for being here.

CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER: Thank you very much for having me on. Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. On its face, this plot sounds horrific. I mean, these people were plotting to break into government buildings, kill political leaders. Having this plan at all is obviously criminal. But based on what you're learning, how realistic was it?

STELZENMULLER: Well, it seems as though the police had been watching this group for a very, very long time and had been carefully monitoring their every move. They were just - if you look at the plan that they executed there yesterday, they searched 130 premises with 3,000 officers and arrested 25 individuals. I think, at this point, we're at 30. And they are planning to arrest more and even made arrests in Austria and Italy. That suggests they've been watching this for a very long time and were watching to crack down. The other thing that is really notable, they had informed a lot of press. So TV and print journalists were ready with cameras and with stories.

MARTIN: But again, was this something - I mean, where was it on the risk threshold? I mean, could the German government have been violently overtaken?

STELZENMULLER: No, that I don't think. And thanks for repeating the question because I hadn't answered it. I think that the conspiracists were led by the notion that if they stormed the federal legislature, the Bundestag, in sort of a repeat of January 6, the storming of the Capitol, that they could then overthrow the government. I think that is wildly underestimating both the stability of Germany's institutions and, I think, the mood in the German public. And the two leadership figures that they had identified - a older gentleman from a minor princely family in East Germany and a retired judge who had been a former parliamentarian of the hard-right party, AfD - if you look at their biographies, I think nothing suggests that they would be effective leaders.

What is really concerning about this plot, though, is that it involves, apparently, retired and active members of Germany's security services, including at least one active member of an elite forces unit where the previous defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, had already cracked down and dissolved a whole company because of right-wing infiltration. This suggests that that process has been ongoing.

MARTIN: Well, and that they are actively recruiting from inside the police force now.

STELZENMULLER: Yes.

MARTIN: This would suggest something that is far more systemic in terms of risk.

STELZENMULLER: Well, look; I think we've all seen in all Western societies a great deal of insecurity and concern and a yearning for order and security as a cause of the pandemic, of international disruptions beginning, really, with the global financial crisis 10 years ago, and now with an attack by Russia on Ukraine that has global implications in terms of inflation and energy prices. That, I think, you know, creates a climate in which people become susceptible and vulnerable.

But I would caution against assuming that the entirety of the German security services are infiltrated. And we have known for quite a long time that the hard right in Germany was trying to tunnel into the services. I'm pretty sure that the German security services have an eye on this. But we did have a former head of domestic intelligence, until a couple of years ago, who turned out to be quite right wing himself and who had to leave. And the hard crackdown dates back to a year or two, really.

MARTIN: So, I mean, Germany obviously has a long history with extremist groups. It has dealt with them for a long time. The reporting out of this plot suggests - says that Qanon is a group that has been influential in this plot, also a group called Reichsburger.

STELZENMULLER: Yes.

MARTIN: Can you explain what that group is about and what this plot reveals about how the far-right movement in Germany has evolved?

STELZENMULLER: Sure. So QAnon, as you know, started off in the United States but has many adherents in other societies, including in Western Europe. And that's certainly the case in Germany. And the Reichsburger have, I think, equivalent - although, they don't come from the U.S., they have equivalence, you know, with the folks who sort of barricade themselves on ranches and don't accept the power of the federal government. That's what these people are. They don't accept the sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Germany. And they want to reinstate a pre-democratic government. That's what the prince was intended for, it appears.

They - many of their ideas seem ludicrous. And they indulge in, you know, global conspiracy theories laced with antisemitic tropes. They believe in Satanism and pedophilia rings. All that sounds familiar, probably, to your listeners. But I think what's important to understand is that external powers, namely Russia, have been using this kind of messaging themselves. Vladimir Putin himself only a few weeks ago gave a speech in which he ranted at length about Satanism. And so there is also an external connection here that we might be seeing appear more clearly in the coming weeks and days.

MARTIN: And, of course, there's the rise institutionally of the AfD, the far-right party, which gives them a more mainstream voice.

STELZENMULLER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: You - just in closing, you referenced January 6 earlier in our conversation. I mean, we still are living through the effects of the attempt to overturn a democratic election. What are going to be the long-term effects of this in Germany for the German psyche and democratic institutions? Just a few seconds.

STELZENMULLER: Honestly, I'm looking at the reactions now. They're relatively calm. I think, if these conspirators wanted to undermine German governments and make people insecure, I think they showed the opposite. And I think, maybe, also German police intended this as a pretty massive show of force. I think that's, on the whole, relatively reassuring. But we will absolutely have to dig deeper in this.

MARTIN: Constanze Stelzenmuller is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We appreciate your time and perspective this morning. Thank you.

STELZENMULLER: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me on. Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.