Twenty-five people have been arrested in Germany on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government.
The group, made up of far-right supporters and former military personnel, is believed to have been preparing to storm the Reichstag parliament building and seize power.
An aristocrat known as Prince Heinrich 13, aged 71, would have been instrumental in making the plans viable.
According to federal prosecutors, he is one of two alleged leaders among those arrested in 11 German states.
Among the conspirators are members of the extremist Reichsbürger (Citizens of the Reich) movement, which has long been in the crosshairs of German police due to violent attacks and racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. They also refuse to recognize the modern German state.
Other suspects came from the QAnon movement who believe their country is in the hands of a mythical “hidden state”. In their view, secret powers would control politics.
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser assured Germans that the authorities would respond with the full force of law “against the enemies of democracy”.
An estimated 50 men and women were part of the group, allegedly plotting to overthrow the republic and replace it with a new state modeled on Germany in 1871 — an empire called the Second Reich.
“We still don’t have a name for this group,” said a spokeswoman for the Federal Public Ministry. The interior minister said it was apparently made up of a “council” organization and a military wing.
The mega-operation, which took place in the early hours of this Wednesday (7/12), is being described as one of the largest anti-extremism operations in modern German history.
Three thousand police officers took part in 150 operations in 11 of Germany’s 16 states, with two people arrested in Austria and Italy.
Almost half of the arrests took place in the southern states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.
German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann tweeted that an alleged “armed attack against constitutional bodies was planned”.
Faeser later said the investigation would look into the “depth of a terrorist threat in the Reichsbürger (as far-right individuals who reject the legitimacy of the modern German state are known)”.
The Federal Public Ministry said the group had been planning a violent coup since November 2021 and members of its central “Rat” (council) had since held regular meetings.
The group’s members intended to achieve their goals by “military means and violence against representatives of the state”, which included assassinations.
Investigators are believed to have become aware of the group when they uncovered a kidnapping plot last April involving a gang calling itself “United Patriots”.
They were also part of the plans and allegedly plotted to kidnap Health Minister Karl Lauterbach while creating “civil war conditions” to end democracy in Germany.
A former far-right member of the AfD’s lower house (House of Representatives) of parliament, the Bundestag, is suspected of being part of the conspiracy – he would be appointed as the group’s justice minister if the plans are successful.
Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, one of the 25 people arrested, returned to the post of judge last year and, since then, Justice has rejected attempts to remove her.
A prominent lawyer was hired to handle the external affairs of the group, which had Prince Heinrich as its leader.
German Attorney General Peter Frankm said Heinrich was among the suspects that judges handling the case had asked to be held in custody.
Aristocrat ‘fueled by conspiracy theories’
Heinrich 13 comes from an ancient noble family known as the House of Reuss, which ruled parts of the present-day State of Thuringia until 1918. All male members of the family were given the name Heinrich, as well as a number.
Descendants still own some castles and Heinrich himself would have a hunting lodge in Bad Lobenstein in Thuringia.
The rest of the family have long distanced themselves from Heinrich 13, with a spokesman telling local broadcaster MDR over the summer that he was a “sometimes confused” man who fell into “misconceptions fueled by conspiracy theories”.
In addition to a parallel government, the conspirators reportedly had plans for a military wing headed by a second leader identified as Rüdiger von P.
They were made up of active and ex-military members, authorities believe, and included former elite special unit soldiers. The aim of the military wing was to eliminate democratic bodies at the local level, prosecutors said.
Rüdiger von P is suspected of trying to recruit police officers in northern Germany and also of keeping an eye on army barracks. Bases in the states of Hesse, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria have all been scrutinized for possible use after the eventual overthrow of the government, officials said.
One of those investigated was a member of the KSK (Special Forces Command), a special operations unit, and police searched his home and bedroom at the Graf-Zeppelin military base in Calw, southwest of Stuttgart.
Another suspect was identified as Vitalia B, a Russian woman who was asked to approach Moscow on behalf of Heinrich.
The Russian embassy in Berlin said in a statement that it “does not maintain contacts with representatives of terrorist groups and other illegal entities”.
Several violent attacks have been linked to Germany’s far right in recent years. In 2020, a 43-year-old man shot dead nine people of foreign origin in the western city of Hanau, and a member of the Reichsbürger was arrested for killing a police officer in 2016.
The Reichsbürger movement is estimated to have up to 21,000 followers, of which around 5% belong to the extreme right.