Peter Fitzek is the self-proclaimed “King of Germany.” He wears a golden crown over hair pulled into a ponytail, and until recently lived in an abandoned hospital – near the eastern German city of Wittenberg – that he had declared an independent state.
In YouTube videos of his 2012 “coronation,” hundreds of “royal children” can be seen cheering while an ersatz ermine cloak is wrapped over the kneeling Fitzek, on a stage complete with throne and grand piano.
A bizarre spectacle, but one that was ultimately deemed dangerous enough for German anti-terror authorities to raid the “Kingdom of Germany” with more than 100 special forces in May 2017. Fitzek’s loyal subjects were dispersed, although the “king” himself had already been sitting in a German jail for almost a year due to financial irregularities in his fiefdom.
Fitzek is perhaps the best-known “Reichsbürger” (which translates as “Citizen of the Reich” or “Imperial citizen”) in Germany. It is a disparate movement that may sound comical but is now being taken deadly seriously by the German authorities.
Since January, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the BfV, Germany’s internal security agency) is officially monitoring the cult in Saxony-Anhalt – where Fitzek started his “kingdom” – and in other German states. It now considers the Reichsbürger group as anti-constitutional and says some are even plotting to form terror groups.
The BfV told public broadcaster Deutsche Welle last month that the Reichsbürger are of particular concern because of their love of guns and because the cult consists of very loosely connected, hard-to-pin-down individuals.
A recent intelligence agency report stated that, as at March 31, 2018, there were some 18,000 Reichsbürger in Germany – an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2016 figures. Of these, at least 950 were far-right extremists and 1,200 now held one or more gun licenses.
“What is problematic is that they use armed violence on behalf of their own desire for sovereignty, whether it’s for the purported German Reich [dating from 1871] or a state of their own,” Jan Rathje, a political scientist at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation (a think tank on German extremism), told Deutsche Welle.
“At its core, the movement is based on anti-Semitism,” Rathje wrote, together with foundation colleague Melanie Hermann, in their comprehensive study on the Reichsbürger. They explain that the Reichsbürger believe the conspiracy theories about “U.S. East Coast types,” “the capitalists,” “people with a certain religion,” “the Rothschilds,” or secret groups and circles, all of which embody strong anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Furthermore, two prominent Reichsbürger members – Horst Mahler and Sylvia Stolz – are open Holocaust deniers. “Holocaust denial is central to a lot of people that I met while I was undercover,” says author Tobias Ginsburg, 32, a Jewish-German journalist and theater director who has gone undercover not only with the “King of Germany” but also with several other Reichsbürger groups and spoke to Haaretz about his exprience. “That was more hurtful to me than the strange ideas that Jews rule the world in black cloaks or drink children’s blood, which I heard from some people there too.”
Hermann has studied the Reichsbürger for many years at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. She says the common theme connecting the Reichsbürger is their belief that the current Federal Republic of Germany is an illegitimate state construct. “They believe it is an occupied country steered by foreign powers behind the scenes and that there has never been a legitimate peace treaty after World War II – because the Two Plus Four Agreement that established Germany [in 1990] is not called ‘peace treaty,’” she explains.
Hermann tells Haaretz that some Reichsbürger believe that “Hitler’s Third Reich [from 1933] is still the legitimate state, whose rules they must follow, or even that the German Reich before that is still the legitimate state. Others believe that the federal republic is essentially a corporation with headquarters in Frankfurt, run by secret foreign powers and designed to thrown dust into the eyes of Germans while they are gradually exchanged for Muslim or African immigrants.”
This is basically the Nazi ideology of Umvolkung that was first expressed in Hitler’s 1925 autobiography “Mein Kampf.” Unsurprisingly, all of the conspiracy theories on the Reichsbürger scene eventually revert back to the idea of a Jewish world conspiracy.
Blaming dark forces
“Yes, of course that is totally crazy,” laughs Ginsburg, 32, who recently published a book (in German) about his research, “The Journey into the Reich: Surrounded by the Reichsbürger.”
“Unfortunately, despite their bizarre ideas, these groups and their ideology have become extremely attractive in recent years to more and more people with some form of ‘biographical disruptions,’” says Ginsburg, alluding to possible divorces, bankruptcies, loss of loved ones, etc. “For these people, it is much easier to believe that dark forces have destroyed their lives than that they did it to themselves through their own mistakes. And many of them do not shy away from violence.”
Ginsburg is concerned that the German authorities and society may have picked up on the cult’s growth too late. “These are not just some loners or crazies anymore. There is a real political movement on the rise here,” he warns.
The recent intelligence agency report said some Reichsbürger were probably in positions of power: Several members of the federal parliament have been named – all of them also members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party that is the third largest in the German parliament.
In addition, investigative journalists revealed that city mayors in Bavaria and eastern Germany seem to be clandestine supporters of the Reichsbürger ideology. And experts like Martin Schubert from the Brandenburg Institute for Gemeinwesenberatung (community consultation) have identified a large number of YouTube videos that show how Reichsbürger groups attack and ridicule civil servants as part of their recruiting mechanisms.
“In these videos, they basically give real-life seminars for undermining the state’s representatives,” says Schubert. “They physically threaten civil servants in their office, quote an incessant number of ‘signs’ that, from their point of view, prove Germany doesn’t exist, and sometimes can force the administration of a whole city to stop working for a day. All of this to undermine the state’s authority and animate potential recruits,” he explains.
While the large increase in Reichsbürger could be due to heightened awareness and better reporting, the authorities are particularly alarmed by a recent spate of high-profile, violent crimes connected to the cult.
In August 2016, for example, a former male beauty pageant winner, Adrian Ursache, shot a policeman in the face when the German Special Task Force (SEK) raided his home. Ursache’s story is a typical Reichsbürger one, albeit with one big difference: He became “Mr. Germany” in 1998, married a former “Miss Germany” winner and they had two young children together. But several attempts at establishing a business failed and Ursache ran up hundreds of thousands of euros of personal debts.
When a legal authorities threatened to evict him from the family home, Ursache placed a sign outside that declared “Here begins State Ur” – claiming it to be an independent state where German law does not apply. He opened fire on the police when they raided his home, hitting one officer. He is currently standing trial for attempted murder in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, and a verdict is finally expected later this month.
In the gravest case so far, Wolfgang P. – also an ardent Fitzek supporter, according to the experts Haaretz spoke to – killed a policeman and seriously injured two others during a police raid on his house in October 2016. A year later, a Nuremberg court sentenced him to life in prison after finding the 50-year-old guilty of murder. The police raid on his home had been launched to seize 31 illegally held firearms.
As a result of the incident, German courts can now order the disarmament of someone suspected of belonging to the movement. The security agency has so far managed to get the gun licenses of some 450 Reichsbürger members annulled.
But the question of who is a Reichsbürger is still hard to pinpoint, since it is not just far-right extremists attracted to the cult.
“When I lived with them I encountered hard-core neo-Nazis, but also people from a very left-wing scene – or even from the peace movement,” says Ginsburg, who spent time in several communities, including Fitzek’s kingdom. “There were many hippie types who were looking for a way to live outside of society, looking for some purpose in their lives.”
Ginsburg says he personally discovered that the point of no return – when it becomes almost impossible to escape the cult – can be reached very quickly. “It’s a very slippery slope: If you are even moderately intelligent, you become an admired leader very fast in that scene – and that can become addictive,” he said.
“I’m Jewish,” he continued. “If I had admitted to my Judaism while researching the movement, I wouldn’t have got out of there unharmed.”
Ginsburg recounts that when he listened back to the tapes he had made while operating undercover, “I can hear myself reproducing very eloquently all the far-right, anti-Semitic ideology that leaders like Fitzek disseminate, and [I could] be very successful in attracting a following with it.”
Despite the damaging experience for him as a Jew, Ginsburg and the other experts Haaretz spoke to are hopeful that greater public awareness about the Reichsbürger cult and its bizarre ideologies will prevent it from expanding any further.
“People who are confronted with the inconsistencies in their conspiracy theories, and with the fact that they are far from reality, can be brought back into society,” says Hermann. “However, as a first step we must always protect the groups that these people might target as their victims.”
And what about the self-proclaimed “King of Germany,” Peter Fitzek?
The local government in Wittenberg took the step to raid his kingdom in 2017 after “becoming more and more concerned by the practices and rules there, which included a promise to cure cancer patients by holding hands with them – esoteric healing that cost the sometimes terminally ill patients thousands of euros,” explains Schubert.
“In addition, the ‘constitution’ of the kingdom, while not technically illegal, veered toward racist incitement,” he adds, citing paragraphs that stipulated preferential treatment for Germans over foreigners. And the “royal children” actually contained at-risk youths that the city was particularly concerned about.
In March 2017, Fitzek – now 52 – was sentenced to three years and eight months in prison for embezzling 1.3 million euros ($1.5 million) from his “subjects” after running his own bank between 2009 and 2013. He didn’t take the verdict well, constantly interrupting the presiding judge with calls of “Scandal!” “Joke!” and “Lies!” (He also received a further sentence for running his own health insurance operation in the kingdom.)
Last Friday, though, the Federal Court of Justice overturned the initial verdict against Fitzek and ordered a retrial. The King of Germany has not abdicated just yet.