JUNE 22, 2019
ON THE OUTSKIRTS of the East German town of Wittenberg, about six kilometers northwest of the city center, lie the grounds of an old shuttered hospital. The 23-acre plot is dotted with groves of pine and chestnut trees and winding cobblestone pathways now overgrown with grass and weeds. Like so many other East German hospitals, factories, and businesses, the departure of two million residents after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the influx of new technology from the West left properties like the hospital redundant. In 2010, with real estate prices depressed, a buyer for the property emerged, a welcome development for a region seeking economic renewal. But the new owner’s plans for “renewal” were far more ambitious than merely providing health care.
The new proprietor, who had tried to keep himself anonymous, was a former cook, tattoo parlor owner, karate instructor, and esoteric healer by the name of Peter Fitzek. He had become a regular speaker at homeopathic conferences around Germany in the early 2000s. Within this alternative milieu occupied with astrology and healing the body, Fitzek’s appearances veered into grandiose plans to heal the body politic.
His speeches expounded dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and the German state itself, questioning the latter’s legitimacy and laws, which he felt kept the population in a state of material security, but ultimately restricted their spiritual development and only served far-off elites elsewhere in the EU. At alternative conferences and on far-right YouTube talk shows, Fitzek began to promote his vision for “a new financial and economic system […] and progressive theory of the state.”
The old hospital in Wittenberg offered a chance for this new society. Not long after buying the grounds, Fitzek stated clearly what he intended to do with the land. “I am going to turn this land that I’ve acquired, these 23 acres, industrial site and administrative buildings […] into the territory of a new state.” He meant quite literally an independent, sovereign political entity with citizens, a government, borders, its own money, and even diplomatic relations with foreign countries. Calling it “New Germany,” Fitzek energetically set about seeking citizens and laying the foundations for his new state.
Fitzek’s foray into state-building is only one flamboyant example of a global phenomenon of self-declared states known as “microstates.” Examples abound. One California-based group is attempting to create autonomous communities on floating platforms in international waters. The concept is known as “seasteading” (from homesteading) and is championed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Then there is the small “parallel sovereign state” of the “Empire of Atlantium” in New South Wales, Australia, governed by George II (George Cruickshank), which “offers an alternative to the discriminatory historic practice of assigning nationality to individuals on the basis of accidents of birth or circumstance.”
In some cases, their territory’s international boundaries encompass only the walls of one bedroom, like that of Ben Madison’s “Kingdom of Talossa” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Hundreds, if not thousands of self-proclaimed microstates around the world boast their own flags, titles, passports, and make lofty claims about their missions. While some microstates’ leaders are simply grifters and scam artists, most find ways, just like large states, to make a profit out of building a state. That can take the form of selling documents, leading courses, or even making commemorative coins marking a micronation’s founding, as is the case with the state of “Austenasia,” a network of private homes around the world with a “capital city” in a south London home.
Also known as sovereignty movements or new country projects, the roots reach to the revolutions, utopian movements, and intentional communities of the 19th century, a period rife with state-building projects, small and large. It is this period that established our age’s passion for self-determination, independence, and autonomy. And no artifact enshrined the idea of self-determination more forcefully than the 18th-century American Declaration of Independence and its assertion that men have “inalienable rights” with the state governing “by the Consent of the governed.” If government fails in its duties, then, the declaration insisted, “it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
Sovereignty movements appeared en masse in the 1970s, as the language of self-determination was transferred to the counterculture. Today’s self-proclaimed states span the ideological gamut from libertarian seasteaders, to punk anarchists in Copenhagen, all the way to far-right and heavily armed militias in the United States. All share, however, a desire to shake off the authority of governments that they see as insufficient at best, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which they feel entitled.
The Reichsbürger’s ethno-nationalist ideology most closely resembles American strains of right-wing state-denying and secessionist groups known as “Sovereign Citizens.” Many of the exact conspiracy theories, tactics, and legal maneuvers employed by German Reichsbürger are borrowed from the Sovereign Citizens, whose earliest groupings can be traced back to the 1970s. Often survivalist or white nationalist in nature, Sovereign Citizens deny the legitimacy and jurisdiction of the US federal government and especially the IRS, claiming that the individual is inherently sovereign or that the highest authority is the local sheriff (as commissioned by local “free men”).
The Australian sociologist Judy Lattas sees microstates as “a largely grievance-driven form of political protest” but with a much deeper significance for our present understanding of the nation-state and the individual. Small groups and individuals who declare their own state may take their vocabulary from the establishing ceremonies of larger states, but they “relocate” sovereignty onto an assertion of individual rights. Thomas Jefferson’s individual hand signing the Declaration of Independence represented not himself but the united will of the nation. Microstates insist that tiny groups and even single individuals also deserve the rights of a state.
The imaginary boundaries of Fitzek’s New Germany overlap with the “territory” of hundreds of other German pseudo-principalities, kingdoms, governments-in-exile, and “self-administrations,” all run by an eccentric milieu of state-denialists, malcontents, and conspiracy theorists.
One of the earliest of these states was the “Provisional Reich Government,” which was founded in 1985 by a former railroad employee named Wolfgang Ebel, who carried the title of “Reich’s Chancellor” and issued passports, birth certificates, and even stamps with his own image from his two-story suburban house. Ebel maintained that he was abducted by the British in 1980 and appointed to be the proper head of state for Germany. The microstate has since been split by multiple coups and schisms by Ebel’s rivals (microstates are not known for their stability).
Other German pseudo-states include the Freistaat Preußen (Free State of Prussia), led by a former Bundeswehr soldier and homeopathy practitioner; and the ecclesiastical state Fürstentum Germania (“Principality Germania”), modeled on the Vatican and housed in an old palace in the countryside near Berlin. The inhabitants of the latter wrote a letter citing the Hague Convention on national sovereignty and threatening to appeal to Germany’s neighboring countries to intervene. But the microstate state was dissolved by a local municipality for building code violations.
Although fractious and diverse, a dominant conspiracy theory and ideological vision unites the majority of these German self-declared states: the imperial “Reich” and the restoration of the monarchy. Many of Germany’s pseudo-states emerged out of revisionist, neo-Nazi, and virulently antisemitic political circles chafing at Germany’s 20th-century humiliations. According to political scientist David Begrich, the “Reich became the mythical locus for a restoration of a pre-democratic order for the racist far-right” almost as soon as it disappeared from maps in 1945.
But “Reichsbürger,” or citizens of the Reich, as they are collectively known, go much further than just longing for a lost nation. They believe that the constitution of the German Reich with its borders from 1937 — and sometimes 1919 or 1945, a territory which includes half of present-day Poland — and still exists today as the only legitimate sovereign authority in Germany. The Reich did not dissolve upon defeat in 1945, but due to Allied subterfuge, has simply been displaced by the illegitimate democratic Federal Republic of Germany. Thus, the state’s “provisional” or “in exile” titles. The theory depends on the claim that after the cessation of hostilities in 1945, the occupying Western Allied powers never signed a formal peace treaty with Germany, but continued to rule through a “colonial” administration functioning much like a corporation. Today’s Federal Republic of Germany, which they call “BRD Inc.” (BRD GmbH) is merely a deceptive front for Anglo-American banks and financial interests. Klaus Maurer, a leading Reichsbürger, summarizes the legal condition of Germany in the following way: “Many people already know that, according to prevailing international law, the BRD is no state, but rather a colonial administration of the occupying powers. As such, it is purely a commercial entity, a company.”
To prove their conspiracy theory, Reichsbürgers assemble a vast array of fragmentary, often bizarre clues, half-truths, apparent historical inconsistencies, and statements taken out of context. For example, Reichsbürgers eagerly point out that in the official trade registry of all German companies, the state is itself listed among the corporations as the “Federal Republic of Germany, Finance Agency.” The argument that a state also sometimes functions like a business in borrowing and lending money is not persuasive to them.
Another piece of “evidence” presented on nearly all Reichsbürger websites and brochures is a quote attributed to Barack Obama at Ramstein Air Base in 2009. Obama is supposed to have stated that “Germany is an occupied country and it will stay that way.” A quick investigation reveals that Obama never held a speech there and no audio or other evidence exists for the quote’s authenticity.
The most revealing moment for Fitzek’s guiding principles comes from the strangest day in the state’s short history, a day that was also officially its first. On September 16, 2012, Peter Fitzek had himself crowned the “Most High Sovereign and King” of the renamed “Kingdom of Germany” (Königreich Deutschland) in a ceremony before 600 of his denizens in the main theater of the hospital’s administrative building, complete with an altar, a throne, flowing robes, scepters, and a crown in an effort to recreate the symbols and ritual of medieval monarchies and soak his viewers in a sappy sentimentalism.
As Fitzek strode into the auditorium, Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathrusta boomed from overhead speakers. In his inauguration speech, he referenced the German longing for a true homeland “after 60 years” without one. The constitution of the Kingdom, also revealed that day, contains ambiguous passages suggesting that only ethnic Germans possess citizenship. Despite the feel of a college medieval club reenactment, the coronation revealed the hierarchical longing for a pre-democratic German state.
Despite his outlandish claims, Fitzek’s promise of a new society quickly drew hundreds of like-minded Germans to Wittenberg. Charismatic and constantly bubbling over with new ideas and plans, his narrow face and long hair slicked back into a ponytail gave him an uncanny resemblance to Ben Kingsley’s character as a sinister criminal mastermind in the 1992 movie Sneakers. By early 2012, 50 followers of Fitzek were living and working on the hospital grounds, with old patient rooms turned into apartments. Hundreds of other citizens or curious followers lived elsewhere, traveling occasionally to seminars and events in “New Germany.” He even claimed to have taken up diplomatic relations with Paraguay, supposedly established when he met with the brother of the president and the minister of justice on a trip there.
In short order, the New Germany government introduced its own health insurance, issued passports, and printed a new currency (the bills resemble colorful Monopoly money) called “Engelgeld” (“Angel Money”) whose first letters E-N-G-E-L in German stood for “A New Money Awakens Love.”
Under Fitzek’s direction, the new state also opened up a bank in the center of nearby Wittenberg, which quickly took in 100,000 euros. By outlawing interest and tying it to in-kind services, Fitzek claimed the new currency would do away with inflation, exploitation by banks, and many other ills of modern society arising from financial speculation. The new financial institutions had an additional purpose that Fitzek believed would secure the long-term primacy of his new state against the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD in its German acronym). Ultimately, he claimed, once all Germans “transfer their property and goods into the foundation,” then “the BRD will dissolve from itself.”
Besides the money raised from the bank, donations from wealthy followers, and a 400-euro fee for citizenship courses, Fitzek bragged about lucrative, cutting-edge, and secret new technologies that his state was developing. These inventions, he claimed, would bring in millions and simultaneously heal the world of pollution, war, and poverty. One of these secret technologies is called “Elemententransportation” according to Fitzek, which I can only surmise is something akin to Star Trek’s transporter system. The only technology that Fitzek seems actually to have tried to develop was the mostly unprofitable practice of reconverting plastic garbage and old tires into oil or other products, a laborious and inefficient process known as pyrolysis. A large industrial oven the size of a wall was brought in and New Germany began trucking in garbage, but the only profit Fitzek earned was the 60 euros given to those who accepted a one-ton load of old tires.
When it comes to asserting the legal basis of their states, Reichsbürger like Fitzek have a literalistic — and selective — notion of law and sovereignty, a trait they share with their worldwide libertarian counterparts. Fitzek adamantly claimed that he fulfilled the legal conditions for declaring his own state by citing the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States from 1933, which developed a definition of statehood now generally used in international law. According to that definition, a true state consisted of four criteria: a permanent population, a defined geographical territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Under this recipe, anyone is permitted to make their own state.
Fitzek’s desire for his citizens to be exempted from German regulations led to predictable consequences. Between 2010 and 2013, he was cited 12 times for driving without a driver’s license (or rather with his invalid, self-issued Kingdom of Germany’s license and a likewise homemade Paraguayan license) and for speeding. Fitzek also got into trouble for insisting that his special “yellow” driver’s license for his state vehicle, a BMW 3, allowed him to travel on highway shoulders during heavy traffic and up to 200 kilometers per hour. In 2010, he assaulted a civil servant in the Wittenberg Town Hall in a dispute over a fee that Fitzek refused to pay. In the ensuing court case in September 2011, Fitzek’s followers attempted to “arrest” the judge.
More seriously, federal officers raided the Kingdom of Germany’s headquarters with charges of embezzlement. Between 2009 and 2013, it is estimated that Fitzek took in 1.3 million euros from unwitting Germans distrustful of banks, a distrust Fitzek nurtured. In a psychological assessment performed for his various trials, the psychologist found that Fitzek possessed a manipulative and narcissistic personality combined with “average intelligence.” That same year, the remaining citizens of the Kingdom of Germany were evicted from the hospital in Wittenberg and the property was sold to a local farmer to house migrant workers.
On the night of July 31, 1992, in the northeast German town of Schwerin, 17 members of a youth group led by the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschland, a neo-Nazi political party, stormed a home for asylum-seekers from Africa, throwing Molotov cocktails and brandishing knives and baseball bats. Although no refugees died, few doubted the murderous intent of the assailants. Numerous other neo-Nazi arson attacks on refugee shelters in the 1990s across Germany killed scores of migrants.
The leader of the Schwerin youth group was a 22-year-old local man by the name of Rüdiger Klasen, who now goes by the name Hoffmann. Today, Hoffmann publicly labels himself an “anti-fascist” political activist and environmentalist, who devotes all of his time to rooting out the vestiges of the Nazi regime in contemporary Germany.
But far from disavowing xenophobic and nationalistic views, the tall, bespectacled Hoffmann leads a small circle of enthusiastic, deeply racist Reichsbürger who refer to themselves as the “Staatenlos” (Stateless). When Hoffmann and his group speak of fighting fascists, they are referring not to neo-Nazi hooligans, but to the group’s central belief, that despite the facade of democracy, the present-day German government is in fact the very same Nazi regime supposedly vanquished in 1945. In 2015, Kalsen expounded his variation of the Reichsbürger conspiracy in a self-published book that proclaimed: “The Federal Republic of Germany does not represent the German people nor is it legitimate. Germany is up to this day simply administered by the BRD in the service of the Allied authorities and their masters.”
It was hard not to think of Hoffmann’s violent background and conspiracy-addled mind as I sat waiting for him late last year on a bench in front of the American embassy in central Berlin. I had been reassured by a fellow journalist that Hoffmann, despite his criminal past, posed no physical threat. In any case, I assumed that the large crowd of tourists would offer some degree of safety. A few hundred meters to the northwest lay the Bundestag and the Chancellor’s Residence, the administrative heart of the German state.
I guessed that Hoffmann wished to meet here because of its proximity to the Stateless’s “eternal watch” in front of the Bundestag. Well known to Berliners, the “eternal watch” consists of a few followers of Hoffmann who diligently man a small tent each day as tourists mill about in front of the parliament building. The tent is covered in German and Russian flags and posters with large text calling for the overthrow of the fascist dictatorship.
Hoffmann arrived with an older companion named Günther, who rarely spoke. When he did, Hoffmann shushed him before going on to say more or less the same thing in the tone of an adult lecturing delinquent children, forcing them to answer obvious questions that confirm the point he is making.
As we walked down Unter den Linden to a café, we passed a street exhibit about the history of Poland that catches Hoffmann’s attention and serves as my first lesson in the true history of the 20th century. At the section explaining Poland’s independence as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, Hoffmann explained to me that the Western bankers’ plot against Germany began with the treaty, with large swaths of its eastern territories taken from her. “This will all be reclaimed and be under German administration,” he stated ominously. “Non-native Germans living in Germany will be placed there,” he declared while still staring at the exhibit.
At the café, Hoffmann launched into an hour-long explanation of his theory that Germany is an Allied colony controlled by bankers and his grandiose plan in which he will lead an international peace conference to “clarify the international legal standing” of Germany. He repeated the Reichsbürger theory that Germany is run according to commercial law and constitutes a “Private Commercial Trustee Administration” — a territory occupied by a foreign army and run as a colony-corporation, a plot fit for a noir sci-fi film. Germany’s inhabitants are what Hoffmann terms “Captured Civilian Enemies,” who he compares to slaves, or, even more cringeworthy, concentration camp inmates.
“Germany is one big concentration camp,” he said. “In Auschwitz, there were swimming pools, brothels, and music. You were entertained. But it was also an extermination camp. Germany is similar to Auschwitz, understand me correctly here, similar to Auschwitz — slaves without chains.”
The unifying theme behind much of Hoffmann’s historical account, I realize, is a deep sense of German victimhood and a familiar German insecurity about their national sovereignty stretching back to 1918. Hoffmann vented against the Treaty of Versailles, censorship laws surrounding questioning the Holocaust, forced migration, Allied war crimes, and especially the US military occupation of Germany.
At one heated point, he proclaimed that no people in history have been treated worse, and no people are more central to world peace, than the German people.
The theme of German victimhood isn’t just with the lunatic fringe; it is the beating heart of the movement.
Much like other right-wing movements — today’s AfD (Alternative for Germany) comes to mind — a special hatred is reserved for the genetic guilt and association with the crimes of the Third Reich. The defeat in World War II imposed not only physical constraints on German sovereignty, but also, eventually, a psychological block that made it difficult to feel pride in one’s national identity.
Victimhood among the Reichsbürger might be seen as a response to social emasculation experienced by its members. Over 70 percent are men between the ages of 40 and 70, and many of them labor under financial hardship, personal failures, or the general malaise afflicting Western males for whom upward mobility has come to a sudden halt. Gabriela Keller, a Berlin journalist and expert on the Reichsbürger, explained to me last December how she almost always found some type of “social downfall,” be it a bankruptcy, a legal problem, or a more personal tragedy in each individual’s history. These unpleasant experiences were then projected on to the state, which became for them a malevolent entity whose founding purpose was to oppress, plunder, and manipulate its subjects.
Such personal frustrations in dealing with bureaucracy and taxation contribute to anti-state sentiments in all countries, but only small numbers actively adopt an ideology to match their anger, much less a radical, conspiratorial worldview. But in the case of the Reichsbürger, such private failures bred an angry, conspiratorial skepticism in the context of well-established uncertainties about the German state.
Germans continue to live with the consciousness of a recent past filled with military occupations, a forcibly divided nation, and numerous governments swept away overnight. Imagine waking up one day and the country you knew is gone, replaced by one with a new name, a new government with a radically different system and ideology, even different money. Foreign troops occupy your town, bringing new constitutions. This is the experience of Germany in 1919, 1933, 1945 and 1989. Today’s far-right party, the AfD, has made undoing German shame for their country’s history a central part of their platform.
The Kingdom of Germany’s sovereign, Peter Fitzek, was released from prison earlier this year. But now he is a king without a country. Although a court case brought by Fitzek for unlawful eviction from his hospital grounds is ongoing, there is no provision for reclaiming his annexed territory.
Fitzek, however, remains unbowed. He spoke of his incarceration as a form of martyrdom he willingly suffered in order to show his followers that it is possible to defy the state. He further likened his time in prison to a monastic retreat where he meditated, worked to tame his flesh, and wrote two books, one of which is a reflection about the relationship between religion and the natural sciences and the future of humanity. In a recent interview on a far-right YouTube talk show, he professed his plans to move forward with building the Kingdom of Germany despite the legal setbacks.
But his optimistic outlook cracked as he reviewed the hurdles facing individual state-builders like himself. He denounced the German state as a “mafia” in the hands of a global bank cartel and an “incarnation of Satanism” whose goal is to control individuals, keep them small, exploiting them in a “slavery system.” Although he claims many jurists agree with him that his state is a legal entity, the problem, Fitzek conceded, is that even if the powers admit that his state is sovereign, it means nothing, because “they have the machine guns.”
“We have in this system no justice,” he said in the interview. “It’s not about people, it’s simply about the administration of individuals in the sense of international high finance. We have nothing else here. They are Satanists.”
This deeply Manichean worldview and paranoia of a foreign, globalist conspiracy against nativist majorities resembles the philosophy behind other microstate projects in the United States and elsewhere. That German nationalists can today proclaim their victimization as the lesson to be drawn from the century largely defined by their crimes is perhaps an irony of history. But the Reichsbürger with their longing for a lost imperial past are also a manifestation — albeit a bizarre one — of the still-breathing legacy left by German defeat in 1945.