Murder trial unmasks Germans who believe the Reich never ended
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The trial of a man accused of murdering a police officer in Bavaria has brought renewed attention to the so-called “Reichsbürger”, a mixed bag of far-right ideologues, tax dodgers and oddballs who reject the authority of the modern German state.
When German police approached the home of Wolfgang P. on October 19, 2016, they would have noticed the line of yellow paint that circled the modest building in the Bavarian town of Georgensgmünd. Perhaps they read the handwritten warning on the letterbox – “My Word Here is Law!” – and remembered that its author had only contempt for the laws they were there to enforce. But there was little to prepare the officers for the volley of gunshots that ripped through the front door as they walked up to the first-floor apartment. Despite wearing protective gear and bullet-proof vests, four policemen were hit, one of them fatally.
Ten months on, the gunman goes on trial on Tuesday in nearby Nuremberg, charged with murder under laws he doesn’t recognise, by officials he refuses to submit to. Like other “Reichsbürger” (Citizens of the Reich), Wolfgang P. denies the legitimacy of the Bundesrepublik – the Federal Republic of Germany – and its institutions. The yellow paint marked the borders of his self-styled sovereign territory, the "Regierungsbezirks Wolfgang" (Wolfgang District). When the officers turned up at his home to requisition an arsenal of 31 hunting weapons, he regarded them as invaders.
"He has his own state with its own laws, and the Federal Republic of Germany is not allowed to raise taxes there,” said Peter Bauer, a neighbour and childhood friend of the “Reichsbürger”. Scrambling to make sense of the bloodshed, Bauer recalled a violent dispute with local authorities over a sewage tax Wolfgang P. refused to pay. “Everyone complains about taxes,” Bauer told the local news agency, DPA. “But in retrospect, some of his behaviour is now starting to make sense.”
Kings and Reich chancellors
When summoned by officials, months before the deadly shootout, Wolfgang P. had responded with a letter stating: “I am a citizen of the Reich”. By then, the 49-year-old financial advisor had sought to surrender his German passport and asked Georgensgmünd town hall to remove him from the local register, but without vacating his apartment. He had posted an ad in the local paper, the Roth-Hilpoltsteiner Volkszeitung, proclaiming himself a “living, spirited, self-confident man of flesh and blood, according to the papal bull of 1540”. He went on to write: “I am still alive, neither adrift on the high seas nor lost in the universe.”
Not all “Reichsbürger” delve that far into the past to buttress their credentials; but all agree that the course of German history was perverted in 1945, when the last Reich – or empire – came to an end. They believe the 1919 Weimar constitution was never fully abolished and that Germany’s postwar governments – western, eastern and reunited – are all fundamentally illegitimate. Some wish to return to the borders of pre-World War II Germany, while others worship Imperial Prussia. Others still seem more interested in setting up their own private communes, or mini-states, than in resurrecting a long-lost Reich. Several, but not all, are linked to the far right.
Earlier this year, the German interior ministry estimated the total number of “Reichsbürger” activists and sympathisers at around 12,600 – a significant increase on previous estimates. Members are often involved in scams, tax evasion and general disobedience. They typically refuse to produce ID when stopped by police, or choose to present forged documents that bear the name of the Reich or of some other entity that is either fictitious or defunct. The Bundesrepublik is commonly referred to as “BRD GmbH”, implying that it is a “limited company”, controlled by foreign financiers, and that its citizens are merely staff.
Overall, the “Reichsbürger” movement is a very loose association of fragmented groups scattered across the country, without centralised leadership. It has produced a number of colourful characters, starting with “Reich Chancellor” Wolfgang Ebel, who founded his Provisional Imperial Government in 1985. Since then, there has been a slew of self-styled and often competing rulers, including “King of Germany” Peter Fitzek, who reigned over a disused hospital and set up an illegal bank in the eastern city of Wittenberg, until he was jailed earlier this year for embezzling €1.3 million of deposits made by gullible supporters.
Stopping the rot
But while “Reichsbürger” had long been seen as relatively harmless eccentrics (many, including “Chancellor” Ebel, have been deemed legally insane), German authorities have been increasingly alarmed by signs of radicalisation within the movement, and a spike in violent incidents such as the one in Georgensgmünd. Just two months before Wolfgang P. fired at the officers, another “Reichsbürger” engaged in a violent shootout with police who were trying to dislodge him in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. Adrian Ursache, a former winner of the Mister Germany beauty pageant, had declared his property the autonomous “Ur Nation”. It took 200 officers to eventually subdue him and a dozen of his comrades. Ursache’s trial is due to begin in October. According to German media reports, he and Wolfgang P. had been in contact prior to the incidents.
The successive shootings have pushed German authorities to crack down hard on the movement. In March, police across five states raided multiple locations, arresting several suspected members and seizing weapons and ammunition. Five people were accused of organized criminal fraud and forgery. They allegedly made and distributed "Reich ID cards," "Reich driver's licenses" and diplomatic passports from the "German Reich”. Adding to the urgency were reports of “Reichsbürger” ideas infiltrating the police force. Soon after the fatal shooting in Georgensgmünd, Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that 15 officers faced disciplinary proceedings for their alleged ties to the movement.
As they seek to prosecute activists, German authorities will be wary of giving them a platform to stage violent protests. Last year, several “Reichsbürger” in Bavaria attempted to disrupt the trial of one of their members, storming the court and stealing documents. In 2012, more than a dozen men clad in the uniforms of a now-dissolved vigilante group burst into another courtroom in Saxony and tried to arrest a bailiff.
"In addition to physical violence, colleagues also have to deal with regular threats - including murder threats," Walter Gietmann, the head of the German Bailiffs' Association, told DPA. "Reich citizens have long been regarded as harmless agitators, and it is a shame that one person had to be killed before the state reacted appropriately.”