Written by: Layne Gebert
In Bad Lobenstein, a small city in the German state Thuringia, the locals recall a 71 year old man hobbling through the streets with fliers for the residents. His name was Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss, and he claimed to be the heir of the rightful Bismarkian Reich of the 1870’s. Kindly, he informed the residents that the German state as it existed was illegitimate. However, luckily for the townspeople, they could apply for passports and driver’s licenses for his new Reich. Was the old man slightly deranged? Many of the residents thought so. Was he a real threat to the Federal Republic of Germany? Probably not. While he may have been missing a marble or two, Heinrich was completely harmless. Or so they thought.
It came to the surprise of the Bad Lobenstein residents when on December 7th 2023, German authorities stormed Heinrich’s quiet hunting lodge outside of town. Over 25 individuals were placed under arrest for harboring illegal, military-grade firearms. Yet, this raid was only one in a series of many throughout the country. This string of police takedowns was said to be one of the largest government counterterrorist operations in Germany, and it involved over 3,000 German officers that searched 150 properties. These raids were all connected to the one at Heinrich’s lodge Schloss Waidmannsheil.
Among the arrested were members of the Reichsbürger, also known as the “Citizens of the Reich” movement. This far-right organization is composed of various right-wing subgroups that share key ideas about their country. Namely, the Reichsbürger movement’s followers believe that modern Germany is not a legitimate and sovereign nation. Instead, the group argues that the Kaiserreich, Bismarck’s German empire, was never formally disbanded. Others in the group insist that the Weimar Republic, established in 1918 and ended by Hitler, is the true government. Regardless, every member of the Reischsbürger maintains that the current German state should not exist, since it was set up by the Allied powers post-WWII. They refuse to pay federal taxes, disregard German laws, print their own currency, and generate their own legal documents for the citizens of their Reich. Many members of this extremist right wing group hold a variety of conspiracy theories, especially regarding the QAnon theory and anti-vax sentiment. Additionally, a large portion of the members hold extreme anti semitic and often racist views.
The goals of the Reichsbürger culminated in a grand plot to overthrow the current federal state of Germany. In order to accomplish this coup, members planned to storm the Bundestag (German Parliament), assassinate the Chancellor Olaf Scholz, seize control of the military, and “re-establish” their Reich. Furthermore, the Reichsbürger planned to kidnap Karl Lauterbach, the German Minister of Health, under the charge of mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic. After their glorious reestablishment of the Reich, the revolutionaries would place the elderly Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss upon the imperial seat of power. In the future government, posts such as justice minister and chief of staff had already been assigned amongst the members. Additionally, Heinrich’s rather young Russian girlfriend, identified as Vitalia B, contacted the Russian government for support of their new empire. For obvious reasons, the Reich revolutionaries never received a reply.
Although the plot was mildly comical and almost certainly posed no threat to the Republic of Germany, it remains as something of a warning sign for the country. During the raids, military grade weapons, ammunition, and explosives were found in the searched properties. This discovery has led policymakers in Germany to advocate for tighter control over gun laws in the country. However, it was not only this coup that brought a militant element to the Reischbürger movement. Before the raids occurred, there had been numerous instances of armed confrontations with members of this group. For instance, police raided the home of a Reichsbürger in 2016, and one officer was shot and killed. Furthermore, in 2021, the Reichsburger made a first attempt to infiltrate the German parliament building, but they were quickly apprehended.
Even though this recent coup attempt never materialized into an inherently vicious action, the group nevertheless represents the danger in a rise of right-wing extremism in Germany. In recent years, the number of members of extreme rightist groups like the Reischbürger has been on the rise. Ever since the pandemic, German citizens have been disgruntled with Covid-19 policies, rising energy costs, economic decline, and other issues. Many Germans blame the government, and so they are particularly susceptible to the rhetoric of these groups which aim to exploit this discontent. The data itself is especially alarming. In a 2021 study by the Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s protection agency, it found that 21,000 people are members of the Reichsbürger, and this number has grown by 1,000 in the last year. Crimes by those identifying as part of the Reichsbürger have increased from 599 in 2020 to almost 1,011 in 2021. As the numbers exhibit, this group has begun to gain alarming traction. If coupled with significant armament, as has been the case with many extreme right wing movements, the Reichsbürger could pose an even more serious risk in the future. These threats include armed attacks, increased incidence of hate crimes, circulation of prejudice, and other forms of political violence. In response to the attack, Chancellor Scholz has affirmed that extremism will not be tolerated and is a threat to democracy. He stressed that the German government would remain vigilant, but he pushed no further plan for action.
In the 1930’s, Hitler utilized a similar wave of far-right totalitarianism in order to gain control of the German state. He played upon the civil, social, and economic discontent left in the wake of the First World War. Now, Germany finds itself on a path of similar political and social ills. Hitler himself attempted to establish a Reich that would “reign for a thousand years.” Although Heinrich’s Reich proved not even a fraction as successful as the Nazi’s, the event nevertheless serves as a warning sign. Germany is now at a crossroads for action. German officials could take steps to restrict access to firearms and pass laws to limit the dissemination of digital terrorist content. Additionally, the EU has taken steps to create a more efficient exchange of information on radical groups within member states and promote vigilance among nations to subdue terrorist actions at their impetus. However, Germany as a country must continue work at quelling this trend of extremism before it evolves into an even larger threat.