For years, the storming of the Reichstag – the symbolic heart of German democracy – has been a cherished fantasy for the country’s far-right. On Saturday, it came perilously close to becoming a reality, fuelling a triumphalist mood among extremists and sparking fears that it could spur them on to more radical action.
The dramatic events took place in Berlin on Saturday, where an estimated 38,000 people – a ragtag mix of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, “sovereign citizens” and far-right extremists – had gathered in protest against coronavirus restrictions.
Late in the day, after a QAnon supporter falsely told the crowd that Donald Trump was in the city and that it was time to show their commitment, several hundred protesters broke through a police cordon to storm the steps to the Reichstag, the historic building that houses Germany’s federal parliament.
Some of the protesters who stormed the Reichstag steps were waving the black, white and red imperial German flag – the symbol adopted by German right-wing extremists in lieu of the banned Nazi swastika. Some individuals in the crowd appeared to be giving Nazi salutes.
While the protesters didn’t enter the building itself – they were narrowly held at bay by police officers, who used pepper spray and made arrests – the scenes made for a powerful symbolic victory for the far-right, and caused outrage and disgust throughout the country.
“Flags from the Reich and far-right profanity in front of the German parliament are an unacceptable attack on the heart of our democracy,” said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “We will never accept this.”
Jonas Fedders, a board member at Germany’s Centre for Democratic Contradiction, a non-profit research centre, told VICE News that Germany’s right-wing extremist scene was “now celebrating a great success”.
“The demonstrators were only a few minutes on the stairs of the building – but the pictures they produced are very powerful. The symbolic character of this action is great for the scene.”
Fedders, who was at the protest filming the chaotic scenes as protesters rushed the building, said he feared the incident had the potential to fuel further radicalisation and inspire future violent actions.
“Right-wing extremists feel empowered and are ready for more radical actions,” he said. “Extremist chat groups are already calling for more people to gather again in front of the Reichstag on another day, and to finally enter the parliament building.”
Miro Dittrich, a researcher at the far-right monitoring group Amadeu Antonio Foundation, told VICE News that “storming the Reichstag” has long been a fantasy for Germany’s far-right: it’s the frequent subject of memes in right-wing networks, and the name of an extremist chatroom on Telegram.
For outsiders, such talk has generally been viewed as a joke, and a symptom of the delusions of the far-right.
“But I think this made it clear for the far-right – ‘Oh no, we actually could have done it,’” said Dittrich. “It’s not just a nutjob idea to storm the Reichstag, it’s actually something that could be achieved.”
Images of the imperial flag flying in front of the Reichstag have since been circulated widely on far-right chat rooms. Thorsten Hindrichs, a musicologist at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz – who specializes in far-right music subcultures – told VICE News that one far-right grifter from the neo-Nazi rock scene is offering T-shirts featuring the image and the neo-Nazi black sun and iron cross, with the text “Storm on Berlin”.
“The far-right is rejoicing in this,” said Dittrich. “They’re talking about how nice it is to see ‘our flag’ in front of the Reichstag.”
Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-Radicalisation Studies, told VICE News that while the impact of the incident shouldn’t be overstated – “a comparatively small number of people stood on the stairs of the parliament building before the police removed them” – it nevertheless was a powerful symbolic win for right-wing extremists.
“The pictures of German imperial flags, which were also used by the Nazis, being waved right in front of the parliament are devastating, and clearly a propaganda victory for the far-right,” he said.
Dittrich said he feared the incident could embolden extremists to take more radical, violent action, as previous mass mobilisations of far-right extremists had done in recent times.
Major protests and riots in the city of Chemnitz two years ago had proven instrumental in the formation of a far-right terror group, and in mobilising a far-right extremist to assassinate a pro-immigration mayor. “Being in the crowd and seeing all the people who think like him made him decide to take violent action,” he said.
“I’m not concerned about this group taking over,” he said, citing polls that showed the vast majority of Germans had no sympathy for the corona-skeptic protests.
“I’m concerned that they’re radicalising and growing, and that these events embolden the far-right extremists. You have people saying: ‘Now we need to do it for real – not just run up the stairs, we need to storm the building.’”