Germany’s Counterterrorism Battle: The Reichsbürger Network

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The largest counterterrorism episode in the history of Germany took place on December 7, 2022. It was executed against a network of Reichsbürger (Citizens of the Empire) named the Patriotic Union. More than 3,000 police officers, including SWAT units and special forces, searched apartments, homes, and offices in 11 of the 16 German federal states. Twenty-five people were apprehended, including one each in Austria and Italy. Among the captured was the alleged ring-leader, Heinrich the 13th, Prinz Reuß who has intense anti-Semitic and pro-Putin views. 

Until the abolition of the monarchy in Germany in 1918, his family had headed a small part of eastern Germany for centuries. Also charged were a former member of the Bundestag and now discontinued judge, former officers of the German armed forces, a police inspector, a doctor, a gourmet chef, a lawyer, a pilot, an opera singer, a clairvoyant, a roofer, and a worker of an advertising agency. Some of the defendants are also elements of Querdenken, a German movement pushed by conspiracy narratives, that showed in organized protests by networks, parties, and individuals during the pandemic against government efforts to contain the coronavirus. 

Since its beginning in the 1980s, the German Reichsbürger has not been an organized campaign. They lack structure, unifying descriptions, a common leadership, or even strategic partnership between their different self-appointed “rulers,” “chancellors,” “special representatives,” and other fantasy-aristocratic key figures. The only thing that unites them is the fundamental rejection of the legitimacy of the German state. This is one of the main explanations why German authorities have a somewhat challenging time assessing their potential for violence and terrorist actions in comparison to more ideologically readable, unified, and structured extremist movements.

The German Federal Prosecutor General charges the defendants with having created a terrorist organization and seeking to overthrow the existing state order in Germany, conceivably by using military means and brutality against state representatives. Among the discussed actions were penetrating the German Bundestag building (the federal parliament) and carrying its members hostage.

During the invasion, police forces captured 97 guns, more than 25,000 pieces of ammunition, helmets, force uniforms, night-vision instruments, machetes, daggers, radios, blank vaccination cards, computers, mobiles, hard drives, and unlawful narcotics. More than 400,000 euros in cash and approximately 100 pounds of precious metals, mainly gold bars and coins, were also discovered. 

A popular phrase used by German officials in conveying Reichsbürger’s activities is “paper-terrorism.” Reichsbürger regularly transmits letters and files with hundreds of pages to public authorities declaring the illegitimacy of the German administration and opposing paying property taxes, street cleaning fees, or parking ticket penalties. Since public administration in principle needs to react to every letter professionally, handling Reichsbürger puts a significant limitation on the concerned authorities. 

At some point, templates and documents for such Reichsbürger letter-writing were published online, leading to a surge of such correspondence to government offices. Some of the letters also contain threats that non-compliant recipients will be prosecuted once the German empire is re-established. As a result, government agents and civil society organizations have designed several handbooks and trainings for local, state, and federal rules, as well as for judges, on how to negotiate with this harassment.

The plot seems to also have had a foreign extent. A Russian suspect living in Germany, reportedly the life partner of the group’s head, is supposed to have kept the organization, in certain by facilitating contact between the Patriotic Union leadership and Russian officials. 

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