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German coup plot fueled by conspiracy claims

‘Prince,’ judge, among leaders who sought to topple government

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Masked police officers lead Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss, center, to a police vehicle during a raid against so-called 'Reich citizens' in Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. Thousands of police carried out a series of raids across much of Germany on Wednesday against suspected far-right extremists who allegedly sought to overthrow the state by force. Federal prosecutors said some 3,000 officers conducted searches at 130 sites in 11 of Germany's 16 states against adherents of the so-called Reich Citizens movement.
Masked police officers lead Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss, center, to a police vehicle during a raid against so-called 'Reich citizens' in Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. Thousands of police carried out a series of raids across much of Germany on Wednesday against suspected far-right extremists who allegedly sought to overthrow the state by force. Federal prosecutors said some 3,000 officers conducted searches at 130 sites in 11 of Germany's 16 states against adherents of the so-called Reich Citizens movement. (Boris Roessler/dpa via AP) Photo Gallery

BERLIN — An alleged plot to topple the German government, led by a self-styled prince, a retired paratrooper and a Berlin judge, had its roots in a murky mixture of post-war grudges, antisemitic conspiracy theories and anger over recent pandemic restrictions, experts say.

Police detained 25 people Wednesday described as being part of Germany’s Reichsbuerger, or Reich Citizens, movement.

While the name might suggest a link to the Nazi era, it actually refers to the first modern pan-German nation formed when Prussia’s King Wilhelm I and his chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, united numerous smaller states into a single empire, or Reich, in 1871.

Reich Citizens consider the partition of Germany by Allied powers after World War II and the subsequent democratic states that followed to have been illegal, arguing instead that the original Reich still exists.

“To some extent they distance themselves from the Third Reich,” said Johannes Kiess of the Else-Frenkel-Brunswik Institute for Democracy Studies in Leipzig, referring to the German dictatorship under Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1945. “But (they) have very little problems working together with any outright neo-Nazi groups.”

Kiess said Thursday that the rise of the Reich Citizens movement reflects the shifts that have taken place on the far-right end of the political spectrum in recent years. Whereas outright opposition to the existing order was once a fringe position, anger at the restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic has proved fertile ground for anti-government sentiment, he said.

“We now really have the middle classes being open to all sorts of conspiracy theories,” Kiess said.

He likened the development in Germany to that in the United States, where white supremacist movements joined with those who believe a “deep state” is controlling government in opposing the peaceful transition of power following the last presidential election.

Martina Renner, a member of the opposition Left party in Germany, concurred.

“What we saw with the storming of the Capitol in the United States is like a blueprint for what’s happening here,” she said. “It’s being strongly taken up here and there are attempts to repeat it.”

Federal prosecutors said some of those arrested had concrete plans to enter the German parliament with weapons. Such an attack would have been made easier by the fact that one of the alleged plotters, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, was a former lawmaker for the Alternative for Germany party with intimate knowledge of the Bundestag building.

Prosecutors said the group had intended to make Malsack-Winkemann justice minister after their coup, while the new government would be headed by Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss. The 71-year-old member of the House of Reuss, who continues to use the title of “prince” despite Germany abolishing any formal role for royalty more than a century ago, was identified as one of the ringleaders of the plot, officials said.

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