Fringe group suspected in German conspiracy was taken away by QAnon

BERLIN — A motley crew dismissed as a lunatic and harmless brake, the Reichsbürger, or Citizens of the Reich, have for decades turned against windmills on Germany’s far-right political fringes.

But after authorities accused members of overthrowing the government and killing the chancellor, a significantly different view of the obscure group emerged Thursday: as a serious terrorist threat, charged with conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and vaccines.

Among the 25 members of the cell arrested this week were a judge, a doctor, a chef, a pilot, a classical tenor and three police officers, officials said. At least 15 had military ties, including former or current soldiers and two reservists with access to weapons. The arrests put Germany on high alert and, after months of surveillance, triggered one of the largest anti-terrorist raids in German post-war history.

The group, which does not recognize the modern German state, has grown from 2,000 to about 21,000 since the first pandemic lockdowns, according to government estimates. It “has established itself as the biggest far-right threat in Germany through the pandemic,” said Miro Dittrich, a senior researcher at CeMAS, a Berlin-based research organization that focuses on far-right extremism and conspiracy theories.

“Not only is it dangerous that you have armed and trained members of the military and police in the group, but the number of gun permits has increased and several people in this group had such permits,” he added.

Military equipment, including guns, ammunition, tasers, night vision goggles, crossbows, knives, combat helmets and even swords, was found in 50 of 150 homes searched Wednesday, federal police and Secret Service officials said. There was also a sizeable cash reserve of over €100,000 as well as gold and silver.

Among the items found was a list of 18 names of politicians and journalists considered enemies, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Further arrests are expected after the find of the confiscated material was investigated. 54 people are currently being investigated.

Aside from the conspiracy being broken up this week, the Reichsbürger were also behind a failed attempt to force entry into Germany’s Capitol during an anti-vaccine protest two years ago, and are believed to have inspired a conspiracy to kidnap the health minister and set off a coup earlier this year.

“This Reichsbürger scene has often been downplayed, including by the security authorities. Well, not anymore,” said Hajo Funke, a political scientist at Freie Universität Berlin specializing in right-wing extremism.

The Reich Citizens’ Movement believes that the post-war German republic is not a sovereign state but a corporation established by the Allies after World War II.

The founding father of the movement is Wolfgang Ebel, a West Berlin railroad worker who was laid off after a strike in the 1980s. When his attempt to gain official status failed in a series of court cases, he called himself Reich Chancellor and his homeland Kommissariat der Reichsregierung. Apparently he sold identity cards and passports to his followers.

For years, members of the movement made headlines primarily for refusing to pay taxes and surrender their passports, instead demanding a certificate proving they were citizens of the German nation, often listing their place of birth as the Kingdom of Prussia or Bavaria.

But since the onset of the pandemic, they have become the main channel for violent and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, especially for QAnon.

The mythology and language QAnon employs — including claims of a “deep state” by globalist elites running the government and fantasies of revenge against those elites — conjure up old anti-Semitic tropes and coup visions that have long enlivened Germany’s far-right fringe.

Like QAnon, Reichsbürger used the pandemic to draft an ideologically incoherent mix of vaccine skeptics, fringe thinkers, and ordinary citizens who said the threat of the pandemic was overblown and government restrictions were unwarranted.

Lorenz Blumenthaler, who studies the extreme right in Germany, calls the Reichsbürger a “gateway ideology” because the movement attracts so many different groups disillusioned with the government.

Like other far-right groups, the Reichsbürger was able to exploit hostilities towards immigrants following an influx of refugees and migrants in 2015 and into 2020 amid frustrations over coronavirus lockdown rules. The pandemic allowed the group to find new support beyond those normally slanted to the right and tapped into a deep vein of conspiracy theories that only grew stronger.

“She has achieved a whole new level of radicalization,” said Mr. Blumenthaler.

The QAnon conspiracy theories matched the Reich citizens’ own. The cell arrested this week had planned to overthrow the German government, which it called the “deep state,” and then negotiate a peace deal with the United States, officials said.

In the United States, QAnon has already evolved from a fringe internet subculture into a mass movement that has in some cases become a political force. But the pandemic has boosted conspiracy theories far beyond America’s shores.

The trigger for the spread of QAnon in Germany was “Defender-Europe 20”, a large-scale NATO exercise that was scaled back due to the pandemic. QAnon adherents claimed the German government used a “fake pandemic” to derail what they saw as a secret liberation plan led by President Donald J. Trump that would have restored the German Reich.

The Reich citizen jumped on QAnon traffic online to give his own conspiracy theory more visibility. That spring, the two movements merged into a joint Facebook group, followed a week later by a channel on the Telegram messaging app that strengthened both.

One of those arrested on Wednesday was a former MP for the far-right Alternative for Germany or AfD party, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a judge. She had regularly posted on Telegram with the tagline “WWG1WGA,” which stands for the QAnon motto “Where we go one, we go all.”

For a long time, the authorities did not take the citizens of the Reich seriously. Only in 2016 – when a heavily armed Reichsbürger supporter, cornered during a raid at home, shot four police officers and killed one of them – did that change.

“That was a turning point,” recalled Konstantin von Notz, lawmaker and member of the Intelligence Oversight Committee. “They were considered unsuspicious at the time.”

The plot, reversed on Wednesday, including plans to storm the German Capitol and set up a new government led by Prince Henry XIII.

But German officials said the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the US Capitol, in which QAnon supporters played a prominent role, meant that such plans, however outlandish, must be taken seriously.

“They had very specific takeover plans,” said Mr. von Notz. “After January 6th we can no longer take any risks. We have to take this danger very seriously.”

Germany had its own version of January 6th, albeit unsuccessfully and much smaller in scope. In August 2020, dozens of Reichsbürger members and other far-right supporters broke away from an anti-vaccine protest to try to enter the Reichstag, the historic parliament building. The police stopped her.

But a few months later, far-right activists and others are posting videos on social media gain access to the buildingsupported by an AfD MP, and harassed the then economics minister, but did not harm him.

Few believe that the cell rounded up this week, or any other such groups, are actually capable of staging a successful coup. But that doesn’t diminish their willingness to attempt deadly terrorist attacks, extremism experts say.

“The probability of a coup d’etat is very low, but the probability of terrorist attacks and fatalities has increased,” said Mr. Dittrich from CeMAS.

“In the long run, this is a threat to democracy,” he added. “It shows that part of the German population is turning away from democracy and is ready to use violence.”

Christopher F. Schütze contributed reporting. Fringe group suspected in German conspiracy was taken away by QAnon

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