Prince and the revolution
In December 2022 minor aristocrat Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuss was arrested on suspicion of plotting a coup against the German state with members of the ‘Reichsbürger’ group. Harriet Salem visits the shadowy movement’s heartland to see what motivates this eccentric band of conspiracy theorists – and what their obsession with history tells us about modern-day Germany
7th December 2022 (Taken from: #49)
The road to Bad Lobenstein, a small rural town of 6,400 people in Thuringia, eastern Germany, is shrouded in white. Thick fog hangs over fields of dense powdery snow and the tops of towering pine trees vanish into swirls of low-hanging clouds. As I descend the mountain into the valley, an idyllic-looking scene comes into view. A cluster of small houses, painted in yellows, greens and pinks, nestle around a bend in the frozen river. Their chimneys shoot puffs of charcoal grey wood smoke up into the white sky.
Bad Lobenstein is centred on a quaint market square edged by half-timbered houses. Just before the hour, every hour, small doors above the town hall’s clock face open to reveal a jaunty figurine of a man wearing old-fashioned work overalls and peeing into a barrel – it’s the local emblem, a comical hat-tip to the area’s weaving industry back when urine was used to dye cloth. These days, however, tourism has replaced weaving as one of the main sources of employment. Visitors hike in the surrounding mountains and pine forests in the morning and grab a schnitzel for dinner at one of the town’s traditional German taverns. A small thermal spa offers respite for walkers’ aching muscles. It certainly doesn’t seem, at first glance, like ground zero for a violent revolution.
“Not much happens here – or at least not until that happened,” Simone tells me, setting her shopping bags on the ground. A mother of two, she lives at the foot of the hill beneath Waidmannsheil, a grand 19th century hunting lodge. Built in the neo-gothic style, its façade is a homage to its original purpose. A carved stone boar and bear loom over guests entering via the driveway and the peak of its tower is adorned with stag antlers.
Until recently, this was the weekend retreat of 72-year-old Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss, a descendant of the House of Reuss that once ruled over large swathes of Thuringia and – according to German prosecutors – the would-be leader of a very modern coup d’état.
Germany’s royal family and nobility were abolished in 1919 following the Kaiser’s abdication at the end of World War I and their property was confiscated in a series of seizures and nationalisations. First, by the post-revolution Weimar government, then by the Nazis and, later, in the east, by the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and by countries given territories ceded by Germany at the end of World War II. Although they no longer have legal privileges, many of the German noble families fastidiously record their bloodlines and even maintain medieval lineage traditions such as the loss of noble status for women who ‘marry out’. Titles are maintained by way of surnames that can be passed on to children – ‘Prince Reuss’ is technically Heinrich XIII’s surname, but in Bad Lobenstein they call him ‘the prince’. To this day, all male descendants of the House of Reuss share the same first name followed by a Roman numeral, which resets at the turn of each century. Currently, there are 30 Heinrichs in the family.
Attempts by Germany’s nobility to get their properties and land back through national and international courts have met with limited success. Since Germany’s reunification in 1990, Heinrich has fought lengthy legal battles with the German authorities, but although he and other family members were returned a collection of artworks, sold by Christie’s in 1998 for an estimated 3.5 million marks (€3 million today), no properties have been given back. The prince is believed to have purchased Waidmannsheil from the state.
Not much happens here – or at least not until that happened”
Simone had never visited the hunting lodge in person, but she liked the idea of having a prince as a neighbour. Heinrich XIII made it his weekend residence around 2020. “I used to wave at him when he passed by on his bike and he always waved back. I thought that having a nobleman in the neighbourhood added a touch of sophistication,” Simone tells me. “But of course, people gossiped.” Heinrich, nicknamed ‘the Race Driver’ thanks to his penchant for driving expensive cars at high speed, had extended a fence all the way around the perimeter of his property. It was difficult to see in. At the gated driveway a security man with a walkie-talkie stood watch. Heinrich XIII also had a strange hobby. He hosted elaborate hickory golf tournaments – a version of the sport played with pre-1935 style wooden clubs. He fired a cannon to mark the opening of one event, at which the players all dressed in attire from the 1920s, the heyday of hickory golf. Locals found it odd, but it seemed harmless enough. “To be honest I didn’t give it too much thought,” says Simone. “People are strange, and he wasn’t causing anyone problems.”
At least not at first. It was in early 2021 that Simone started to become concerned. The first sign that something was awry, she tells me, was the peculiar event hosted by the prince at the local hall near her house. Peeking out of her window, she saw guests arriving in large, expensive cars with licence plates from Austria and Switzerland. On the vehicles were stickers with a strange alphabet soup of letters: BRD GmbH. Curious, Simone looked it up online. The initials, she discovered, stood for “Germany Ltd”, the slogan of an anti-state movement known as the Reichsbürger – ‘Reich citizens’ (with ‘Reich’ meaning both nation and empire) – that believe the modern German state is a corporation. “And that’s when I thought: ‘Oh shit! This is really crazy!’” says Simone. “It was conspiracy theory stuff. All kinds of strange things that didn’t make any sense to me.”
It wasn’t long afterwards that anonymous leaflets began to be pushed through the townspeople’s letter boxes. “Do you also have the feeling that something in this country isn’t quite right? Did you know that you are not in possession of any citizenship, that you are stateless and possess no rights?” read the pamphlets. The note was signed: “Committed and honourable citizens of the federal states of the Principalities of the Reuss”. Around the same time, strange posters appeared tied to trees and gates in the neighbourhood around the lodge. Emblazoned with the prince’s family coat-of-arms, they informed residents how to register to vote in the ‘Reuss state municipal elections’. Simone had an idea who was behind it, but then again, she couldn’t believe the prince would do such a thing. “I thought maybe it was a prank or something. It was kind of creepy,” she tells me.
Then for a while everything went quiet. That is until 7th December 2022. Just a few days earlier, snow had fallen in Bad Lobenstein for the first time that winter. A smattering still clung to the grassy verges where few people walk, but most had turned to a slushy brown ice of the type that somehow always manages to seep into your boots and socks. Simone was following her usual morning routine, preparing the children’s breakfast before taking them to school, when she noticed the flash of blue emergency lights through a crack in the curtains. She thought that an accident had probably happened on the icy roads. But when she looked out to check what was happening, she quickly realised it was a large-scale police operation. She could just make out the silhouette of the prince’s hunting lodge. The hill on which it sits was “crawling with police and the road up to it was closed,” says Simone.
Simone, it turned out, was not the only one who had noticed the strange goings-on in Bad Lobenstein. The German federal criminal police had been investigating for some time and on 7th December it carried out one of the largest security operations against extremists in its history. At around 6am that morning, some 3,000 police officers raided 150 locations across the country. Among them was Waidmannsheil. Germany security services said it was the headquarters of a “Reichsbürger milieu” who were plotting to overthrow the state. It was here, just down the road from Simone’s house, that the conspirators had allegedly held target practice and planned for ‘Day X’ – the codename for the day on which they would storm the German parliament, execute the chancellor and seize power. “It’s scary to think that was happening here,” says Simone. “Right under our noses.”
Among the items seized at the lodge and other locations were €130,000 in cash, several kilograms of gold and silver, and a list of ‘enemies’ that named 18 journalists and politicians. Police also discovered a trove of weapons, including 9mm pistols, combat helmets, swords, knives and night vision goggles. As Waidmannsheil was being searched, police with battering rams were raiding Heinrich XIII’s weekday residence, an apartment in a wealthy neighbourhood of Frankfurt where he ran a real estate business. Led away in handcuffs by balaclava-clad police officers, the prince didn’t look like your stereotypical ringleader of a violent band of revolutionaries. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing a tweed jacket, burnt-orange corduroy trousers and matching neckerchief. German security services said that the agitators planned to install Heinrich XIII as the new head of the post-coup state.
According to representatives of the Reuss family, Heinrich XIII, who was only 16th in line to become head of the House, was a “bitter old man” who had become gripped by conspiracy theories after he squandered his wealth on costly court cases trying to reclaim family heirlooms and manors. It was this resentment that seemed to have fuelled his alleged violent aspirations to seize power. In wiretapped phone conversations German security services heard one of the co-conspirators discussing how deaths “were bound to happen” during the coup. The prince allegedly remarked gleefully: “We’re going to crush them! The fun is over.”
What do a judge, a rat-eating survivalist and an astrologer have in common? It sounds like the start of a bad joke. But it’s not. It’s a list of the professions of Heinrich’s co-conspirators described by German security services as a bunter haufen – a “motley crew”.
According to German intelligence, the coup plotters had already allocated government positions in preparation for the takeover. The role of justice minister was to be assumed by Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, who has a doctorate in law and held a seat in parliament for the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party from 2017 to 2021. At the time of her arrest Malsack-Winkemann sat as a judge on the AfD’s arbitration court. Her job meant she had access to the German parliament building and insider knowledge of its layout and security procedures. Malsack-Winkemann’s name was removed from the AfD’s website following her arrest. In a brief statement the party’s co-leaders, Alice Weidel and Tina Chrupalla, said of the coup plot: “We condemn such endeavours and emphatically reject them.”
For them, the German Empire in its 1871 borders still exists”
Also detained in the dawn raids was Rüdiger von Pescatore, a commander of a paratrooper battalion in the German armed forces during the 1990s, who is alleged to have been training an armed wing that would have led the conspirators’ charge into the Bundestag. Von Pescatore had left the German army in 1999 under a cloud after he was accused of stealing weapons. Among his alleged recruits was a former comrade, Peter Wörner. After leaving the military Wörner had worked teaching “urban survival skills”. In a TV segment about him on the German channel ZDF, Wörner is seen skinning a rat in the mountains of Thuringia. “You can peel the skin off like a pair of trousers or a jacket,” he tells the camera. Among the other alleged conspirators according to German media were an astrologer who consulted planetary charts to determine an auspicious date for the coup, a tenor singer and high-profile chef. Also arrested was Heinrich XIII’s much younger Russian girlfriend. Known only as Vitalia B she had, according to German security services, made overtures on behalf of the conspirators to the Russian embassy in Berlin but had little success.
Andreas Speit, an expert on the right-wing scene in Germany and author of the book Reichsbürger – the Underestimated Danger, is unsurprised by the eclecticism of the group. “With the Reichsbürger there’s no one single profile, there are many paths into this movement,” he says. “The core of their ideology is that Germany is not a sovereign state and its leaders are not the legitimate authorities. Followers of the movement believe that Germany is an enterprise established by the Allied powers after World War II. German citizens, in their view, are ‘employees’ being exploited by a ‘global elite’. For them, the German Empire in its 1871 borders, from Alsace to East Prussia, still exists, albeit under foreign occupation.”
‘Evidence’ cited in support of this claim includes a hodgepodge of pseudo-historical reasoning and misreading of international treaties and court decisions. Currently there are estimated to be 23,000 Reichsbürger active in Germany. Adherents print their own passports and identity cards and refuse to pay taxes. “It is, of course, conspiracy nonsense, no lawyer would agree with this,” says Speit. But the veneer of legalese and the movement’s broad anti-state premise make it appealing to a wide range of people. This is part of what makes it dangerous, he explains.
What I found was more dangerous and broader than I expected”
Perhaps no one outside the Reichsbürger movement knows how its members think better than Tobias Ginsburg, a 36 year-old investigative journalist and author of Journey to the Reich, a powerful exposé of the group. Ginsburg has a clipped ash-blonde moustache and is often pictured wearing a trademark flat cap, but on the day that we speak it’s disappointingly absent. In 2017 he spent nine months deep undercover in the “nightmarish” world of the Reichsbürger, drinking beer with them, taking road trips, listening to their racist jokes and even engaging in a light bit of coup plotting (the plan he worked on was ultimately jettisoned after the bickering co-conspirators failed to agree on anything).
To infiltrate the Reichsbürger scene Ginsburg posed as a journalist offering an alternative to mainstream media. He followed a bunch of Reichsbürger thinkers and posted on social media about “the truth ‘they’ don’t want you to know” and “cover-ups by global elites”. Soon he became a go-to guy for media and PR in the movement. “What I found was much more dangerous and broader than I expected,” he tells me. “On the one hand you’ve got this quintessential crazy street preacher type, but on the other you’ve got AfD politicians in suits, then there’s esoteric new age cult members, biker gangs, monarchists, Putin fan boys and girls and so on – a whole mix.”
Ginsburg’s self-professed “strange hobby or obsession” with researching right-wing extremists started over a decade ago when he was a student theatre director. While carrying out research for a play he came across several alt-right student fraternities and publishing houses. Posing as a like-minded thinker and changing just two letters of his name to create an alias, he picked up the phone and called them. “Suddenly I found myself sitting for a whole evening among these people who are openly fascists,” he tells me. “It was so easy, I was surprised.” Ginsburg, who is Jewish, says that the encounter gripped him with a “macabre curiosity”. In the years since, he has spent time hanging out with far-right groups including Nazi rappers, clerical fascists and anti-feminists. “In a perverse way, it’s a privilege. It’s possible only because I’m a white male and don’t look like a Jew,” he says. “There are almost no areas that are a no-go for me. I can look up close at what scares me.”
In some quarters the raids on the Reichsbürger have been mocked. The leader of Germany’s Die Linke (‘The Left’) party tweeted a picture of Heinrich XIII with the caption “meet the man who wanted to become Germany’s king” followed by two laughing emojis. Meanwhile, daily newspaper Berliner Zeitung called the arrestees “25 senile loons”. But Ginsburg says such jibes miss the point. “If the question is: Do you think these right-wing extremists are capable of successfully pulling off a coup d’état? Then the answer is no, even with 200 or 300 supporters to carry it out, they will be stopped from doing this by the police. But if you ask: Do you think these people can kill other people? Then the answer is yes, you should be very afraid,” he says.
As a case in point, Ginsburg points to the Capitol Hill riot in the US in January 2021 in which five people, four rioters and a police officer, were killed. “These people are clearly sending a message that they are not only capable of killing, but they’re also willing to sacrifice their own lives. In Germany we’ve had several deadly attacks by the far right in recent years.” Among the examples he cites are the shooting of a police officer by a Reichsbürger in 2016 during a raid on his house in Bavaria and a string of murders carried out across Germany by neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Underground – the victims were seven immigrants and a police officer.
The coup plot allegedly headed by Heinrich XIII is not the first plan with Reichsbürger connections to have been foiled. In October 2022, German authorities announced the arrest of a 75-year-old retired teacher in Saxony, allegedly the “ideological brains” of a terror cell that planned to kidnap Germany’s health minister Karl Lauterbach. Four men were also detained. The group, which also plotted to attack power stations, allegedly already possessed heavy weapons, and were trying to buy explosives. Intelligence services said they had close ties to right-wing extremists, Reichsbürger and anti-vaccine movements.
Part of the Reichsbürger movement’s success, says Ginsburg, is that its anti-state rhetoric has a broad-based appeal and appears relatively harmless at first glance. Overt anti-Semitism is carefully avoided. “No one, at least not since 1945, goes out in public and says: ‘Hi, I like Adolf Hitler and I think the Jews are a problem.’ When you say that, you will not get many followers.” Instead, he says, the word Jew is replaced with terms such as ‘new world order’ or ‘global elite’. This type of terminology was used by Heinrich XIII at the WorldWebForum, a technology and innovation platform, in Zurich in January 2019. In a speech entitled ‘The rise and fall of the blue-blooded elite’ he claimed that World War I was a conspiracy against the Kaiser to further the “financial interests of foreign powers.” After Germany’s defeat in WW2, he said, “it was made into an administrative structure of the allies in the so-called united economy entity, Federal Republic of Germany – in other words, a commercial structure.” The beneficiaries of all this, according to the prince, were “the Rothschilds” and “freemasons”.
“When you hear such things people forget, or maybe don’t realise, that what we are talking about here is fascism,” says Ginsburg. “Ask any neo-Nazi: Do you think the Republic of Germany is the real legitimate Germany? The answer will be no. The Nazis promised a 1,000-year Reich. Often the way these ideas are presented at first, they may seem harmless, even ridiculous, but it’s a great and longstanding tactic of the far right to reach the average person like this.”
Just a few crazy people hanging around with each other, or so we thought”
“There are people out there who hold bigoted views in their heads, who are a little bit afraid of the ‘international Jewry’ or of migrants or queer people or whatever,” Ginsburg continues. “When they hear these conspiracy theories, which legitimise all their concerns about the other, all their fears and hatreds, then it resonates. Suddenly, it is okay to say something against the Jews because ‘I’m not an anti-semite, but the Rothschilds control the world.’ ‘The country is not sovereign, it’s a deep state.’ ‘There are grand plots against us, the white race.’ ‘The country is part of the conspiracy… It’s out to get you, to destroy its own people… The politicians are puppets… We need our country back.’ Welcome to the world of the Reichsbürger!”
Stefan Ibrügger, pastor of Bad Lobenstein’s Evangelical Lutheran church, opens the door to the community hall with a broad smile and beckons me in from the cold. He has kindly blue eyes framed by spectacles and a slightly ruddy nose. His adorable pocket beagle Ebbie lets out a delighted howl at the arrival of a guest, before jumping up at my legs in search of a head rub. Ibrügger beckons me into the modest back office. Two large wood veneer tables are cluttered with the paraphernalia of church administration: stacks of paper, a printer, a large computer monitor, desk calendar and bundles of leaflets. On one wall behind the desks a simple crucifix hangs in a small alcove. Through the window you can see Ibrügger’s church across the road, painted a cheerful canary yellow. On the steep hill behind it grey and black gravestones dot the snowy cemetery.
Ibrügger ushers Ebbie to her bed and takes a seat. “When did it start? Well, let me think, it was around 2018. Or at least that’s when I first heard something about ‘it’ – about these Reichsbürger people,” he tells me. Bad Lobenstein may, technically, be a town but it has a village mentality. Many families have lived here for generations, and everyone seems to know everyone. It was on the local grapevine that Ibrügger first heard a bizarre story. Through the church community he was told that a local man had declared the little cluster of houses where he lived on the outskirts of Bad Lobenstein to be independent and had a handful of supporters in the local area. “Can you imagine? He declared it to have mining rights, aviation rights and all this. He even made a manifesto. Total absurd nonsense!” But he didn’t take it too seriously. “How we laughed. Just a few crazy people hanging around with each other, or so we thought.” Ibrügger pauses to take a deep drag on his vape, exhaling a large mandarin-infused cloud before resuming his story. “And then Covid happened. That changed everything.”
In the spring of 2020, governments across Europe were taking radical actions in a bid to stop, or at least slow, the spread of Covid-19. Healthcare systems teetered on the brink, social interactions were brutally curtailed and all non-essential business and shops were shuttered. Some people worried for their livelihoods and others their lives. It was a time of uncertainty, divisions and paranoia. In Bad Lobenstein it proved the perfect environment for the Reichsbürger ideology to spread. “Rumours, rumours, rumours,” says Ibrügger of that time. Much of it, he explains, was the “usual conspiracy theory stuff” that accompanied the virus’s spread across the globe. But in Bad Lobenstein things took on a darker edge. “That’s when this thing, the Reichsbürger, really took off,” he tells me. “It was like a snowball.”
Down the road at Bad Lobenstein’s only bookstore I meet manager Anja Ruhle-Erhardt. Outside the shop a sign advertises Prince Harry’s autobiography. “We sold all the copies we got on the first day!” she tells me. She’s a petite woman, with dyed black hair and blue eyes that are as sharp as her intellect. Until recently, she tells me, demonstrators would gather just outside her store’s window on the market square every Monday. From there they would march around town, banging drums and playing trumpets. In eastern Germany, Monday demonstrations have historical significance, as this was the day on which protests against Communist authorities were held in its towns and cities in 1989. “Here, Monday protests are symbolic of protesting against state dictatorship,” says Ruhle-Erhardt.
Although the demonstrations in Bad Lobenstein started during the pandemic, ostensibly against government-mandated lockdowns, they continued long after restrictions were lifted. At the rallies Reichsbürger would give speeches. “Everyone in town knows who they are. The demonstrations were hijacked by them. People went to the protests and that’s where they heard these ideas. A lot of people were convinced by them,” says Ruhle-Erhardt. At one point, Ruhle-Erhardt considered staging her own one-woman counter-protest by refusing service to supporters of the Reichsbürger and AfD voters. “But then I realised I might as well close the shop, I wouldn’t have enough customers,” she says ruefully.
Exactly how many people in Bad Lobenstein were radicalised into Reichsbürger ideology at the demonstrations is unclear, but locals say it was a significant number. In 2021, a report published by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Thuringia on extremist threats in the region warned that the number of Reichsbürger sympathisers was “high” and had grown during the pandemic. “Right-wing extremists and Reichsbürger have used protests against federal and state government actions on the Covid-19 pandemic to give their concerns broader societal resonance,” it warned. “For them, the pandemic provided a welcome opportunity to take their extremist messages to the public with the goal of recruiting members.” Across Germany, protests against Covid-19 measures galvanised the far right as a variety of groups with an anti-state agenda mingled at demonstrations. On 29th August 2020, hundreds of demonstrators attempted to storm the German parliament during a protest against the mandatory wearing of facemasks in public spaces. Among their number were demonstrators carrying QAnon signs and the flag of the German Reich of 1871-1918. Police pushed back the crowd, who threw rocks and bottles.
Among the most vocal opponents of the Covid-19 lockdowns in Bad Lobenstein was the town’s mayor, Thomas Weigelt. “The mayor did a lot for this town during his first term in office, but when he was re-elected in 2020, he spoke out more and more radically,” says Ibrügger. “It was the reporting of local journalist Peter Hagen on [a] close connection between Weigelt and the Reichsbürger that led to [the mayor’s] downfall.”
You don’t have to spend long in Bad Lobenstein before you hear the local reporter’s name. “In my opinion, Hagen is an honest man and does very thorough work. I can say that because I know what books he buys,” says Anja Ruhle-Erhardt, who counts Hagen – who is reluctant to talk to me about the case – among her customers. “But he’s not popular with everyone. At the protests they would personally insult him and call him a liar.”
Long before Heinrich XIII and his alleged co-conspirators hit the international headlines, Hagen had been reporting for local newspaper Ostthüringer Zeitung about the prince and the Reichsbürger’s growing sway over Bad Lobenstein. It had started with the mysterious election posters adorned with the Reuss House coat of arms. When he approached Heinrich XIII for comment about these, the prince denied any knowledge but remarked enigmatically: “We are in the process of restoring administrative structures. We are entitled to the administrative structures from 1918, they were taken from us by the wars.” Hagen’s interest was piqued. From then on, he kept a close eye on the nobleman and his activities.
Hagen went on to publish a number of articles about Weigelt and the Reichsbürger movement. In one piece, he also published a screenshot of a post on the mayor’s Facebook page. “The rise of the cost of living is not because of the Ukraine-Russia war. It is the result of a systematic plundering of the people by a government which has betrayed them with the Corona lie, the Russia war lie, the energy lie, the world climate lie, and the democracy lie,” wrote Weigelt.
By the summer of 2022, relations between the mayor and the dogged reporter reached boiling point. “There was real animosity between the two. Hagen was just doing his job, but Weigelt didn’t see it like that,” says Ibrügger. Things came to a head at Bad Lobenstein’s annual market festival. At the event’s official opening in August, Hagen asked the mayor why his VIP guests included “well-known Reichsbürger” Heinrich XIII. Weigelt declined to answer. Later that day, Hagen attempted to film the mayor engaging in conversation with the prince and local AfD politician Uwe Thrum at a beer table at the market square. Enraged, Weigelt lurched at the reporter, knocking him and his camera to the ground.
The attack on the journalist was caught on camera. In the background a brass band can be heard playing as the mayor marches over. Following the market festival incident Weigelt was temporarily suspended from duties by the Schleiz district office, which cited incidents including the attack on Hagen. The Facebook comment was also included in the disciplinary file. Weigelt has told local media that he “cannot remember” making the post.
In response to the allegation of the attack, which was filmed, Weigelt has said he felt provoked and denied touching Hagen. “I treat everyone calmly and kindly. It’s unfortunate if they don’t know how to behave in return,” he said in a written statement. A final decision on the mayor’s political future is pending.
Thrum declined to be interviewed for this feature but said the following in a written statement: “I happened to get into conversation with Prince Reuss, whom I had never met before, at a public event. That was the only encounter with him. I can’t say anything about his political views. I have no connection to the scene of the so-called Reichsbürger.”
This region was one of the most prosperous in the Kaiser’s time”
In Bad Lobenstein the Monday protests came to an abrupt halt after the Waidmannsheil hunting lodge was raided and Heinrich XIII was arrested. But around the market square you can still see the QAnon logo graffitied on the walls. “Things are quiet now after the arrests and all the media attention, and for that I’m grateful. But just because people are hiding it doesn’t mean their opinions have changed,” Ruhle-Erhardt tells me. “Many people in Germany don’t take these events seriously, but that’s because they don’t have them [Reichsbürger] in their region. We must take it seriously. It’s a threat to democracy. If we ignore small grievances, then the problems just grow. History tells us these things start small but become big.”
“People have long memories,” says Bodo Ramelow, the prime minister of Thuringia. “This region was one of the most prosperous in the Kaiser’s time. The crash came in 1920, this region has never really recovered. You can still see the opera house, the villas, but the factories are gone.” I meet Ramelow at his office in Erfurt, the state’s capital. For him the story of the Reichsbürger in Bad Lobenstein is part of a bigger picture of the decline of Germany’s east and accompanying rise of the far right.
Thuringia and neighbouring Saxony are the heartlands of the AfD. The far-right party, known for its hardline stance on immigration, took just under 24 percent of the vote in Thuringia in 2019, up 12 percent on the previous election. In many rural towns, this proportion was higher. The leader of the AfD in Thuringia, Bjorn Höcke, is viewed as an extremist within his own ranks.
He heads a faction within the party known as the Flügel – ‘the Wing’. Extracts from Höcke’s book Never into the Same River Twice have been likened to Mein Kampf by some of his own party members. In the book he advocates for radical change to Germany’s post-war political structure: “A few little reforms won’t do, but German absolutism will guarantee that we will tackle this thoroughly and fundamentally,” reads one passage. “Human harshness and unpleasant scenes won’t always be possible to avoid.” Höcke, a former history teacher, has also railed that Germans were the “only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of their capital” – a reference to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
Höcke’s AfD may not command a majority in Thuringia, but they have made their influence felt. Ramelow’s election to a second term in office in 2020 was mired in controversy. His party, Die Linke, won the popular vote in Thuringia’s state election, but Ramelow initially lost the parliamentary vote for the top job due to an alleged pact between right-wing parties and the AfD to install Thomas Kemmerich as Thuringia’s prime minister – Kemmerich’s liberal party had received just five percent of the vote.
In Germany, a country which vowed “never again” after World War Two, the AfD’s kingmaker role in appointing Thuringia’s prime minister sparked public outrage. Kemmerich was widely decried as a stooge of the far right and then-chancellor Angela Merkel called his election “unforgivable”, despite the fact that her CDU party is believed to have backed Kemmerich in the secret ballot. On Twitter, Ramelow posted a photo of Höcke shaking hands with Kemmerich after he was voted in. The picture was captioned with a quote from Adolf Hitler: “We achieved the greatest success in Thuringia. Today we really are the crucial party there… The parties in Thuringia, which up until now formed the government cannot get a majority without our assistance.” In 1930, when Hitler made the speech, Thuringia was the first state to elect a Nazi to a government-level position. Kemmerich stood down within 24 hours, having denied collaborating with the AfD, calling it a “perfidious trick to harm democracy” and saying that his resignation had become “unavoidable”. Ramelow won the re-run but is already bracing for the next election, scheduled for 2024, when the AfD vote is predicted to rise further.
A study published in January 2023 by the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Thuringia’s third largest city, found that support for the AfD was not linked to the personal poverty of individual voters, but to regional decline. Comparing data on per capita income to voting patterns from 1925 to the present day revealed what the researchers dubbed ‘a geography of discontent’. “Where the loss of importance of a region is particularly pronounced, the susceptibility to right-wing populist positions is particularly great,” Maria Greve, one of the study’s authors told German media outlets. Right-wing populism is often the “revenge of those left behind.” In Germany this faultline exists largely along the east-west divide, between those who lived under communist rules and those that did not. Among the states that have experienced the steepest declines in importance according to the study were Thuringia and Saxony.
“We are talking about places in Germany that have castles and beautiful landscapes. They are very old and culturally rich. People are understandably proud of that,” says Uffa Jensen, a professor of history at Berlin Technical University. “But there is a feeling of being forgotten.”
People in the east are forgotten, the government spends money on everyone but not on us”
Over the last century, eastern Germany has experienced massive social and political upheavals as the result of two World Wars and Communist rule. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 the rapid reintegration of the east into the free market created economic devastation. Industries relocated to the west and unemployment rose steeply. In the last three decades the gap between east and west has narrowed but not closed. “Reunification was a complex process and there were mistakes made. Of course, some people now are too young to remember this, but I think there is this collective memory, that this happened to their parents or families,” says Jensen. “This forgotten feeling is the narrative of east Germany, but I think in many ways it is also the story of modernity.”
The café by Bad Lobenstein’s ramshackle railway station looks closed. But when I push the door, it opens. The interior looks like nothing has changed in decades. Behind the bar hangs a German flag. Green-stemmed Mosel wine glasses and traditional German beer steins jostle for space with dust-covered ornaments, including an array of kitsch pigs in chef’s attire. On the walls are black and white photographs of steam trains crossing the bridge out of town and snaps of the bar’s customers raising their glasses to the camera lens, their hairstyles placing them some time around the 1990s.
As I examine them, the bartender looks up from his newspaper. He’s worked here since 1985, he tells me. “Those were better times,” he says, pausing to take a sip of beer and flick his cigarette ash. “People in the east are forgotten, the government spends money on everyone but not on us.” The conversation turns to the recent arrests. “The problem with the Reichsbürger is that there aren’t enough of them, but I agree with their ideas. We need a system change,” he tells me. “To what?” I ask. “If you want to fix things around here, well, then you need to go back to the time of the Kaiser,” he replies.
As I leave Bad Lobenstein the road is still shrouded in low-hanging clouds. Passing Waidmannsheil I can just make out the turrets of the hunting lodge. As I drive, I remember Ramelow’s parting words: “People remember that there was a time when they felt like a proud part of this country. Now, they feel like the loser, and no one wants to feel like a loser… And then someone comes along and buys a cheap castle and tells them nice stories.” When I look back in the rear-view mirror Waidmannsheil has vanished. All I see is fog.
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