BERLIN — Germany is on edge.
Early Wednesday, thousands of balaclava-clad German police officers fanned out across the country, arresting 25 people and seizing weapons to upend what authorities described as a diabolical plot to overthrow the country’s government and reinstate the monarchy. The group’s “military arm” was surreptitiously building “a new German army,” the lead prosecutor on the case said.
The alleged ringleader was Prince Heinrich XIII Reuß, the long-haired scion of an 800-year-old aristocratic line, who police said organized conspiratorial meetings at his hilltop Schloss in rural Thuringia.
The 71-year-old prince and his alleged co-conspirators, a number of them retirees, assembled a formidable arsenal that, according to police, included at least one crossbow, a slingshot, swords, as well as hunting rifles of unclear vintage and pistols.
Al Qaeda it was not.
The fact that many Germans fear otherwise reveals more about the fragile state of the national psyche at the moment than the stability of the country’s democratic institutions.
Germany is no stranger to serious terrorists. Beginning in the 1970s, a left-wing terrorist group known as the Red Army Faction killed more than 30 people. Beginning in 2000, a neo-Nazi group that called itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU) went on yearslong killing spree that left nine people dead.
Mohamed Atta, the leader of the September 11 plane attack on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, assembled his crew in Hamburg, where he spent many years as a student.
While there is no doubt a group like the one Prince Heinrich is alleged to have assembled might have ended up killing people, the suggestion that it could have threatened the stability of the EU’s most populous country is absurd. Germany’s federal structure alone, imposed on the country after World War II to prevent the centralization of power (each of Germany’s 16 states has its own police department, for example), would make it difficult for even a well-organized force to overthrow the government, let alone a collection of what might be politely called whackjobs.
Reuß’s motley crew included a former MP with the far-right Alternative for Germany party and a retired German special forces commander (who left the service in 1996 and never actually saw combat), as well as an opera singer (tenor), a roofer and a gourmet cook. After throwing over the government (at one point the group considered making Queen Elizabeth’s death the trigger day, but was unprepared when she passed away) the conspirators planned to establish a political “council” to run the country under Prince Heinrich.
Many in the group are adherents of a fringe movement known as the “Reichsbürger,” who maintain that the German republic is an illegitimate state and demand a return of the monarchy. Authorities put the total number of Reichsbürger, who often get arrested for not paying taxes and have a history of shooting at police officers, in Germany at about 20,000.
Others in the alleged conspiracy are rooted in Germany’s antivax movement, the so-called Querdenker.
Just how this ragtag group could have managed to take over the central institutions of a country of more than 80 million is not obvious — except, that is, for Germany’s state-backed broadcaster, which interrupted regular programming to offer blanket coverage of the supposed near-death of German democracy.
“Any who laughs this off is making a mistake,” warned Michael Götschenberg, a correspondent for the ARD television channel.
A central tenet of the Reichsbürgers’ fuzzy narrative is that Germany has become a U.S. vassal, a pawn on the chessboard of American colonialism. Unsurprisingly, members of the group, including Prince Heinrich, are also pro-Russian.
Together with his Russian girlfriend, who was also arrested and identified only as Vitalia B., Prince Heinrich approached the Russian embassy in Berlin to try and drum up support for his plot, authorities said.
Yet the alleged conspiracy was even too crazy for the Russians, who appear to have passed on the offer to collaborate.
German terrorism experts warn that a combination of the COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine and Europe’s energy crisis has set the country on edge.
“We’re going to see more events like this,” Peter Neumann, a professor at King’s College in London, told German radio. “A well-connected swamp has emerged from the protests against the coronavirus pandemic policies and now this scene has been radicalized.”
On the bright side, at least Germans won’t run out of things to worry about anytime soon.