by Ralph Keller
On December 7, 2022, 3,000 police and other personnel conducted the biggest anti-terror raid in German post-war history. The raid targeted the Reichsbürger movement, which, allegedly, had plotted to carry out a putsch, a coup d’état. Marco Buschmann, Secretary of Justice, said “[t]he suspicion is that an armed attack on constitutional institutions was planned”, and they intended to carry out attacks on critical infrastructure in an attempt to incite a situation of civil war.
The raid stopped the insurrection dead. It also prevented the kidnapping of Germany’s Health Secretary, Karl Lauterbach, by the Unified Patriots, a stream within the Reichsbürger movement. The raid unearthed long guns and handguns as well as several thousand rounds of ammunition, and triggered fears that that the group involved in the failed coup might be twice as large as had been anticipated.
Heinrich Reuss during his arrest. Credit: Spiegel online.
Twenty-four German women and men plus one person from Russia were arrested in the raid, and one was arrested in Austria followed by extradition to Germany. A significant number of those arrested are active or former members of the armed forces, and some have specialist military training.
The key players in the failed putsch include Heinrich XIII, Prince of Reuss, who was to be the new leader of Germany had the putsch succeeded. He allegedly had celebrated Russian National Day in the Consulate in Leipzig (his girlfriend is Russian and arranged the meeting). Also involved and head strategist was Rüdiger von Pescatore, a former Lt. Col. and parachute commander, who had been dismissed from the army because of illegal arms dealing.
Ministerial posts in the new government were already allocated, for example to Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a former AfD MP and judge, who would have been secretary of justice; and Melanie R., a doctor, who would have been health secretary. And Tim Paul Gorgass who would have been foreign secretary and who, with the help of Matthes Haug, would have attempted to talk the allies into signing a “proper” peace treaty with Germany. Only such a treaty would, allegedly, guarantee the full sovereignty of Germany.
Media speculation indicates that the group formed by way of a snowball system, such as “I know a guy who knows a guy”. If the situation were not as serious as it is, it would almost be comical.
In this article I present an overview of the movement, discuss responses from politicians, and offer my thoughts on the dangers of the movement.
Who Are the Reichsbürger and What Makes them Tick?
The word Reichsbürger is composed of two nouns, with the second one, Bürger, meaning citizen. The first noun, Reich, means realm or empire, but may be taken to mean nation state. It is a very heterogeneous movement, consisting of small groups and individuals. The latter are comprised of aristocrats, medical doctors, business people, an arms dealer, current and former members of the armed forces, lawyers, and Querdenker.
The situation does not allow for the identification of a clear social class. However, members of the movement hold esoteric world views, or subscribe to right extremism, anti-Semitism and holocaust denial. But the common ground shared by all is the rejection of democracy, the embrace of elements of monarchy, historical revisionism, and viewing the government as an illegitimate, globalist conspiracy against the people. Reichsbürger therefore reject all state institutions, which includes the refusal to pay taxes and administrative fines (like traffic fines). Their ideology “legitimises” violence, albeit not random acts, but organised and co-ordinated attacks on the state order, as the December 7 raid has revealed.
Reichsbürger subscribe to the big conspiracy theory that today’s Federal Republic of Germany is not a sovereign state, and that the German Empire, The Reich, continues to exist—either within the borders of 1914, or within the borders of 1937. This includes the view that the 1919 Constitution of the Weimar Republic was never abolished, which delegitimises today’s Germany and today’s constitution. In other words, the conspiracy theory is that the Federal Republic of Germany is, allegedly, not identical with the German Reich, so that today’s Germany is illegal constitutionally, as well as under international law. According to the Reichsbürger, this means that the Federal Republic of Germany de facto does not exist and is still under allied occupation, albeit in secret.
This is, however, a very abstruse argument because West Germany is the continued existence of the German Reich within partial borders. Dahm, Delbrück and Wolfrum (1989) argue that, on the grounds of international law, the assumption of an identity of the West German partial state with the Reich precludes the concurrent assumption of the continued existence of the Reich as separate from the Federal Republic. Furthermore, the 1973 ruling of West Germany’s High Court addresses the issues, in particular in relation to international law that arose after WW2. The ruling confirms that the Reich did not cease to exist in 1945 and that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany implies this continued existence, notably in the Preamble, as well as Articles 16, 23, 116, and 146. The ruling also states, explicitly, that the establishment of the Federal Republic did not establish a new state, and that, instead, a part of The Reich had been newly organised. West Germany was not, therefore, the legal successor of the German Reich.
But was the situation changed after the GDR joined the geographical area within which the West German constitution applies? The 1973 High Court ruling provided for this possibility because the partial identity of West Germany with the Reich does not mean exclusivity. Therefore, this means that geographical areas other than post-war West Germany may join the partial Reich, so that the area covered by the Reich simply expands. Clearly, the judges had in mind that the GDR and other areas to the East of the Oder river may become part of Germany again.
Despite the clarity of the ruling, Reichsbürger get entangled in a self-contradictory argument: they accept the ruling as legally binding, but take it as “the killer reason” for rejecting the Federal Republic of Germany and its institutions as legitimate entities. Another contradiction is that they use police insignia illegally, which supposedly gives them authority, and they issue their own court orders, but they reject the legitimacy of institutions.
They establish their own institutions, even a “government”, and issue their own car license plates and passports (pictured). The official passport is burgundy red and reads “European Union” and “Bundesrepublik Deutschland” on the front cover; the official plate has a blue bar (instead of black-white-red) with EU stars and a D (instead of DR = Deutsches Reich).
A passport and a car licence plate, Reichsbürger special issue. Credit: public domain.
Capitalization of a person’s name in the official passport allegedly proves that citizens are kept as slaves, a practice that traces back to the Roman Empire of 2,000 years ago. Or they proclaim themselves as sovereign citizens and argue that the world Bank acquires ownership of a new-born when a birth certificate is issued. One of their newspapers is called “Freedom Courier” — funny how the far right keeps usurping the word freedom. There is more guff, but it is too numerous to list.
Attempts have been made to explain the Reichsbürger movement. One explanation is that a Reichsbürger is a mentally fragile state official or public servant who typically votes conservative. This person should be grateful to the system that allowed progression, but instead feels they have not progressed far enough. Consequently, the person becomes disgruntled because of the lack of resilience, and those arrested were disgruntled to an extreme. But this stereotyping is blatantly wrong because not all Reichsbürger are state officials or public servants, and because the movement is highly heterogeneous and diverse. Another explanation is that the Reichsbürger are a movement similar to the far right in the US, whose members are unhappy with the system and hold nothing but distrust for it—not because a person did not progress far enough, but because of a much more fundamental unhappiness. Perhaps this is so, in particular because those arrested stand accused of attempting to overthrow the German state to turn their fantasies and ideologies into reality.
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (or BVS for short, meaning Bundesverfassungsschutz), the German equivalent to the FBI, takes the Reichsbürger movement extremely seriously and estimates that the movement had attracted about 21,000 people as of 2022. Around 500 of these hold at least one firearms permit. Worryingly, this is not only the permit for non-lethal firearms; it is also the permit for lethal weapons held by current and former members of the armed forces. As regards the group that was arrested on December 7, BVS president Thomas Haldeweg says (my translation) that “the network that was uncovered is a prime example of the formation of a new, violence-oriented mixed scene, within which Reichsbürger ideologies, conspiracy theories among people who try to delegitimise the German state, and right-extremist narratives come together”. It’s now up to the Public Prosecutor General to prove that the group had indeed formed a terrorist group and planned to overthrow the political order of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Like the BVS president, Nancy Faeser, secretary of the interior, also spoke of fantasies of overthrowing the government and of subscribing to conspiracy theories. She also discussed a tightening of the of the gun law, and in particular a ban on private individuals possessing semi-automatic weapons, although no such weapons were found with those that were arrested. It is also important, Faeser said, to identify extremists in civil service and remove them, especially when they have access to weapons. In addition, she emphasised the need to tighten the civil service law, which has been in planning for some time. Nancy Faeser wants local authorities to ban Reichsbürger from acquiring firearms licenses and wants institutions to expel “enemies of the constitution” — which would include members of the far left. Some MPs argue that existing laws are sufficient and only require more rigorous application.
Alice Weidel, head of the AfD, engaged in downplaying and trivialising, speaking of a “rollator-putsch” because the December 7 raid allegedly targeted only pensioners. Weidel also trivialised the danger in relation to former AfD MP and judge Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, purported secretary of the new government had the putsch succeeded, saying that this is only one AfD member. The real danger, according to Weidel, are Germany’s open borders and illegal immigration. This is typical AfD rhetoric, as Malsack-Winkemann has, in her speeches in parliament, repeatedly discriminated against refugees and belittled them because of their origin. From Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Victor Orbán with love! In stark contrast, Berlin’s Senator of Justice, Lena Keck (Die Linke), moved in the special court that oversees the conduct of judges to transfer Malsack-Winkemann into parliamentary retirement, but the motion did not pass. Considering Malsack-Winkemann’s arrest it is evident, however, that the court ruling is wrong.
While many politicians acknowledge the threat to bourgeois democracy from the far right, including the Reichsbürger, the Centre for Counter-Extremism and Counterterrorism (my translation of GETZ — Gemeinsames Extremismus- und Terrorismusabwehrzentrum) has other priorities. The centre looks towards the left, to climate change activists in 28 meetings, while focusing on the far right in far fewer meetings. A German comedian once coined the phrase “eye patch on the right, contact lens on the left”. The Public Prosecutor General’s Office, which leads the investigation against the Reichsbürger and ordered the December 7 raid, was far more effective than the GETZ. The security forces were praised for their operation.
Dangers of the Reichsbürger Movement
Putsches have somewhat of a tradition in Germany. This Wikipedia entry lists no fewer than eight putsches in Germany during the 20th century, of which five were from the right. This includes the well-known Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, staged by none other than Hitler and his cronies; and the Kapp Putsch, which brought the fragile Weimar Republic to the brink of civil war. In today’s Germany, it is no secret that the extreme right is dangerous, with one example being the stabbing of CDU politician Walter Lübcke in the city of Kassel.
But this is not the Reichsbürger movement per se one might argue, they are only a “misguided few, what can they do”? Downplaying and trivialising are also a German tradition, for which Die Linke constantly criticises Parliament and Government. The fact of the matter is that in October 2017 a Reichsbürger received a life sentence for killing a policeman; in 2021, the BVS attributed 1011 criminal acts to the movement; the Reichsbürger allegedly had planned to set up 286 unofficial “homeland protection companies”, which are nothing but thugs patrolling the streets (the German army has official units of the same name, they are the equivalent to the National Guard in the US). These “companies” are a very worrying development, not least because those arrested included the former paratrooper Lt. Col., an arms dealer and illegal weapon stashes including ammunition.
Because a putsch by way of an armed insurrection was stopped in its tracks, one might argue that it is hard for a coup d’état to succeed in Germany—due to the robustness of the state order. The most that would be possible are attacks on the Bundestag like the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. But what is such an attack other than a coup? The form it takes is irrelevant. What matters is the essence, the nature, of such an event. So, if one argues that an attack on the Bundestag is possible, one must also accept that an armed insurrection is possible.
Regarding the December 7 raids, I believe that there was a high dose of white supremacy and entitlement involved, as well as “Germany first” thinking. This is not exclusive to the group that was arrested. It is, instead, the thinking that Reichsbürger and other far-right extremists share at a fundamental level. The danger is real.
 To abbreviate a suspect’s surname is a peculiarity in the German legal system. In Melanie R.’s case I was unable to find the full surname.
 Dahm, G; Delbrück, J; Wolfrum, R. (1989). Völkerrecht, Vol. I/1, 2nd ed. Berlin 1989.
 A wheeled walking-frame.