Prince Otto-Leopold (1815-1898) (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

Shadow of the Kaiserreich

The rootlessness of German political culture

Artillery Row

A few days ago, German police embarked on a spectacular raid in which about 3000 policemen arrested 25 right-wing conspirators — the so-called “Reichsbürger” (citizens of the Empire). Strangely enough, select media had been informed well in advance about the raid, which allowed the police to confiscate one lonely gun.

How do you find out who the real Henry is? 

The Reichsbürger, who consider the Bundesrepublik as an illegitimate political system and want to return to the Kaiserreich of 1870, planned (we are being told) a sort of coup d’état. After taking over the Reichstag Building in Berlin, they would have proclaimed their leader Henry XIII Prince Reuss as Lord Protector. Everything had been prepared including something like a cabinet list. A Berlin judge (former MP of the right wing AfD) was to be appointed minister of justice, and a retired lieutenant colonel of the German army who lives near Freiburg in the idyllic Münstertal was to take control of the armed forces. The leader of the planned coup Prince Henry, who tends to sport tweedy English hacking jackets and rather loud yellow ties, hails from a very old aristocratic family. Strangely enough all the male members of the family for centuries have been called Henry in honour of emperor Henry VI (1169-1197). This must have been a serious obstacle to police investigations — how do you find out who the real Henry is? 

Anyhow, Henry XIII had tried after 1989 to reclaim old family property in Thuringia — ruining himself financially in pursuit of this elusive objective. As an embittered old man, he apparently became ever more radical and much given to propagate antisemitic conspiracy theories. Some of his supporters seem to have been prepared to use force of arms to fight the present German government. One can’t exclude the possibility that sooner or later they might have attacked a minor politician — the more prominent ones normally enjoy police protection. As for Henry XIII himself, however, he seems to be more a kind of Wodehousian Roderick Spode with his “Black Shorts” than a new Miguel Primo de Rivera (leader of a coup d’état in Spain in 1923 and subsequently dictator). 

It is remarkable that people who belong to the respectable middle or even upper classes — some of them former members of the army or elite police units — can be that deluded. They are after all a very small minority; there may be about 4000 active members of the Reichsbürger Movement and perhaps another 17,000 who are part of their wider network. It is even more remarkable that nostalgia for the long gone monarchy and empire can inspire them. As a rule, younger Germans, certainly most of those younger than 40, will know very little about the Kaiserreich. They might have heard about William II and the First World War, but otherwise German history before 1914 is mostly terra incognita to them. We Germans have become quite good at forgetting our more distant past, whereas the Nazi tyranny dominates collective memory more than ever. Perhaps this disregard for the long 19th century — noticeable even in scholarly research to some extent — makes it easier for a bunch of fruitcakes to construct their own image of the allegedly glorious Kaiserreich. 

Even beyond the strange and ludicrous conspiracy of the Reichsbürger, Germany’s imperial past, largely discarded in public debate as irrelevant, has come to haunt present day German politics in surprising ways. Some years ago the Hohenzollern dynasty tried to reclaim works of art which had been confiscated by authorities in the Soviet occupation zone and the GDR after 1945. Admittedly the family did its utmost to rub everybody — museum directors, journalists and historians — the wrong way in pursuing its extensive claims. The conflict about the property claims of the former royal and imperial dynasty escalated quickly into a debate about the merits and demerits of the Kaiserreich as such. The behaviour of the dynasty after 1918, in particular the pro-Hitler activities of the ghastly Crown Prince Frederick William, was also an important issue. 

The German state is suspended in a historical vacuum

Some historians saw this public discussion as a good occasion to return to the older Sonderwegs-thesis — the idea that Germany (having missed the chance to become more democratic in the 19th century) developed a political culture which was uniquely authoritarian within Western Europe and contained the seeds of the later Nazi tyranny. Research from the 1980s onwards, not least by non-German historians, has largely demolished this thesis. Today it is supported by very few serious scholars, but left leaning or generally politically activist German historians have decided to revive it all the same. This offers them an opportunity to denounce all colleagues who promote a subtler and more nuanced interpretation of the history of the Kaiserreich, as dangerous right wingers and potential enemies of democracy. This is a preposterous idea. But they really do seem to believe that democracy in the Federal Republic can only survive if it is based on a particular vision of history. This is a vision of history that implies that not only the Third Reich but most German history before 1945 was a unique series of moral failures and revolts against liberal modernity — ever since the revolution of 1848 failed at least, if not from Luther onwards. 

This has in fact very much become the official account of German history, favoured by politicians over the last thirty years. More recently, it has been reinforced by the attempt to depict Bismarck and German imperial politicians in general as relentless advocates of white supremacy, who ruthlessly imposed a reign of terror on German colonies.

Most Germans probably do not care that much about these debates one way or another, because they do not care about history as such. Unfortunately, the official version constructs a vision of history which is incompatible with any future Germany might have as a stable nation state. The only possible future with such a perspective is transforming Germany into a mere province of a larger European federal state or EU-empire, which the present government actually has committed itself to achieve. 

If this European federal republic does not materialise, the German state is suspended in a historical vacuum, lacking a functional past. This, one might argue, allows strange sects like the Reichsbürger to emerge, marginal as they may be. A quixotic figure like Prince Reuss won’t be able to establish an alternative vision of German history with his grotesque nostalgia. Others may emerge in future to address these problems in a subtler and more dangerous way, if German historians do not produce a history of the Kaiserreich which represents more than left-leaning politics by other means, and if such a sufficiently balanced history is not integrated into the official political narrative. Otherwise, the long forgotten undead may continue to haunt Germany.

For the moment, the greater problem for political culture in Germany is the erosion of trust: the government and the political class in general have come to distrust their own citizens. They see them, or at least a sizable recalcitrant minority, as an unruly rebellious multitude of questionable loyalty. Even the German Verfassungsschutz (a kind of police agency which records and fights all unconstitutional political activities) in its recent official reports shows a tendency to consider any kind of harsher criticism of government policy as extremism, an attempt to overturn the constitutional order. This is particularly true for controversial subjects such as immigration policy. 

Increasingly, many politicians in Germany seem to favour the ideal of a controlled, illiberal democracy in order to fight right-wing populism (or what they perceive as such populism). The reverse is also true: a growing minority of citizens have made their default attitude a fundamental distrust of the political class and the state, no matter what is at stake. The noisy protests against official Covid 19 policy over the last two years demonstrate this sufficiently. This fundamental mistrust provides a fertile soil for all sorts of conspiracy theories and even for completely irrational movements such as the Reichsbürger. Such movements may still be of only marginal importance, but if politicians do not manage to restore trust in the political system, we may face far more serious problems in ten years time.

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