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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Philip Oltermann in Berlin

The Reichsbürger plot: sinister plan to overthrow the German state or just a rag-tag revolution?

Police officers arrest Heinrich XIII, Prince Reuss, political ringleader of a group that planned to storm the Reichstag by force.
Police officers arrest Heinrich XIII, Prince Reuss, political ringleader of a group that planned to storm the Reichstag by force. Composite: Getty, AP, Alamy

The time to forgive and forget had passed, the grey-bearded man said in a heavy Bavarian growl, his back facing the turquoise Adriatic sea as he calmly gesticulated towards the camera.

“Those people who bullied us, who locked us up”, he said, were about to face a reckoning in an “epochal upheaval” that would usher in a new judicial and political order. Change was imminent – a matter of weeks. “If everything goes to plan, we’ll do it before Christmas,” the man, who calls himself “General Eder”, promised in a video uploaded to a website popular among far-right conspiracy theorists on Advent Sunday this year.

Ten days later, in the early morning of Wednesday, 64-year-old Maximilian Eder was arrested in the Italian city of Perugia, as part of Germany’s biggest-ever series of raids against rightwing extremism. Along with 25 co-conspirators, Eder is accused of hatching a plan to overthrow the state by violent means, install a shadow government headed by a minor German aristocrat, and reach out to Russia to renegotiate post-second world war treaties.

Even though none of the coup plotters were well-known public figures, their social background raised eyebrows: they included family doctors, judges, gourmet chefs and opera singers, and several of the ragtag bunch of wannabe revolutionaries seemed to have been radicalised in the comfortably well-off, respectable centre of society.

A civil servant at Lower Saxony’s criminal police office was also being investigated for connections with the group, broadcaster ZDF reported.

Rightwing AfD member of parliament Birgit Malsack-Winkemann was one of those arrested
Rightwing AfD member of parliament Birgit Malsack-Winkemann was one of those arrested Photograph: Reuters

Their ring was completed by men with a military background, such as Eder: a genuine commander of one of the Bundeswehr’s armoured infantry battalions between 1998 and 2000, who spent time serving in Kosovo and Afghanistan and was a founding member of Germany’s special forces command (KSK). An ex-commander at paratrooper battalion 251 was named as the aspiring leader of the terrorist group’s “military arm”.

But it was the inclusion of a former Bundestag delegate of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) that rang the shrillest alarm bells: as an ex-MP, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann would have had knowledge of security arrangements and special access privileges to the complex of parliamentary buildings in the heart of Berlin.

A list of potential targets, retrieved from a suspect’s home during the police raids, reportedly included seven members of Germany’s parliament, including the Green foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, conservative opposition leader Friedrich Merz, and the co-leader and general secretary of the Social Democratic party, Saskia Esken and Kevin Kühnert.

Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said he was “deeply concerned” by the alleged plot, describing it as a “new level”.

Whether the group of conspirators would have really posed a serious threat to Germany’s democratic order, or whether these were just a bunch of eccentrics with a hyperactive imagination, however, has been subject to debate in the days after the arrests.

The fact that select newspapers and camera crews had been informed of the dawn raids in advance – as early as two weeks ago, the Left party MP Martina Renner claimed – has led to criticism that the operation was designed as a PR job for an intelligence community that has been slow to uncover similar, arguably more threatening plans by far-right “preppers”.

Conservative Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, which has made an editorial habit of haranguing its northerly neighbour on political matters, felt “the German security agencies wanted to flex their muscles in front of the entire world”; the Berliner Zeitung said the arrests had come across as a “well-orchestrated PR stunt” zeroing in on no more than “25 senile loons”.

The fact the raids took place a day before Germany’s nationwide “alert day”, intended to test warning systems and sensitise people to emergency scenarios, had to be more than a coincidence, others suggested.

Within hours of the arrests, newspapers including Spiegel and Die Zeit published detailed articles outlining the plotters’ colourful backgrounds, which were soon picked up around the globe and guaranteed the kind of international coverage that had been missing when, for example, ex-soldier Franco Albrecht was in 2017 found to have planned “false flag” attacks on senior politicians and public figures while posing as a Syrian refugee.

One issue is whether the media strategy may have undermined the operation’s real intention, to seize incriminating evidence to bring the plotters to trial. Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel printed an interview with Eder’s neighbour in his home town of Eppenschlag, Bavaria, who said the pensioner had called her from Croatia a few days earlier. “It could be that the police will come around next week”, the ex-soldier is reported to have said.

Reichsburger demonstrate in in the city of Berlin in 2019.
Reichsbürger demonstrate in the city of Berlin in 2019. Photograph: Alamy

The retired military commander has been on the radar of the intelligence agencies since at least the summer of 2021, when he joined German anti-vax marches in uniform and promised to protect protesters from the police. In the wake of catastrophic flash floods in western Germany, Eder and his supporters had also set up a “crisis committee” at a school in devastated Ahrweiler that August.

The other question is whether a crackdown on Eder’s conspiracists was justified by the threat they posed to national security. His harp-and-rainstick soundtracked video message, openly sharing his revolutionary plan with the rest of the world, may hint less at strategic geniuses plotting in the shadows than old men trapped in the echo chamber of the internet.

But then the corner of the rightwing extremist spectrum Eder and his circle inhabit has flourished in recent years, precisely because it wasn’t taken seriously enough.

Prosecutors on Wednesday described the arrested suspects as “supporters of conspiracy myths, from a conglomerate of narratives relating to the ideologies of the Reichsbürger and QAnon ideologies”. The beliefs of the former group, the “citizens of empire”, are laid out at length in a 2019 address at a Swiss business forum by Heinrich XIII, Prince Reuss of Greiz, the 71-year-old aristocrat who has been described as the group’s political ringleader and who had envisioned himself ruling over the post-coup state at least in a temporary capacity.

Complaining that his dynasty had been unfairly dispossessed of its belongings through wars brought about by sinister Freemasons and Jewish financiers, Heinrich XIII claimed that modern Germany “has only been made an administrative structure of the allies” – a standard trope of the Reichsbürger movement.

In dismissing the international treaty that enabled German reunification in the early 90s, its adherents claim that the Reich continues to exist since Germany signed an armistice but not a peace treaty after the second world war. The federal republic is illegitimate, – a mere “simulation of a state”. Which empire to restore, the Reichsbürger cannot always agree.

“The Reichsbürger scene is very internally divided, and Heinrich XIII wasn’t a particularly dominant figure in the movement at large”, said Nicholas Potter, an analyst monitoring far-right networks for the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which campaigns against racism and antisemitism.

“Some of them want to bring back the Kaiserreich [the imperial German state between 1871 and 1918], others the Third Reich [Hitler’s Germany],” he said.

Heinrich XIII demonstrated the movement’s internal divisions in a letter dated 9 June 2020, which was later shared on a German QAnon Telegram channel. In his screed, he warns that a Germany led by Georg Friedrich, Prince of Prussia, the current head of the Prussian branch of the House of Hohenzollern that used to rule the German empire, would be a “monarchy at the mercy of the Allies”, a “federal republic 2.0”. Heinrich XIII, by contrast, promised to pursue the “correct structure under international law” by reconstituting a member state of the Kaiserreich.

He envisioned the new empire as a slimmed-down state, with “a parliament with a maximum of 201 delegates and five ministries”. Voting law would be reformed. In the letter, a frustrated Heinrich XIII complained that his plan required not only the support of the three allies (“USA, RUS, UK”), but also of armies of patriots “who sadly cannot be easily consolidated”.

Such pompous fantasies, paired with hectoring legalese, used to make it easy to dismiss the Reichsbürger scene. Even after a policeman was shot dead by one of the fringe movement’s adherents during a raid in the Franconia region in 2016, the BfV, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, declined to take steps towards systematic surveillance. Even though the conspiracy theory had several hundred followers, not all of them could be classified as rightwing extremists, the BfV said at the time.

It only began to take the movement more seriously in the year of the departure of its president Hans-Georg Maaßen, who has since been spreading conspiracy theories about the pandemic and the World Economic Forum on social media. That year, the agency counted 19,000 Reichsbürger across Germany, a number that has since risen to 21,000.

“Reichsbürger were around before the pandemic, but at protests against lockdown measures and vaccines they found a lot of open ears”, said Potter. “What we are seeing now is a meeting of many different minds”.

One of the few unifying features of the movement, worryingly, is a tendency to hoard guns and ammunition. German police found weapons in 50 of the 150 properties they searched as part of the raids, including two rifles, one pistol, swords and crossbows: an insufficient arsenal to overthrow a country of 83 million, but enough to carry out a targeted terror attack.

Whether the group had stashed away further weapons elsewhere remains unclear. In May 2020, a member of the German special forces command was found to have removed guns and ammunition from the army’s reserves and deposited them at a secret location, apparently in preparation for a “Day X” scenario of social collapse.

Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert and professor of security studies at King’s College London, likened last week’s jokes about senile fantasists in tweed to early British media coverage of Abu Hamza, the former imam of London’s Finsbury Park mosque.

“Hamza was portrayed as this ridiculous clown with a hook and an eyepatch, and for years even the security agencies didn’t take him seriously”, said Neumann. “Only later did we find out that he was instrumental in bringing hundreds of people into terrorist networks.”

Germany’s latest domestic intelligence report puts the potentially violent number of Reichsbürger at 2,100 – comparable with the 1,950 individuals in the country listed last year as having potential for Islamist terrorist violence. While the “citizens of empire” were mostly less well organised than supporters of Isis, Neumann said, they were also more likely to have access to arms.

“I don’t believe for a second that this group would have succeeded in overthrowing the government”, he added. “The important question is how much damage they could have caused in trying to do so.”

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