Millions of Germans watched in fascination on Wednesday morning as police bundled away the man who would be their next king − wearing a tweed jacket, blue shirt, brown cord trousers, a mask and handcuffs – before his reign could even begin.
Heinrich Prinz Reuss zu Köstritz, a 71-year-old Frankfurt-based property developer with an aristocratic family background, was flagged as new head of state by a shadowy cabal planning to overthrow Germany’s democratic order and replace it with a monarchy
Until dawn on Wednesday, that is, when 3,000 police and special forces spread out across Germany, Austria and Italy in a series of co-ordinated raids on 130 properties. They identified 52 suspects and arrested 21 including Prinz Reuss zu Köstritz, as well as a former Bundestag MP who now sits as a Berlin judge, an elite soldier and a retired paratrooper. Among the suspects, too, were three Russian nationals.
By Thursday all the main suspects will have been remanded in custody as suspected members of a terrorist organisation: the Reichsbürger or “citizens of the Reich” scene. This is a diffuse far-right extremist alliance with about 21,000 members linked to 1,011 extremist crimes in the last decade. What unites them is a belief that modern Germany does not exist as a democratic, sovereign state but only as a puppet plaything of the United States and international financiers.
It all may sound like a plot summary of a farce, Carry on Coup, but on Wednesday no one was laughing in German political or security circles. Investigators said the group had access to weapons and satellite phones and were planning not only a major power blackout – but to storm the Reichstag parliament building and take MPs hostage.
Former army officers were working to build decentralised militias and arms depots, possibly with access to Bundeswehr weapons. A separate political “council”, headed by Prinz Reuss zu Köstritz, would lead the authoritarian system with Kaiser-era imperial Germany as its blueprint.
After a tip-off in November 2021 and a year-long undercover investigation, federal public prosecutor general Peter Frank said the group’s members were united in their hatred of the German democratic state. They were also aware their coup could “only be realised through military means and violence against state representatives, this includes committing homicide”.
The prosecutor said the group’s members follow a “conglomerate of conspiracy myths consisting of narratives of the so-called Reichsbürger as well as QAnon ideology that, among other fictional claims, says a child sex abuse cult exists in Washington DC.
At a 2019 conspiracy theory conference in Zurich, Heinrich Prinz Reuss zu Köstritz outlined the main Reichsbürger claims: the first World War was caused by “international financial interests” who also bankrolled Hitler, and the pre-1945 German state was never officially abolished – thus the postwar republic does not legally exist.
In a 16-minute address he demanded a “sovereign Germany and the conclusion of a peace treaty”.
“This is something I would urge the current president of America to do,” he said.
What links the Reichsbürger to QAnon is a fictional “deep state” narrative of elite-manipulated phoney democracies – and a looming fightback by the “Alliance”, a secret association inside US, Russian and German government military and intelligence.
In recent months German investigators warned that the Reichsbürger scene was building grassroots support, particularly in eastern regions, by tapping into fury and fatigue at pandemic measures and growing cost-of-living concerns.
One of those remanded in custody is Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a one-term MP for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Supposedly earmarked as justice minister in the new regime, the 58-year-old returned to sit as a judge in Berlin’s district court in October after a failed attempt by city authorities – citing her extremist views on refugees – to block her.
For Bavarian interior minister Joachim Hermann the arrests made clear that “though not all in the AfD are like this, the party clearly offers a home for such people”. He added: “This is a warning for us all.”
With AfD leaders unusually silent on Twitter on Wednesday, a spokesman said the party would not comment on its former MP until it was clear “if charges stand up to further investigation or if she was wrongly charged”.
Now polling 14 per cent nationally – up four points on last year’s election – the AfD knows its link to the alleged coup attempt could hit its steady rise in support.