DENYING THE GEOPOLITICAL REALITY The case of the German 'Reich Citizens'

Florian Buchmayr


In the spring of 2020, many different groups and individuals came together to protest against the measures taken by the German government to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus, each of whom had very different motives and ideological backgrounds. Different groups, which had believed in conspiracy theories long before the pandemic, integrated the current crisis into their speculations. The only thing that seemed to unite them was a profound distrust of the state and the media.

In Germany, there is hardly a conspiracy theory that is so strongly opposed to the German state as that of the Reichsbiirger (‘Reich Citizens’), and it thus comes as no surprise that the Reich Citizens have harshly criticised the German government, suggesting that the economic recession was orchestrated to enslave the German population and that supposedly protective measures are actually intended to strip the people of all their personal rights and freedoms. The German Intelligence Service (Verfassungsschutz) warned that the Reich Citizens have used the relatively large and broad support for these protests to spread their own theses (Spilcker, 2020). But even well before these protests, the Reich Citizens were repeatedly in the headlines and have fascinated the German public. There are several reasons for this. For one, the Reich Citizens promulgate one of the most absurd theories to be found in the conspiracy theory scene. In brief, the theory suggests that the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) is not an independent state but has instead been secretly occupied and governed by the Americans since 1945. Although Germany’s power relations are at the centre of this theory, the entire geopolitical order of Europe is also conceived as being the victim of a conspiracy. In this view, individual European nation-states are not sovereign at all, as a non-European power is secretly pulling the strings from outside. The second and possibly even more important reason why the Reich Citizens are so fascinating to the German public rests not in their theories but in their actions. The conspiracy theories of the Reich Citizens are not just theories but also a philosophy of life in which the imperative to resist is foregrounded. Because of their conviction that the state in which they live lacks any legitimacy, the Reich Citizens are characterised as holding a very critical attitude towards state authorities. They refuse to pay taxes and they harass civil servants. In the case of very radical supporters of the Reich Citizens, the state has initiated foreclosure proceedings. This has, in turn, led to conflict-laden confrontations with police officers, some of which have turned violent. Again and again, police officers have been injured by Reich Citizens. In 2016, a policeman was fatally shot by a Reich Citizen (Przybilla, 2016). As a consequence, German authorities have started to deal with this group more intensively. In 2018, the German Intelligence Service estimated that a total of 19,000 people were members of the Reich Citizens (Deutscher Verfassungsschutz, 2019). The number of unreported members is probably much higher since it can be assumed that many people sympathise with or support the Reich Citizens’ conspiracy theories without actively being part of the scene. Since these members are unlikely to be violent, they are not as relevant to the German Intelligence Service. In addition, membership estimates are likely to rise in the coming years, as German authorities are becoming increasingly aware of this problematic scene.

Data on the demographic characteristics of the Reich Citizens are limited. A large majority of the sympathisers, 76 per cent, are male, and they are usually over forty years old (Deutscher Verfassungsschutz, 2019). Additionally, it is assumed that Reich Citizens are disproportionately single (especially in the case of Reich Citizens prone to violence), unemployed or retired (Keil, 2015: 44; Fiebig & Kohler, 2019). As mentioned earlier, this information, unfortunately, says little about the spread of the Reich Citizens’ conspiracy theories in the German public.

However, the picture that is drawn by the media does not grasp the heterogeneity of the Reich Citizens. In 2012, an attempt was made to bring together a wide range of actors from the scene by organising a series of conferences under the slogan Aufbruch Gold-Rot-Schwarz (‘Awakening Gold-Red-Black’ - referring to the colours of the German flag but reversing their sequence). Despite this, the movement collapsed again, because it was not really possible to find a lowest common denominator. This is by no means surprising. The Reich Citizens differ widely in terms of their specific theories and arguments - and even when they make the same arguments, they differ in the conclusions they draw from them. Therefore, it is important to understand both the commonalities and the differences within this movement. What are their arguments? What do they have in common? How are they different?

To answer these questions, important websites of the Reich Citizens’ Movement were analysed using the sociology of knowledge approach to discourse (SDKA, Keller, 2005). Conspiracy theories are generally considered to be irrational and false. However, it makes sense to analyse them as forms of knowledge, as they are treated as such by supporters. The SDKA allows for an analysis of the construction, legitimation and materialisation of symbolic orders of knowledge. Discourses are understood as cross-textual contexts of meaning, and as such the researcher, when creating the data corpus, should try to find documents that are as different as possible. Special emphasis will be placed on how knowledge is legitimised, i.e., which forms of knowledge texts are referenced or which semantic fields dominate. Also, the materialisation and institutionalisation of knowledge - that is, the translation of knowledge into practice - shall be analysed.

In the following discussion, the most important similarities between members of this scene will be highlighted. First, the central arguments, documents and narratives of the Keich Citizens will be presented. Subsequently, two different streams within this scene will be distinguished: reactionary Reich Citizens and individualistic Reich Citizens. While the former mourn past political structures, the latter seek to establish new ones. Additionally, different references to transnational structures and spaces will also be discussed.

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