Reichsbürger plot: Russian 'hybrid aggression'?

The Brussels-based pro-EU think-tank International Foundation for Better Governance (IFBG) is calling the apparent thwarted ultra-right plot to overthrow the German government by the so-called "Reichsbürger" movement "a classic example of the hybrid aggression of the Russian Federation." The statement notes that chancellor Olaf Scholz, reportedly one of those marked for "physical elimination" in the Reichsbürger plot, is a key supporter of Ukraine among Western leaders, and was chiefly responsible for the recent German donation of Gepard mobile anti-aircraft systems to the Kyiv government. IFBG concludes: "The circumstances demand that Russia must be completely isolated, receive the maximum possible sanctions and be recognised as a terrorist state by the parliaments of Western countries." (EU Political Report)

Conspiracy of atavism
In an operation code-named Schatten (Shadows), German police on Dec. 7 arrested 25 people in raids across 11 states, who the Office of the Federal Prosecutor says were preparing for a "Day X" to storm the Reichstag building and seize power. Their leader is named as "Prince Heinrich XIII" of the House of Reuss, which ruled over the Principality of Greiz, in what is now the state of Thuringia, from the 12th century until after World War I. (There was an actual Prince Heinrich XIII who ruled Greiz in the early 19th century.) The present-day "Prince" was arrested in Frankfurt, where he evidently runs what his website vaguely describes as a "business interest."

A second ringleader identified as "Rüdiger von P." is accused of attempting to recruit members of the security forces for the plot, and organizing an armed wing of the movement for the seizure of power. Active and former members of the military are among those arrested, and contacts are believed to have been cultivated at army bases in the states of Hesse, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. One of those under investigation had been a member of the elite Special Commando Forces (KSK), and police searched both his home and his room at the Graf-Zeppelin military base in Calw, near Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg. Accounts were not clear if this unnamed suspect was among the arrested.

In July 2020, the 2nd company of the KSK was formally dissolved because of suspected links to right-wing extremism.

Definitely among the arrested was Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a Berlin district court judge who served as a member of the Bundestag with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party from 2017 to 2021.

Also among the arrested is a Russian national, identified as "Vitalia B.," who prosecutors say was asked to approach Moscow on Heinrich's behalf. Accounts in the German press have insinuated that Vitalia is the self-styled prince's girlfriend, although he is said to be married to an Iranian woman. The Russian embassy in Berlin issued a statement saying that it does not "maintain contacts with representatives of terrorist groups and other illegal entities." (BBC NewsNPR, CNNJurist, Bild)

Arcane legal theories
In the arcane theories of the Reichsbürger cult, the current German republic has no juridical legitimacy, but is actually a private corporation established by the Allies after World War II. They refer to it as the "BRD GmbH" for Federal Republic of Germany Ltd. (Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung). They want to re-establish the German Reich of the kaisers that ruled from 1871 to 1918—whence their name, "Citizens of the Reich." This Second Reich came to an end with the establishment of Weimar Republic in 1918, as did the aristocratic principalities such as Reuss-Greiz. Heinrich's great-grandfather, Heinrich XXVII, was forced to abdicate at this time. (All rulers of the House were named Heinrich in honor of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, 1191-1197, who gave the family their lands and titles. The numbering system is re-set upon reaching 100.)

The House of Reuss had its land holdings confiscated by the new state of Thuringia in 1920. Various family manors and lodges would later be nationalized under the communist government of East Germany. After German reunification, Heinrich XIII spent years fighting legal battles to regain ownership of these. He apparently succeeded in recovering personal title to a neo-Gothic castle in Saaldorf, Bavaria, which reportedly hosted many Reichsbürger meetings in which the coup plot was planned.

Other members of the Reuss family had recently distanced themselves from Heinrich XIII as his conspiratorial proclivities became clear. Heinrich XIV of Reuss, speaking for the family, dismissed him as a "confused old man." Misigivings were raised earlier this year when letters began to arrive in residents' mailboxes in the town of Bad Lobenstein, Thuringia, urging them (in text punctuated with exclamation points and capital letters) to use a website to register for "citizenship" under the House of Reuss.

Others in the movement have been emulating this wackiness. In Wittenberg, Saxony-Anhalt state, one Peter Fitzek has declared himself "King Peter," and is giving out personally signed identity cards to those who sign up as his "subjects." (NYT, NYTSky News, Daily Mail, DW, AAThe Conversation, Vox)

It is not clear if the "citizenship" registration website is that of the general Reichsbürger movement,—meaning "stateless," a reference to the supposed non-existence of the contemporary German state. This theory is mirrored in the popular folklore on the stateside radical right that the United States has been illegitimately ruled under "admiralty law" since instatement of the 14th Amendment in the aftermath of the Civil War, and has no authority over "sovereign citizens." This parallel is especially disconcerting given the recent attacks on the power grid across the US that have been attributed to far-right yahoos.

Historical ironies
Despite their rejection of the German state established after World War II, the Reichsbürger cult displays no particular nostalgia for the Third Reich. However, we have noted before that some Nazi-nostalgists have resorted to the imperial flag of the Second Reich as a "surrogate symbol" to weasel around the prohibition on display of Nazi iconography under the Federal Republic. The Reichsbürgers have even appropriated the usual facile anti-fascist posture; their rhetoric has often portrayed the European Union as "fascist." This would appear to be yet another example of the widespread post-truth phenomenon of fascist pseudo-anti-fascism.

In 2017, a Reichsbürger follower was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of a police officer during a weapons raid on his home in the Bavarian municipality of Georgensgmünd. Germany's far right has since 2020 received a big boost from the anti-vax backlash, as evidenced by last year's apparent assassination conspiracy against the president of Saxony state. As much of an historical irony as it may seem, German far-rightists increasingly look to Moscow for sponsorship and tutelage, raising slogans such as "Putin save us!"