German police uncover alleged rightwing plot to overthrow government
German police have uncovered an alleged rightwing plot to storm the Bundestag and overthrow the government, in a case that highlights the threat posed to western states by far-right extremism turbocharged by radical conspiracy theories such as QAnon.
Officers arrested 25 men and women in raids across Germany — as well as in Austria and Italy. About 130 premises were searched and 3,000 officers deployed in what is being described as the largest police operation Germany has ever conducted against suspected extremists.
Peter Frank, the country’s attorney-general, said the 25 were accused of “being members of, or supporting, a domestic terror organisation”.
He said the aim of the group, which was founded in November last year, was to “remove the existing state order in Germany, the liberal democratic order, using violence and military means”.
Steffen Hebestreit, spokesperson for chancellor Olaf Scholz, said Wednesday’s arrests and searches had highlighted how “rightwing extremism is the biggest threat to our democracy”.
He added that the arrested men and women “want to finish with everything that unites us in Germany — rule of law, freedom, equality and the protection of minorities”. “Our state will not put up with that,” Hebestreit said.
The raids show how deeply rightwing extremist sentiment has infiltrated Germany’s security services. One of the arrested men was a member of the KSK, the special forces unit of the German army, the Bundeswehr.
They have also focused attention on the shadowy world of the Reichsbürger, Germans who refuse to recognise the postwar German government.
According to German domestic intelligence, the movement numbered 21,000 people in the country in 2021, up from 20,000 in 2020. About 2,100 are seen as liable to resort to violence.
Investigators say the ringleader of the group was Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuss, the scion of a noble family from the east German state of Thuringia who has become a prominent figure in the Reichsbürger scene. The plotters had planned to install him as Germany’s new head of state.
“The arrested men and women cling to conspiracy myths consisting of different narratives of the Reichsbürger and QAnon ideologies,” Frank said.
QAnon followers in the US claim the country is run by a “deep state” cabal made up of senior Democrats whom, they allege, worship Satan and engage in paedophilia and cannibalism. Adherents of QAnon were prominent among the mob that stormed the US Capitol on January 6 2021. But the movement also has many adherents in western Europe.
Frank said the conspirators had created a kind of shadow government called a “council” and nominated people to take over certain ministries after their coup.
Investigators said the putative post-coup justice ministry was to be run by a former Bundestag MP for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, who currently works as a judge. The ex-MP, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, was one of those arrested on Wednesday.
They had also, Frank said, formed a military arm that planned to “build up a new German army consisting of yet to be formed ‘homeland security units’”.
“Some members of this military arm were previously active in the Bundeswehr, according to our findings,” Frank said. He added that some members of the terrorist group had been “considering forcefully entering the Bundestag”.
In a statement, the prosecutor’s office said the terror group had planned to form a transitional military government that would negotiate a new state system in Germany with the victorious Allied powers of the second world war.
With this objective in mind, Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuss had already contacted representatives of the Russian government in Germany, investigators alleged. There was so far no evidence, however, that the Russians had reacted positively to his request, they said.
One man suspected of involvement in the plot, a 64-year-old former special forces officer in the German army, was arrested at a hotel in the medieval Italian town of Perugia, Italian police confirmed.
The Italian police statement said officers had seized “various materials linked to the subversive activity of the terrorist organisation,” and that procedures to extradite the suspect to Germany were under way.
The German prosecutors’ statement said the suspects had been preparing their coup since the end of November last year. They had sought to acquire recruits among Bundeswehr soldiers and police, and scouted out army barracks in southern Germany to see if they could accommodate their own troops after the coup.
The involvement of a serving member of the KSK will trigger dismay in Berlin. A KSK barracks — in the south-western town of Calw — was one of the premises searched in Wednesday’s raid.
The KSK has long been under scrutiny over the links some of its members allegedly have to far-right groups, but authorities initiated reforms two years ago that they had hoped would resolve the problem.
In June 2020, the then defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced that the KSK’s 2nd company would be disbanded, after it emerged that some of its members had radical rightwing sympathies.
Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in Rome