BERLIN — The 66-year-old conspiracy theorist and former tour guide was undoubtedly eccentric. He dressed in public like an ancient Druid and occasionally traversed his southern German town by Segway. He accessorized his robe with a wooden spear.
Yet the recent arrest of the German Druid highlights the real world dangers posed by those propagating a global barrage of online hate. Public attention may be focused on Islamist extremists. But in Germany — just as in the United States, where three Indians were recently attacked and Jewish centers and mosques have become the targets of bomb threats — right-wing violence driven by hate is emerging as a far more widespread threat.
On his account on VKontakte — a sort of Russian version of Facebook — Burkhard Bangert raged that he wanted to “annihilate Jews and Muslims.” He shared an image of the Star of David, with text inside calling for the killing of journalists, cops and bankers.
He also expressed beliefs shared by the “Reichsbürgers” — an expanding movement in Germany with uncanny similarities to so-called sovereign citizens groups in the United States. Its followers reject the legitimacy of the federal government, seeing politicians and bureaucrats as usurpers.
Prosecutors say Bangert’s rage went further than rhetoric — a growing risk, experts say, as fringe thinking and incitement to hate goes mainstream in the West. After authorities seized illegal weapons from his home, they charged Bangert and a network of five accomplices with allegedly plotting attacks on police officers, Jewish centers and refugee shelters.
“It’s an international phenomenon of people claiming there are conspiracies going on, people with an anti-Semitic world view who are also against Muslims, immigrants and the federal government,” said Jan Rathje, a project leader at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which studies right-wing violence.
“We’ve reached a point where it’s not just talk,” he continued. “This kind of thinking is turning violent.”
Yet even here, attacks linked to fringe right-wing groups are surging.
On Wednesday, a Munich court found four suspects guilty of forming a far-right terror squad, dubbed the Old School Society, with the intention of bombing refugee centers. Last week, eight Germans went on trial in the eastern city of Dresden for forming a far-right terror network that allegedly staged five attacks, including the bombing of a left-wing politician’s car and detonating explosive devices at two refugee homes.
The last time numbers surged this high, officials say, was the early 1990s — when Germany recorded a large but short-term jump in neo-Nazi activity following reunification. Authorities say the current surge has been triggered in part by the arrival of nearly 1 million mostly Muslim asylum seekers to Germany. Last year, there were nearly 10 anti-migrant attacks per day, ranging from incitement and vandalism to arsons and severe beatings.
Yet officials say the rise of conspiracy theorist websites, inflammatory fake news and anti-federal government/right-wing activism has thrown another troubling factor into the mix.
In Germany, Bangert was linked to the Reichsbürger movement — a disparate group of nearly 10,000 individuals who reject the authority of Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as federal, state and city governments. Some claim that the last real German government was the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler.
But many others defy easy classification, recognizing only earlier German governments or none at all. On Wednesday, for instance, one Reichburger who had proclaimed himself the true “King of Germany” was sentenced to nearly 4 years in prison for embezzling 1 million euros from his followers.
“We see people who are a little mentally disordered, people with economic problems. We see people with conspiracy theories. You also have right-wing extremists, you have esoterics and you have your sovereign citizens. This is the conglomerate of what we call the Reichsbürger” movement, said Heiko Homburg, head of counterextremism at the Brandenburg branch of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.
While the Reichsbürger movement may be uniquely German, its fringe thinking is universal. German intelligence officials describe some of their tools, such as fake passports and the documents used to declare their own governments, as being nearly identical to those by American sovereign citizens groups.
German officials consider only up to 6 percent of Reichsbürger members to be “right wing extremists.” Instead, the majority are like Thomas Patzlaff , a 59-year old Berlin resident who makes a meager income by selling homemade filters because he is convinced that public drinking water is unsafe. Like many in the movement, he does not believe in paying taxes or debts, and almost ended up in prison, he said, after refusing to cover hundreds of euros in parking fines to the Berlin government he does not recognize.
He also says he believes he is the reincarnation of Thomas Jefferson — but that’s a whole other story.
“The federal government of Germany does not exist for me,” said Patzlaff, who has written to the pope and foreign embassies to declare his own sovereign state. He defines its borders as his cozy flat in north Berlin — a hub of activity where younger right-wing activists occasionally pop up to seek Patzlaff’s advice.
“I am a German, but the so-called state we live in is just a construct of the elites and the Allies,” Patzlaff said.
Yet officials fear surging membership in such groups are also fueling more violence, and German intelligence agencies are now in the midst of compiling a database of armed Reichsbürger members.
In October, a 49-year old Reichsbürger living near Nuremberg, and who had declared his home an “independent state,” shot and killed a police officer charged with seizing his hoarded weapons. Last August, Adrian Ursache, 41 — a former “Mr. Germany” — and 13 of his supporters in Saxony-Anhalt state tried to prevent his eviction from his “sovereign home” by shooting at police. Police fired back, severely injuring Ursache. Two officers were also hurt.
The violence has left authorities facing the challenging task of separating the truly dangerous from the merely quixotic. Some — like the Druid — authorities say, have crossed a line.
German officials say their January raid of his and 11 other apartments yielded evidence against Bangert and five other people suspected of having formed a far-right extremist network. They are believed, prosecutors say, to have been planning armed attacks against police officers, asylum seekers and Jews.
The local German broadcaster SWR cited police sources as saying that live weapons, ammunition, a pen gun and explosives were found in the raids.
Bangert — who used to give tours of the picturesque Rhön Mountains and lived in the southern town of Schwetzingen — has denied the charges and is fighting them. His family insists the charges are trumped up.