DRESDEN, Germany — On the night of February 15, a group of German nationalists marched through the streets of Dresden to commemorate the victims of the devastating Allied bombing of the East German city late in World War II. The city is an annual rallying point for the far-right here, and the group was met by mobs of black-clad antifa counterprotesters hurling insults, and the occasional bottle. From behind a heavy police cordon, their cries of “Nazis out!” were forced to do battle with the strains of Wagnereseque music blaring from the nationalists’ loudspeakers.
Weaving among the crowd of marchers that night was Nikolai Nerling, a far-right agitator known as “Der Volkslehrer” (The People’s Teacher) who had brought his camera and was cheerily gathering footage for a provocative new video for his 71,000 YouTube subscribers. He had attended the rally, he says, as part of his political project to wake the public up to “the real situation,” and he considered the tense confrontation on display in Dresden as merely a preview of what Germany has coming.
“There’s no other way — it will end up in complete chaos, civil war,” he says.
Nerling, a 38-year-old former primary school teacher from Berlin, is a prominent figure in the Reichsbuerger movement, an umbrella term for a uniquely German strain of paranoid, gun-hoarding far-right conspiracy theorists who reject the legitimacy of the post-war German republic and believe the German people are oppressed by a shadowy global elite. To Nerling, the aspects of modern German society he detests — liberalism, globalization, and immigration — are all part of a deliberate plot to eradicate the German people.
“They want to exterminate everything that is German. That’s the goal,” says Nerling, who like many within the movement, rejects the label Reichsbuerger, although he concedes others may call him that.
Long viewed as delusional, but mostly harmless cranks on the edges of society, the Reichsbuergers are now a growing concern for the German government. The underground movement first caught the attention of the German authorities in 2016 after a string of violent crimes that included the fatal shooting of a police officer, prompting the domestic intelligence service to start monitoring it as a potential extremist threat.
“These are people who believe themselves to be in a permanent state of war.”
“Before, the authorities said, ‘these people are basically crazy and we don’t have to worry about them,’” said Jan Rathje, a researcher at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation who has studied the movement since 2013. “After the violence, they realized that these people are going to be a problem for the state.”
Since Germany’s intelligence service began surveillance of the Reichsbuergers in 2016, its estimate of the movement’s size has doubled to around 19,000 members. Worryingly, they tend to have guns; 5 percent of Reichsbuergers hold gun permits, compared to 2 percent of the general population. In June 2017, the government resolved to disarm the movement, declaring that anyone who identifies as a Reichsbuerger should be banned from possessing a weapon.
Despite these efforts, researchers and politicians warn that not enough is being done. Germany’s political climate has become increasingly xenophobic in the wake of the 2015 refugee influx — support for the far-right AfD party has surged, and right-wing extremist violence is on the rise. And the Reichsbuergers are growing more radicalized and aggressive, accelerating their path to a potential confrontation with the state. In light of the rising threat, the government’s efforts to disarm the movement are moving too slowly, says Green MP Irene Mihalic, the party’s home affairs spokeswoman.
“It’s a great mistake,” Mihalic says. “The Reichsbuerger scene as a whole must be seen as a dangerous far-right ideology, with a lot of influence.”
“If you were to seriously believe what they do, you’d take a shotgun and hide it in your cellar as well.”
Like so many other conspiracy theories, the Reichsbuerger ideology proliferates predominantly in the swamps of the internet, but there are worrying signs that it is seeping from the lunatic fringe into wider society. The rise of the far-right AfD party has even brought politicians who espouse Reichsbuerger-like conspiracy theories into Germany’s parliament. (The AFD denies any affiliation with the movement, but critics from the ruling Christian Democratic Union say Reichsbuergers are vocal supporters of the AfD, actively circulating their content online, and share their goal of destabilizing the state.)
“These are people who believe themselves to be in a permanent state of war,” says Tobias Ginsburg, a writer who spent eight months undercover in the scene as research for a book, ”The Journey into the Reich,” published last year. “If you were to seriously believe what they do, you’d take a shotgun and hide it in your cellar as well.”
“Citizens of the Reich”
“Reichsbuerger,” which translates to “citizens of the Reich,” is an ideology rooted in the conspiracy theory that the German Reich still exists, and that the post-war German federal republic is an illegitimate puppet state established by foreign occupying powers to oppress the German people.
According to Rathje, the ideology has Nazi roots, and was initially circulated by Nazi Party holdovers in the years following World War II. At its core, he says, it’s an anti-Semitic ideology, with adherents forming their worldview through the myth of a global Jewish plot to oppress and eradicate the Germans through immigration. Many in the scene are Holocaust deniers.
Nerling, for his part, says he doesn’t believe Jews are the architects of the plot, but that it could be some unknown forces behind them. “If it were the Jews, then why would it be so obvious?” he says.
He’s cagier about his views on the Holocaust, citing the country’s strict Holocaust denial laws — which he views as another plank of the oppressive plot. “Whatever you say, you can never be sure that it’s not against the law, so it’s better not to talk about this,” he says.
But he’s open about his history. He admits to having demonstrated with a sign reading "The history of the Holocaust is a story full of lies.” He says he attended neo-Nazi festivals, and appeared alongside Holocaust deniers. Before the rally in Dresden, he made provocative visits to the Bergen-Belsen and Dachau concentration camp memorial sites, questioning what took place there. After being ejected from Dachau when he was recognized, he issued a rallying call through his YouTube channel, urging his followers to visit such sites and declare that they don’t feel guilty for what happened there.
“It was like ‘Game of Thrones,’ for idiots.”
As with many conspiracy theorists, Nerling’s gateway to the ideology was the internet — YouTube, specifically. It began, he says, with U.S.-focused conspiracy theories regarding Sandy Hook and 9/11. From there, he went down a rabbit hole of material about Germany’s war history and the migration crisis. “That’s what woke me up,” he says.
In 2017, Nerling started publicly sharing his views, on the streets and online. His extremist activism soon came to the attention of his employers, leading to him being dismissed last year from his elementary school teaching job he had held for nearly 10 years. But he holds no rancor over the loss of his career — what he does now, he says, is more fulfilling on a “spiritual level,” and donations from his supporters allow him to live comfortably.
That financial support allows Nerling to devote himself full-time to spreading his beliefs through social media to a growing audience. While he says he obeys the law and doesn’t advocate violence — he says he neither owns a gun, nor encourages others to — he nevertheless warns his followers to get ready for an impending violent social breakdown.
“All the invaders — they call themselves asylum seekers, but I don’t think they are — they come here and the crimes they commit are just horrific,” he says, echoing anti-refugee rhetoric that has become commonplace in the wake of the migrant influx. “The German people, they won’t stand it any longer.”
Nerling acknowledges that believing in conspiracy theories can lead you to some “weird answers.” For example, he admits that once, for about a week, he believed the Earth was flat, as a result of having watched some particularly convincing YouTube videos. With a little further research, he eventually realized he was wrong. But asked whether he concedes he could be similarly mistaken about the plot to destroy the Germans, he’s adamant that that’s impossible.
Preparing for ‘Day X’
Unlike more prominent forces on Germany’s rising far-right scene, the Reichsbuergers are not an organized group but rather a sprawling, leaderless underground movement of individuals and small groups with divergent takes on the arcane conspiracy theory. (Some things Reichsbuergers do tend to have in common, in keeping with their view of the state as illegitimate: declaring their property as a “sovereign” microstate, refusing to pay taxes and fines, and issuing their own identity documents and currencies.)
While Nerling, with his openly extremist sentiments, clearly fits the profile of a Reichsbuerger, experts say that as the ideology spreads it’s drawing in people who less obviously fit the bill. As well as hardcore neo-Nazis, the movement has also attracted new-age spiritualists, who are drawn to the esoteric side of the conspiracy theory’s views on “true” Germanness, as well as ordinary middle-class Germans.
“There’s an apocalyptic spirit, a sense that ‘it’s five to midnight.’”
However they find their way to it, Reichsbuergers typically share the conviction that German society is being pushed to the breaking point, and that there is an urgent need to prepare for an inevitable “Day X” of confrontation with the state.
“There’s an apocalyptic spirit, a sense that ‘it’s five to midnight’,” says Rathje, who sees parallels with “prepper” scenes and the sovereign citizens militia movements in the U.S.
While the mantle of victimhood that Reichsbuerger ideology bestows can initially feel empowering, it inevitably condemns its adherents to powerlessness, said Rathje. Railing against a plot that doesn’t actually exist eventually drives them into paranoia and frustration. It also inevitably places them on a collision course with the authorities, when they refuse to pay taxes, fines or otherwise comply with the law.
That’s a dynamic that played out in two high-profile Reichsbuerger shootings which brought the movement to national attention in Germany. In August 2016 in the town of Halle, a 41-year-old former Mr. Germany shot a policeman when authorities came to forcibly evict him from his home, which he insisted was his sovereign state. A similar standoff played out in the Bavarian town of Georgensgmünd in October that year, when a 47-year-old shot dead a policeman who had come to confiscate his weapons after he had refused mandatory inspections.
“The ‘Day X’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Rathje. “The authorities really are after you — but only because you provoked these events.”
In the summer of 2017, Ginsburg, the writer who went undercover in the Reichsbuerger movement for his book, attended a series of meetings aimed at unifying the sprawling movement and bringing about “Day X.”
The meetings, beginning in the city of Kassel, drew together diverse groups, he said: a criminal biker gang; a new-age hippy cult; “Nazi aristocrats” descended from high-ranking officers of the Third Reich; Holocaust deniers; and “of course, the angry, xenophobic bourgeois.”
“It was like ‘Game of Thrones,’ for idiots,” he says. “There was a lot of intrigue going on — everybody hated each other, but they shared this big one goal, preparing for Day X.”
Despite the shared goals, the talks fell apart after four meetings, due, Ginsburg believes, to the fundamental incompatibility of the participants. “If you have a criminal biker gang, and some esoteric woman who believes she talks to angels, they’re operating on very different plains,” he said.
“The threat is that this ideology is becoming bigger and bigger, and reaching the center of society.”
But Ginsburg’s time in the scene left him with an alarming picture of how widely this paranoid, apocalyptic, conspiracy-fueled ideology had spread throughout German society. It’s clear to Ginsburg that the stereotype of the isolated, loner Reichsbuerger — “those loopy extremists who stand in the street and say ‘I don’t belong to this country any more’” — represents only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger movement.
“The threat is that this ideology is becoming bigger and bigger, and reaching the center of society,” he says.
Reichsbuerger-like beliefs can now be heard in Germany’s parliament, says Ginsburg. Peter Boehringer, an MP since 2017 for the far-right AfD and chairman of the Bundestag’s Budgets Committee, believes a secretive New World Order is behind the refugee influx, with the goal of bringing about the “Umvolkung” — a Nazi coinage referring to the assimilation of the German people.
Contacted by VICE News about his unconventional beliefs, Boehringer says that they had not been influenced by Reichsbuerger ideology.
“The crap some people call ‘Reichsbuerger’ theories is undefined, i.e. everybody reads something different in it. It has been around on the internet as long as I can remember,” he says. “Regardless of whatever definition of the term you are referring to, neither myself nor [the] AfD party have anything to do with it.”
Tackling the threat
In addition to the conspiracy theorists entering parliament, there are worries about the Reichsbuerger ideology pervading government agencies, particularly the police and army, where possible access to weapons makes infiltration especially troubling. According to the Ministry of the Interior, there are currently 34 ongoing investigations into suspected Reichsbuergers in the German military, and seven in the police.
“That doesn’t sound like much, but when one is aware of their ideology and plans, it’s very disturbing,” Mihalic, the Green MP, tells VICE News. “And still the administration does too little to investigate and analyze the problem.”
Germany’s Interior Ministry and domestic intelligence agency would not respond to detailed questions from VICE News on the Reichsbuerger movement, referring instead to an annual report on the issue.
“It’s only because a policeman was shot by a Reichsbuerger that the government took the scene seriously.”
But the domestic intelligence agency, which leads the response to the Reichsbuerger threat, has previously faced criticism over perceptions it was failing to take right-wing extremism seriously enough.
In September, the head of the agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, was removed from his post after provoking a political firestorm by appearing to play down the threat posed by right-wing extremism. Maassen’s comments in an interview about violent far-right demonstrations in the city of Chemnitz suggested the response to the protests had been overblown, and questioned the veracity of a viral video showing mob violence against minorities in the city — which he later conceded was genuine.
Meanwhile the disarming of the movement, promised in the wake of the 2016 shootings, is progressing at a snail’s pace, Mihalic says. A year ago, the domestic intelligence service said it knew of about 1,000 Reichsbuergers with gun permits; today, that figure has only been reduced to 910. That’s partly because the intelligence service continually discovers previously unidentified Reichsbuergers who hold gun licenses, and partly because new licenses are issued to extremists without adequate checks.
While Mihalic acknowledges the challenges of trying to strip the Reichsbuergers of their weapons, she says the current response falls considerably short of the promised disarmament of the movement. And amid the heated political climate in Germany, with far-right ideology rising, she says its vital the government does more to tackle the threat.
“It’s only because a policeman was shot by a Reichsbuerger that the government took the scene seriously,” she says. “ But it’s still not taking them seriously enough. They still don’t see the whole dimension of the dangers.”
Cover: Wolfgang P. (M), who is part of the "Reichsb'rger" movement, arrives for a meeting escorted by police officers and his lawyer Susanne Koller (R) in the early morning hours in Georgensgmuend, Germany, 11 October 2017. Photo by: Daniel Karmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
This article originally appeared on VICE News US.