The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s important to take those calling for a ‘Fourth Reich’ seriously

A recent right-wing plot to overthrow German democracy wasn’t the first such effort

Protesters take over the inaugural stage while calling for legislators to overturn the election results in President Donald Trump's favor at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Americans have become increasingly concerned about the threat posed by fascist groups to the country’s democratic order. Meanwhile, one of the first countries to go fascist last century — Germany — is facing its own internal right-wing threat, as was made clear last week when German police arrested more than two dozen right-wing extremists plotting to violently overthrow the government. As odd as it may sound, both countries may be facing the same threat — the prospect of a “Fourth Reich.”

In Germany, the plotters who were arrested belong to the Reich Citizens’ Movement (Reichsbürgerbewegung), a loose-knit group of right-wing German radicals who believe the existing German government is illegitimate and needs to be replaced by a new and distinctly authoritarian “Reich.” Although details about the group’s plans are still emerging, press reports have breathlessly announced that Germany dodged a bullet and only just “averted … a Fourth Reich.” Others have noted with relief that plans to “reinstall a Fourth Reich” had been defeated with the arrest of the Reichsbürger movement’s ringleader, the German aristocrat and “would-be leader of the Fourth Reich,” Prince Heinrich XIII from the House of Reuss in the state of Thuringia.

Similar fears have recently been expressed in the United States. Since 2016, left-liberal commentators have voiced the fear that Trumpism threatens to give rise to a Fourth Reich in the United States. In pop culture the streaming series “Hunters,” starring Al Pacino, explores the premise of American neo-Nazis in the 1970s plotting to create a Fourth Reich in America.

The proliferation of references to a Fourth Reich is hardly new, though it is newly intense and widespread. Originally, the concept was coined by opponents of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, who sought to herald the vision of a fourth successor Reich as a democratic alternative to Nazism.

After World War II, however, the concept was reappropriated by unrepentant Nazis who hoped to recreate the authoritarian spirit of the Third Reich. Simultaneously, Western democracies used the concept of a Fourth Reich in admonitory fashion to warn against the possible postwar resurgence of Nazism. This history shows why it is critical to take those actors who seek to bring about a Fourth Reich seriously.

In 1945, the Nazi regime had collapsed, but many of its die-hard supporters wanted to prevent the creation of a democratic order in postwar Germany by reestablishing a new Reich. Between 1945 and 1947, various Nazi groups — led by fanatical “Werewolf” resistance forces, SS officers, Hitler Youth leaders and Wehrmacht veterans — challenged Allied troops with various coup attempts. All of them were eventually suppressed in actions long since forgotten, such as Operation Nursery and Operation Selection Board. But they were close calls that featured firefights between German and Allied forces across the country and culminated in the arrest of thousands of rebels.

From 1952 to 1953, West Germany’s democratic order faced new right-wing threats with the rise of the neo-Nazi Socialist Reich Party (SRP) and the hatching of a conspiracy led by Joseph Goebbels’ former Propaganda Ministry deputy, Werner Naumann. He mobilized an array of former Nazi regional governors (Gauleiter) in the effort to infiltrate the German Free Democratic Party (FDP), seize power, establish a right-wing government and take Germany out of the western alliance.

None of these plots ended up succeeding thanks to the willingness of Allied and German forces to act in timely fashion before the plots became advanced. But it was equally important that Allied forces underscored the depth of the threat’s seriousness discursively by referring to it as part of an effort to create a “Fourth Reich.” In fact, the right-wing rebels were themselves beholden to the idea of turning Germany into an authoritarian Reich, with the SRP leadership, led by former Wehrmacht Gen. Otto Ernst Remer, embracing the concept in public speeches. But the Anglo-American media’s publication of ominous news stories about “elaborate plans for a ‘fourth Reich’” that were only just averted focused public attention on the seriousness of a threat that many hoped lay in the past.

In the decades since the 1950s, Germany has developed into a democracy as stable as any in the Western world. But it has never entirely freed itself from the prospect of a Fourth Reich. Following the rise of the far-right National Democratic Party (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD) in the 1960s, neo-Nazi groups sprouted up after the 1980s, many of which were the ancestors of today’s Reichsbürger. Led by figures such as Manfred Roeder, Michael Kühnen and Horst Mahler, these groups began calling around the turn of the millennium for “the German Reich to arise again,” claiming that Germany’s federal government was an illegal, Allied-imposed “corporation” that needed to be dissolved.

Driven by anti-liberal, anti-immigrant and antisemitic beliefs, the Reichsbürger were long dismissed as a bunch of cranks until some of its members began to carry out acts of civil disobedience that culminated in violence — including killings — against German police officials in 2016. In recent years, growing links between the Reichsbürger and other far-right groups — like the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisation of the Occident (PEGIDA) and the QAnon-style Lateral Thinkers (Querdenker) — have further intensified the calls for a revived Reich among right-wing Germans.

The idea of a “Fourth Reich” also serves as a rallying cry for the far right beyond Germany. Indeed, it exists in the United States as well. Although Trump and his rank-and-file GOP supporters have never used the term, many white supremacist and neo-Nazi activists have embraced it. In August 2017, an African American church in Dumfries, Va., was vandalized with racist signs, including one that read “the Fourth Reich.” Around the same time, right-wing radicals produced threatening social media posts with messages such as “Donald Trump is Just the Opening Act. Yes, We Will Live to see a Fourth Reich.”

The fact that violent right-wing groups in Germany and the United States are taking inspiration from the prospect of an authoritarian Reich makes it incumbent on us to take the prospect of a Fourth Reich seriously. Even if its realization does not appear to be imminent, the fact that it remains an aspirational goal of extremists means we ignore it at our peril.