The December 2022 German Reichsb

AuthorRitzmann, Alexander

The largest counterterrorism raid in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany took place on December 7, 2022. (1) It was directed against a network of Reichsburger (Citizens of the Empire) called the Patriotic Union. More than 3,000 police officers, including SWAT teams and special forces, searched apartments, houses, and offices in 11 of the 16 German federal states. Twenty-five people were arrested, including one each in Austria and Italy. Among the arrested was the alleged ring-leader, Heinrich the 13th, Prinz Reu[beta] who has strong anti-Semitic and pro-Putin sentiments. (2) Until the abolishment of the monarchy in Germany in 1918, his family had ruled a small part of eastern Germany for centuries.

Also arrested were a former member of the Bundestag and now suspended judge, former officers of the German armed forces, a police inspector, a doctor, a gourmet chef, a lawyer, a pilot, an opera singer, a clairvoyant, a roofer, and an employee of an advertising agency. (3) Some of the defendants are also part of Querdenken, a German movement driven by conspiracy narratives, that featured in organized protests by networks, groups, and individuals during the pandemic against government measures to contain the coronavirus. (4) In total, more than 50 people are under investigation. This article assesses the alleged plot by the Reichsburger group called Patriotic Union to overthrow the German government that was thwarted in December 2022. The article first outlines what is known about the plot. It then in turn examines the history, the ideology, the adherents, and the threat posed by the Reichsburger.

The Plot

The German Federal Prosecutor General accuses the defendants of having created a terrorist organization and aiming to overthrow the existing state order in Germany, possibly by using military means and violence against state representatives. Among the discussed actions were entering the German Bundestag building (the federal parliament) and taking its members hostage. (5)

During the raid, police forces seized 97 guns, more than 25,000 pieces of ammunition, helmets, uniforms, night-vision devices, machetes, daggers, radios, blank vaccination cards, computers, cell phones, hard drives, and illegal narcotics. More than 400,000 euros in cash and around 100 pounds of precious metals, mainly gold bars and coins, were also found. (6) However, it is unclear if these valuables were intended to finance the alleged terrorist group. Most of the weapons were legally owned. (7) A list with names and addresses of politicians and their staff were found as well. (8)

The plot appears to also have had a foreign dimension. A Russian suspect living in Germany, reportedly the life partner of the group's leader, (9) is suspected of having supported the organization, in particular by facilitating contact between the Patriotic Union leadership and Russian officials. (10) A spokesperson for the Kremlin denied any Russian involvement. (11)

The History of the Reichsburger

The roots of the Reichsburger phenomenon go back nearly 40 years. The first "provisional government of the German Reich" was created in 1985 by Wolfgang Gerhard Gunther Ebel, a disgruntled former employee of the East German state-owned train service Reichsbahn. (12) After having been fired from the train service for co-organizing a strike for better working conditions in 1980, and after several lost court cases where he tried to get re-employed by the Reichsbahn, (13) he reportedly claimed that someone from the U.S. government told him that the victors of World War II were still in charge and that neither the German Democratic Republic nor the Federal Republic of Germany legally existed. (14) As a result, he argued, the laws of the German Reich would still apply where public servants (Beamte) could not be fired. (15) In 1985, Ebel declared himself Reichschancellor of the "provisional government of the German Reich" and started to gather likeminded individuals around him. Over the years, several independent spin-off groups were created, leading to the very diverse Reichsburger phenomenon of today. (16)

Reichsburger Ideology

The Reichsburger challenge the legitimacy of the current German democratic political order. However, Reichsburger are by no means a unified movement with a clear ideology. Notably, in their definition of the Reichsburger, German police and intelligence services include a separate but somewhat similar group of people, the so-called sovereign citizens (Selbstverwalter), (17) who in this article will be included in the term Reichsburger.

Among the Reichsburger are several self-proclaimed kings of Germany and many self-proclaimed counts, dukes, chancellors and ministers, mayors, and special envoys who produce their own 'government-issued' documents and are often in conflict with each other. (18) German intelligence services estimated 23,000 individuals to be Reichsburger in 2022. (19) This number had more than doubled since 2017, when around 10,000 Reichsburger were estimated to exist. (20)

Many Reichsburger ascribe to any number of conspiracy narratives, such as a supposed Jewish-controlled 'New World Order.' (21) Others believe in a supposedly all-powerful child-murdering deep state, espoused by "QAnon." (22) Some are right-wing extremists. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a cross-fertilization of various conspiracy narratives, with individuals choosing parts of one narrative or another in a "salad-bar" manner in order to support their personal and political agendas.

A visible but also extreme example of this cross-fertilization and cross-cooperation was the Querdenken protest in Berlin on August 29, 2020. Out of an estimated 38,000 participants, a group of 300-400 rioters overcame the police barriers and occupied the steps of the Reichstag building, the seat of the German Federal Parliament. Among the rioters were QAnon believers, right-wing extremists and Reichsburger, waiving historic German imperial war flags. Some tried to enter the Reichstag but were held off by a handful of police officers until police reinforcements arrived. (23) During the whole Querdenken protest, 33 police officers were injured and 316 suspects were arrested. (24) This led to 77 charges for trespassing and five charges for resisting arrest, but most cases have been dismissed due to lack of evidence. (25)

The only narrative all Reichsburger agree upon is that the Federal Republic of Germany supposedly does not legally exist. Unlike the above-mentioned conspiracy narratives, which are postulated in different Reichsburger milieus, the question of whether the German Empire legally still exists and what this would mean for Germany today has actually been discussed in German mainstream jurisprudence for decades. (26)

Germany's turbulent history of the last 150 years is not characterized by smooth transitions between various political systems. The German Empire was founded in 1871 as a monarchy. After losing World War I in 1918, Germany abolished the monarchic system and became the democratic Weimar Republic before turning into the fascist dictatorship of Nazi-Germany, the "Third Reich." After losing World War II in 1945, two separate German states existed for 40 years from 1949...

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