The name Reichsbürger already signals where these radical citizens want to go – back to the rules and territorial borders of the German Reich in 1937 or even earlier in 1871. That is no joke. Reichsbürger don’t joke, especially when the talk is about Heimat (the state of belonging) and immigration, and about fighting for their imperial rights. Even with guns, if necessary.
Around 1,200 Reichsbürger have one or more legally registered firearms, according to the interior ministry. That number, confirmed this week, surprised many in a country known for having some of the strictest gun ownership laws in the world. It came in response to a parliamentary question from the Green Party on the dangers of right-wing terrorist structures. The Greens are concerned about an increase in gun-related violence by extremists on the far right. “The number of arms held by right-wing extremists and Reichsbürger is extremely worrying,” Irene Mihalic, a Green parliamentarian, told Zeit Online.
According to the interior ministry, 450 weapons permits have been taken away from Reichsbürger since November 2016. That was the year Wolfgang P. (his surname is protected under privacy laws) opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle on four special-task-force officers, killing one and seriously injuring the others. The officers stormed his home in Georgensgmünd after local authorities had declared the hunter, sports shooter and Reichsbürger loyalist unfit to possess firearms. He had a stash of more than 30 rifles.
“The number of arms held by right-wing extremists and Reichsbürger is extremely worrying.”
Long before the shooting, Wolfgang P. had railed against the German state: He surrendered his passport, saying he no longer wanted to be a German citizen. He also de-registered his residence, stopped paying vehicle taxes and threw public officials off his property. Like many other Reichsbürger.
Other disturbing incidents preceded the Georgensgmünd shootout in the same year. A Reichsbürger supporter drove into a police officer enforcing the speed limit, dragging him for several meters. Another follower, a former “Mister Germany” beauty contest winner, shot and wounded a police officer entering his property. Months later, Bavarian intelligence officials warned that a group within the Reichsbürger scene, the “Exiled Government of the German Reich,” was trying to “strengthen fears of foreign infiltration and stir up visions of doom.”
Extreme to the core, Reichsbürger reject the Federal Republic of Germany. The old German Reich, they argue, still exists in its former borders, which they claim were never properly abolished. The imperial citizens regard the republic as an administrative body in a foreign-occupied country. To them, its police, judges, laws and tax agencies have no authority, and its documents carry no weight. Many engage in conspiracy theories, including Germany being “an American colony,” and hold anti-Semitic views.
In addition to sending occasional “death sentence” decrees, extreme Reichsbürger groups also use a notorious financial trick to intimidate officials they don’t like: They file compensation claims via an online registry in the US, where no one monitors their legitimacy. The claims are underwritten by a Malta-based collection agency run by Reichsbürger. Although none of the demands have been enforced so far, they have become a problem for administrative and judicial staff, especially those traveling to the US, a staff source told Handelsblatt Global.
The once tiny movement has grown noticeably in recent years, spurred on in part by the influx of migrants in Germany. Domestic security agency BvF has put the current number of Reichsbürger at about 18,000, up from 10,000 in 2016. Insiders say the figure is twice as high. And many of the followers, security experts warn, are ready to engage in violent acts, like shooting police officers enforcing the laws of the land.
Earlier this year, German domestic intelligence learned of plans by several Reichsbürger groups to establish regional armies, for instance, in the eastern states of Thuringia and Brandenburg as well as Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, in the west. No less disturbing, authorities recently picked up on plans to unit these groups to form a nationwide military.
“They’re preparing for some sort of Doomsday,” an intelligence officer told Fokus magazine – date unknown. That, too, is nothing the Reichsbürger joke about.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org