University of Passau
Lars Rensmann is Professor of Political Science and Comparative Government at the University of Passau, Germany. Until 2022, he was Professor of European Politics and Society at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, the Netherlands, where he also served as Founding Director of the Research Centre for the Study of Democratic Cultures and Politics. Rensmann has taught political science at universities around the world, including the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Haifa University, and the University of Vienna. Among other areas of research, he has published widely on democracy crises and on right-wing extremist and populist parties in Germany, Europe and around the globe.
The Reichsbürger Movement, the Far-Right, and the Growing Assault on German Democracy
On December 7, 2022, German authorities arrested twenty-five members of the so-called “Patriotic Union,” a network that is part of the extremist Reichsbürger (“citizens of the Reich”) movement. Employing over 5,000 police officers, including 1,500 special forces, and searching over 130 facilities and homes across the country (alongside raids in Italy and Austria), this was the biggest anti-terror raid in the history of Germany’s Federal Republic—a country which had its fair share of terrorist activities and counter-terrorism in past. The authorities had concluded that the “Patriotic Union” had become a terrorist group that planned a violent coup d’etat against Germany’s government and its democratic constitutional system. Some radical right politicians immediately ridiculed the police measures against the group as overblown because several of its members are retirees; in the words of Alice Weidel, the leader of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, the “Alternative for Germany”), this was just a “walker coup.” Some media even denounced the security agencies’ actions as a mere “PR coup.” Yet most observers were surprised about the scope of the plot, which involved a wide range of citizens, including medical doctors, a judge and former AfD member of the Bundestag, wealthy businessmen, police forces, former and active elite soldiers, and trained military personnel equipped with weapons and high-end technological devices. What was less surprising to analysts of right-wing extremism in Germany was the nature and the wider context in which the group operated. Its politico-cultural environment includes the broader Reichsbürger movement, other new radical anti-government protest movements, and the steady rise and consolidation of right-wing extremist milieus in Germany over the last three decades which seek to challenge the country’s democracy.
Trajectories: Origins, Scope, and Relevance of the Reichsbürger Movement
The federal security agencies currently count 23,000 Reichsbürger in 2022 (2021: 21,000)—a number that has grown year after year for decades. The Reichsbürger movement includes dozens of organized and informal groups of different types and sizes, individuals, and networks across Germany and beyond. It evolved alongside, and partly overlaps with, the so-called Selbstverwalter (“sovereign citizens”) movement, which claims a right to exit from the Federal Republic while living on the country’s territory and founded plenty of “autonomous” fantasy states on private property in Germany. Even though security agencies do not classify every Reichsbürger as ideologically right-wing extremist, this movement increasingly integrated into a sub-movement of the extreme right. It can at least be traced back to the 1980s when the conspiracy thinker Wolfgang Ebel founded the group “Temporary Imperial Government.” Its deeper origins, however, are inseparably intertwined with the history of the extreme right of post-war Germany.
Think of the Sozialistische Reichspartei (SRP) led by Otto Ernst Remer, a Shoah-denying successor organization of Hitler’s Nazi Party NSDAP which viewed itself as a national “resistance movement” and which was the first party that was banned after Nazism—already in 1952. Like today’s Reichsbürger, the SRP fully rejected the Federal Republic’s democracy and claimed that the German Reich never ceased to exist. Another founding father of the movement is Manfred Roeder (1929-2014), a former Nazi and later a right-wing terrorist who denied both the Shoah and the fact that the old German Reich ended in 1945. In more recent times, the former RAF terrorist, antisemite, and convicted Holocaust denialist Horst Mahler is among the well-known neo-Nazis who advocate the Reichsbürger ideology that the German Reich continues to exist.
The threat to individuals and society remains real, even if there is, to be sure, currently no actual threat to Germany’s democratic system.
Still, despite its extreme right origins and an almost continuous growth of the movement over the last decades, the Reichsbürger, who usually do not self-identify with this label, long remained a neglected, even ridiculed movement in German media while operating largely under the radar of security agencies. This only changed in 2016, when more cases were documented of Reichsbürger shooting at police, and in October of that year, a Reichsbürger shot and killed a police officer in the Bavarian town of Georgensmünd. More violent plans and actions by individuals and groups have followed since then. The “Patriotic Union” was just one of those groups—although one apparently well-equipped to inflict harm—ready for organized violent action against the German state and its representatives.
Integrated into the German extreme right and often prepared to translate their hatred of the German constitutional order into violent practice, Reichsbürger have, moreover, recently received a massive boost through their interaction with, and becoming a socially accepted part of, new anti-government protest movements. Featuring prominently among these is the popular German Querdenker (“lateral thinker”) movement against vaccines, COVID-19 public health measures, and government policy at large. Such protests have also increased the publicity of the Reichsbürger. Most popular in the southern states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria and especially in Germany’s east, the Querdenker movement’s biggest march in Berlin on August 29, 2020, ended in the attempt to storm the Reichstag building, the seat of the German parliament—and Reichsbürger who waved their Reichskriegsflaggen (Imperial War Flags) were in the midst of this failed assault on Germany’s most important democratic institution (an insurrection recently replicated by Trump supporters attacking the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2021, and by Bolsonaro supporters attacking the National Congress in Brazil on January 8, 2023).
Ideologies of Hate: Nationalism, Antisemitism, and Conspiracy Myths
According to the Reichsbürger, whose hate, ideology, and readiness for violence varies, there has been no sovereign German state since the reign of Emperor Wilhelm II ended—at the end of World War I. Most Reichsbürger consider the Versailles Treaty invalid and suggest that there is “no peace treaty,” just as there is allegedly “no legitimate constitution.” For many of them, including Heinrich XIII Prince Reuß, the supposed ringleader of the “Patriotic Union,” and the prominent Reichsbürger ideologue Klaus Maurer, Germany’s Federal Republic is simply an administrative unit continuously operated by the Allied forces, which allegedly still occupy the country, and a registered trade entity (one of Maurer’s books is called BRD Gmbh, that is: “The Federal Republic Incorporated”). In essence, what all Reichsbürger share is an outright denial of the very existence of the Federal Republic of Germany, its democratic constitution, and its legitimacy. This, they think, even permits them to use violence under emergency laws presumably in place in the absence of a peace treaty and a legitimate order. In the view of the Reichsbürger, then, refusing to pay taxes or rejecting court orders issued by institutions of this allegedly “non-existent state” are legitimate actions—while armament and violence directed against the German state can be justified forms of “self-defense.” The Grundgesetz (“Basic Law”) of May 23, 1949, is, of course, without any doubt the ratified and legitimate constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, no matter what these Reichsbürger claim or fantasize, and political representatives are regularly elected in democratic elections. However, the obvious absurdity if not insanity of their ideas has not stopped them from being relevant, even increasingly popular, and dangerous.
Delegitimating Germany’s political order and institutions, the Reichsbürger promote an alternative reality anchored in fantasies about the German Reich. Apart from their historical ties to right-wing extremism and the obscure denial—and outright hatred—of Germany’s democratic constitution, the ideological origins of those drawn to the Reichsbürger movement can be partly as heterogeneous as the social and personal background among their ranks, which include citizens for some reason recently disenfranchised with the German authorities as well as long-term fanatics. Some are straight monarchists who want to restore a German kingdom or Kaiserreich; others favor some sort of violent rightist-libertarian anarchism; some believe esoteric ideas about “Germanic roots,” and some harbor sympathies to neo-Nazism. But nationalism and the nostalgic dream to “restore” a proud German nation and Reich, conspiracy thinking, and the outright rejection of liberal democracy stand out as widely accepted among the Reichsbürger. These shared ideologies of hate also generally demonstrate their intrinsically strong ideological affinity to the broader extreme right. What was notably missing in much of the German media coverage on the attempted coup, however, is the fact that the Reichsbürger are, for the most part, also a profoundly antisemitic movement. In a keynote at the Swiss “World Web Forum,” Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuß declares, “And today, after over thirty years of research, I believe to have found the origin of this historical development and condition of our societal structure. What is behind all these wars, these revolutions, and who benefits? … The representatives of the dynasty of the Rothschilds … [who] are proud of the fact that they have financed the French Revolution and countless aggressive activities and wars all around the world.”
It is no coincidence that the fanaticism and conspiracy thinking all too present among the Reichsbürger are complemented by antisemitism, according to which Jews—at times thinly veiled in conspiracy narratives such as the one about “the Rothschilds”—are Germany’s and humanity’s enemy. Most conspiracy fantasies end in the historical matrix of anti-Semitism, which is the historically transmitted conspiracy myth sui generis. Reuß, like other adherents of the Reichsbürger movement, divides the world into good people—first and foremost the ‘true Germans’—and their “globalist” “Jewish enemies,” who appear to be secretly string-pulling, responsible for modern wars, global disorder, and the erosion of traditional social and national bonds, culture, and values, for financial gains, power, and in the pursuit of never-ending world domination. The antisemitic image of Jews comes in handy as a universal explanation through which all that, in the Reichsbürger’s view, is bad and evil in the modern world can be explained by conspiratorial, hidden, illicit Jewish machinations and orchestrations. In his ambition to fight “the Rothschilds,” restore the Reich, and rule over Germany, Heinrich XIII hoped to find support in a global “Alliance” against a conspiratorial “globalist,” “Anglo-American,” “Rothschild” elite. For some of these Reichsbürger, even Hitler was a puppet of the Jews and American “high finance” for whom he allegedly started World War II in order to lose. For others, Angela Merkel was an Israeli and Helmut Kohl Jewish. In light of all this, it does not come as a surprise that the antisemitic American QAnon fantasy has been widely popular among the Reichsbürger—and well beyond this movement in Germany.
Authoritarian Rebels: “Reichsbürger” and the Radical Right on the Rise
Arguably decoupled from reality and delusional, but far from being only an irrelevant crazy fringe or simply harmless disenfranchised retirees, the Reichsbürger movement recruits Germans from all social strata and constitutes a real threat to citizens and denizens. It is part of a growing, radicalized extreme right that includes a terrorist wing. Since the beginning of the millennium, this extreme right has produced neo-Nazi networks and terror cells like the National Socialist Underground (NSU). Even though it may sound funny when some Reichsbürger declare themselves to be “Reich chancellors,” many of them do not only glorify violence but, like the NSU, are authoritarian rebels who dream of overthrowing the constitutional government by all means available (no matter how far-fetched this goal is). Their fantasies legitimize, in their view, violent “acts of self-defense” against the German state and its representatives, including civil servants and police forces who defend constitutional democracy, representatives of government and political institutions, and Jews. According to Germany’s security agencies, 2,000 of these Reichsbürger are prepared to commit violence. And in 2021, at least 500 of them still officially owned weapons (in addition to presumably many illegal weaponry). Thus, the failed coup and the arrests of members of the “Patriotic Union” are unlikely to be the end of this story. There are many more Reichsbürger groups and movement activists who cooperate and coordinate with other extreme right groups, including right-wing terrorists, while waiting for “Day X”: the envisioned dismantling of Germany’s “temporary” democratic government. The threat to individuals and society remains real, even if there is, to be sure, currently no actual threat to Germany’s democratic system.
More generally, Germany faces an overall emboldened and broadened extreme right, of which the Reichsbürger are only a small part. This extreme entails various significant protest movements, neo-Nazi networks, and far-right milieus. And it is emboldened by the international surge of the far-right and widespread conspiracy ideologies like QAnon as well as the growing political presence of the authoritarian-populist, far-right party AfD, which spreads disinformation about Germany’s democracy in the Bundestag. The AfD is embedded in extreme right milieus (including ties to Reichsbürger like the judge and former AfD Bundestag member who was arrested) and mirrors other strengthened far-right parties and movements across the world that currently challenge liberal democracies and their constitutional frameworks.
These new authoritarian rebels can benefit from a “polycrisis” (Adam Tooze) affecting liberal democracies today—a set of multiple major economic, ecological, cultural, political, and public health crises that have helped erode trust in democratic governments and democratic systems. Those challenges, to be sure, are not Germany’s alone. Support for the far-right here is still relatively low when compared to other liberal democracies like France or the United States, while institutional trust in government and media is still comparatively high, and overall centrifugal political polarization trends are still relatively modest. Yet, the largely unrestricted and unfiltered spread of disinformation through a digitally restructured public sphere, the manifest disenfranchisement from established parties, if not the political system of constitutional democracy, among entire segments of society, and the effects of growing socio-economic disparities and new politico-cultural conflicts have the potential to further erode democratic society in Germany as well—and to be exploited by extreme rightists at the ballot box, on the streets, and in networks that can take a violent turn.
Sources and Further Readings
Bennhold, Katrin & Erika Solomon. “Far Right Group Suspected in German Plot Gained Strength from QAnon,” New York Times, December 8, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/08/world/europe/germany-plot-qanon.html?smid=url-share.
Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, “Reichsbürger: Zahlen und Fakten.” 2022. https://www.verfassungsschutz.de/DE/themen/reichsbuerger-und-selbstverwalter/zahlen-und-fakten/zahlen-und-fakten_node.html.
Hermann, Melanie. “Reichsbürger“ und Souveränisten: Basiswissen und Handlungsstrategien. 2., revised edition, Berlin: Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, 2018. https://www.amadeu-antonio-stiftung.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Reichsbuerger_Internet.pdf.
Keady, Joseph. “Querdenker, Querfront, and QAnon: On the German Far-Right and Its American Occupation.” EuropeNow Journal (July 25, 2021). https://www.europenowjournal.org/2021/07/25/querdenker-querfront-and-qanon-on-the-german-far-right-and-its-american-occupation/.
Kellerhoff, Sven Felix. “Rechtsextremismus: Zwei Terroristen erfanden die Reichsbürger.” Die Welt, March 19, 2020. https://www.welt.de/geschichte/article206647955/Rechtsextremismus-Zwei-Terroristen-erfanden-die-Reichsbuerger.html.
Rapp, Tobias. “Make the Kaiser great again.” Der Spiegel, December 17, 2022. https://www.spiegel.de/kultur/reichsbuerger-make-the-kaiser-great-again-meinung-a-a807209c-40bd-4b4f-800e-c5dd889036e1.
Schönberg, Christoph & Sophie Schönberger, Eds. Die Reichsbürger: Verfassungsfeinde zwischen Staatsverweigerung und Verschwörungstheorie, Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 2019.
Schwartz, Kolja. “Reichsbürger-Bewegung: Zunehmend gewaltbereit.” Tagesschau.de, December 7, 2022. https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/innenpolitik/reichsbuerger-chronik-101.html.
Speit, Andreas, Ed. Reichsbürger: Die unterschätzte Gefahr, Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag, 2017.