The German government has only just started tracking dangerous Reichsbürger, it has admitted. Members of the movement reject the legitimacy of the German state and have murdered police officers.
The Green party has accused the German security forces of being too slow to recognize the danger presented by the Reichsbürger movement, some of whose members have murdered police officers and been accused of planning terrorist attacks.
In an official answer to a parliamentary question submitted by the Green party and shown to DW on Tuesday, the German Interior Ministry admitted that domestic intelligence only began defining Reichsbürger attacks as politically-motivated (like far-right or Islamist attacks) in January this year, even though the movement's ideology has been known about for decades. That means the country's counter-terrorism forces have only just started collecting statistics on Reichsbürger crimes.
Reichsbürger belong to a disparate, leaderless movement unified by an ideology that denies the authority of the German state established after World War Two: "Reichsbürger" translates as "Reich citizens," suggesting its members still consider themselves citizens of the pre-war German state.
Given this potentially treasonous threat, the Green party questioned some of the ministry's conclusions: while the ministry currently counted some 10,000 Germans as Reichsbürger, only a single individual has been categorized as a Gefährder (a term used by the domestic intelligence agency that translates as an "endangerer" to public safety), while three more were considered "relevant persons" - in other words, contacts to an endangerer who could become accomplices.
Underestimating the dangers?
Given that German police raided 12 Reichsbürger properties across Germany at the end of January and seized stockpiles of firearms, explosives and ammunition, while a police officer was shot and killed by a self-professed Reichsbürger in October last year, four potentially violent individuals seemed like a low estimate to Irene Mihalic, the Green party's interior policy spokeswoman.
"Before January, the Reichsbürger movement wasn't really being investigated," she told DW. "Again and again, we've brought up the danger of this movement in the Bundestag."
Elsewhere in its 20-page answer, the government itself admitted, "Given that state authority and legitimacy, especially the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force, are not recognized, and that instead they propagate their own right to armed 'resistance,' we can assume a high potential danger from the scene."
This is a change of tune for the government, which, according to Mihalic, has previously always dismissed Reichsbürger as "harmless madmen." "But there are more and more reports that Reichsbürger are setting up small groups and arming themselves," she said. "And it's only as a consequence of this that they've slowly started waking up. But it's very, very late."
When asked to respond to this, the Interior Ministry pointed DW to a previous answer to an parliamentary information request, from 2012, which said, "A unified 'Reichsbürger movement' does not exist, according to the government's assessment."
Indeed, an internal document from Germany's intelligence agencies leaked last November showed that the agencies were struggling to identify exactly who posed an extremist threat and who was merely engaging in democratic opposition to the state. But this is not good enough for Mihalic.
"I can't understand that," she said. "Even so-called 'normal' far-right extremists aren't a homogenous group - you'll find all kinds of different ideologies in the far-right scene, and I don't see how it could be that difficult to add Reichsbürger to that spectrum."
"Or take Islamism," Mihalic added. "There, too, there are all kinds of groupings, and the authorities don't find it difficult to identify certain characteristics that put them in that category. As heterogeneous as the Reichsbürger might be, they have one thing in common: they all reject the Federal Republic of Germany, they all reject the constitution."
Neo-Nazis or not?
Another anomaly in the government's answer this week is that it only counts "500 to 600" far-right extremists among the 10,000 Reichsbürger, begging the question: what are all the others? In response, the government again referred to its 2012 answer, which argued that with the majority of Reichsbürger, "there are significant doubts that there are goal-orientated political modes of behavior that can be taken seriously. The activities of these individuals and groupings are rather primarily relevant to the police and the public order office."
"For me it's not justifiable that they make distinctions within the Reichsbürger like this," said Mihalic. "If they don't recognize the 1945 borders and support a deeply revanchist ideology that is clearly anchored on the right, you don't really need to start making complicated distinctions - from my point of view you can very clearly say: all the people who feel like they belong to this movement, regardless of what form, what else could they be? They're definitely not on the left."