Taz series: the reich citizens (part 1): welcome to the german reich

Nutcases, right-wingers or outcasts? Why people doubt the Federal Republic. Explorations in milieus where democracy is eroding.

A bit of Prussian glamour to go with the racist attitude – the Brandenburg Gate in Potsdam Photo: imago/Jurgen Schwarz

Dusk has already half swallowed the marketplace from which change is supposed to emanate. Rudiger Hoffmann has parked his station wagon directly in front of the town hall and unloaded the banners he brought with him. "Enough is enough!" it says. "Get out of the dictatorship."

Wittenburg, a town in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. A cold wind pants around the half-timbered houses. Hoffmann, an unassuming guy with glasses and short gray hair, pulls his jacket around him. Behind him in the half-light, the silhouettes of a dozen people stand out. "Something is wrong here. More and more people are asking questions," he says. "Why doesn’t anything change? Why do we have less and less money? And more and more problems?"

As he sees it, a truth is slowly coming to light that has long been suppressed: that the Federal Republic does not exist, but only a dubious corporate network masquerading as a state. And because he thinks so, he is supposed to be a citizen of the Reich? He goes up, his voice gets loud: "With the people who really ask questions, they say: These are Reichsburger. Such a thing is called national socialist. Because in the Third Reich, they attacked the Jews in the same way."

Shooting in Bavaria

The small rally in Wittenburg is an indication that something is out of balance. For this story is not just about a few mavericks with absurd theses, but about the question of why the ideology of the Reich citizens catches on. The term bundles a variety of groups that have only one thing in common: the conviction that the German Reich still exists today because the Federal Republic is not a legitimate state.

Twice within a few months, there have been shootings between Reich citizens and police officers. The radicalism on the fringes of the scene has grown significantly, and at the same time its ideology is spreading more and more. What does it say that more and more people are opting out of the Federal Republic?Part 4 next week: The dropout – how one almost went under between Reichsburger ideology and official pressure. Click here for part 1 and part 2.

Just recently, the most serious confrontation to date between them and the state made headlines: A sports shooter who had proclaimed his own state on his property in Bavaria opened fire when police tried to confiscate his weapons. One police officer died, three were injured. As recently as August, a shooting occurred in Saxony-Anhalt because an Reichsburger resisted police during an eviction.

Michael Hullen, an employee of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Brandenburg, walks through the corridors of the Ministry of the Interior in Potsdam, taps a code into the number field of a door, and the lock opens with a quiet click. Then he settles into a cramped meeting room. "Reichsburger alone are annoying," he says, "but when they appear as a group, they often become highly aggressive."

Radicalism on the rise

There are said to be around 300 of them in Brandenburg, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution has determined. But by no means everyone is known to the authorities. "The spectrum is relatively broad," Hullen says, "and on the fringes there are people where we think: Something can happen there." The radicalism of the scene has been increasing for years. What worries him is that the ideology is seeping into the middle of society: He calls the Reichsburger an "in-between spectrum" that on the one hand attracts ordinary citizens who have lost faith in the state, and on the other offers points of contact for neo-Nazis.

Thomas Patzlaff, self-administrator

"The state is a foreign administration that screws us. Nothing more."

For some time now, Hullen has been trying to grasp the diffuse structures of the milieu; he turns on his laptop, a diagram appears: there are the revisionist groups rooted in right-wing extremism. There are regional, unstructured milieus, troublemakers, failed existences. And there are milieu managers who are actively trying to destabilize the state. A picture of Rudiger Hoffmann appears on the display under the term.

It’s getting late in Wittenburg’s marketplace; Hoffmann speaks quickly, his thoughts bouncing like ping-pong balls from topic to topic, from the Masonic symbolism on euro bills to the war in Syria and Ukraine. "We want to live in peace," he says, "we want our homeland back." Hoffmann was active in the NPD in the ’90s as district chairman. He was seduced, he says today. In his coordinate system, it’s the other way around: he’s not the Nazi. Germany is continuing Hitler’s fascist laws.

The fight against the Federal Republic is his mission: Rudiger Hoffmann in Wittenburg, 2016 Photo: Gabriela Keller

His followers bury their hands deep in their pockets; every now and then a cigarette smoulders. There are plenty of video clips on the Internet showing Reichsburger massively harassing employees in financial or citizens’ offices. When asked about it, Hoffmann shakes his head. "You can’t do that," he says. "That hurts people."

"It’s destructive"

Hoffmann says neither he nor any of his people have ever raised their voices to city employees. Mayor Margret Seemann tells a different story: "They came to city hall on days when there were no office hours, went from office to office. Some became abusive." She issued house bans, her employees felt threatened. She herself was reported by Hoffmann, charged with treason and smuggling in refugees. "We take care of citizens’ concerns," she says, "but these are not normal concerns, this is destructive."

Talking to Reichsburger means following them into a labyrinth where new, bizarre twists and turns lie around every bend. Historical set pieces, political myths and anti-Semitic theories intertwine. If the state does not exist, someone else has to pull the strings, and these are usually U.S. finance capital or secret lodges – ciphers for "world Jewry.

Two men in suits step through the columns of the Brandenburg Gate in Potsdam, heading for a cafe in the stream of tourists. Thomas Mann and Bernd Weber are members of the administrative government of the "Free State of Prussia" – a nationwide grouping classified by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution as right-wing extremist.

Within the borders of 1914

Since the shooting in Bavaria, they have been under pressure: "Now there is a general witch hunt for different groups, summarized and labeled as Reichsburger," says Thomas Mann. "This process resembles a time when people were stigmatized by attaching stars to them." The two find a secluded table. Mann does the talking, Weber sits quietly next to him. It is important for him to set some things straight. He does not reject the Federal Republic – but one must see what it is: "A non-governmental organization. An administration set up by the Allies on the basis of the Basic Law."

Mann used to be in the Bundeswehr; today he works as a healer. He wears a jacket and tie pin, speaks in calm, sorted sentences. But when his theses are challenged, his voice suddenly turns cold: "We’re not doing this because we wanted to start a bowling club. We’re talking about facts under international law."

Mann sees himself and his comrades-in-arms as stewards of a new, better Germany. He has handed in his identity card; he carries the papers that the "Free State of Prussia" sells. "The German Reich, as confirmed by the Federal Constitutional Court, did not perish, but was rendered incapable of acting by the Allies." The German Reich in the borders of 1914, including the former eastern territories. He did not want to talk about revisionism, "because history is always written by the victorious powers."

The self-governor

He leans back, his coffee on the table having gone cold. "We have a legal system that exercises arbitrariness and a political system that enforces lobby interests," he says. "That’s why people come to us and ask, do you have something better to offer?"

Many with whom the ideology of Reichsburger finds a hearing are in financial straits. It often starts with them refusing to pay taxes and fines. On a quiet street in Berlin-Wedding, a tall man with a furrowed face opens the door, stickers on his mailbox: "Selbstverwaltung Thomas Patzlaff."

Patzlaff, a long-term unemployed 59-year-old, organized the "Round Table" a few years ago, a meeting of like-minded people. "We were infiltrated and sabotaged," he says. Today, he runs it only as an Internet platform. He sits on his faded upholstered set, drinking filter coffee like sparkling water. "The state is manifestly a third-party administration that’s screwing us. Nothing more."

In GDR times, he worked as an electrician, but in the company he constantly made trouble. Later, he tried his hand at self-employment in the restaurant business, but that didn’t work out either. Patzlaff lights a cigarette and stares into the smoke. More than ten years ago, an acquaintance showed him a homemade Reich identity card, and he thought to himself, "That’s exciting." He looked for contacts in the milieu, searched through archives, rummaged on the Internet. "I looked at the laws and found that a large part of them were null and void," he says. "I then went into the resistance."

Patzlaff looks tired, the constant hassle wears on him, the bailiffs, the collection proceedings. Whenever the doorbell rings, terror goes through his bones. "They keep coming," he says, "I lecture them, but they ignore it." In the end, the only thing that keeps him going is the belief that he will live to see the political upheaval in Germany: "I hope that it happens in my lifetime. That a real constitutional state emerges." Only then could things finally start to look up again. With him and with everything else.

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