In this video essay, Anna Homann profiles the Reichsbürger movement, its function, narratives and effect on German politics and identity. As Anna analyses, the current salience of the Reichsbürger movement asks pressing questions about the level of threat nationalism poses at present.
Germany, 07.12.2022. News of a large-scale raid against Reichsbürger is spreading. The reason, accusation of having formed a terrorist organisation with the aim of eliminating the political order of the Federal Republic of Germany.
But who are the Reichsbürger anyway? What goals are they pursuing?
Reichsbürger describes people who deny the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany as a legitimate and sovereign state. They fundamentally reject the entire German legal system, especially rights for migrants and Jews. Instead, they want only Germans to live within the borders of the old German Empire and for the state to look after them only.
The Reichbürger movement is very heterogeneous and consists of many currents, some of which also differ greatly. There are differences, for example, on the question of which German Reich still exists, the German Empire of 1871 in the borders of 1914 or Hitler’s National Socialist Third Reich in the borders of 1937. Current reporting concentrates solely on the anti-constitutional and anti-state objectives of the Reichsbürger movement. This largely ignores the fact that these movements are explicitly politicising German identity and Germanness, and at the same time want to install a racist-oriented state policy. This is all the more alarming because these movements have been gaining in popularity in recent years.
Here you can see an overview of the many different currents within the Reichsbürger movement. The report on the protection of the constitution (Verfassungsschutzbericht) estimates that there are around 21,000 members and sympathisers in 2021. It is striking that 15 of the 18 currents investigated have anti-Semitic ideology. Anti-Semitic claims and formulations frequently appear: the Holocaust is denied, the Final Solution of the Jewish Question is called for and death threats against Jewish communities & individuals are proclaimed. Reichsbürger claim that WWI was planned by the Jewish Rothschild family or that the Jewish Rothschild family is aiming for a New World Order and controls banks worldwide. Their conspiracy theories include that a Jewish-Masonic puppet government exists in Germany, that Israel and the Allies are exploiting Germany, that a rule of “National Zionism” or even a world rule of political Zionism exists.
Beyond anti-Semitism, the Reichsbürger also hold generally racist views and objectives. They believe that the migrants are taking away the German people’s land, that the Germans are being alienated by the migrants, that there is spatial and cultural foreignisation and unhealthy mixing with foreign ethnic groups. They are against the admission of asylum seekers and do not want Turks, Muslims and black people on German soil.
This documents an unacceptable exclusion of Jews and foreigners: They are not supposed to be part of the population in Germany, the German state is not supposed to care for them and they are not supposed to have social and political rights in Germany.
Unlike other right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis in Germany, the territory of Germany plays a special role for the Reichsbürger when it comes to the question of inclusion/exclusion of Germans and non-Germans. The Reichsbürger pursue a geopolitical expansion of Germany, which has consequences for the population living there today.
For what would the continued existence of the German Reich mean, as the Reichsbürger claim? As an example, I would like to pick out the “Free State of Prussia” current. According to this, the borders of the 1914 empire would have to be restored. Compared to the Federal Republic of Germany today, this would be a significantly enlarged national territory.
In the case of the former German territories that now belong to Poland, they argue that it is still an occupatio bellica, i.e. a military seizure. Consequently, the Polish population living there must either take Prussian German citizenship and renounce Polish citizenship and thus become a Reichsbürger. If they do not do so, they must leave the territory of the Free State of Prussia within a period of 12 months.
The Reichsbürger represent an exemplary nationalist ideology. Nationalism politicises identity, e.g. race or ethnicity. The Reichsbürger see only the German by birth or – the not quite so extreme currents – the “German” citizen as a member of the German identity.
For the Reichsbürger, the state should only be there for this “German” population, so for one Reichsbürger current only for the Germans on the territory of the German Empire in the borders of 1914 and for the other current for the Germans on the territory of the National Socialist Third Reich in the borders of 1937.
Nationalism generally means that the state assigns rights to people exclusively on the basis of identity. In the ideology of the Reichsbürger, only those who are German by birthright or members of the German state are supposed to be holders of social and political rights.
For many years, the Reichsbürger currents were not taken seriously and the number of sympathisers was underestimated. The Covid-19 pandemic with the lockdowns and rules around masks and vaccinations gave the Reichsbürger movement enormous sympathy and popularity. The Reichsbürger rejected these coercive measures because they assumed a state whose existence they denied.
Through the leverage of the anti-Covid-19 protests, the propagandistic space for the nationalist ideas of the Reichsbürger opened up for many people critical of vaccination. Terror expert Professor Peter Neumann from King’s College London explained that this movement has become much more structured and much better networked in the last two and a half years and that there are Telegram groups that bring these people together.
Another aspect to be taken seriously is the linking of the nationalist ideology of Reichsbürger with violent actions. According to the findings of the German Report on the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutzbericht2021), the number of potentially violent Reichsbürger rose to 2,100. By way of comparison, in the same period there were about 1,950 people in Germany who were classified as potentially violent “Islamist” terrorists – a group that has so far been considered much more relevant than Reichsbürger in the general political assessment. Security expert Peter Neumann also sees right-wing extremism as the greatest terrorist threat in Germany. Within this scene, the Reichsbürger are currently the most aggressive.
The fact that many Reichsbürger are heavily armed also contributes to this. Some Reichsbürger currents openly formulate that they also want to take military action against non-Germans. For example, death threats are made against Jews or the expulsion of non-Germans from German territory is announced by military means.
The many crises and problematic situations since the beginning of the millennium – banking crisis, national debt crisis, migration, climate crisis, energy crisis, inflation – have increasingly unsettled German society. Under these conditions, the nationalist ideology of the Reichsbürger can be a suitable option for more and more Germans. To prevent this from happening, all state and civil society means must be used to combat this inhuman nationalism.