In Germany, Far-Right Plotters of an Improbable Coup to Go on Trial

Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss, the obscure aristocrat who wanted to become German chancellor, and eight men and women who planned to bring him into power by violently overthrowing the government, will go on trial on Tuesday in Frankfurt.

Nearly a year and a half after a spectacular nationwide raid involving 3,000 police officers at 150 locations that the authorities say foiled a bizarre, far-right plan to seize power, the prince and the plotters will start facing justice. It is expected to be one of the most complex court cases since West Germany tried Auschwitz concentration camp commanders in the 1960s.

In a temporary courtroom hastily built on the outskirts of Frankfurt, the nine accused will see each other for the first time since most of them were arrested in December 2022. In that time, prosecutors have analyzed thousands of files and chat exchanges and hours of witness testimony to prepare a case they hope will show just how dangerous the would-be insurrectionists — including several retired elite soldiers, a police officer and a former federal far-right lawmaker — were.

Members of the group, who called themselves the “United Patriots,” believed the government was run by pedophilic, illegitimate politicians who had access to a network of underground military bases. The plotters believed in the existence of a secret alliance, prosecutors say, consisting of sympathetic foreign intelligence services, including ones belonging to the United States and Russia, would help the group overthrow the deep state once a signal was given.

The accused are part of a group within the Reichsbürger movement, which believes the modern German state is illegitimate. Long seen as merely a nuisance for not following local laws and refusing to pay taxes, the members of the movement, which the authorities believe number at least 23,000, have become increasingly radical over the years.

“The militant ‘Reichsbürger’ are driven by hatred of our democracy,” Nancy Faeser, Germany’s interior minister, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Our security services will continue their crackdown until we have fully exposed and dismantled militant ‘Reichsbürger’ structures.”

Frankfurt’s mega trial is just one of three proceedings arising from the plot. With 27 people indicted by federal prosecutors, the core group of alleged plotters was too big to fit into a single courtroom.

Last month, a trial started in Stuttgart focusing on nine men who could be categorized as making up the military arm of the operation. Next month in a high-security courtroom in Munich, eight suspected plotters, who federal prosecutors say provided financial support, will go on trial. A 27th suspect died in jail awaiting trial. It could take years before the trials yield verdicts, experts say.

The nine defendants in Frankfurt represent the coup’s leadership, prosecutors say, arguably making this the most important of the trials. Several of the men scheduled to appear in Frankfurt on Tuesday were charged with founding the terrorist group; others were members of the leadership council, which was designated to form a cabinet of ministers who answered to the prince once the coup was been successful, prosecutor say. Two women facing the five-judge panel are accused of seeking support from Russia for the coup.

“This trial can provide insights into the state of preparations, but also into the alleged terrorist group’s links to Russia,” said Jan Rathje, who studies the Reichsbürger movement for a nongovernmental group that monitors extremism and the far right.

But as idiosyncratic as their beliefs were, the authorities say, members of the group posed a real danger. The authorities found 380 firearms and 350 other weapons such as knives, axes and clubs. They also found 148,000 rounds of ammunition, explosives, military helmets and protective equipment, along with gold and cash valued at half a million euros, roughly $543,000.

Rüdiger von Pescatore and Maximilan Eder, two of the founders of the group, were retired army officers; Michael F., as he is identified by the court in keeping with Germany’s strict privacy laws, was to be interior minister in the post-coup regime and was an active-duty chief inspector of the criminal police, prosecutors say. Birgit Malsack-Winkemann was a judge who was elected in 2017 to the federal Parliament on a far-right ticket and served for four years. Johanna F.-J. was involved in protests against pandemic regulations.

The defendants adhered to a worldview consisting of QAnon-type mythology and far-right historical revisionism of the German empire as it existed before World War I.

During the summer of 2021, according to prosecutors, the group planned to overthrow the government by entering the Parliament and arresting top politicians. A video showing Chancellor Olaf Scholz as a captive would broadcast the successful coup to the country. Then, 286 “homeland security brigades” would be responsible for keeping the population controlled, even if that meant killing or imprisoning people who rebelled against the new leadership, prosecutors said.

To plan the insurrection, the group’s “council” met regularly in an old hunting castle belonging to the prince, the prosecution charges.

Prosecutors plan to show that Ms. Malsack-Winkemann, the former judge, used her security pass to bring Mr. Eder, a former colonel, and others into the Reichstag, the main building of the federal Parliament. There, where many of the nation’s top politicians move without security, the men scouted the area in preparation for the initial attack, prosecutors say.

The extensive organization and bureaucratic care behind the coup attempt have helped investigators build their cases. During a hearing in Stuttgart last month, for example, prosecutors showed copies of the oaths that members had signed, promising not to reveal information about the group on punishment of death.

Although he does not appear to have founded the movement that promised him national leadership, the prince played an important leadership role early on, prosecutors say. Because of his family’s pretensions to the German line of Kaisers, whose reign as German rulers ended with the cataclysm that was World War I, he was considered the ideal figurehead for the group.

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