In the past year Germany has seen a significant rise of deadly assaults by right-wing extremists. In 2019 the Christian Democratic politician Walter Lübcke was shot in front of his house. A few months later a young extremist tried to force his way into a synagogue to randomly shoot people, and when he failed, killed two passers-by. Only in February a far-right perpetrator killed nine foreign looking people in the city of Hanau, and afterwards shot himself and his mother. The recent increase of far-right violence has caused the country’s interior ministry to crack down on a number of right-wing extremist groups.
Currently a far-right grouping called “United German Peoples and Tribes” (Geeinte deutsche Völker und Stämme) is in the focus of law enforcement, which belongs to the so-called “Reich Citizens” (Reichsbürger) scene: a collective term for mostly German groups and individuals, who reject the legitimacy of the modern German state under the assumption of varying conspiracy theories.
A majority of Reich citizens maintain that the 1919 Weimar Constitution remains in effect, and the current constitution is invalid.1 Others think Germany is still occupied by the Allied forces, and thus is in a state of war, therefor the Hague Land Warfare Convention would apply.2 Some purport that the Federal Republic is an organization under private law comparable to a corporation.3 Most Reich citizens do not accept Germany’s current territorial extension, but maintain that the German Reich continues to exist in its pre-1918 (or sometimes pre-1937) borders. In many cases Reich citizen groups have established a “provisional Reich government,” or a “government in exile.”4 There are a number of such self-proclaimed governments, each claiming to have the ultimate authority over all of Germany, and often they issue documents, such as ID cards or driving licenses.
The Reich citizen scene emerged in the 1980s and has been making an increasing appearance since 2010, with individual actors taking on militancy since 2013. Security authorities assume that there are currently around 19000 Reich citizens, 950 of them right-wing extremists, while 530 have an arms license.5 German security authorities estimated in 2018 that between 2015 and mid-2017 over 10,500 criminal offenses were committed by Reich citizens.6 Most of these offenses result from the denial of the Federal Republic’s state authority, and by extension the refusal to pay taxes or fines. It is not seldom that Reich citizens threaten local government officials, or flood them with querulous letters of complaint, which often turn minor issues, such as the payment of a parking ticket, into a protracted legal affair.7
Members of the “United German Peoples and Tribes” (UGPT) are deemed among the most extreme Reich citizens, therefore the recent crackdown on the group comes to no surprise. On March 19, 2020, more than 400 police officers raided the homes of 21 prominent UGPT members in ten federal states, and seized firearms, propaganda material, as well as small amounts of drugs. Authorities say members of the group, which was mainly active in and around Berlin, had issued threats against German officials.8 The group is accused of the formation of a criminal organization with a propensity to violence, and the distribution of anti-Semitic and racist writings.9 Furthermore, UGPT members are made responsible for a large number of cases of property damage, attempted coercion, attempted extortion and deprivation of liberty.10
Already last September a series of police raids was conducted after the UGPT started an attempt to free the imprisoned Holocaust denier Horst Mahler.11 In 2017 the group had sent a letter to Brandenburg’s Minister of Justice Stefan Ludwig of the Left party, threatening to harm him if Mahler was not released from the Brandenburg/Havel prison. The letter was also sent to several courts in Brandenburg. The right-wing extremist Mahler, once a left-wing terrorist, is serving a prison sentence of more than eleven years for a variety of crimes, most of them concerning anti-Semitic hate speech. Mahler is considered a hero by many right-wing extremists and Reich citizens, because he constantly attacks the state with his provocations.11
The UGPT is known for addressing bizarre letters to high-ranking politicians. In March 2017 they informed interior minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier about the establishment of their “Supreme Court.” In a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin they announced “the lifting of the truce of 4 August 1914.” Angela Merkel was issued a “ban on entry and activity in the buildings of the German Bundestag” by the group. In addition, the chancellor was to “close the Federal Republic of Germany Company” immediately.12
In October 2017 the UGPT demanded that Mayor Cerstin Richter-Kotowski (CDU) vacate the town hall of the Berlin district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, and hand over the keys. On October 19, 2017, three UGPT members showed up at Richter-Kotowski’s house to enforce the alleged eviction order, and would only leave after the police intervened.11
At the end of December 2017, a self-appointed “Deputy Magistrate of Berlin” demanded from Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier that he should prepare a “conference for the handover of German territories” to the UGPT. They determined the conference should be convened on January 20, 2018, in the Berlin House of Representatives. On that date, a large-scale deployment of police forces protected the building, but none of the Reich citizens showed up.
Heike Werding, driving force of the “United German Peoples and Tribes.”
The UGPT was founded in 2017 in the Oberhavel district in the federal state of Brandenburg. The driving force behind the group is the almost 60 year old Heike Werding from Berlin. Under her real name, Werding ran a YouTube channel, where she posted videos outlining her confused world views. On the one hand she argued for the “natural state,” which was “the form of government with the highest legal authority.”11 On the other hand she refers to alleged “Germanic First Settlement Rights,” or alternatively to the “Universal Postal Treaty of 1897” as the legal basis of the UGPT.12
Werding is said to be very manipulative, and particularly successful in drawing gullible and disappointed people into her orbit — with the promise of power and belonging to a selected circle of knowledgeable insiders. According to the journalist Jan Wergener they include people, “who are rather overwhelmed by the complex reality of contemporary life, who are afraid of globalization or feel unjustly treated by the state. Some of them have had personal crises, such as a serious illness or financial difficulties.”12 Werding’s inclinations seem far from being purely ideological, since she charges more than 500 euros for some of her “seminars.”
A first glance at the by now deactivated UGPT website seems rather inconspicuous: a picture of a family hiking through a lush forest, together with the slogan “for a free life in harmony with man, animal and nature.” But the first impression deceives, looking at the map of “activated regions,” i.e. regions where people have declared their adherence to the authority of the UGPT’s "government."13
One person who dropped out of the UGPT has sent the Tagesspiegel numerous documents that paint a picture of the organization’s inner life. For example, a document explains how the group wants to change Germany after the takeover: all decision-makers in the Federal Republic, including politicians, top officials, judges and heads of companies, are to be imprisoned for five years, where they would receive only “raw and untreated food.” All schools are to be closed for at least one year so that new teachers can be trained and alternative curricula can be developed. The document goes on to say: “Foreigners, refugees, i.e. non-natives, will be sent back to their home countries.”14
Map of “activated regions,” in which the United German Peoples and Tribes members are present.
The UGPT’s neopagan and Odinist outlook becomes clear when looking at the holidays that they determined for their fictional Reich, including only “original” German festivities from “before Christianization”: September 29 they declared as “Odin’s Day,” to “thank Odin for the harvest,” and October 14 was designated as the “Festival of Ancestral Sacrifice,” in honor and remembrance of the ancestors.12
The UGPT bestows lofty titles upon its members, such as “mayor,” “magistrate” or “judiciary.” The Tagesspiegel has received the names of more than 40 “officials” of the group. Some of them belong to one of the at least 22 “district courts” the UGPT has established. The “supreme court,” which regularly meets in a detached single-family house in Berlin-Lichterfelde, represents the most important decision-making authority on German soil in the eyes of the group.
At this “supreme court” people are being charged who do not recognize the authority of the UGPT, disregard their rules or otherwise get into conflict with followers of the group. In the past two years, this “court” has on several occasions sentenced people in absentia to fines of millions of euros. The minimum sentence for the offense of “state disintegration” is 9,000 troy ounces of gold, which, however, “can also be converted into ten million euros or ten years of labor service.”12 These verdicts are delivered to the persons concerned, and self-appointed “bailiffs” appear at their homes or workplaces to exert pressure. The Berlin investigators interpret this as attempted coercion and presumption of office.
UGPT members are also known for their right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic ideas. They purport that the people of Germany have been oppressed by “Jews and their helpers” for ages, whom they consider a race with its own physique. They hold that the German Reich, founded in 1871, was a state “by Jews for Jews,” and according to statements by UGPT members, Angela Merkel, Helmut Kohl, Christopher Columbus and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would all be Jewish.12 In addition, UGPT members adhere to various conspiracy theories, such as the assumption that vaccination is dangerous, that the Chancellor receives ten million euros for each refugee, or that the earth is infiltrated by so-called reptiloids, alien lizard beings in human form.12
Although such beliefs seem utterly absurd to people not familiar with this scene, they are in fact very common among Reich citizens, and in the far right in general. Although a majority of Reich citizens is not directly prone to violence, the encapsulation in wild conspiratorial constructs certainly is a fertile ground for such, and the recent crackdown on the UGPT will certainly not be the last action by authorities against the fledgling Reich citizens.
Analysts have noted that the recent raid happened not randomly during the current corona crisis,9 but can rather be seen as a response to the many accelerationist statements by neo-Nazis ever since the outbreak of the pandemic.15 Many far-right groups have long been waiting for a serious crisis, such as Covid-19, for the so-called Day X to manifest, the day when the inner order of a state starts crumbling and the extremists can seize power.
- 1. Christa Caspar and Reinhard Neubauer, “Durchs wilde Absurdistan – oder: Wie „Reichsbürger“ den Fortbestand des Deutschen Reiches beweisen wollen,” in Landes- und Kommunalverwaltung (LKV), Volume 22, Issue 12, 2012, 529 ff., http://www.lkv.nomos.de/fileadmin/lkv/doc/Aufsatz_LKV_12_12.pdf.
- 2. Jan Rathje, "Wir sind wieder da." Die "Reichsbürger": Überzeugungen, Gefahren und Handlungsstrategien (Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, 2014), www.amadeu-antonio-stiftung.de/w/files/pdfs/reichsbuerger_web.pdf.
- 3. Antonia Kleikamp, “Verschwörungstheorie: Hilfe, existiert das Deutsche Reich etwa noch?” Welt, July 7, 2015, https://www.welt.de/geschichte/article143672017/Hilfe-existiert-das-Deutsche-Reich-etwa-noch.html.
- 4. Maurice Thiriet, “‘Reichsführerschein’ im Thurgau nicht gültig,” Tagesanzeiger, March 11, 2009, https://www.tagesanzeiger.ch/panorama/vermischtes/Reichsfuehrerschein-im-Thurgau-nicht-gueltig/story/27903000.
- 5. Gregor Burkhardt, “Seehofer verbietet Reichsbürgervereinigung,” ZDF, March 19, 2020, https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/heute-plus/videos/seehofer-verbietet-reichsbuergervereinigung-100.html.
- 6. “Lagebild von BKA und Verfassungsschutz: ‘Reichsbürger’ verübten mehr als 10.500 Straftaten,” Spiegel, April 13, 2018, https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/justiz/bka-reichsbuerger-veruebten-mehr-als-10-500-straftaten-a-1202798.html.
- 7. “Die Story: Warum ‘Reichsbürger’ gefährlich sind | Kontrovers | BR,” ARD on YouTube October 20, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-3yik_PIKY.
- 8. “Germany bans anti-Semitic group, raids homes,” Associated Press, March 19, 2020, https://apnews.com/c3e728146509138e2fda00f3abd43ee5.
- 9. a. b. “Razzien in zehn Bundesländern: Seehofer verbietet erstmals Reichsbürger-Gruppe,” ARD, tagesschau24, March 19, 2020, https://www.ardmediathek.de/ard/player/Y3JpZDovL2Rhc2Vyc3RlLmRlL3RhZ2Vzc2NoYXUyNC83M2NjNjQ3My1hMWI1LTQ3ZTEtYjFjMS0xYmZmM2ZmMGIyNDAvMQ.
- 10. Frank Jansen, “‘Geeinte deutsche Völker und Stämme’: Razzia bei Reichsbürgern,” Der Tagesspiegel, September 5, 2019, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/geeinte-deutsche-voelker-und-staemme-razzia-bei-reichsbuergern/24985324.html.
- 11. a. b. c. d. Frank Jansen, “‘Geeinte deutsche Völker und Stämme’: Razzia bei Reichsbürgern,” Der Tagesspiegel, September 5, 2019, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/geeinte-deutsche-voelker-und-staemme-razzia-bei-reichsbuergern/24985324.html.
- 12. a. b. c. d. e. f. g. Jan Wergener, “Reichsbürger: Die gefährliche Parallelwelt von Lichterfelde,” Zeit Online, September 8, 2019, https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2019-09/reichsbuerger-razzia-berlin-durchsuchungen.
- 13. “Aktivierte Gebiete,” Geeinte deutsche Völker und Stämme, https://web.archive.org/web/20190714213910/http://deutsche-voelker.de/aktivierte-staaten/.
- 14. Jan Wergener, “Berliner Reichsbürger nach Razzia: Die gefährliche Parallelwelt von Lichterfelde,” Tagesspiegel, September 13, 2019, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/berliner-reichsbuerger-nach-razzia-die-gefaehrliche-parallelwelt-von-lichterfelde/24991488.html.
- 15. Ben Makuch, “Experts Say Neo-Nazi ‘Accelerationists’ Discuss Taking Advantage of Coronavirus Crisis,” Vice, March 18, 2020, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/pkewgv/experts-say-neo-nazi-accelerationists-discuss-taking-advantage-of-coronavirus-crisis.