BERLIN – A new far-right force is growing in Germany.
The Reichsbürger – “Citizens of the Reich” – is a cluster of German and Austrian fringe movements that refuse to recognize German governments and borders after 1937, when Adolf Hitler secured territories that Germany had lost in World War I.
Many insist the country should revert to its borders in 1871, when Kaiser William I declared the first German Empire after defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War. They also believe American, British and other military bases in the country today represent an occupation force that has turned German leaders into puppets. Some support reinstating the German and Austrian monarchies.
“People remembered that their grandfathers had fought in a war, and there was no peace treaty, so the current boundaries are therefore invalid,” said Dirk Wilking of the Demos Brandenburg Institute for Local Community, a think tank that aims to promote democracy. “They believe there can only be a state when there is a contract.”
Wilking referred to the technical absence of a peace treaty between Nazi Germany and the Allies after World War II, when Germany was partitioned into a communist East Germany and capitalist Federal Republic of Germany. The latter absorbed the former in 1990.
Reichsbürgers present an administrative headache for government officials because, like American conspiracy theorists such as Sovereign Citizens – who insist the federal income tax is illegal or that the United States government illegally seized land in the West – they refuse to pay taxes and parking tickets and create their own passports and driver’s licenses.
Such extremists often fight parking tickets with 25-page arguments that slow down government bureaucracies.
“The greatest goal of these groups is to delegitimize the state, so they ignore all administrative dictates,” Wilking said. “Dealing with them requires a lot of manpower. A parking ticket process will take two to three years when dealing with them. At the end they still have to pay, but it is an incredible process.”
But Reichsbürgers can also be deadly when armed.
The German political magazine Focus recently reported that Reichsbürger membership has recently grown by more than 50 percent, reaching 15,600 members over the last year. Observers see the growth as part of their effort to build an army for the eventual reclaiming of German independence. More than 1,000 members own one or more weapons permits, according to Focus.
“They are preparing for Day X,” the magazine wrote.
One of the Reichsbürger groups, the Free Sate of Prussia, denied the Focus report, calling it propaganda. “We do not see the need to amass weapons or to create an army,” the group said in a press release. “These actions could invite a terrorist or civil war against us by the Federal Republic of Germany.”
Wilking is skeptical that the groups have the wherewithal to mount a coup. However, he believes conflict is in the offing.
“They do not cooperate well because they believe strongly in individualism,” Wilking said. “But they enter these organizations with their entire identity. It is not like a sports club you can join and leave. There comes a time when they have to pay a price for not filing their taxes and abiding by Germany’s laws.”
The German government has said the Reichsbürgers are responsible for approximately 13,000 crimes, most of them minor. But the group’s ideology has led to property seizures that have turned violent. Last year, a Reichsbürger killed a policeman in a shootout in Bavaria when authorities came to evict him and seize his home.
“The police killing was not about the Reichsbürger ideology, but it had to do with the person himself,” said Wilking. “He was a martial arts fighter and in security, but his girlfriend was in the police so he knew that they were going to come and take his house. To prepare, he bought weapons and protective vests and caused a shootout.”
The man was sentenced to life in prison. After his conviction, his defense attorney said the prosecution was politically motivated.
Authorities now fear a rise in armed Reichsbürgers launching lone-wolf attacks, said Wilking.
“Most of the weapons they are buying aren’t illegal,” he said. “They are usually registered guns obtained as part of shooting clubs or for hunting purposes. But what makes it dangerous is that these groups are highly individualistic and do not recognize German authorities.”
Because of their disregard for the government, Reichsbürgers rarely ally themselves with political parties. However, they have loose ties to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a political party that won enough votes in September to become the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag since World War II.
Reichsbürgers have also collaborated with Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, a group that arose in protest of Middle Eastern and other refugees who fled to Europe in recent years to escape war and poverty at home.
Like PEGIDA supporters, Reichsbürgers claim they are not racist. But they certainly appear xenophobic.
“The party line is that they love all Africans as long as they are in Africa,” Wilking said. “They are not far right extremists, but they are politically extreme. If you ask them who is German and who belongs in Germany, they have a lot of the same answers as Hitler.”