The anti-constitutional Reichsbürger movement in Germany and Michael Kurzwelly’s social project Słubfurt – Why are both using the same methods of constructing identity to convey different political messages?
Borders, an own constitution, authorities like a parliament or law courts, all these things are essential for a national state. Yet, the “highest law court of the united German people and tribes “1 or the parliament of the invented city Slubfurt are nowhere near representing a national state. Both are institutions of projects that claim sovereignty for themselves. Both belong to different projects2. The anti-constitutional Reichsbürger-milieu on the one hand, the transnational project of artist Michael Kurzwelly, who was awarded with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2019, on the other hand. Both of these projects, despite their similar methods, are perceived very differently by the society.
This paper aims to understand, why both of these projects mentioned use the same methods of constructing identity to convey very different political messages. In the course of this paper, the used methods of constructing reality by both movements will be analysed and compared to each other, pointing out possible differences (in their realisation). Further, this text will then portrait the different political messages each movement is trying to convey, specifying the underlying ideological frameworks. Moreover, the question of this paper should be answered: What is the reason for choosing similar methods of constructing reality, if both movements try to convey an individual message. Concluding, this paper will try to assess the gathered insights and try to embed the issue in the macro-social discourse of national identity and the strengthening of far-right movements in Germany.
The German newspaper “Der Tagesspiegel”3 quoted a report by the German Intelligence Service, estimating 19.000 people in Germany to identify with “Reichsbürger” ideology. This number is surprisingly high, bearing in mind that 19.000 people are denying the legitimacy of the state, they are living in. Naturally, the evidence contradicting this thesis prevails, causing the general public to belittle the movement and its supportive members.
Since 2016, following a shooting in the small Bavarian town Georgensgmünd, where an alleged member of the “Reichsbürger”- member killed one police officer and wounded a second one, the assessment of those groups has radically changed. As a result of this incident, many individuals working in high public positions had to resign from their positions due to their ties with the scene or their ideological beliefs. There were several incidents, where local politicians, often members of the national party AfD had to withdraw from politics or were excluded from the party due to their membership to “Reichsbürger” communities. Many smaller communities also struggle with the “Reichsbürger”-movement attacking or threatening judges, public officials or civil servants. The German Intelligence Service, (as well as local politicians) have ignored the threat for a long time and often equated the “Reichsbürger” with mentally ill.4
On the other hand, the self-administrative social project Slubfurt has been awarded the order of merit of the federal republic of Germany in the year 2019 for their lived democracy and motivation to form a democratic international community. The artist Michael Kurzwelly, who was born in Germany but lived many years in Poland and France invented the transnational city of Slubfurt, by unifying the German border town Frankfurt (Oder) with the polish equivalent of Slubice. His project is characterised through an own parliament, an own constitution and identification cards, which are distributed by their own city hall. The city understands itself as an alternative to the segregated bordertowns. Founded in 1999, the project has since evolved into the league of towns “Nowa Ameryka” featuring other German-Polish border regions, which have been merged into fictional cities.
Focusing on the means these projects apply to create a self-governing community, this paper will try to understand why ideologically different movements with unique and individual worldviews utilise the same methods of constructing reality.
Since it is very difficult to gain neutral insights in the isolated “Reichsbürger” scene, information was accordingly hard to find. The general distrust of members of the “Reichsbürger” towards the media is evident, since they assume media in general to be controlled by the government or a secret elite, which wants to harm them. Most reports about the “Reichsbürger” are limited to articles ridiculing them, or reporting on the crimes they have been accused of, because of their strange behaviour or fanciful argumentation. Therefore, the sources used in this research to portrait the “Reichsbürger” milieu are based less on researches in scientific books, but rather on reports of investigating journalists or private individuals.
This is a common practice in the field of cultural science, the so-called participatory observation. Deriving from ethnography, the participatory observation has established itself as a reliable method to gain insights into different communities and their perspectives. The Encyclopedia Brittanica describes ethnography as a „descriptive study of a particular human society or the process of making such a study. Contemporary ethnography is based almost entirely on fieldwork and requires the complete immersion of the anthropologist in the culture and everyday life of the people who are the subject of his study. “5
Certainly, the knowledge resulting from those methods doesn’t claim for itself to be completely neutral. The same is true for the books this document is based on. The three books that were identified relevant for the topic are focusing on the worldview, perspectives and ideology of the members of the “Reichsbürger” community. But they focus as well on empathic storytelling. Often the characters and behaviours described are portraying the contrast between their personality and their unique ideological perception of the world.
Other scientific sources are very hard to find, they mostly focus on legal matters, and try to disprove the argumentation of the Reichsbürger community on why Germany is an illegitimate state. The lack of scientific literature could be explained with the strange perspective and esoteric theories most of the supportive members have. This makes it very difficult for scientific sources to describe the movement unprejudiced. Similarly, the books of investigating journalists or reports of private persons, who are trying to document the movement always include humoristic, often ridiculing passages or other emotions that are portraying the milieu in a biased or negative light. Although some of the alleged members of the community have proven the ideology to be dangerous and the potential to evoking crime very high,6 social scientists as well as the German Intelligence Service have yet to acknowledge the movement as a potentially dangerous scientific phenomenon.
Since the books were written in German, the original passages and excerpts are translated by the author to English language. The original quote in German language will be provided in the footer. The translation was made by the author of this paper and may therefore include mistranslations or seem inaccurate for English natives. Despite, the excerpts were translated as well as possible to provide an English version of the quotations.
Interesting are the means that are used to legitimize their own state. The sovereign part of the Reichsbürger is denying the legitimacy of the republic of Germany, whilst simultaneously leading their own small state on, in fact, German territory, that they claim as their own. Most of the times, the argumentation, with which they use to legitimize their own state is far less factual, than the argumentation against the German state. Often the principle of communal autonomy, included in the international law is used to justify the founding of an own state. But in most of the cases, the argumentation is more abstract and based on the construction of reality.
Constructing the reality refers to the sociological assumption, that every person has its own perception of reality. By interpreting the reality, with the help of individual experiences, prioritisation of values and social background, each individual makes sense of its own reality. Within an individual reality, it is therefore possible to construct additional facts and modify the reality, agreed on by the general public. In detail, this means, that an individual can in fact deny the existence of the federal Republic of Germany, by simply modifying his own individually perceived reality. It is even possible, to invite other individuals to participate in this modifying of reality.
However, the construction of reality not only allows individuals to deny the existence of a state. Moreover, the construction of reality is a tool, through which national states can exist in the first place. Michael Kurzwelly describes it in his presentation, which can be found online. “And if we view it like this, reality is just an agreement. Up to this date we agreed on being polish on this side and Germany being on the other side and so on. Now, we simply say no, that is not true, that is not right. Someone just invented it and therefore it can also be completely different.”7. Following his idea, national states would exist through a plurality of modifications on reality. If a state would rely on the majority of its people to continue its existence, then several people could claim a state on their own. This would be a logical conclusion regarding the effects of the construction of reality. Nevertheless, national states as gigantic institutions are equipped with political infrastructure. But the existing methods, that national states utilize to manifest their authority are also used by various smaller groups that envision their own state. In the course of this paper some methods will be presented, that are used by the projects of the Reichsbürger movement and by artist Michael Kurzwelly to orchestrate their self-governing projects as states, equipped with authority and infrastructure.
The idea of rejecting the authority of the state goes back to Manfred Roeder, who founded the Commissary Government of the German Reich in the 1960s. After Hitler´s suicide in 1945, the highest ranked military officer was appointed Commander in Charge. In this case, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz was commissioned with leading the German troops and therefore became the last official leader of the Reich. He was contacted by Manfred Roeder, former train driver for the Reichsbahn, asking about the German capitulation and whether the German Reich was still administrated by him. Since Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz neglected any administrative power over the German Reich, Manfred Roeder claimed to be the righteous apparent heir and founded the Commissary Government of the Reich. He was the first to actively forge his own documents and propagate the idea of a still existing German Reich.8
In the consecutive years, many followed his example and there were many different projects that either claimed the forth-existence and administrative power over the German Reich, or saw themselves as sovereign alternatives to the poorly legitimized German Republic, that in their view had neither a constitution, nor a peace treaty with the US government and was therefore still at war.
“[The] purpose of the constitution was to […] forge, out of a diverse population, a new national identity, uniting […] under a mutual banner of ideals and values.”9 This quote illustrates the purpose of a constitution in modern societies. The unification of a diverse group of individuals under the same set of shared values is, what makes the constitution of a country so valuable. It offers a foundation for social coexistence and creates a framework for social interactions. One of the most important things, that characterise the “Reichsbürger”, is their rejection of the current constitution of the German Federal Republic. By opposing the constitution, the one thing that holds a democracy together, they try to separate themselves from the society.
The German constitution is called the “Grundgesetz”. Which is the first detail, the Reichsbürger theories use in their argumentation. Shouldn’t a real constitution be called a constitution (“Verfassung” in German)? The factual basis for the Grundgesetz is that it does everything a constitution would do. It aims to unite the population under shared values and rights. The Grundgesetz was written in 1948 and became law in 1949. In this period of time, Germany was occupied by the allies, after the capitulation in the second World War. The three western allies Great Britain, USA and France wanted to create a temporary constitution for the regions under their control. Because they did not want to exclude the parts of Germany, which were controlled by the Soviet Union, they explicitly declared the constitution a provisional solution. Altogether 65 politicians were elected through the votes of each German Landtag, the German state parliaments, to elaborate the provisional constitution under oversight by the western allies. Both, the western allies, as well as the Soviet Union believed, a constitution could only be created by a united Germany and its people, but they wanted to clarify the legal boundaries in the meantime. Therefore, article 146 was implemented into the “Grundgesetz”, which allowed the German people to write a replacing constitution.10 This replacement had to be democratically legitimized by a plebiscite and could then replace the “Grundgesetz” written under the occupation of the allies. But after the German reunification the “Grundgesetz” was acknowledged as the official German constitution.
Yet, the article, enabling the German people to write their replacing constitution still exists. Reichsbürger view this article either as a clear sign of the invalidity of the current constitution, because of its provisoric nature or as an explicit invitation to write their own constitutions, which they claim to be the replacement of the Grundgesetz. This claim is one of the most common in Reichsbürger communities and has ever since found many supportive members. Especially Xavier Naidoo, a famous German singer-songwriter, demanded during a protest in front of the Reichstag, the building of the German Parliament, the elaboration of a new German constitution. Even though, Naidoo is not known to be a member of any Reichsbürger movement, he clearly sympathises with claims about the invalidity of the constitution. Naidoo, whose parents have Indian and South-African roots, also made a few songs that could be interpreted as approval to theories of the alleged far-right movement. This shows how popular those distributed conspiracy theories have become and how persuasive the argumentation is.
While denying the legitimacy of the German state, the Reichsbürger movement uses several methods to claim their own state. One important method is the creating of state related institutions. They legitimize the existence of their own state, or express their authority. Creating own institutions grants a bureaucratic character and implies the role of a sovereign. The civilian population relies on a bureaucratic system, that gives the state authenticity. Reichsbürger, as well as artist Michael Kurzwelly and his project Slubfurt are aware of this fact and have created, or aim to create their own institutions to further legitimize their state and to fight for validation.
Reichsbürger, at least if they have the aim to continue the state business of the German Reich, are much more limited to creating an administrative infrastructure for the empire they are trying to represent. Besides institutions like the Commissary Government of the Reich or the Department for Human Rights, it is notable, that the different projects within the Reichsbürger movement often use law courts as institutions representing their state. Whether it is the “Law Court of Human Rights” or the “Higher Court for the Unified German People and Tribes”, law courts are of great importance for the Reichsbürger movement. Law courts seem to grant the movement authority in its actions and enable them to take action against its sworn enemies. There have been attempts to arrest and imprison administrative workers and even notifications about death sentences were sent via mail by these law courts.
In contrast to new law courts, the social project Slubfurt and the ideologically connected league of towns called Nowa Ameryka feature their own parliaments and a Nowa Ameryka conference. While in 2009 there were elections organised in the border region between Frankfurt and Slubice, to vote people into the Slubfurt parliament, nowadays the contribution to the project has been simplified and every individual, who is present at the conference or at parliamentary sittings gains the right to vote in discussed issues.
While both projects follow the method of creating and founding own institutions to have administrative power over their territory, their choice of institutions to represent their project is the first thing that distinguishes the projects. Without interpreting, the choice of either legislative or judicative institutions is interesting, considering its area of responsibility and power structures. Judicative institutions, especially law courts or courts of justice do not rely on the direct democratic nomination of their judges. Whereas a parliament is considered the symbol of democracy. The democratically elected parliament members have the right to participate in the discussion and have each the same amount of power. Decisions are verified through majority resolutions, and therefore must be supported by a larger part of the parliament. The choice between law courts or parliaments to represent the state, could be interpreted regarding the ideological motivation and reveal the projects perspective on division of power, more specifically, which power of state they deem to be more relevant for structuring society.
One of the more physical things used by the projects to claim sovereignty for themselves, is the same, that all nation states use to distinguish from other states. They use symbols of belonging to state like flags, hymns or oaths, or a city coat of arms. Whereas other, self-administrative communities, that try to be self-sufficient and ecological, Reichsbürger communities are recognizable by their visual elements of national identification. It is necessary, especially for the context of constructing reality, to enforce the creation of nationalist symbols to be recognized as a real state. Especially documents, that are created by the state founders have the purpose of identification with the state.
The “forging of documents” plays a huge role in the Reichsbürger community. Many followers of this ideology are giving back their IDs and documentation. Instead they demand a certificate of citizenship, which plays a minor role in German documentation. But for the members of this ideology, the certificate of citizenship is one of the greatest goods. This notion of giving back cards of identification results of the German name for the Identification card: Personalausweis. The word is composed of two words, the word “Personal” translating to staff in German and the word “Ausweis”, translating to badge. The “Personalausweis” is therefore considered the badge of staff and not card of identification. Within Reichsbürger ideology this is also connected to the theory, the Federal Republic of Germany would only exist as a company. In addition to the argument of the staff badge, some Reichsbürger present the registration of the company “Deutschland GmbH” in the commercial registry. Though the trade register excerpt provided only proves the existence and legitimacy of the financial agency of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Yet, many people have accepted the explanation and are relentlessly trying to resign from their employment at the Germany company through sending many letters of resignation to the public authorities. Of course, one could ask about the benefits people would have, if they unsubscribe successfully from their employment at the Republic of Germany. First, many who are trying to argue with exactly those arguments are trying to escape smaller fines like parking tickets or even child support payments. Often, they notify authorities with enormous amounts of letters and notifications, stating the argumentation, with which they believe to unsubscribe from the membership of the Incorporation Germany. The targeted local authorities and their personal are often neither qualified enough to disprove these theories nor are there enough employees with enough time to combat the enormous number of letters and demands. Nowadays, strategies and useful tips have been developed, so that administrative workers can react appropriately to clients, who use those strategies.
1 „Höchste Gericht der geeinten deutschen Völker und Stämme“3 translated by Author.
2 Movements, projects, or milieus are synonyms in this text and will be variably used throughout the course of this paper.
3 Wergener, J. (2019, August 13). Berliner Reichsbürger nach Razzia Die gefährliche Parallelwelt von Lichterfelde. Retrieved from Der Tagesspiegel: https://www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/berliner-reichsbuerger-nach-razzia-die-gefaehrliche-parallelwelt-von-lichterfelde/24991488.html.
4 Brandau, B., & van Laak, C. (2020, March 26). Reichsbürger. Wenn Extremismus vom Rand in die Mitte der Gesellschaft rückt. Retrieved from Deutschlandfunk: https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/reichsbuerger-wenn-extremismus-vom-rand-in-die-mitte-der.724.de.html?dram:article_id=427576.
5 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica [27.10.2007], Ethnography. Retrieved from Encylopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/science/ethnography.
6 dpa, m. (2017, April 19). News. Adrian Ursache: Mister Germany, Reichsbürger, and now attempted murder defendant. Retrieved from dw: https://www.dw.com/en/adrian-ursache-mister-germany-reichsb%C3%BCrger-and-now-attempted-murder-defendant/a-38492047.
7 Kurzwelly, M. (Director). (2014). Michael Kurzwelly dt [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lLqkqMxGVg. 2:22. Translated transcript.
8 Ginsburg, T. (2019). Die Reise ins Reich: unter Reichsbürgern. Berlin: Das Neue Berlin. p. 61.
9 Johnson, D. W. (2019, September 02). Need for a National Identity. The need for unity not "diversiveness" among citizens. Retrieved March 17, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/constructive-controversy/201909/need-national-identity.
10 Bundestag, D. (n.d.). Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany . Retrieved from Deutscher Bundestag: https://www.btg-bestellservice.de/pdf/80201000.pdf.