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German police arrest 25 over far-right plot to overthrow government

Police secure an area in Berlin on Wednesday after 25 suspected members and supporters of a far-right group were detained in raids across Germany. (Christian Mang/Reuters)
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BERLIN — German authorities on Wednesday arrested 25 people suspected of plotting to use armed force to storm parliament and violently overthrow the state, marking one of the country’s largest-ever raids targeting right-wing extremists.

Those arrested included a 71-year-old German aristocrat, a former lawmaker from the right-wing Alternative for Germany party and at least one former armed forces member, according to the public prosecutor and officials.

The majority are German nationals accused of being part of a “terrorist organization,” according to the prosecutor’s statement. Three others — including a Russian national — were detained on suspicion of being supporters.

In addition to the arrests, police searched the properties of a further 27 individuals who are being investigated on an “initial suspicion” of being a member or having supported the organization, the statement said. More than 3,000 police officers were involved in the raids, which took place in 11 of Germany’s 16 states.

The accused subscribe to a variety of baseless claims, including QAnon, but draw most heavily from the Reichsbürger movement, which denies the existence of the modern German state, officials said. But officials warned it would be naive to dismiss them as cranks.

“Of course, there are many busybodies who tell confused stories after drinking alcohol,” Justice Minister Marco Buschmann tweeted. “Here, however, there were such strong suspicions that the group wanted to take violent action.”

That included plans to use arms to storm the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, he said.

Twenty-five people accused of a far-right plot to overthrow the government have been arrested in police raids in Germany. (Video: Reuters)

The details of the suspected plot triggered comparisons to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. German politicians raised it as a reminder of what can happen when anti-constitutional plans are allowed to manifest.

“At the latest since January 6, 2021, we have known that anti-democratic speech can also be followed by actions directed against democracy and parliament,” said Greens party lawmaker Konstantin von Notz. “Today, the German security authorities have succeeded in putting a stop to such plans to seize power.”

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The group is united in a belief that Germany is run by a “deep state,” the prosecutor said, adding that members had been prepared to use violence — including the murder of state representatives — to carry out their aim of replacing the existing order in Germany with their own form of government. They had planned out the structure of the state apparatus they hoped to install, including departments of health, justice and foreign affairs.

Prosecutors said Heinrich XIII, Prince of Reuss, 71, a descendant of a royal dynasty from the German state of Thuringia, was head of the group’s central “council.” Footage broadcast on German media showed the prince, dressed in a green tweed jacket, being led out of his Frankfurt apartment in handcuffs.

“Since November 2021, the members of the ‘Council’ have regularly met in secret to plan the intended takeover of power in Germany and the establishment of their own state structures,” the prosecutor’s statement said. Members believed that “liberation” would be assisted by the intervention of the “Alliance” — a secret society of military and governments, including those of Russia and the United States.

Heinrich XIII had reached out to Russian representatives inside Germany, the prosecutor’s office said — although it added that there were no indications of a positive response to his overtures.

The former lawmaker arrested was Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, according to a security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. At one point she had been slated to become justice minister. At the time of her arrest, she was an active judge at the Berlin Regional Court.

The council also had a military arm, which would have been involved in the takeover of the state and was in charge of procuring weapons, the statement said. This body included former members of Germany’s armed forces, and recruitment efforts were targeted toward members of the military and police.

The head of that operation, identified by authorities with the partial name Rüdiger v. P., was among those arrested Wednesday. German media said he was a former paratrooper.

The security official who spoke to The Washington Post said the raids were carried out with caution, as some suspects were known to be licensed weapons holders. But it was unclear if any illegal arms were discovered. While most of the arrests were carried out in Germany, one suspect was detained in Italy and another in Austria.

The network was unearthed in relation to investigations into four people who were arrested in April on suspicion of plotting to kidnap German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, the official said.

“We are seeing a dangerous cocktail of people from the Reichsbürger movement, right-wing extremists, neo-Nazis and others who build on this group with their conspiracy theories,” he added. The group included doctors and lawyers, “with the prince on top,” he said.

The Reichsbürger, or “Reich citizen,” movement subscribes to a state based on Germany’s pre-World War II borders. Modern laws and governments are considered illegitimate, and some members believe that descendants of former German royal families should be reinstated in their positions.

It is a small extremist fringe but has been growing in recent years, rising to more prominence during the pandemic, when its members took to the street alongside a mix of conspiracy theorists and other right-wing groups. The movement is made up of small groups active across borders and online, with German intelligence warning that some subgroups have rapidly expanded their ranks.

In 2021, the movement was estimated to include about 21,000 people nationwide, according to a report by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, which estimated that about 10 percent of those were “violence-oriented.”

“The investigations provide a glimpse into the abyss of a terrorist threat from the Reichsbürger milieu,” said German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser. “The suspected terrorist organization uncovered today is — according to the state of the investigations — driven by violent overthrow fantasies and conspiracy ideologies.”

The barracks of a unit of Germany’s Special Forces Command, known as the KSK, was among the locations raided Wednesday, Der Spiegel magazine reported. The German Defense Ministry disbanded one unit of the elite counterterrorism force and announced a restructuring in 2020 because of the suspected extreme right-wing ties of its members.

According to Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper, one of the defendants posted on Telegram shortly before the raids that public prosecutors, judges and health authorities would “soon find themselves in the dock at Nuremberg 2.0,” in reference to the trials of Nazi war criminals held after World War II.

Some politicians raised questions over how capable the group was of carrying out its plans. “More details keep coming to light that raise doubts about whether these people were even clever enough to plan and carry out such a coup,” Greens parliamentarian Sara Nanni posted on the social network Mastodon. “The fact is: no matter how crude their ideas are and how hopeless their plans, even the attempt is dangerous!”

The suspects were set to appear in court on Wednesday and Thursday. Eight of the accused are being held in pretrial detention, the prosecutor said.

Mekhennet reported from Washington and Bisset from London.