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The Reichsbürger Coup: How the German COVID-19 Denier Scene and Anti-Lockdown Movement Became a Breeding Ground for Terrorism

The Reichsbürger Coup: How the German COVID-19 Denier Scene and Anti-Lockdown Movement Became a Breeding Ground for Terrorism
18th January 2023 Julia Kupper
In Insights

Introduction 

In the early hours of 7 December 2022, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Germany (der Generalbundesanwalt) arrested twenty-four German nationals and one Russian citizen suspected of being members or supporters of a domestic terrorist organisation that planned to overthrow the government. Numerous law enforcement agencies executed search warrants that involved a total of 52 suspects and conducted sweeping raids at more than 130 properties in 11 out of 16 states in Germany, in addition to locations in Austria and Italy. More than 3,000 special forces and police officers were deployed for the arrests and search measures, including officials from the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt), the Federal Police (Bundespolizei) and six State Criminal Police Offices (Landeskriminalämter). 

Strikingly, it was the second time in 2022 that adherents of the Reichsbürger movement were taken into custody for an attempted coup. During the first attempt, Reichsbürger members had planned to kidnap Karl Lauterbach, the German Health Minister, and to attack crucial infrastructures in Germany in order to provoke Day X. The investigations into the first group unearthed the plan for the most recent plot and required close collaborations between the aforementioned law enforcement agencies with the Federal Office for the Military Counterintelligence Service (Bundesamt für den Militärischen Abschirmdienst), the Federal and five State Offices for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz). The December raids have since been labelled one of the biggest operations against extremism in the history of Germany.

This Insight provides an overview of the ideology behind the German Reichsbürger movement, its recent cross-pollination with QAnon narratives, and how this amalgamation resulted in the planned German coup by a group called the ‘Patriotische Union’ (the ‘Patriotic Union’). Furthermore, we emphasise the conspiratorial belief systems of several arrested members and discuss why secure communications platforms, such as Telegram, are perpetually exploited to spread extremist content and coordinate acts of violence.     

The German Reichsbürger Movement

The subjects of the investigation are alleged to identify with the ‘Reichsbürger’ (‘Citizens of the Empire’). Reichsbürger are a diverse assortment of small groups and individuals that deny the legitimacy and authority of the contemporary German state order and its institutions. The German intelligence service estimated that more than 20,000 people were connected to this anti-government and anti-democratic ideology in 2021, which is to a certain extent comparable to the Sovereign Citizens movement in the United States. In reality, the number of people connected to the Reichsbürger is significantly higher; for instance, content posted in openly marked ‘Reichsbürger’ channels on Telegram can reach up to 60,000 members.

The Reichbürger’s beliefs are rooted in a conspiracy theory that the international agreement that allowed the reunification of East and West Germany–the Two Plus Four Agreement signed in 1990–is not a peace treaty. Instead, their adherents believe Germany is still occupied by the allied forces, i.e., Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. The Reichsbürger aspire to restore the monarchy system of the German empire (‘Deutsches Kaiserreich’), which existed from 1871 to 1918 and consisted of 25 states, each reigned by their own nobilities. Moreover, supporters refer to modern-day Germany as a cooperation set up by the allied governments after World War II, the ‘BRD GmbH’, which translates to the ‘Federal Republic of Germany Limited Liability Company’. 

Reichsbürger are often heavily armed; in 2016, two members had a shootout with police officers that left one dead and several injured. A study of these two separate incidents revealed that Reichsbürger do not only target government and state officials but are also increasingly influenced by other violence-justifying conspiracy myths, such as the ‘Great Replacement’. 

The Cross-pollination of the Reichsbürger and QAnon Ideologies

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a stark rise in the belief of conspiracy narratives in Germany, especially overlapping theories related to the Reichsbürger and QAnon groups. Both milieus attract similar types of people who search for concrete steps to take action against the loss of agency felt during the global virus outbreak. The two conspiracy ideologies were heavily linked in digital spaces from March 2020 onwards, as they were propagated during demonstrations by the ‘Querdenken’ organisation, the largest German anti-lockdown and COVID-19 deniers’ movement in the first two years of the pandemic. Since then, Germany has emerged as the biggest non-English speaking QAnon online community worldwide, due to the transnational, digital spread of the U.S.-centric conspiracy theories. As Miro Dittrich told VICE“What brings them together is that they both offer practical options of how to get out of this feeling of powerlessness. In QAnon, it’s being part of the digital army, fighting against the evil people, and in the sovereign citizenship movement, you can create your own state or try to get back some sovereignty by doing a military dictatorship or asking foreign powers to take over.”

According to the Reichsbürger’s belief system, Donald Trump, QAnon’s ‘saviour’ figure, is often interwoven in the ideology’s narratives as the liberator of Germany from the allied forces. QAnon believers support and cherish Trump and are attracted to the idea of an ongoing German occupation by the allied forces, as it appears logical to them and has the potential of bringing them closer to their ‘saviour’. 

One example of the distinct blend of these two conspiracy theories is the self-titled ‘S.H.A.E.F.’ movement–an abbreviation of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force–which was spread by QAnon supporters. S.H.A.E.F. members believe that a military takeover by Donald Trump in March 2020 brought Germany back under the jurisdiction of S.H.A.E.F. laws, despite the office of the Commander of Allied forces in northwest Europe having been disbanded in 1945. A self-proclaimed “commander” of S.H.A.E.F was arrested in December 2021 for continuously posting “death sentences” against German politicians on his Telegram channel. According to his version of the Reichsbürger ideology, he claimed to have been authorised by the U.S. armed forces to exercise sovereign rights on German national territory, as Germany is alleged to be in the midst of a war. 

The violent mixture of the two ideologies was on public display on 29 August 2020 when the German parliament building became a target at the self-titled “Storming of the Reichstag”, a small-scale precursor to the January 6 Capitol Insurrection. The event was organised on Telegram and some of the Reichsbürger adherents waved the black, white, and red flag of the pre-1918 German empire, and other protestors wore Trump t-shirts. A QAnon believer on stage at the Reichsbürger demonstration summoned the crowd to break through the police barriers and storm the steps of the Reichstag in support of Trump. A mob of around 400 people was initially stopped from entering the building by only three police officers who threatened to use force. After a few minutes, additional resources were deployed to protect the parliament building and the crowd was dispelled.

The Intended Coup

According to a press release published by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (der Generalbundesanwalt), those arrested began planning an alleged coup in November 2021 at the latest. In line with the Reichbürger’s aims to reinstate the German monarchy, Heinrich XIII Prince of Reuß, a descendant of a German noble family that reigned over a state in eastern Germany for more than 800 years, was selected to become the new head of state after the successful coup. During the preparations for the coup, he attempted to contact representatives from the Russian government through an embassy with the help of his Kaliningrad-born girlfriend to receive their support but failed to do so.

In order to appoint a shadow government and army, the group intended to create 286 armed “homeland security companies” across the country. These establishments were to arrest and even execute state representatives, local politicians and journalists after the hostile takeover, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. The planning process entailed actively recruiting new members from the German military and police forces, procuring weapons, and conducting firearms training to forcibly enter the German Bundestag with a small armed group to eliminate the democratic constitutional state. The group anticipated that these actions would lead to a nationwide civil war and a coup d’état, with one member stating on the phone that “we are going to kill them now, enough is enough”. During the raids, investigative authorities secured military and other equipment such as guns, ammunition, swords, knives, crossbows, tasers, combat helmets and night-vision goggles, as well as over 430,000 Euros in cash and kilos of gold and silver. 

Prior to the group’s arrest, a suspect posted on Telegram: “everything will be turned upside down: the current public prosecutors and judges, as well as the heads of the health departments and their superiors will find themselves in the dock at Nürnberg 2.0”. This post is a reference to the Nuremberg trials that were held by the allies against representative leaders of Nazi Germany. Intelligence officials stated that the group appeared to be ready to take action in March and September 2022 but postponed twice, which put security agencies on high alert. These insights were obtained from investigations that included tapping hundreds of phones, screening bank accounts and monitoring channels on Telegram, YouTube and Instagram

The Suspects and their Conspiratorial Belief Systems

The clandestine and esoteric beliefs of the arrested group behind the Patriotic Union were as diverse as its members. Among them were a prince, lawyer, doctor, pilot, top chef, classical tenor and ‘seeress’, as well as current and former military and police personnel, including an active soldier and two retired commanders of an elite special force—the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK)—that had served in Afghanistan and Kosovo.

In 2019, Prince Heinrich Reuß gave a talk at the World Web Forum and openly declared his Reichsbürger beliefs by stating that “Germany up until this day, due to the lack of the peace treaty, is being controlled based on the administrative structures installed by the allies after World War II”. 

Another suspect, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, served as a former member of the Bundestag for the far-right populist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) from 2017 to 2021 and worked as a judge at a district court in Berlin up until her arrest. It has been reported that she was expected to become the new justice minister after the current so-called ‘Deep State’ was removed, and assisted in planning the storming of the parliamentary building in Berlin with her insider knowledge of the premises. Malsack-Winkemann and the ‘seeress’, Ruth Leiding, were members of a Telegram channel that is a subgroup of QAnon, believing Trump was partnering up with aliens in a “Galactic Federation” to fight an interstellar war. A belief they both seemed to share.

In the trial regarding his removal from the police force, ex-police chief Michael Fritsch tried to convince the judge of secret military operations, underground bunkers housing refugees, migrants waiting for the ‘Great Reset’, and kidnapped children whose blood was farmed for adrenochrome for a rejuvenating effect. He had been suspended from duty in 2020 and subsequently fired after he appeared at anti-lockdown protests, and later became the parliamentary candidate for the Querdenker movement party, Die Basis.

The former army colonel and commander of a Panzergrenadier battalion in Kosovo, Maximilian Eder, released various online videos and spoke at demonstrations about his belief surrounding secret tunnels where children were alleged to be tortured in Satanic rituals so that their blood could be drunk to make oneself younger. He also housed a woman and her child who was on the run from Interpol for kidnapping her daughter. She believed the father to be part of a satanic ring, one of several kidnapping narratives related to QAnon; however, the police found no evidence of this.

Among the arrested was also a member known as Alexander Q, who had more than 130,000 subscribers on one of the widest-reaching QAnon Telegram channels in the German-speaking world. Alexander Q regularly spread fake news. For example, he falsely claimed in the summer of 2021 that the flood in Germany had washed up the corpses of 600 children, who had allegedly been held captive in subterranean bunkers for years before being tortured and murdered. The conspiratorial narrative of abducted and massacred kids is common amongst QAnon followers. In addition, he stated after the federal election in the same year that it was a “large-scale fraud”. This false assertion is comparable to QAnon believers in the United States that claimed Trump’s presidency ended through election fraud in January 2021.

Democracy in Peril or Terrorist Threat?

Although the threat of a successful takeover and the destruction of German democracy by this group remains very low, this Reichsbürger movement was prepared to commit extreme acts of violence to overthrow the German government. Their beliefs and planned actions were not anchored in reality but fuelled by conspiracy ideologies and illusions that led them to overestimate the public and institutional support for their worldviews. This type of misjudgement is not uncommon for conspiracy believers, as a preprint by Gordon Pennycook et al. suggests

Although the arrests and raids have stopped the most advanced plan of an intended coup yet, the desire to end Germany’s democracy remains high within the German conspiracy milieu. The anti-lockdown movement in Germany has encouraged a blend of various local and global conspiracy beliefs that continuously create a hotbed for violence, online radicalisation and potential acts of terrorism. On Telegram, some Reichsbürger now campaign for the release of “their prince”.  

Digital Implications

Secure communications platforms are perpetually exploited to spread extremist content and coordinate acts of violence, particularly unmoderated ones. For example, the instant messenger service Telegram has emerged as the centre of gravity for easy access to extremist propaganda. It attracts radicals from every corner of the globe and ideological spectrum, such as Australian Sovereign Citizens, white supremacists and neo-Nazis from the United States, and members of the Islamic State from the Middle East. Notably, Telegram has become the only mainstream digital space for QAnon followers in Germany after Meta, Twitter and YouTube successfully banned most QAnon networks on their platforms. Even the presidential transfer of office from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in 2021 did not result in a drop in activity in German-speaking QAnon Telegram groups and channels.

In the case of the ‘Patriotische Union’, the Telegram profiles of the arrested clearly located them in the QAnon universe, as several individuals publicly discussed their deeply entrenched beliefs within the Reichsbürger and QAnon conspiracy ideologies. Numerous members were also part of QAnon groups–at least five of them in channels focused on the previously mentioned S.H.A.E.F. movement–which arguably contributed to their online radicalization prior to and during the pandemic.

However, the spread of disinformation about COVID-19 and lockdown measures by QAnon groups was not only limited to the German and English languages. Researchers and content moderators recorded the presence of QAnon conspiracies on social media platforms throughout Latin America, and have been flagging Spanish and Portuguese content to the responsible tech companies. In Brazil, for instance, QAnon channels on Telegram also surged during the early months of the pandemic and often included discussions on Brazilian politics. In the course of this, local followers depicted former president Jair Bolsonaro as a messianic figure “who could disrupt the power of shadowy cabals and protect religious faith in Brazil”, a strong resemblance to the American QAnon phenomenon with Trump. In combination with conspiracy theories surrounding election results and voter frauds—again homogeneous strategies to the U.S.this resulted in Bolsonaro supporters storming the Brazilian congress, supreme court and presidential palace on 8 January 2023. Subsequently to the riots in Brazil, like-minded groups across North America and Europe expressed their solidarity, predominantly through Telegram.

Similarly to the attempted and successful storming of the parliamentary buildings in Germany and the United States in August 2020 and January 2021, respectively, Telegram and other social media companies not only played a role in disseminating misinformation that led to these events but also provided a platform for planning the coups. As these examples highlight, content moderation and de-platforming are imperative for preventing digital, alternative realities to boil over into offline, physical violence.

Julia Kupper is a Forensic & Tactical Linguist and Independent Researcher based in Los Angeles, California. As a consultant, she collaborates with law enforcement agencies and threat assessment teams and supports inquiries by scientifically analysing language evidence, either in a criminal context or an operational environment. As a scholar, Julia studies targeted violence and terrorism communications to enhance the mitigation of different types of violent threats. She is a Research Fellow with the Accelerationism Research Consortium.

Miro Dittrich is a Political Scientist and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy based in Berlin, Germany. For many years, he has worked on enhancing the use of qualitative, quantitative and OSINT-guided research to analyse far-right extremist propaganda, networking and radicalisation. Since 2019, he has become increasingly focused on international right-wing terrorism and niche digital spaces. Miro’s other focus areas include content moderation and digital subcultures, and he regularly advises social media companies in his role as an expert on right-wing extremism.