In a large-scale raid, German police targeted dozens of individuals from the Reichsbürger scene who were suspected of planning a coup. What kind of movement is this — and what threat does it pose to democracy?
A group of "Reichsbürger" allegedly spent months preparing for a "Day X," on which they wanted to overthrow the government. In a large-scale raid on Wednesday morning, several suspects were arrested, including ex-soldiers and a former member of the Bundestag.
Since November 2021, they had been holding secret meetings and engaged in shooting exercises in preparation for a coup, according to the attorney general. In their plans, the suspects did not shy away from the use of military force or homicide.
"The sheer number of arrests and searches has shocked me," sociologist Timo Reinfrank, executive director of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation told DW. The foundation is one of Germany's leading NGOs working against right-wing extremism, racism, and antisemitism.
"A real coup d'état can hardly succeed in Germany, as the state order and the constitution are too solid for that, but these people believe it is possible. That shows how caught up they are in their delusion."
Reichsbürger reject the German legal system and the country's parliamentarism, and most of them propagate the re-establishment of the German empire founded in 1871. They also believe that the victorious Western Allies of World War II, who defeated Nazi Germany, still secretly rule the country.
In recent years, the growing number of Reichsbürger has alarmed German security authorities. In its June 2022 report, the domestic intelligence service estimated that around 21,000 people belong to this scene — and their number is rising.
The high potential for violence among the self-proclaimed Reichsbürger was described as particularly worrying: "Around 500 of these people still have at least one weapons permit," the intelligence report read.
The Reichsbürger are not a homogeneous group, according to a 2018 study by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. Instead, the term refers to a "large, very diverse milieu of ideologists" who vary in their propensity for violence and militancy, but all are united by the belief that the Federal Republic of Germany is not a sovereign state. They reject the constitution and all state institutions.
Around 1,150 of the Reichsbürger — or just over 5% — were classified as right-wing extremists in 2021. But many others also use elements of right-wing extremist ideology or believe in antisemitic conspiracy myths. The idea that Germany's borders should be extended to include territories in Eastern Europe, which were occupied under Nazi rule that ended in 1945, is also found in its milieu.
How dangerous are the Reichsbürger?
In recent years, a number of serious crimes have been attributed to Reichsbürger. Several have stood trial for murder or attempted murder. The crimes registered by the domestic intelligence service rose sharply between 2020 and 2021.
Reinfrank said that militancy is already rooted in the Reichsbürgers' ideology. "Because Reichsbürger do not recognize the constitution and the legitimacy of the security authorities, their ideology legitimizes them to act with violence."
"These are not people who commit random attacks. They want to specifically attack the basic state order, like elected local politicians," Reinfrank explained.
The past three years of protests against the COVID-19 restrictions led to radicalization and an increase in the number of supporters of Reichsbürger ideology. For example, at a demonstration by the group "Freie Geister" (free spirits), protesters held a banner that read: "Sovereignty. For the freedom of our country."
"The scene has become radicalized. People are becoming more receptive to the core idea of the Reichsbürger, that Germany is not free and the elected government is not sovereign," Reinfrank said.
A close-knit far-right network?
The suspects targeted by the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office's investigation include a soldier from the German Armed Forces' Special Forces Command (KSK) and several Bundeswehr reservists. A former member of the Bundestag for the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is also said to be among the suspects, as is a former police officer who was responsible for the security of Jewish communities in Lower Saxony before his suspension, which happened before the arrest.
For years, observers have warned about right-wing networks active within security agencies and the Bundeswehr. In July 2020, then-Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer disbanded an entire company of KSK, where the banned Hitler salute had allegedly been used, and where far-right music was played at parties. Police in Saxony also found a weapons cache with ammunition and explosives at the home of one soldier in the company.
"It shocks me that it has come to this again within the security authorities," Reinfrank said. "And these arrests should be taken as an opportunity to look very closely again and understand that this is a problem that the Bundeswehr cannot solve internally."
This article was originally written in German.
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