Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and international standoffs, it is unsurprising that updates on a fringe movement of German seditionists is hard to come by. Indeed in Germany itself, the Reichsbürgerbewegung, or “Imperial Citizens Movement”, is old news. Except when it’s not. In March of this year, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building, and Community (BMI) formally banned a Reichsbürger organization for the first time, culminating in police raids in ten of Germany’s sixteen states. This heavy-handed action by Germany’s federal government marks an important turning point in its response to a growing movement which denies the government’s very own legitimacy. But for those outside of German-speaking Europe, let alone Europe in general, the first question that likely comes to mind regarding this subject is not, “Why is this significant?”, but rather, “What is a Reichsbürger and how do I pronounce that!?”
First off, the German ei diphthong is pronounced “aye” and the ü is pronounced “oo” but with pursed lips. More important however is understanding that the movement is intrinsically tied to an interpretation of sovereignty. The modern notion of sovereignty is one of the most consequential social constructs in human history. The idea of governing bodies possessing supreme legitimacy over societies, and the mutual recognition such entities share with each other defines the Westphalian world order and its community of nations. However, even the most internationally recognized government has no de-facto authority without being legitimized by the citizens they rule. Using the broadest philosophical terminology, this constitutes “consent of the governed”, and if enough people do not consent to a government’s rule, it can result in popular revolt or secession. Accordingly, there are individuals who argue that by rejecting their government’s legitimacy, they have the philosophical right to secede and obtain their own personal sovereignties.
In the anglophone world, these individuals call themselves “sovereign citizens”, and they look for any legal loophole which supports their claim. The movement has its origins in the Midwestern United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s as part of the Posse Comitatus movement, a far-right group which preached an anti-Semitic conspiracy implicating agencies of the United States Government, specifically the Federal Reserve and Internal Revenue Service, as fronts for a Jewish world order. It is unknown how many sovereign citizens are active globally, however the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated an approximate 300,000 present in the United States as self-proclaimed “resident aliens” in 2011, many of whom are unaware of the movement’s hateful origins. Today, the movement is widely associated in the United States with tax evasion and document forgery. On YouTube and other video-sharing websites, there are a plethora of uploaded dashcam videos showing pulled-over sovereign citizens explaining their “immunity” to traffic violations with incredulous police officers, much to the mockery of commenters. Less amusing however is when these individuals transition from tax protestor to domestic terrorist, most often targeting state and federal government buildings as well as civil servants. Perhaps the most notable domestic terrorist to harbor these views was Terry Nichols, a conspirator in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing who openly renounced his United States citizenship to live in the U.S. as a self-declared “resident alien.”
Through an American lens, understanding the sovereign citizen movement at home opens the door for comparative analysis of the Reichsbürger in Germany. The foremost parallel between the two movements is the broad philosophical principle upon which they stand: that the legitimacy of the state is malleable based on the consent of the governed. Like their American counterparts, the Reichsbürger firmly reject the notion that the Federal Republic of Germany is a legitimate state, and therefore has no authority to enforce its laws and conduct taxation. They seek obscure, if sometimes nonsensical, political loopholes to justify their own legitimacy. Moreover, both are not defined by a single faction; rather acting as umbrella terms for an array of individuals and groups which hold similar, and occasionally rivaling, claims of sovereignty.
While their philosophical rationales share a stark similarity, the parallels between the two movements diverge with their vastly different political intentions. The Reichsbürger do not share the anarcho-capitalist proclivities of their American equivalents, rather opting for a platform of German nationalism and postwar revanchism. These groups reject the legitimacy of the German government but necessarily a German government, to which they claim to be continuations of historical German authorities such as the Weimar Republic and its constituent Free State of Prussia. Some factions desire to turn the clock back even further, claiming to act as an interim administration on behalf of the long-deposed Hohenzollern monarchy. This presents its own set of issues, as their claims not only undermine Federal German legitimacy, but also extend to former German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line currently administered by Poland, Russia, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic.
Why does this concerning political trend matter? The short answer is, because Germany matters. The modern, democratic Germany is at the heart of the continent’s economic, security, and humanitarian endeavors. It stands at the forefront of the European project, one that could be upended if Germany’s neighbors, many still carrying painful memories of the Second World War in their public consciences, feel threatened by nationalist German rhetoric. It matters because it is a larger movement than many Germans believe, with some elements even infiltrating police and military forces. It matters because they have radicalized, with members being implicated in xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-government attacks on German soil. We can only wait and see if Germany's Federal government will ban more Reichsbürger groups in the future and how they will respond themselves.
Florencio Yuzon attends The George Washington University majoring in International Affairs and German Language and an alumnus of the 2017-2018 Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange.