early and often

The Technolibertarian Crossover of the German Prince Who Would Be Kaiser

Photo: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

Last week, a massive raid rounded up 25 individuals on suspicion of having conspired against the Federal Republic of Germany. The group, prosecutors allege, intended to violently overthrow the current government, abolish the German state, and replace it with some sort of reprise of the German Reich (Second, not Third, but who’s counting?). While the whole thing sounds deranged and carnivalesque, it’s worth noting that among the conspirators were members of the armed forces and law enforcement as well as a judge and former member of the Bundestag. And a prince.

Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss seems to have been something of a ringleader and the designated head of state in the unlikely event that the coup succeeded. The group emerged from a fringe right-wing movement called the Reichsbürger (“citizens of the Reich”). The Reichsbürger claim the postwar German state is essentially a fiction and therefore has no jurisdiction. In an online clip of a speech from the prince, he claims that “the so-called Federal Republic of Germany is the legal successor of … Hitler’s Germany and not of the Sovereign German Empire,” meaning that “no sovereign structure exists for Germany.” World War II never ended; the structures of the German state are simply ad hoc constructs erected by the Allied powers to oversee occupied territory. Its laws are null, its taxes unenforceable.

Heinrich’s views as expressed in this clip are deeply nutty but nothing new. More remarkable is where the would-be emperor gave the speech — not at some far-right rally, not in some smoke-filled hunting lodge, but at a 2019 new-economy, technolibertarian business summit on the shores of Lake Zurich in Switzerland, called the Worldwebforum. In video from the event, you can see the future coup plotter, in full TED Talk mise-en-scène, holding forth about the Rothschilds, Henry Ford, and the New World Order.

“I believe,” the prince declared onstage in Zurich, “I have come to find the root cause of the historic developments and the current state of our societal structures, what is behind all these wars and revolutions, and who actually benefits from it all.” Spoiler alert: It was “international financial interests,” the Rothschilds, the “novum ordo saeclorum” who conspire to “replace monarchies by socialist governments, then by Communists, then by despotic powers to keep the masses poor.” The New York Times called these “common antisemitic dog whistles” — “antisemitic alpenhorns” would be more like it.

The Worldwebforum doesn’t seem to be some covert far-right conclave. Sure, the forum’s logo looks like the signet ring of a Bond villain; sure, that year’s theme was “Master and Servant.” But the forum has attracted a veritable who’s who of the tech world: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Ed Catmull of Pixar, people from Y Combinator and Google, even Marian Goodell, CEO of Burning Man. The promotional materials touted a comparison from Google’s head of industrial design: “Think of it as a punk-rock version” of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Potential speakers were reeled in with the promise of a “pre-UnConference” prior to the forum, with “two fun-filled days in Laax, in the beautiful Swiss Mountains, skiing, sledding, fondue, raclette.”

For over a decade, events like the WorldWebForum have made bank on European anxieties about Silicon Valley. Caroline Daniel of the Financial Times has noted the forum was intended “to prompt disruptive thinking in the contented, wealthy Swiss business elite,” while celebrating disruption in the abstract in a context where established industries feel they have little to fear from the move-fast-and-break-things crowd. When the “audience of 600 or so Swiss executives” were asked, “How many fear their companies will be disrupted?” Daniel said, “fewer than ten put their hands up.”

Somehow, this contented version of disruption came to include the man who would be Kaiser. It is altogether unclear why the prince was invited in the first place. Almost immediately after the world learned about Heinrich XIII, someone on Twitter who said they had been at the conference claimed the prince had been loudly booed; if this is true, the boos didn’t make it into the video of the event, though sparse audience laughter and applause did. (The event’s organizers seem to have removed a video of the speech with German subtitles from their YouTube channel on December 6, the day of the raids.) A prominent right-wing blogger claimed to have found out the prince had been invited only because “someone else canceled,” as though it were the most natural thing to replace a flu-ridden tech CEO with a man who believes the German Empire never ended.

At first blush, this feels like a story about how the tech industry levels all expression into a uniform gruel of performative gestures to the point that it can’t tell a “punk rock” equivalent of a Davos speech apart from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The TED-Talkification of public life often platforms counterintuitive, contrarian claims just because they’re counterintuitive or contrarian. The very contentlessness of these tech-adjacent forums means that truly outlandish ideas can sometimes fester right in the open because everyone is busy congratulating themselves on their open-mindedness and disregard for the status quo to really notice.

But the opening chord of the prince’s cavalcade of nuttiness indicates that he at last thought he understood his audience, that he could pitch them on the idea that World War II had never ended and Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been done in by the Freemasons. He seems to have sensed a substantive common ground. “Until 1920” — that is, until his family was no longer in charge of it — “Gera was among the richest cities in Germany with a tax rate of 10 percent.” You read that right: Monarchy is the No. 1 way to finally get everyone’s tax burden down.

Monarchy also turns out to be the way to finally take power away from bureaucrats and return it to … the people? Up until 1920, “everything was fine in the principality ruled by the Reuss family, and people were leading happy lives,” the prince explained, “because the administrative structures were straightforward and transparent. If something wasn’t going well, you approached the prince. Who are you supposed to turn to today? To your parliamentarian, local, federal, or EU level? Good luck!” It’s a monarchy a libertarian can get behind.

To the scholar of 19th-century conservatism, this defense of monarchy will sound familiar. It will also be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to Silicon Valley grandees and their rightward lurch.

To be clear, I’m not saying this event was somehow crypto-fascist. I’m saying that, at the very least, the organizers seem not to have been able to tell libertarianism from neo-feudalism. You don’t have to agree with philosopher Jason Stanley’s 2018 book How Fascism Works that “the fascist vision of individual freedom is similar to the libertarian notion of individual rights.” But you can still grant Stanley’s point that, for all its professed distrust of hierarchies, libertarianism not only very easily slides into thinking in hierarchies but also naturalizes them. Some people are “naturally” on top, some not, and it isn’t the government’s job to interfere with nature.

This matters because a lot of prominent technolibertarians have begun to sound like, well, monarchists. Peter Thiel has combined a distrust of government bureaucracy with openly authoritarian positions — in his view, the start-up was libertarian insofar as it was distinct from state sovereignty, but it was actually dominated by an aristocracy. (“A start-up is basically structured as a monarchy.”) His amanuensis Blake Masters, who ran for Senate in Arizona, thinks American democracy ought to be replaced by a “Caesar” figure. Curtis Yarvin, too, an influential blogger on the far right who writes under the nom de plume Mencius Moldbug, argues that democracy ought to be replaced by a corporate techno-monarchy. This all may explain why the organizers of the Worldwebforum didn’t quite understand what they were platforming or, if they understood, why it didn’t exactly offend them.

While a certain libertarianism has grown more comfortable with monarchy, there’s some indication that European right-wingers have grown more conversant with libertarian talking points. Sociologists Oliver Nachtwey and Carolin Amlinger did dozens of interviews with far-right protesters, COVID skeptics, and the like. They described their subjects as displaying a new version of the authoritarian personality, one that fetishizes its own freedom and wishes destruction on its enemies: “a libertarian authoritarianism.” So it seems likely that when Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss took the stage in Zurich, he was two things at once: an absolute oddity and a sign of the times.

The Technolibertarian Crossover of Germany’s Would-Be Kaiser