The employees at Georgensgmünd town hall first noticed that something wasn’t right with Wolfgang P. in January. That’s when he visited the building’s ground floor, accompanied by two other men, and placed his passport and identity card on the counter.
“What’s on the ID doesn’t suit me,” he said, according to the staffer on duty at the time. He no longer wanted to be a German citizen, and said he had brought witnesses to corroborate his statement of intent.
“We confirmed their receipt but wrote that he remained a German citizen,” says Ben Black, mayor of the Bavarian town, located around 30 kilometers from Nuremberg. He’s used to handling this kind of difficult clientele – members of the anti-government Reichsbürger movement who claim they are establishing their own sovereign state akin to pre-war imperial Germany.
“Supporters of the Reichsbürger movement typically want an official document in their hands that proves they’ve distanced themselves from the state,” he says.
The surrender of Wolfgang P.’s passport was the most visible sign of the 49-year-old’s rapid alienation from the German state. But there were others: He also unregistered his residence, refused to pay motor-vehicle taxes and threatened his community with contractual penalties. More than once, he rudely threw public officials off of his property.
Then last Wednesday, a police special task force stormed his home to confiscate 31 pistols and rifles that the district administration had declared the hunter and sport shooter was no longer fit to possess. But when four police officers entered his home, P. opened fire. One 32-year-old officer was hit three times, and died of his injuries the next day. The three other officers were wounded.
The shootout seems an unlikely event in the picturesque Bavarian town of just 6,600, with its half-timbered houses and small Jewish museum. But it marks Germany’s worst ever confrontation with a member of the Reichsbürger movement, which essentially refuses to recognize the existence of modern Germany. They claim the continuation of the old pre-World War II German Reich, with its 1937 borders. Supporters often refuse to pay taxes or obey official orders, and engage in a fluid exchange of conspiracy theories and far-right extremist ideology.
And according to a response to a parliamentary query by the far-left Left party, the German government cannot rule out that the “activism and aggression in the Reichsbürger scene could intensify and result in radicalization.”
- apparently belonged to one of the more esoteric branches of the fragmented movement. His cult-like group, which may have stemmed from Austria, refuses to use traditional surnames, referring to members by their first names, though only in lower case. Or they call each other “brother,” “sister,” or simply “human.”
Members also engage in an initiation rite called a “life message,” which P. posted on Facebook and as an ad in the local paper, the Roth-Hilpoltsteiner Volkszeitungon Jan. 25. “I hereby declare that I, a lively, spirited and self-confident man of flesh and blood … was born on the 13th day of September in 1967 … actually on this planet called Earth, and am physically, spiritually and mentally fully present,” he swore. “I’m still alive and not on the high seas or lost anywhere in the universe.”
Twelve witnesses attested to the statement with their fingerprints in blood-red ink on the paper. Shadowy groups with names like the “Commonwealth of Austria” offer the certification for such announcements for around €10 ($11).
Wolfgang P. also posted a photo of the Nuremberg trials with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and President Joachim Gauck superimposed as the accused. The heading read: “Guilty – hang them!”
He marked his personal state territory with a line of yellow paint along the edges of his property, posting a sign that said, “District Wolfgang – my word is law here.” While the neighbors demonstrated their loyalty to the FC Bayern soccer club with a flag in front of their home, P. designated his duplex as extraterritorial.
The police officers must have known that they were in danger when they stepped onto his property. According to the ongoing investigation, he shot a semiautomatic pistol 10 times through a closed door in the entryway, hitting one officer’s helmet, arm and just outside his protective vest. One bullet pierced his lung, and he died the following day.
- was apparently expecting them. His weapon was ready at hand, and he wore a bulletproof vest. He submitted to arrest after the shots were fired.
Up until that moment, P. had never been a violent offender. For 15 years he ran a martial arts school, first in Georgensgmünd, and since the beginning of this year in the neighboring town of Roth. He taught the 300-year-old Chinese tradition of Wing Chun, which prioritizes self-defense.
Ironically, the man who killed a police officer was trained in violence prevention. He used Wing Chun to teach children coordination and self-control. On the evening after the shooting, he was supposed to lead a martial arts group. Dozens of participants had gathered on the light parquet floor of the gym. But none of them could have imagined that P. could commit such an act, say the two trainers who are now substituting for him.
- had rented the space together with another coach to save money. His co-renter N. says that he viewed his colleague as a “sun child” who was more of a “hippie with a flower wreath in his hair that a violent Reichsbürger.” But in the last year, P. had told him about ordering a bailiff off of his property for failing to present a valid legal basis for his request.
As his political leanings were apparently intensifying, his financial situation seems to have worsened as well. Under his name there are online listings for “financial consulting.” But at these addresses, including a rundown apartment building in Georgensgmünd, there are no corresponding mailboxes or company signs.
The day after the deadly shooting, the Nuremberg district court issued an arrest warrant for murder, attempted murder and aggravated assault. P. declined to comment on the charges. When asked about his personal information, he said: “I am the beneficiary of the person, but not the trustee.”
‘Visions of Doom’
To honor their fallen colleague, Bavarian police officers are wearing mourning bands. Federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has meanwhile described the increasing number of attacks by extremists on police in Germany as “intolerable and unacceptable.”
But fellow members of the Reichsbürger movement have defended P.’s actions. “Today a good friend, who wanted only to live peacefully and as a free man, was assaulted by armed riot police,” wrote one of his Facebook friends online. “Now he is being vilified, disenfranchised, dishonored and disgraced as a Reichsbürger – just because he resisted.” He continued: “Everyone has the right to have weapons to defend themselves.”
A few months before the deadly incident, Bavarian domestic intelligence warned that a group within the Reichsbürger scene was recruiting for new followers in the southern German state in a targeted fashion. This “government in exile” was trying “to strengthen fears of foreign infiltration and to stir up visions of doom,” they said.
The group, which is also active outside of Bavaria, is a spin-off of another that calls itself the “Exiled Government of the German Reich.” At a gathering in September, they allowed a glimpse into their thinking. Just six people show up at the pub in the northwestern German city of Hildesheim to meet with Norbert Schittke, who goes by the pre-war title of “Reichskanzler,” or “chancellor of the realm,” and his “minister without a portfolio,” Gunter Bornholdt.
Normally around 20 to 30 people attend such meetings, but word spread that a journalist would be present. No one in the group has anything good to say about the press, says 74-year-old Schittke, a retired marine engineer.
Before discussion begins, participants must hand over their mobile phones. Otherwise the Central Intelligence Agency might listen in, they say. Schittke wears a black uniform, white gloves and a golden sash because he’s a knight, he says. In front of his sword on the table sits a small flag of the former German Empire. When anyone fails to pay attention or chats with their neighbor, he slams a gavel on the table.
Talk centers on what these Reichsbürger adherents believe, which is mainly conspiracy theories. These include the idea that Germany is an “American colony,” and their belief that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were targeted demolitions perpetrated by the US government. Or that Republican candidate Donald Trump has long since been chosen as the next American president and the elections are just for show, something Schittke says he knows from a reliable source.
As for the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, it was established by Chancellor Angela Merkel to pacify her critics, he says. As evidence, he cites an AfD “founding document” — one, though, that was published by the satirical website Postillon.
Schittke also openly reviles Chancellor Merkel. “The most highly distinguished Jew, Ms. Merkel, is doing everything possible to continue sucking the German Reich dry,” he says, calling most refugees criminals and trained mercenaries who will bring war to Germany.
But Schittke denies being a far-right extremist, despite the fact that his group’s website calls the Holocaust a “lie by the victors,” or that he was once a member of the Republicans, an anti-immigration party formerly under observation by domestic intelligence.
Violence and Harassment Increase
Ideas like his are nothing new, though. The Reichsbürger movement emerged in the 1980s, and has since become highly fragmented across the country. Even before the police officer’s murder in Georgensgmünd, Martin Döring, the spokesman for the state of Saxony’s state intelligence agency, had warned that it was particularly active in former East German states like his, and that “some of them are dangerous.”
Other disturbing incidents preceded the shootout in Georgensgmünd, too. In April, a Reichsbürger supporter drove into a police officer who was enforcing the speed limit, dragging him with the vehicle for several meters. The driver said the officer lacked a legal basis for conducting the traffic stop.
Then in August, there was a shootout between police and a member of the Reichsbürger movement in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, former “Mister Germany” winner Adrian Ursache. He had founded his own state of “Ur” on his property in Reuden, which he and supporters tried to defend when a bailiff and some 200 police officers arrived to enforce his eviction. In the ensuing exchange of fire, Ursache was injured and a police officer suffered a gunshot wound to the neck.
The right-wing extremist Reichsbürger groups have also repeatedly sent “death sentences” to intimidate officials. The decrees are issued by fictional courts “in the name of the people.” Daniela Trochowski, state secretary for the state of Brandenburg’s finance ministry, received such a letter, though she didn’t take it seriously until one day a movement supporter suddenly appeared in her office.
“It was a dicey situation, and since then I’ve been scared,” she says. The ministry is now testing an alarm button on computers so that officials can warn their colleagues in case of danger.
The letters from the conspiracy theorists are meant to paralyze bureaucracy, and they are common. “There is hardly a head of any agency who hasn’t had to deal with the phenomenon of the Reichsbürger,” reads a brochure from Brandenburg’s intelligence agency. These letters register complaints about every possible decision, harassing officials with pages of ideological statements.
And no matter how absurd such letters might be, officials have to process them. “Many local authorities are overwhelmed by the flood of letters,” says Döring. Internet forums offer sample letters and document generators, which make it possible to send multiple letters with minimal effort.
The efforts are coordinated through the use of a notorious financial trick: Members file high claims for compensation with officials they don’t like, which they enter into an online debt registry in the United States. There, no one monitors their legitimacy. The demands are then overwritten by a Malta-based collection agency run by Reichsbürger, which legally arranges the payment. The process is valid in Germany, and free of the typical court costs that would apply domestically. Through this scam Reichsbürger recently demanded €7.5 million from a district judge in Siegen, and some $100 million from a court official in Augsburg.
Though none of these demands have been enforced, they have become a problem for officials, says Burkhard Lischka, the center-left Social Democratic Party’s spokesman for domestic policy. “The affected administrative and judicial staff are deeply unsettled by this,” he says.
The problem has become so widespread that one municipal bureaucratic training center in Dresden now offers a course in “legally handling the administration of Reichsbürger.” Some government agencies have also issued brochures on how to deal with supporters, recommending that officials refuse to engage in any discussion about issues they raise, and report every threat to law enforcement.
After the fatal shooting in Georgensgmünd, it has become clear that officials need a new strategy, though. Brandenburg domestic intelligence spokesman Heiko Homburg says that currently only Reichsbürger supporters who were known to be active in the far-right extremist scene were under surveillance by officials. Now, though, it could become standard to view all Reichsbürger supporters as extremists, he said. Lawmakers could make it a requirement that domestic intelligence be consulted prior to issuing weapons permits — and the agency could thus prevent such people from owning weapons.
In Bavaria, where the deadly shooting took place last week, the head of the state intelligence agency, Burkhard Körner, says he wants to monitor the movement “with even greater vigor.” And that includes even the non-extremist adherents, among whom “intense extremism can develop.”
Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann also announced plans to more closely monitor the scene, with the aim of disarming all members.
By Anna Clauß, Jan Friedmann, Dietmar Hipp, Martin Pirkl, Sven Röbel and David Walden