Just Harmless Lunatics? The “Reichsbürger” Movement in Germany
This is part of our special feature on Radicalism and Violence.
They live in their own world. They proclaim their own state territories, which are sometimes only the size of a stately home. They reject the legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Germany and its legal system, arguing that the pre-1945 German “Reich” is still in force. They use their own – unsanctioned and therefore illegal – passports and currencies. These “Reichsbürger” (“Reich citizen”) probably represent the most bizarre camp of Germany’s radical right. According to Germany’s domestic intelligence service (Verfassungsschutz), more than 16,000 persons consider themselves to be “Reichsbürger;” troublingly, these numbers seem to be growing year upon year.
Long-time underrated, bizarre and violent
On April 8, 2018, special police units raided the houses of several “Reichsbürger” adherents in Berlin, Brandenburg, and Thuringia. These operations were undertaken after the Public Prosecutor General of the Federal Court of Justice (Generalbundesanwalt) took over investigations against seven men and one woman. The suspects are accused to have founded a terrorist organization, aiming at “replacing the order of the FRG by a new state order, following the structure of the German Empire,” as the Generalbundesanwalt put it. The suspects allegedly even took targeted murder into consideration. Prosecutors also assumed that weapons had been acquired for that purpose.
Yet this is not the first time that “Reichsbürger” have hit the headlines. Over the last two years, violent incidents related to the “Reichsbürger” movement piled up to a considerable number of incidents, accompanied by a rising public awareness in German national politics, media, and the security services. Neglected and dismissed for years, the “Reichsbürger” phenomenon only appeared as a serious issue in public when 50-year-old activist, Wolfgang P., opened fire in Georgensgmünd, Bavaria, while police were searching his house for weapons. He killed a police task force officer on October 19, 2016 and in 2017, Wolfgang P. was sentenced to life in prison for murder.
That incident was just the tip of the iceberg, however. The activities of “Reichsbürger” have extended to assaulting and threatening bailiffs, police officers, and judges; sending hate letters to Muslim and Jewish institutions; boycotting and impeding public institutions; refusing to pay taxes and rejection of administrative rulings. It is a common strategy in the movement to file myriads of absurd applications to the municipality, or to hand off ID cards at the local registration offices and create new identification cards. More darkly, during several raids police found a considerable number of weapons in 2017.
As a consequence of the persistent conflict the “Reichsbürger” have undertaken against public institutions all over Germany, security services have resorted to publishing handouts and manuals for administration employees on how to deal with the “Reichsbürger.”
The “Reichsbürgers’” world view
Just who are the “Reichsbürger,” and what is their agenda? Precursors already appeared in the 1970s; in the mid-1980s, self-appointed “Reich Chancellor” Wolfgang Ebel spread perhaps the early ideas of the “Reichsbürger” in Berlin. Since then, the ideological and organizational heterogeneity of this movement has made it difficult to carve out a clear profile of that phenomenon. The “Reichsbürger” represent a fragmented and partly competing milieu that draws on radical right ideologies and, to a variable extent, attaches to that scene.
The “Reichsbürgers´” world view is characterized by the notion that the German Empire in its borders from either 1871, 1918 or 1933 still exists, and that the Federal Republic of Germany is a state construct illegally imposed by the Allies after 1945. Given the alleged illegitimacy of the FRG – sometimes entitled as “FRG Inc.” – “Reichsbürger” deduce the legitimacy of their activities as well as the right to repudiate the constitution and the law. In a remarkable corresponding feature, many “Reichsbürger” have tried to replace existing power structures instead of merely criticising them. The results are, for example, self-appointed governments – or even separate states, as was the case with Peter Fitzek in Wittenberg, Saxony-Anhalt, the self-proclaimed “King of Germany.” Fitzek gathered several hundred adherents at a former hospital terrain, founded a bank and a health insurance exchange. In 2016, he was arrested on suspicion of embezzlement and sentenced to three years and eight months in 2017; Fitzek appealed and was released in April, 2018, and the case will be retried.
Fitzek belonged to the faction of “Selbstverwalter” [self-administrators] who seek to step out of the state fabric. They do not always belong to the radical right scene or advocate radical right views in the narrower sense, but most promote conspiracy theories and crisis scenarios that frequently comprise elements of anti-Semitism, völkisch esoterism, and historical revisionism.
A radical right movement?
The “Reichsbürgers’” numerous irrational and inconsistent components invites pathologizing approaches. It is, indeed, undeniable that many “Reichsbürger” mingle private motives with their beliefs, or betray mental health challenges. Moreover, within the movement many assert that they do not represent radical right politics. That claim is strengthened by the official opinion of the Verfassungsschutz, asserting that only five percent of the “Reichsbürger” are radical right extremists.
However, scholars and experts identified elements of radical right ideologies among the majority of the “Reichsbürger,” such as anti-Semitism, racism, glorification of the Third Reich, and ethnic nationalism. It seems an insoluble task to differentiate between “radical right” and “not radical right” when it comes to that movement, not least since the radical right has always been shaped by illogical world views – and not least by individuals with bizarre notions and mental issues.
Authorities have underrated the “Reichsbürger” as lunatics for too long, according to journalist and “Reichsbürger” expert Andreas Speit who recently published a book on the topic. In short, the risk potential has not been recognized, and events this month further underscore this concern.
Barbara Manthe is a Senior Fellow with CARR, and Principal Investigator on the government-funded project, “Right-wing Terrorism in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1970-1990” at the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf.
Published on October 2, 2018.