German police carried out massive raids on Wednesday on a suspected far-right terrorist network which was allegedly plotting to violently overthrow the government.
The network was headed by a minor aristocrat and contained special forces soldiers and a former MP.
Germany’s public service-run Tagesschau reported that with 3,000 police officers targeting 130 locations, the raids were probably the biggest anti-terror operation in modern German history.
The network belonged to the radical Reichsbürger (“Reich citizens”) scene – followers of a distinctly German strand of sovereign citizen ideology, who believe the modern German state is illegitimate, and controlled by a shadowy “deep state.”
Prosecutors said the group believed in a mix of conspiracy ideologies including QAnon, and had even tried to establish contacts with representatives of Russia, who they delusionally believed would help them achieve their goals. Members of the group also reportedly spoke of a “Nuremberg 2.0” – the violent fantasy, common in the conspiracy scene, that politicians and government officials would face mass trials and executions after the overthrow of the state.
The morning raids targeted 130 locations across 11 German states. Twenty-five suspects were arrested, including one in Austria and another in Italy, with 22 accused of being members of the alleged terror network, and three others of having acted as supporters. All but one of the arrested suspects were German nationals, bar one Russian national, referred by prosecutors only as Vitalia B, in line with German privacy laws, who is alleged to have helped the network’s attempts to establish contacts with Russia.
Prosecutors said searches were still ongoing, targeting a further 27 suspects.
Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said the case provided “a glimpse into the abyss of a terrorist threat from the Reichsbürger milieu,” and that the government would respond with the full force of the law.
Prosecutors said the group, which had formed by November 2021, planned to overthrow the state and install one of the network’s alleged ringleaders, a 71-year-old minor aristocrat known as Prince Heinrich XIII, from the House of Reuss, as monarch. Reuss, whose family previously ruled over parts of the state of Thuringia, had been denounced by his relatives for his bizarre Reichsbürger ideology, which had seen him publicly claim that modern Germany is not a sovereign state, but merely a company.
In preparation for their takeover of the state, the suspects had allegedly formed a kind of “shadow cabinet.” The justice minister role was to have been occupied by one of the arrested alleged members of the network, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, who was previously an MP for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, and who has been working as a judge since leaving the Bundestag last year.
Experts said the network’s links to military networks was especially concerning. The group’s other alleged ringleader – who headed its supposed military wing – was a former soldier identified as Rüdiger von P. Along with another former soldier who was alleged member of the group, they had targeted police and soldiers for recruitment, and scoped out numerous military bases in Germany for use by their forces after the government was supposedly overthrown.
One of the suspects investigated on Wednesday was a serving member of the elite Special Commando Forces, which has been linked to a number of far-right scandals in recent years, with police searching his home and his room at a military base in Calw. Several reservists in the German military were also suspects in the case, Germany's Military Counterintelligence Service said.
Prosecutors said Reuss had been seeking to make contact with representatives of the Russian state in Germany, whom it believed, according to the group’s delusional ideology, would play a key role, as a victorious Allied power in World War Two, in negotiating Germany’s future constitutional order after the supposed coup. Prosecutors said there was no indication that the Russians had engaged them in their inquiries; Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday that any Russian involvement was out of the question and that the matter was a “German internal problem.”
The size of the raids and the alleged scope of the network sent shockwaves through Germany on Wednesday. While German police have disrupted a number of similar plots emanating from the overlapping Reichsbürger and right-wing extremist scenes, the latest network – which investigators said they had not yet named – appeared unprecedented in scope.
“This isn’t just one of the biggest raids against the far right in Germany in years, it’s actually the largest anti-terror raid ever here,” said Nicholas Potter, an expert on right-wing extremism at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a Berlin-based anti-racism organisation..
“The fact that not just fringe conspiracy believers, but also a judge and former Bundestag member, numerous active and former soldiers including from special forces, as well as an ex-police chief are part of the network shows how serious we need to take this,” he told VICE World News.
“Their plans were very concrete: they wanted to attack the energy grid, storm the Bundestag, establish a ‘new state order’ with their own ‘shadow cabinet’ in waiting, and try state prosecutors and judges at a trial they call Nuremberg 2.0. They wanted civil war. And they allegedly wanted it before Christmas. This is terrorism.”
Potter said that while Reichsbürger ideology appeared to be the driving force behind this network’s beliefs, it was influenced by a number of overlapping conspiracy ideologies.
Malsack-Winkemann, he said, was a supporter of QAnon, and Reuss’ ideas were often shared within QAnon Telegram channels. “Other members of the network believe in the Reichsbürger ideology … or were radicalised through the Querdenken [“lateral thinkers’] movement which denied the existence of a COVID pandemic.”
Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute in Radicalisation and De-Radicalisation Studies, told VICE World News that while the full facts of the case were yet to come to light, he believed the case “could be the most significant QAnon terror group and plot worldwide.”
Germany’s domestic intelligence estimates there are up to 21,000 Reichsbürger in the country. The latest network was detected when police uncovered a Reichsbürger plot in April to kidnap Germany’s health minister and foment a civil war.