The Reichsbürger movement, accused of conspiring to overthrow the German government, gained strength from the conspiracy theories that grew during the pandemic.
A ragtag band that had been dismissed as wacky and harmless gadflies, the Reichsbürger, or Citizens of the Reich, has tilted at windmills on Germany’s far-right political fringe for decades.
But after authorities accused members of plotting to topple the government and kill the chancellor, a starkly different view of the obscure group emerged: a serious terrorist threat, by conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and vaccines.
The 25 cell members arrested this week were a judge, a doctor, a cook, a pilot, a classical tenor, and three police officers, officials said. At least 15 had connections with the military, including former or current soldiers and two reservists with weapons access.
Danger on the streets of Germany
The arrests put Germany on high alert and, after months of surveillance, launched one of the largest anti-terrorist crackdowns in Germany’s postwar history.
The group’s ranks, which does not recognize the modern German state, have grown from 2,000 to about 21,000 since the first pandemic lockdowns; this shows government estimates.
It has “established itself as the biggest far-right extremist danger in Germany because of the pandemic,” said Miro Dittrich, a senior researcher at CeMAS, a Berlin-based research organization focused on far-right extremism and conspiracy theories.
“It’s dangerous not just that you have armed and trained members of the military and police in the group but that the number of gun permits has gone up and several people in this group had such permits,” he added.
Who should be afraid of the group
Military equipment was found in 50 of the 150 homes raided, including rifles, ammunition, tasers, night vision goggles, crossbows, knives, combat helmets, and even swords, federal police and intelligence officials said. There was also a large stockpile of over €100,000 in cash, gold, and silver.
They considered as enemies 18 politicians and journalists, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his foreign minister Annalena Burbock. One of the seized documents contains such a list. After the variety of seized items is examined, more arrests are expected. There are 54 people under investigation in total.
A conspiracy to abduct the health minister and conduct a coup is suspected by the Reichsburgers, who were also behind a failed attempt to force entry into the German parliament during an anti-vaccine protest two years ago.
“This Reichsbürger scene has often been downplayed, even by security authorities. Well, not anymore,” said Hajo Funke, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin who focuses on the far right.
The Reichsbürger movement asserts that the post-World War II German republic is not a legitimate state but a company founded by the Allies.
The founder of the Reichsbürgery movement
Wolfgang Ebel, a railway worker from West Berlin who was fired for taking part in a strike in the 1980s, is considered to be the movement’s creator.
He started referring to himself as the Reich Chancellor and his house as the commissariat of the imperial government after his attempts to gain the status of a civil servant were unsuccessful in several court proceedings. He sold passports and ID cards to his Reich followers.
Over the years, members of the movement have mostly made headlines for not paying taxes and surrendering passports, instead demanding a certificate identifying them as citizens of the German nation and often listing their birthplace as the Kingdom of Prussia or Bavaria.
But since the start of the pandemic, they have become a primary conduit for violent and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including QAnon.
The mythology and language QAnon uses — including claims of a “deep state” of globalist elites running the government and revenge fantasies against those elites — conjure ancient antisemitic tropes and putsch visions that have long animated Germany’s far-right fringe.
Consequences of the operation against Reichsbürger
Like QAnon, Reichsbürger used the pandemic to paint an ideologically incoherent mix of vaccine skeptics, fringe thinkers, and ordinary citizens who said the pandemic threat was overblown and that government restrictions were unwarranted.
Lorenz Blumenthaler researches Germany’s extreme right and considers the Reichsbürger a “gateway ideology” since the movement recruits so many distinct groups disappointed by the government.
Like other far-right groups, the Reichsbürger has been able to use anti-immigrant militancy after the influx of refugees and migrants in 2015 and 2020 amid frustration with coronavirus lockdowns. The pandemic allowed the group to find new support and take advantage of the growing tide of conspiracy theories.
“It has taken on a completely new level of radicalization,” Mr. Blumenthaler said.
QAnon conspiracy theories aligned with Reichsbürger ideology
The cell arrested this week had planned to topple the German government, called the “deep state,” and then negotiate a peace treaty with the United States, officials said.
In the United States, QAnon has evolved from a fringe internet subculture into a grassroots movement that, in some cases, has become a political force. But the pandemic has fueled conspiracy theories far beyond American shores.
The ignition switch for the spread of QAnon in Germany was “Defender-Europe 20”, a large-scale NATO drill reduced due to the pandemic. QAnon followers claimed that the German government used a “fake pandemic” to derail what they believed to be a secret liberation plan led by President Donald Trump to restore the German Reich.
Reichsburger jumped on QAnon’s internet traffic to give his conspiracy theory more visibility. That spring, the two movements united in a shared Facebook group and a week later, a channel on the messaging app Telegram, amplifying both.
Arrests of Reichsbürger members
One of those arrested on December 7, was a former lawmaker from the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, judge Birgit Malsack-Winkmann. She regularly posted on Telegram using the tagline “WWG1WGA,” which stands for QAnon’s motto: “Where we go, we all go.”
For a long time, the authorities did not take the Reichsburger seriously. It wasn’t until 2016 — when a heavily armed Reichsbürger follower drove into a home during a raid, shot four police officers, and killed one of them — that changed everything.
“That was a game changer,” recalled Konstantin von Notz, a lawmaker and intelligence oversight committee member. “Before then, they were considered unsuspicious.”
They switched from conspiracy theory to violent action, including plans to storm the German Capitol and install a new government headed by Prince Henry XIII of Reuss, a scion of a 700-year-old German noble family.
But German officials said the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol, in which QAnon followers featured prominently, meant that any such plots, no matter how amazing it is, must be taken seriously.
“They had very concrete takeover plans,” Mr. von Notz said. “After January 6, we cannot take any chances. We have to take this danger very seriously.”
Germany had its version on January 6, which was unsuccessful and much smaller in scope. In August 2020, dozens of members of the Reichsbürger and other far-right supporters broke away from an anti-vaccination protest to try to make their way into the Reichstag, the historic parliament building. The police stopped them.
But a few months later, far-right activists and others posting videos on social media gained access to a building the AfD lawmaker was helping and then beat the economy minister, although they did not harm him.
Few people believe that the cell rounded up this week or other such groups have the actual capability to stage a successful coup. But that does not diminish their determination to attempt to do it, and commit deadly terrorist attacks, experts say. And they pose a threat to democracy and security in Germany.