The Reichsbürger movement in Germany
They reject the legitimacy of Germany's government. Some are prepared to use violence. Who are the Reichsbürger? And what is Germany doing about them?
What do Reichsbürger believe?
"Reichsbürger" translates to "citizens of the Reich." The nebulous movement rejects the modern German state, and insists that the German Empire's 1937 or 1871 borders still exist and the modern country is an administrative construct still occupied by Allied powers. For Reichsbürger, the government, parliament, judiciary and security agencies are puppets installed and controlled by foreigners.
The first 'Reichsbürger' Wolfgang Ebel
Wolfgang Ebel was the first to argue the German Reich's continued to exist. A resident of West Berlin, he worked for Berlin S-bahn local train service which the GDR operated under the label "Deutsche Reichsbahn." When he got sacked in 1980 he argued that he was actually a civil servant of the Reich and could not be sacked by a post-war institution. He lost all his court cases and turned radical.
What do they do?
The Reichsbürger refuse to pay taxes or fines. They see their personal property, such as their houses, as independent entities outside the authority of the Federal Republic of Germany, and reject the German constitution and other legal texts, but also swamp German courts with lawsuits. They produce their own aspirational documents such as passports and driving licenses.
How much of a threat are they?
The Reichsbürger scene began to develop in the 1980s and is a disparate, leaderless movement that has grown to about 23,000 supporters, according to German intelligence officials. Of those, about 950 have been identified as far-right extremists and at least 1,000 have a license to own firearms. Many subscribe to antisemitic ideologies.
Who are its members? One was Mr. Germany
According to German authorities, the average Reichsbürger is 50 years old, male, and is socially and financially disadvantaged. The movement's members are concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of Germany. Adrian Ursache, a former winner of the Mister Germany beauty pageant, is also a Reichsbürger and was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2019 for shooting and injuring a policeman.
The case of Wolfgang P., who in October 2017 was sentenced to life in prison for murdering a police officer, is seen as a turning point for how German authorities deal with the extremist group. P., an alleged Reichsbürger member, shot at officers who were raiding his home to confiscate weapons. The case gained international attention and set off alarm bells over the escalation of violence.
What are the authorities doing about it?
German authorities were accused of long underestimating the threat. In 2017 for the first time Germany’s domestic intelligence service documented extremist crimes perpetrated by individual Reichsbürger. Since then there have been several raids on Reichsbürger targets and subgroups have been banned. Police and military have also probed whether they have Reichsbürger in their own ranks.
International parallels, conspiracy theories
Reichsbürger have been seen waving Russian flags, leading to allegations that they are funded by Russia with the aim to destabilize the German government. Germany's Reichsbürger are also compared to US groups such as "freemen-on-the-land," who believe that they are bound only by laws they consent to and can therefore declare themselves independent of the government and the rule of law.
Ringleader Heinrich XIII, Prince Reuss
The prince was the ringleader of "Reichsbürger" affiliates who planned a coup in 2022. He had lost several court cases to regain lost lands and properties, and then publicly reiterated the belief that the current democratic Federal Republic has no valid basis, peddled well-worn antisemitic tropes and suggested to reinstate the Kaiser, who had been removed against the wishes of the people.