The group of two dozen far-right radicals arrested by police in raids across Germany on Wednesday morning did not come from the dispossessed margins of society.
Far from it: among their number was a judge, a doctor, a lawyer and even a celebrity chef. Outwardly at least they all looked like pillars of bourgeois respectability.
None seemed more so than the plot’s alleged ringleader, Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss, scion of an aristocratic dynasty that ruled the east German province of Thuringia for 800 years.
A property developer who trained as an engineer, he embodies the archetype of the upper-class German, with slicked back grey hair, a tweed jacket, pocket square and paisley tie.
Yet the group’s appearance of middle-class propriety belies a radicalism that has shocked Germany. According to investigators, the would-be terrorists hatched a plan to storm parliament and overthrow the country’s democratic government. Reuss was to become its new head of state.
What set the terrorist group apart was “its very broad network across the whole of Germany, and the very precise plans they had in mind — plans which involved a great deal of violence,” says Thomas Haldenwang, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz. “They fully intended to kill people.”
The plot revealed by police and prosecutors on Wednesday exposes the growing threat that far-right radicalism poses to Germany’s political system. “The rightwing scene is becoming more and more assertive, and that’s reflected in the increasingly flagrant way they propagate their goals, such as abolishing democracy,” says Benjamin Winkler of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an NGO which fights racism, anti-Semitism and far-right extremism in German society.
But Wednesday’s searches and arrests also show how the Covid-19 pandemic has turbocharged the far-right movement, bringing it a wave of new recruits — from opponents of Covid lockdowns and anti-vaxxers to devotees of QAnon, the US conspiracy theory.
Many are resorting to violence. In May, the German interior ministry said there were 55,048 politically motivated crimes in the country in 2021, a 23 per cent rise on the previous year and the highest level since records began in 2001. About 40 per cent were committed by rightwingers. But 38 per cent could be attributed to neither the left nor the right: they were Covid-related attacks on things like vaccination centres, police stations and elected officials.
Experts say that in the course of the coronavirus crisis, thousands of Germans appear to have lost faith in their democratic institutions and become susceptible to a toxic ideological brew that rejects the power of the state and questions its very legitimacy.
“The [Covid-19] protests brought rightwing populists, rightwing extremists and conspiracy theorists and people from other milieus together with the mainstream middle class,” Andreas Zick, a sociologist at the University of Bielefeld, told Deutsche Welle. “What united them was this ideology of freedom and resistance.”
Experts say the prevalence of middle-class professionals in the ranks of the extremists makes them a far bigger threat than the radical left Baader-Meinhof gang that terrorised Germany in the 1970s. “This is a form of terrorism that has emerged out of the mainstream of society,” says Sebastian Fiedler, a Social Democrat MP and police detective.
An ‘imperial’ plot
Germans found out about the plot at daybreak on Wednesday morning, as headlines flashed that 3,000 police officers had searched 150 premises across the country and arrested 25 people, in what was described as one of the biggest operations against extremism in postwar German history.
Investigators allege the plotters planned to break into the Bundestag, in an attack with strong parallels to the storming of the US Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump on January 6 last year. MPs and ministers would be handcuffed and arrested, and unrest would break out across Germany, paving the way for the overthrow of the system.
Raids against neo-Nazis and other extremist groups are nothing new in Germany. Mindful of its 20th-century history, the country feels it has a special responsibility to crack down on far-right activities.
But what shocked many Germans was the number of former and active members of the police and Bundeswehr — the German armed forces — that were arrested in Wednesday’s raids. Among the locations searched was a barracks of the KSK, the country’s elite special forces.
Such factors appeared to confirm a trend — that members of Germany’s army and law enforcement are worryingly prone to the appeal of far-right ideologies.
“It’s alarming when people who have been trained to use weapons and have inside information about the workings of the security services start joining such groups,” says Pia Lamberty, head of the Centre for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy, which researches disinformation, anti-Semitism and rightwing extremism. “It raises things to a whole different threat level.”
One of the suspects was a former policeman with links to the Querdenker or “contrarians”, a protest group which opposed the anti-coronavirus measures of 2020-21. Two others had served together in the Bundeswehr during the 1990s, in Paratroop Battalion 251, parts of which were later merged into the KSK. One was a serving member of the KSK itself, a warrant officer who worked in its logistics arm.
For the German defence establishment, such connections are highly embarrassing. The KSK has long been under scrutiny over the far-right views of some of its soldiers. In 2020, an entire unit of the elite force was disbanded after guns, ammunition, explosives and an SS songbook were found on the property of a KSK sergeant major.
But the men and women arrested on Wednesday also included a judge, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, who had served as an MP for the far-right Alternative for Germany between 2017 and 2021 and returned to the bench when she failed to win re-election.
Malsack-Winkemann’s involvement shows what a diverse range of backgrounds members of the group had. What appears to have united them all is their affinity to a movement that has up till now operated in the shadows of German society — the Reichsbürger, or “imperial citizens”.
The Reichsbürger, whose numbers rose from 16,500 in 2017 to 21,000 last year, share a belief that Germany was never constituted as a proper state after 1945 and legally remains under allied occupation. Some believe the German Empire or Kaiserreich, officially disbanded in 1918, continues to exist, with its constitution intact.
Often lumped together with ”Selbstverwalter” or “self-administrators”, who don’t consider themselves bound by Germany’s laws, they refuse to recognise the German state in its current form. The intelligence agency, which classifies them as “hostile to the state and the constitution”, has long had them in its crosshairs.
According to the Verfassungsschutz’s most recent annual report, many Reichsbürger want the great-great-grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Georg Friedrich, prince of Prussia, to be installed as German emperor (a plan he himself has rebuffed). It said that on his 45th birthday last year, dozens of Reichsbürger filed past the entrance of his family seat, Burg Hohenzollern in south-western Germany, to “congratulate the sovereign ruler”.
Most of their conflicts with the law are inconsequential: driving without a valid licence, or refusing to pay taxes, parking tickets or TV licence fees. Yet authorities say around 2,100 are “inclined to violence”. This potential came to public attention in 2016, when a Reichsbürger shot four police officers, killing one, as they sought to execute a search warrant.
Then last year a member of the movement in the town of Linden, north of Frankfurt, shot at police with a crossbow while they were searching his house. He was later charged with attempted murder and resisting law enforcement officers.
He is not the only Reichsbürger to have weapons. Last year, officials say, at least 1,050 of them had their firearms licences withdrawn. Yet 500 of them still have one.
The fact that these fringe extremists have sought to enlist members of Germany’s military and police to their cause is especially worrying, says Fiedler. “They are trying to recruit people from institutions that embody the state’s monopoly on the use of force, and that’s why they’re such a threat.”
Eccentric, but not harmless
Until Wednesday, the movement did not appear to have a national leader. But the arrest of Heinrich XIII, and the information that has since emerged about his political views and the cachet he enjoys in the Reichsbürger milieu, has changed that.
A speech Reuss made at a conference in Zurich in 2019 encapsulates many of his outlandish ideas. He blamed the Rothschild family for financing wars and revolutions designed to sweep aside monarchies such as the Kaiserreich, and said that since Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, it “has never been sovereign”.
Even before his arrest, his family had dissociated itself from him in the strongest terms. Prince Heinrich XIV Reuss, current head of the Reuss clan, wrote to a local newspaper in August that Heinrich XIII was a “distant relative” who had broken off contact with the rest of the family 14 years before.
Since German reunification he had waged and lost a series of legal battles to regain ownership of lands expropriated by Soviet occupying forces after 1945. Embittered and disappointed, he had “drawn the wrong conclusions from these personal defeats”, Heinrich XIV said. “He is in part a confused old man” who had “fallen into the trap of conspiracy theories and misconceptions”, he added.
But those peculiar views have proven infectious. “We might find the dogmas these people espouse absurd, but it doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous,” Holger Münch, head of the Federal Criminal Police Office, told ZDF TV on Wednesday. “There have been lots of cases where people who radicalise cling so closely to their dogmas that they resort to violence.”
Politicians on the radical right have played down the conspiracy. Among them are MPs from the AfD, large parts of which are currently under formal observation by the Verfassungsschutz for suspected extremism. “The fact that no one from the Bundeswehr leadership was involved, and they didn’t find any arms caches, suggests that these people were basically just idiotic dilettantes,” says Gottfried Curio, an AfD MP.
But experts on the far-right have warned against dismissing them as a bunch of harmless eccentrics. “The leaders of the Nazi party also seemed like a bizarre clique,” says Winkler. “But look at the terrible havoc they wreaked.”