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Reichsbürger Joachim Widera holding his 'passport' into the camera
The Reichsbürger beleive in Germany's pre-WWII borders and even print their own documentsImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa/P. Seeger
PoliticsGermany

What is Germany's 'Reichsbürger' movement?

Rina Goldenberg
December 7, 2022

They are radical and violent and do not recognize Germany's democratic state. In recent years, the Reichsbürger have drawn the attention of authorities. Who are they, and what kind of danger do they pose?

https://p.dw.com/p/2RRtE

Members of the Reichsbürger movement deny the existence of Germany's post-Worls War 2 Federal Republic. They believe the current state is no more than an administrative construct still occupied by the Western powers — the US, the UK and France. For them, the German Empire founded in 1871 still exists and so do Germany's pre-WW2 borders.

A substantial number of the self-proclaimed "Reichsbürger," which translates as "Citizens of the Reich" are not averse to violence to reinstate the Reich.

The movement is made up of a number of small groups and individuals, located throughout Germany. They do not accept the legality of the Federal Republic of Germany's government authorities. They refuse to pay taxes and have declared their own small "national territories," which they call the "Second German Empire," the "Free State of Prussia" or the "Principality of Germania."

Members of these groups print passports and driver's licenses for themselves. They even produce T-shirts and flags for advertising purposes. "Reichsbürger" disregard the fact that such activity is illegal and not recognized by any German authority. They proudly announce their intention to "carry on the fight against the Federal Republic of Germany" on their websites.

Just crackpots?

Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), estimated in 2022 that there are around 23,000 "Reichsbürger" in Germany, with 5% of them classified as far-right extremists. 

Most are male. On average they are over 50 years old and ascribe to right-wing populist, antisemitic and Nazi ideologies and are spread out throughout the country.  A district court judge in Saxony-Anhalt has described them as "conspiracy theorists" and "malcontents."

Reichsbürger
'Reichsbürger' at a rally in front of the Reichstag in BerlinImage: Imago/Future Image

The "Reichsbürger" underwent radicalization during the COVID-19 pandemic when they gained traction from the "Querdenker" movement and refused to adhere to any restrictions imposed by authorities they do not recognize.

Despite their rejection of the system, Reichsbürger inundate German courts with floods of motions and objections filed against court orders and payment demands issued by local authorities. Regardless of content, authorities are required to process every properly filed, formal request they receive.

Mayors from a number of communities have protested that, beyond having to deal with so much senseless work, they have also been attacked by Reichsbürger, verbally and even physically. Members often film such attacks and then post them online.

Extreme acts of violence

The group's affinity for firearms and for stockpiling weapons has left authorities concerned. The latest BfV report on the Reichsbürger said they are ready and willing to commit "serious acts of violence."

Police have found large caches of weapons and ammunition during house searches — and Reichsbürger members are continuing to arm themselves.

Since a significant part of the group consists of former soldiers of the Bundeswehr and the NVA (National People's Army of the GDR), among them men with special military training, the group is considered particularly dangerous. 

In the past few years, German authorities have revoked weapons permits for hundreds of the movement's followers.

In recent years, "Reichsbürger" followers have carried out attacks on police officers during raids — with defendants often arguing that they have a right to defend "their property."

In 2016, a police officer was shot and killed by a member of the Reichsbürger movement during a police raid to seize the man's arsenal of over 30 firearms that he had illegally hoarded.

In 2021 several Reichsbürger were among protesters against the COVID restrictions who stormed the steps of the Reichstag building in Berlin.

In 2022, investigators found a group to have planned, among other things, to storm the parliament in Berlin (the Reichstag) and attack the country's power supply, and depose the federal government in order to then take power. There were even plans for certain individuals to take over important ministerial posts for the moment of the "takeover." 

According to the Federal Prosecutor's Office, there were plans to form a transitional government that would negotiate the new state order in Germany with the Allied victorious powers of World War II — first and foremost with the Russian Federation.

German lawmakers discuss 'Reichsbürger' plot

'Reichsbürger' historical claims debunked

No peace treaty: The "Reichsbürger" claim that Germany is not an independent state, but a construct created by the victorious allies after World War Two. The lack of a peace treaty is among the arguments cited as "proof" for this theory.

Indeed, at the end of World War II, Germany surrendered but did not conclude a              peace treaty. This was because there was initially no longer a German government in the postwar period that could have concluded such a treaty.

Transitional constitution: When West Germany drafted and then implemented its Basic Law (Grundgesetz) the term "constitution" was deliberately avoided: The Basic Law did not constitute a constitution for the entire German people, nor did full sovereignty prevail within its scope. It was intended to be a transitional solution until an all-German constitution was established.

When the two German states improved relations and accepted their borders without fully recognizing each other in 1972, the reunification requirement stipulated in the Basic Law made things complicated. West Germany's Supreme Court then pronounced a judgment, which the "Reichsbürger" point to until this day:

"The Basic Law assumes that the German Reich survived the collapse in 1945 and did not perish either with the capitulation or through the exercise of foreign state power in Germany by the Allied occupying powers, nor later; this follows from the preamble, from Article 16, Article 23, Article 116 and Article 146 of the Basic Law. [...] The German Reich continues to exist, still possesses the legal capacity, but is not itself capable of acting as a total state for lack of organization, in particular for lack of institutionalized organs."

But reunification put an end to the transitional nature and the legal construct: When West and East Germany united in 1989 the so-called Two Plus Four Treaty was signed in 1990 by West and East German governments (the eponymous Two), and the Four Powers which had occupied Germany at the end of World War II in Europe: France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the Four Powers renounced all rights they held in Germany, allowing a reunited Germany to become fully sovereign.

The former GDR joined the Federal Republic with all its laws and structures. This included the Basic Law which thereby became permanent although there never was a common vote of all German citizens on this matter.

Germany is just a company: Finally, the "Reichsbürger" hold on to the theory that Germany is just a limited liability company and that its inhabitants are just its employees. They often refer to the "Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH" (Federal Republic of Germany limited liability company). 

This company does indeed exist, but as the property of the federal government, it actually takes care of its money and capital market transactions, as the imprint states. Also, its founding date is not shortly before reunification on August 29, 1990, as is often noted, but rather at the end of 2000.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

This article has been updated since its publication to reflect recent developments.

Edited by: Timothy Jones

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