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 for being part of Germany’s Reichsbuerger, or Reich Citizens, movement. But according to Holger Münch, the president of the federal criminal police office, more suspects could soon be named.
"We assume that there are currently 54 members of this terrorist organization or supporters,” he said.
“Two more were added yesterday. And we have identified other individuals that we don't know exactly how they are related to this group. It may well be that this number will grow even further."
Reich Citizens' beliefs
While the name of the group might suggest a link to the Nazi era, it 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 COVID-19 pandemic has proved fertile ground for anti-government sentiment, he explained.
“We now really have the middle classes being open to all sorts of conspiracy theories,” Kiess said.
'Dangerous mix of people'
Federal prosecutors said some arrested had concrete plans to enter the German parliament with weapons. And 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.
“We have a dangerous mix of people who have irrational beliefs, some with a lot of money. And others in possession of weapons ... that's why it was dangerous, and we intervened," explained Münch, on the public channel ARD.
He added that police discovered weapons in 50 locations, ranging from "crossbows to rifles and ammunition that shows that [the plot was] not harmless.”
The group had been under surveillance since spring, said Thomas Haldenwang, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, on RTL.
"This is the first time that a nationwide movement had taken place with a concrete plan," he added.
The Reich Citizens movement, he said, has around 21,000 supporters. "We estimate that 10% are oriented towards violence".