This Explainer is also available in German.
On 7 December 2022, German police forces raided more than 130 homes and made 25 arrests across 11 German states in connection with an alleged coup plot by adherents of the ‘Reichsbürger‘ movement. According to national security correspondents, this was one of the largest counter-terrorism investigation in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Shortly after, the Public Prosecutor General at the Federal Court of Justice published a press release, outlining details of the group’s planned activities: according to the Public Prosecutor General, the group had been planning their coup since November 2021, tasking its armed wing with attacking the German Parliament building and overthrowing the constitutional order of the Federal Republic of Germany. In turn, the group would establish a state modelled on the German Reich of 1871 and install an interim government led by Prince Heinrich XIII., the group’s leader. A former MP of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was to become Justice Minister. So-called ‘Heimatschutzkompanien’ (regiments to protect the Homeland) would then consolidate the new system and eliminate remaining political opponents on the local level.
A cause for concern is that a significant number of the group’s members are allegedly current or former soldiers, including from elite units, and group members (in some cases legally) allegedly own firearms. This comes in a context of significant concerns around the presence of far-right extremists in the police and military, due to multiple high-profile cases over the past five years. While their aims may have been unrealistically ambitious, the involvement of highly trained individuals suggests that significant damage could have been done. Reportedly, the group also contacted the cell that plotted to abduct Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (though there is no evidence of direct cooperation between the two groups).
The details of the plot and the ideological background may at first appear puzzling to people unfamiliar with the ‘Reichsbürger’ movement, and the way the extremist landscape in Germany has evolved over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. This Explainer provides the background of the Reichsbürger ideology in Germany, how it intersects with QAnon narratives, and with the anti-lockdown Querdenken movement.
What is the Reichsbürger movement?
The Reichsbürger (‘Citizens of the Empire’) movement is a German ideology with similarities to the ‘sovereign citizens’ found in the US, Canada and UK. While the Reichsbürger movement encompasses different tendencies, they are united by a shared belief that the Federal Republic of Germany is not a sovereign state and that the laws and rules enforced by the German state are thus not binding. Many adherents of the Reichsbürger movement are convinced that the Federal Republic is instead a corporation, often called the ‘BRD GmbH’ (Federal Republic of Germany Limited Liability Company). Similar claims are widespread among sovereign citizen circles in the United States, who believe their country has become a corporation, though they disagree if this happened in the 1800s, or when the US abandoned the gold standard.
As with their US counterparts, there is no consensus in the Reichsbürger scene concerning the last legitimate form of government in Germany. Some members of the Reichsbürger movement believe that the Third Reich still exists but is occupied. Others argue that the German Empire of 1871 continues to persist.
The historic revisionism of the Reichsbürger movement makes them ideal allies for right-wing extremist and antisemitic groups in Germany. Despite this, not all followers of the Reichsbürger movement are right wing extremists: according to the German domestic intelligence services (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), roughly five percent of the Reichsbürger can be classified as right-wing extremists.
While this number might seem low, it points to the wide range of different beliefs and ideologies within the scene. Reichsbürger convictions are less of an all-encompassing worldview, but rather one part of a growing patchwork of ideologies centred around conspiracy theories, whose spread accelerated with the growth of anti-lockdown movements. In 2019, 19,000 people in Germany were estimated to be part of the Reichsbürger movement by the intelligence services. By 2021, the number had risen to 21,000.
How do Reichsbürger and QAnon beliefs overlap?
Apart from the Reichsbürger movement, the press release around the raids also claims that ‘QAnon ideology’ served as an important source of inspiration for the group. QAnon is a conspiracy theory whose adherents believe that a network of liberal elites is ruling the world while trafficking children to sexually abuse them and harvest ‘rejuvenation chemicals’ from their bodies. Former president Trump is often believed to have a secret plan in place to bring this group to justice.
While the wide-ranging QAnon conspiracy theory focuses on the US context, it has spread widely internationally, especially in Germany. Their conspiratorial convictions make Reichsbürger-believers targets for other conspiracy theories, with sections of the movement enthusiastically adopting QAnon beliefs and connecting them to their own. The specific interpretation of the group raided on 7 December appears to have been that the ‘Deep State’ rules Germany, but that a secret ‘alliance’ that includes both the United States and Russia will soon liberate Germany. After the liberation, Germany will be able to negotiate a ‘peace treaty’ with members of the ‘alliance’ (a key claim of the Reichsbürger movement is that Germany remains an occupied country as there was never a formal peace treaty with the Allied forces after World War II.)
Who are Reichsbürgers and what threat do they pose?
While Reichsbürger’ ideas resonate with a broader spectrum of people, some in the movement seem to target people in financial distress who fear forced evictions, promising to fight the ‘illegitimate’ forces who try to execute foreclosures. Activists in the German sovereigntist movement have even established their own paid services for harassing civil servants. According to research published in 2015, Reichsbürger followers are typically single, older males who are socially isolated; they tend to be narcissists and display exaggerated self-esteem. The same research finds that they are often paranoid, typically lacking a sense of basic trust, making them prone to conspiratorial beliefs.
Reichsbürgers, along with the broader sovereigntist movement, believe they live under occupation by hostile, illegitimate powers. They therefore see resistance against the state and its representatives as legitimate. This can take different forms: from printing their own passports to the declaration of kingdoms or other spaces of sovereignty on private properties, refusals to pay fines, harassment of civil servants and political representatives all the way to taking violent action. During the raid on 7 December, counter-terror police therefore received support from special police units responsible for arresting high-risk suspects, as security agencies have long expressed concern about the high number of armed Reichsbürger adherents. In 2016, a supporter fatally shot a police officer in Georgensmünd (Bavaria) during a police raid related to the illegal possession of firearms. Similar incidents over the past five years have turned violent when ‘Reichsbürger’ tried to evade police controls.
What is the Querdenken – ‘lateral thinking’ – movement?
Lastly, it has been reported that several members of the group’s armed wing had been involved in the Querdenken (‘lateral thinking’) movement. Querdenker emerged as a force during the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of thebroad and highly active anti-lockdown movement in Germany. This movement both gained a substantial number of followers on Telegram and other social media platforms, and mobilised major numbers of protestors on the streets.
Conspiracy ideologies such as the QAnon and Reichsbürger movements were prominent across different segments of the anti-lockdown movement in Germany, with symbols of these movements often portrayed at public rallies.
The Querdenker organised some of the largest anti-lockdown protests. Their manifesto demands an immediate halt to any COVID-related restrictions on basic rights outlined in the German constitution.
Since its emergence, Querdenken has caused concerns not just due to its promotion of COVID-related disinformation and conspiracy theories, but also the trivialisation of antisemitism. Adherents have worn replicas of the yellow star forced on Jews in Nazi Germany, and compared the treatment of unvaccinated people to the treatment of Jews in the Nazi era.
In April 2021, the German domestic intelligence agency additionally announced they were monitoring Querdenken under a new threat category termed ‘Delegitimisation of the State’. Part of the rationale for this monitoring was the connection between Querdenken, Reichsbürger, and right-wing extremist communities. A leaked document has even suggested that Querdenken’s founder Michael Ballweg was a ‘citizen’ of the self-declared kingdom of the Reichsbürger.
This Explainer was uploaded on 7 December 2022. It is also available in German.