Peter Fitzek is part of a movement that denies Germany’s existence. He founded his own kingdom and bank—then the government started asking where the money went.
Peter Fitzek is the king of Germany. At 54, he has the ponytail and square jaw of an ’80s-movie terrorist—or perhaps a karate instructor, which in fact he was before ascending to the throne. Like other monarchs, Peter tends to be identified by his first name. His dominion offers its own passport, currency, and health-care plan, and it boasts more than 1,300 subjects, some of whom live in a sprawling compound in Wittenberg, 60 miles southwest of Berlin. Most important, he rose alongside a woman tabloids called his queen: Annett Ullmann, a model and waitress who was brunette and beautiful and wore lavender silk shirts to his court appearances.
When he meets journalists, Peter brings a binder of legal documents to support his claim to the throne. It’s smaller than the meter-high stack he typically lugs to court, where he’s found himself for violations such as speeding and the illegal possession of nunchucks. He records his conversations with reporters, a habit developed after a comedy troupe catfished him into a confrontation in the lobby of a Frankfurt hotel. (He ended up in a fistfight before stunned tourists.) His microphone has a sticker proclaiming that it’s owned by one of his followers, placed there so German tax authorities wouldn’t seize it to compensate some once-loyal subjects from whom he was accused of embezzling more than €1.3 million ($1.4 million).
Presented with a recorder, Peter talks and talks. He talks about how he healed an ex-girlfriend who was abused as a child by Satanists, using only his hands. About how a cabal of shadowy elites, including Rockefellers and Orthodox Jews, spread Covid-19 to boost drug profits and compel Germans to accept implanted biosensor chips. How a sniper once shot his car on the autobahn, but divine intervention caused the bullet to only nick the windshield. (He knows what you’re thinking, but a policeman friend told him there’s no way it was a rock.)
King Peter’s subjects are adherents of the Reichsbürger movement, whose members believe Germany doesn’t exist. The republic, they contend, is a limited liability company controlled by the Allied victors of World War II—and, according to the more anti-Semitic, the Rothschild family. Reichsbürgers print their own passports, often refuse to pay taxes, and clog courts with paperwork, along the same lines as the U.S. “sovereign citizen” movement.
And like their other American kin, QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory alleging a “deep state” plot against Donald Trump—they’re products of the digital age of unreason. Reichsbürgers are indoctrinated by low-budget YouTube talk shows hosted by the likes of Jo Conrad, who says Freemasons, lizard people, and child-murdering cults have overrun Germany. Converts protest outside the Reichstag, which some say is guarded by a laser cannon. For fun, they stream Reichsbürger hip-hop. In 2018, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency identified about 19,000 Reichsbürgers, nearly double its estimate of two years earlier. The true number, officials say, is likely far greater.
Peter, for all his troubles, is a genial leader. His optimism follows from an expedient logic: Every legal win proves the soundness of his arguments, and every loss proves the corruption of the German system. He’s so enjoying himself that you don’t want to spoil the fun by raising the matter of those euros the German government was trying to find. It imprisoned him and confiscated his cash, his property, even his piano. He’s fought in the courts, in the media, and in police custody to defend his treasure—and to keep the government from asking more questions.
In 2008, as economic crisis swept across Europe, Peter knew his moment had arrived. Since before German reunification, he’d been a Trottel, a Depp, a Versager: a loser. Born in East Germany in 1965, he was a friendless introvert with an alcoholic father and an overbearing mother who made him clean his plate to the point of vomiting. Peter wanted to become a teacher, but his grades were too poor, so he worked as a cook. Then he married and had two children, started teaching karate, and became a video store clerk.
In 1991 an investor from near Stuttgart, in the prosperous West, persuaded Peter to co-found a slot-machine business with him. It was his big break, until it wasn’t. His partner used his knowledge of the German legal system to take the company. Peter was just another Ossi, poor and unsophisticated after nearly 50 years of communist rule, outmaneuvered by a slick Wessi. He and his wife split up the following year.
Adrift in the early 2000s, Peter began reading. He devoured esoteric texts and dabbled in black magic, claiming visions of angels and demons. He also pored over law books and developed what some attorneys describe as an astonishingly vast, if not particularly cogent, knowledge of the legal system. And he found a new belief that helped him make sense of his life’s failures: Germany wasn’t a legitimate country.
The first Reichsbürger (“citizen of the Reich”) was Wolfgang Ebel, an East German transit worker. In 1985 he notified the U.S. Embassy and his local town hall that a U.S. diplomat named “Mister Kowalski” had confided an explosive secret: Because the Allies and Germany never signed a formal peace treaty after World War II, the German constitution of 1919 was still in effect. Ebel declared himself chancellor of the true state and changed his answering machine message to announce the new government. “His activities show the signs of mental illness,” the Stasi concluded after surveilling him for years.
When the Wall fell, Ebel’s delusions metastasized. The country’s true borders were those from 1937, encompassing half of present-day Poland. The German government was a corporation serving as a front for Anglo-American (and yes, Jewish) financial interests. It was wild stuff, festering mainly on the political fringes.
Then came the internet, and later the financial crisis. All over the country, Germans were angry about the economy, migration, and the European Union. As the euro zone wobbled, men—the majority of Reichsbürgers are men over 40—began popping up at a store in downtown Wittenberg where Peter had started selling esoteric books and promoting his view that an alternate government was possible. He offered membership cards for €120 a year and began accepting “investments” for what he called a “savings account,” collecting at least €61,000 by the end of 2008, court records show.
Peter also began exploring another kind of magic, fiat currency, pitching a famously cash-obsessed nation his bright and colorful Engelgeld, or “angel money.” He conveniently pegged the notes to the euro. Denominations included a seven, a number he imbued with deep significance. There weren’t many ways to spend the money, but Peter, echoing gold bugs everywhere, says it had value “as an inflation-free store of purchasing power.”
Now attracting cash and interest, Peter decided to create NeuDeutschland, or “New Germany,” a country primarily of the mind and YouTube. “You send your kids to institutions that train them as slaves,” Peter tells a group of normal-looking Germans in one video posted to his country’s channel. “The systems that you use make you behave like slaves. But you choose that.” The group participates in a few party tricks, including one in which four people lift someone from a chair with their fingers. The ease with which they perform the feat, Peter says, confirms the existence of energy fields and the malleability of gravity. (It’s actually timing, weight distribution, and the surprising strength of the human finger.)
Euros poured in. In 2009, Peter collected nearly €40,000, a fifth of which he put toward a dilapidated factory on the outskirts of Wittenberg. The next year he took in more than €180,000. In 2011 it was €852,000. With his followers now numbering in the thousands, he took out a €650,000 mortgage on another old factory and set about renovating it (a project he’d never complete). He paid workers an hourly rate of €4 and 4 Engelgeld, redeemable at the compound’s sausage shop. In 2012 he acquired an even larger property, an abandoned hospital that could someday house several thousand people.
Peter’s followers were a mixed bunch: some loners and losers, but also accomplished professionals such as Harry Ziegenhagel, a lawyer who was bored and looking for answers when, in February 2012, an acquaintance sent him one of Peter’s YouTube videos. Ziegenhagel was intrigued enough to plunk down €50 and drive six hours for a two-day “personality development” seminar in Wittenberg. He found a movement that had grown to about 3,500 followers—middle-aged white-collar men like himself, but also single mothers, several black Germans, and a left-wing Berlin theater director. Some of them were living at the first compound Peter had bought. He called it Reinsdorf, after the surrounding neighborhood.
Ziegenhagel came away from the weekend so impressed that he sold his legal practice and moved to the factory. As NeuDeutschland’s only lawyer, he had uniquely useful skills, and when Peter’s erratic behavior compelled a top aide to quit, Ziegenhagel became his confidant and chauffeur.
Day-to-day life was easy in the early days at Reinsdorf, which suited most residents just fine. “They were people who didn’t find their way in society, people with difficult childhoods, people who were extremely sensitive,” Ziegenhagel says. Many saw the group as a replacement family, with Peter presiding as father. There was a lot of hugging.
But as the population grew, the environment became more structured. Peter implemented a strict daily work schedule. Followers poured concrete, repainted gray walls an optimistic orange, seeded a vegetable garden, and built a set for his YouTube videos. Citizens were afraid to take smoke breaks because Peter disapproved of cigarettes. Their leader was insulated from the discomforts of compound life; when the boiler broke, he still had hot water for his showers in the large apartment he lived in downtown. “I got the impression,” Ziegenhagel says, “that it was increasingly turning into a cult.”
As Peter’s influence grew, he developed a pattern of histrionics and violence. When he visited a courthouse to contest several speeding tickets, he grabbed a female clerk’s arm roughly and fled the scene, later returning with a white rose to ask forgiveness. The clerk declined. (Peter says he was attempting a citizen’s arrest on a corrupt official.) He punched his son’s teacher over a disagreement about the school’s sex ed classes. (The curriculum, he says, included a “trash book written by an open Satanist.”) And in July 2012, in front of shocked onlookers, Peter slapped his adult daughter twice across the face. (“I was a little unfairly hard on her, I have to admit,” he says.) After that incident, Ziegenhagel realized it was time to go. (The lawyer’s assertion that the group became cultlike, Peter says, is the opinion of a single person “to whom we were happy to say goodbye.”)
Other followers began slipping away, too, but YouTube provided a steady stream of replacements. Peter’s videos regularly garnered more than 15,000 views. They weren’t viral, but they didn’t need to be. The site served them to the exact slice of the population most likely to pack up and move to Wittenberg: Germans with a taste for baroque conspiracy theories. They were referred from videos featuring other Reichsbürger pitchmen, such as Conrad, who built a vast online following and hawked them books about aliens, the dangers of vaccination, and the special “intellectual qualities” of Germans. There was also Jessie Marsson, a car salesman who claimed to be a victim of CIA mind control tests. Marsson founded “Germania” out of a castle he’d bought in Brandenburg, selling nutritional supplements and €35 “Celtic-Druid” ID cards. Jürgen Elsässer, a far-right journalist, ran a monthly magazine with 40,000 subscribers and sold “Go Home, American!” and “Freedom for Germany!” T-shirts.
Amid this ferment, Peter’s ambitions for NeuDeutschland grew grander. He wanted to provoke the federal government, raise his profile, and gain more followers. It would take something audacious. It would take a kingdom.
On Sept. 16, 2012, Peter stood in the back of an event hall, fiddling with his fake ermine robe as he waited to become the first royal crowned on German soil since Wilhelm II in 1888.
“The moment has come to found the new state,” said Thomas Bach, the black-caped master of ceremonies. “Raise your hearts as we await the sovereigns.” He pounded the stage with a staff. Also sprach Zarathustra boomed from speakers as Peter led a half-dozen of his most loyal subjects through a mob of flashing smartphones. Reading from an oversize scroll, he declared “a free home for the German people after more than 60 years” to his 600 new citizens.
The stunt worked. After Mitteldeutsche Zeitungreported on the coronation, German journalists flocked to tiny Wittenberg. Vice sent a videoteam. Peter reveled in the attention. When the newspaper Die Welt asked about his childhood, he boasted that he’d hit puberty at age 6. Had he been able to grow a beard, the reporter asked? “No, no,” Peter replied. “That”—he gestured to his crotch—“was basically working.”
He began driving his kingdom-financed BMW with a kingdom driver’s license and kingdom plates. Police cited him for speeding seven times in five months. As a sovereign, he claimed, the rules of the road no longer applied to him. He turned his “savings accounts” into a more formal institution called Königliche (“Royal”) Reichsbank, which by 2013 had collected more than €2.3 million from roughly 500 investors. A health insurance company and other side businesses he’d started were also raking in cash.
That April, though, financial regulators obtained a search warrant for the kingdom’s compounds on the grounds that Peter was operating an illegal bank. In his safe, they found only several hundred euros. He responded to the authorities by announcing plans to open an actual bank on a busy street in Wittenberg, complete with marble floors, gold fixtures, and promised returns as high as 9%.
When the government banned Peter from accepting deposits, he held a ribbon-cutting anyway. A relentlessly polite bureaucrat showed up to hand him business registration forms. “It’s so nice of them to bring it to me personally,” Peter said to a TV crew. Then he ripped up the papers and asked, “Does anyone have a trash bin?” The official could only smile awkwardly as customers raced in with their deposits.
In May 2013 the German financial-services regulator banned Peter’s banking activities and ordered him to repay his customers. The next year, with most deposits still outstanding and complaints coming in, regulators hired bankruptcy lawyer Stefan Oppermann to liquidate the bank’s assets and recover more than €1.3 million. Oppermann was tall and humorless, the suit-and-trenchcoat-clad picture of German probity.
To Peter it was another sign that Germany’s government was scared of him. He told depositors to be patient, that they were participating in an ambitious statehood project. One of them, Richard Gantz, a computer programmer, had invested his life savings of €431,000 in the kingdom. When he begged for his money back, Peter explained that liquidity was tight. He invited Gantz to relocate to the kingdom and enjoy free room and board. The exchange devolved into an email flame war. “Richard, try not to think,” Peter wrote. “The results are never satisfying.” He dismissed another angry creditor, a septuagenarian doctor who’d deposited €70,000, by saying she “wasn’t clear in the head.”
In March 2014 police raided three of Peter’s properties, a futile effort to seize cash. Rumors spread that he had a bomb at his bank, leading police to close the surrounding streets. (It turned out to be a dubious alternative-fuel project.)
That fall, with the authorities closing in, Peter met the woman who would be dubbed his queen. Annett Ullmann was then a 30-year-old model and aspiring actress who’d done some professional photo shoots and TV-extra gigs. She was attending a session of Peter’s “Power of Thought” seminar series, based on a €116 four-DVD set that taught visualization techniques for losing weight, quitting drinking, and recovering from breakups. As he spoke, they kept locking eyes.
Annett may have shared Peter’s flair for self-promotion. A few years earlier on a reality show, she’d demonstrated a favorite butt exercise, which consisted of writhing on the floor. Her life goal, she told a producer, was to become famous. When the seminar was done, the two met and began dating.
The next month, Oppermann and tactical police wearing balaclavas hit the bank, hoping to seize its assets. Peter played the piano in the lobby as officers swarmed in. Over the next few days, Oppermann’s team found 20 safes, all of them empty. He used suction cups to lift the marble floor tiles. Nothing. Across the kingdom’s properties, the main items of note were a priest’s outfit and some VHS porn tapes. Oppermann soon concluded that Peter had spent much of the money on travel, BMWs, and real estate. The rest had vanished, laundered through a network of companies, including the one that ran the compound’s sausage stand. Some had gone to Poland, where officials declined requests to freeze Peter’s accounts.
Peter’s provocations intensified yet again. For one stunt, he burst through construction barriers at Wittenberg’s famed Schlosskirche and posed for photos at the same door where Martin Luther had started the Reformation. Peter’s own theses numbered 77, including “save the midwives” (No. 20), “adhere to the cosmic order” (No. 23), and “support free energy machines” (No. 77).
In May 2015, Peter flew with Annett to Majorca, where she’d once been to shoot a cringeworthy music video. The kingdom’s website posted photos of Peter smiling and holding a boarding pass in the name of “Peter I, King of Germany.” He claimed the trip proved the legitimacy of the kingdom’s passport—though of course travel within the Schengen Area doesn’t require one.
The king is selling a digital “E-Mark,” redeemable at the NeuDeutschland gift shop, where a kingdom-branded towel costs 27 E-Marks
Berlin had a problem on its hands, and it wasn’t just Peter. His segment of the Reichsbürger movement, at least, was pacifistic, and his most serious suspected crime was merely scamming his followers. Others were becoming dangerous.
In Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, officials arrived at work one morning to find the fax machine’s toner cartridge empty and hundreds of manifesto pages sprayed across the floor. Around the same time, 5,000 miles away, a Washington state agency was receiving hundreds of filings alleging that German officials, from Chancellor Angela Merkel on down, were delinquent on debts ranging from $27,250 to $500 trillion. Reichsbürger trolls then used the filings to hire collection agencies in Malta, which theoretically obligated their targets to appear in Maltese court.
When police attempted to crack down on the movement, they were unprepared for the fury that awaited them. In August 2016, Adrian Ursache, a former Mr. Germany who’d become a leading Reichsbürger theorist, opened fire on officers trying to evict him from State Ur, a nation that consisted of his house and backyard. He wounded one before being shot and arrested himself. Two months later, in Bavaria, one of Ursache’s protégés, Wolfgang Plan, fired on police who’d come to seize his cache of 31 guns. An officer died and two others were wounded before Plan was arrested. He’d self-radicalized while watching thousands of hours of YouTube videos, including Peter’s rants. (“Engelgeld …” Plan says in a jailhouse interview, seemingly about to roll his eyes recalling Peter’s currency. Then he adds brightly, “It’s OK. I like it!”)
The police had an easier time apprehending Peter. The same month as the raid on State Ur, they stormed Reinsdorf and took him into custody. The list of charges included operating an illegal bank and embezzling funds.
When the trial began on Oct. 20, Annett was in attendance. The king blew air kisses in her direction. As the proceedings got under way, he repeatedly interrupted the judge, shouting “Scandal!” and “Lies!” The theatrics continued for months, until the gavel finally came down the following March. The judge sentenced him to three years and eight months. The king of New Germany was going to prison in the old one.
The police never found the money. Much of it had, as Oppermann surmised, slipped into other countries—the accounts in Poland, a mysterious check for HK$1 million (roughly $129,000), and land in Paraguay—purchased, ex-followers speculate, because the country lacks an extradition treaty with Germany. He was given control of Peter’s properties and began liquidating them, but the law decreed that, since there wasn’t enough cash for all of the creditors, no one would get anything. “It’s either all or nothing,” Oppermann says. Instead, the money went toward the investigation’s costs.
In May 2017, after the trial, police in riot gear evicted dozens of citizens from the larger of the two kingdom compounds. Peter’s conviction had done little to shake his followers’ faith. Most simply stayed at Reinsdorf, bunking four to a room while the new ownership worked slowly toward evicting them. As they awaited their king’s release, they hung up dream catchers, talked about chemtrails, and ate beets for dinner and vegan ice cream for dessert.
In prison, Peter meditated, exercised, and wrote two books, a “magical autobiography” and a treatise on the unification of spirituality and science—an impressive output considering he spent barely a year behind bars. In April 2018 an appeals court overturned his conviction. Peter’s deposit slips had read more like donation forms, the court ruled. And some depositors had testified they hadn’t really expected to get their money back. As Peter exited the courthouse, his case formally suspended, Annett jumped into his arms and supporters cheered and handed him flowers.
Safe again on sovereign soil, he set about restoring order to the kingdom. He’d need new schemes to get his message back in the news and replenish the royal treasury.
When I visit Wittenberg in September, all is calm. Peter’s domain, fenced off in a quiet, leafy suburb, is easy to pick out: The kingdom’s flag, a rising sun laid over the traditional German tricolor, flutters from a pole.
Peter is excited to show me around. We visit the main office, where his clerks are hunting for revenue streams. They’ve increased the price of NeuDeutschland citizenship tests to €390, and they’re managing a new health insurance plan, which promotes well-being through free seminars and yoga classes and promises reimbursement if you end up in a hospital anyway. (The application form asks about daily proximity to Wi-Fi and use of fluoride toothpaste.) They’ve also persuaded more than 70 companies—including a plumber, a geriatric-clothing seller, and a health-care agency promoting cancer prevention through relaxation—to incorporate in the kingdom for a €777 fee. And Peter is selling a digital “E-Mark,” tracked not on the blockchain, but a spreadsheet. It’s redeemable at the NeuDeutschland gift shop, where a kingdom-branded towel costs 27 E-Marks. “When people change euros to our money, this is profit,” he explains candidly.
We see the TV studio, his latest BMW station wagon, and the dining hall, where Peter plays the piano while my interpreter and I inspect a spotless, commercial-grade kitchen. Several men scurry about, preparing for the Messe, a gathering a few weeks hence that will draw 150 or so visitors curious about joining the movement.
There are plenty of potential recruits. All across Germany, Reichsbürger mania continues. Hundreds of enthusiasts still own guns, despite government efforts to disarm them. Berlin police regularly raid ID makers who sell Reichsbürger “passports” for €100 apiece. In March, police in 10 states will arrest members of the United German Peoples and Tribes, a Reichsbürger group. In April, Peter will hold a two-day business seminar at a Mexican restaurant that’s still open, he says, because its owner declared it part of the kingdom, exempting it from Covid-19 lockdown rules. Someone also posts a video of him entering a Home Depot without a mask and brazenly cutting the socially distanced line, to the clucking disapproval of others.
Reichsbürger ideology is seeping into the mainstream, too. The same month I’m in Wittenberg, the far-right Alternative for Germanyparty wins 27.5% of the vote in its state, Saxony-Anhalt. A week later the newspaper Welt am Sonntag publishes a leaked email from Alice Weidel, a top party official, parroting Reichsbürger talking points about the political establishment: “These pigs are nothing other than marionettes of the victorious powers of the Second World War, whose task it is to keep down the German people.” In October, federal law enforcement will open a tip line focused on “far-right terrorism and Reichsbürgers.”
For the moment, though, membership in Peter’s kingdom has stalled at roughly 1,300. With all he’s offering, there should be more, he says. When we arrive at the main office, Marco Ginzel, his current aide-de-camp, touts my visit on the kingdom’s Telegram account.
As my interpreter and I wait for a taxi to pick us up, I ask Peter about his queen. He lights up. She’ll soon quit her waitressing job at the Kartoffelhaus and move here, he says. He’ll pay her €1,000 a month to cook and help him write books. Ginzel glances downward as Peter gushes.
In the taxi, we decide to eat dinner before returning to Berlin. The choice is obvious: the Kartoffelhaus. You don’t need to speak German to understand the name: Potatoes are included with every item. As we tuck into our tubers, a waitress appears with more drinks. We ask to meet Annett. She’s off tonight, the waitress says.
“Are you sad she’s leaving?” I ask. She looks at us quizzically. “Peter says she’s quitting to work at the kingdom,” I add.
She slowly shakes her head. “Nein,” she says, drawing out the word. “Nein.”
“But aren’t they—”
“They’ve been broken up for a year.”
She walks inside, picks up a cordless phone, and starts talking animatedly and gesturing at us before reemerging.
“Annett is appalled that Peter is telling you that they are in a relationship,” she says. “They’re just friends.”
The king has bested prosecutors. He’s kept the cash, the car, and—at least until the new owner manages to evict everyone—the compound. He still claims dominion over more than 1,000 souls. He’s spent years leading them all on, but tonight, as shadows creep across Wittenberg, it seems he’s been fooling himself.