Germany's far-right Reichsbürger movement larger than earlier estimated

German authorities say the anti-government group has seen its membership grow by 80 percent over the past two years. But there could be more than one reason for the movement's widening support.

Germany's domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), has estimated that there are about 18,000 people supporting the far-right Reichsbürger movement — about 80 percent more than in 2016.

A BfV spokesman told Berlin's daily Tagesspiegel that 950 of them were classified as far-right extremists.

Read moreReichsbürger and neo-Nazis infiltrating Thuringia gun clubs

BfV's 2016 annual report put the number of Reichsbürger, which roughly translates as "Citizens of the Reich," at 10,000, with 500 to 600 of them classified as right-wing extremists.

The term Reichsbürger is used as a label for a loosely connected group that rejects the legitimacy of Germany's government. The movement believes that the 1937 borders of the German Empire still exist and today's government is an administrative construct in a country still occupied by foreign powers. Many subscribe to far-right or anti-Semitic ideologies.

Read more: A guide to Germany's far-right groups

The Reichsbürger movement in Germany

What do Reichsbürger believe?

Reichsbürger translates to "citizens of the Reich." What unites this loose movement is rejection of the modern Federal Republic of Germany. They believe the 1937 or 1871 borders of the German Empire still exist and today's country is an administrative construct still occupied by the Allied powers. Many subscribe to far-right or anti-Semitic ideologies. Their conspiracy theories have been debunked.

The Reichsbürger movement in Germany

How much of a threat are they?

The Reichsbürger scene is a disparate, leaderless movement totalling about 15,000 supporters, according to German intelligence officials. Of those, about 900 have been identified as far-right extremists and 1,000 have a license to own firearms. Authorities are concerned about some members' potential to become violent and have conducted several raids on Reichsbürger suspects to sieze weapons.

The Reichsbürger movement in Germany

Who are its members? One was Mr. Germany

Adrian Ursache, a 42-year-old former winner of the Mister Germany beauty pageant, is also a Reichsbürger member. He is currently facing trial for attempted murder after an August 2016 gun battle with police as they tried to evict him from his home. Typically, Reichsbürger refuse to recognize any state apparatus, printing their own passports and driving licenses.

The Reichsbürger movement in Germany

Jailed for murder

The case of Wolfgang P., who in October 2017 was sentenced to life in prison for murdering a police officer, is seen as a turning point for how German authorities deal with the extremist group. P., an alleged Reichsbürger member, shot at officers who were raiding his home to confiscate weapons.

The Reichsbürger movement in Germany

What are the authorities doing about it?

German authorities have been accused of long underestimating the threat posed by the Reichsbürger. Since the murder of the police officer in Bavaria, law enforcement has been cracking down on them more vigorously. In the past year there have been several raids on Reichsbürger targets. Some German police and military forces have also probed whether they may have Reichsbürger among their own ranks.

But the steep rise in the reported number of Reichsbürger does not mean that the movement is drawing a similarly large number of new members, according to the BfV. Instead, investigations into the Reichsbürger scene, particularly since a member shot dead a police officer in Bavaria in 2016, have uncovered more people who have held such beliefs for some time but were not previously known to authorities.

The BfV spokesman told Tagesspiegel that about 1,200 supporters of the movement owned licenses to own weapons. The authorities have withdrawn weapon licenses from 450 Reichsbürger since the beginning of 2017.

ap/sms (dpa, AFP, epd)

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