In Germany, Far-Right Plotters of an Improbable Coup 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, went 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 large, gray temporary courtroom hastily built on the outskirts of Frankfurt, the nine accused saw each other for the first time since late 2022, when most of them were arrested. 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 the grave danger posed by the would-be insurrectionists, who included several retired elite soldiers, a police officer and a former federal far-right lawmaker.

Tobias Engelstetter, one of the four federal prosecutors arguing the case in Frankfurt, read the bizarre details behind the charges in an opening statement that lasted longer than two hours.

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, prosecutors say, believed in the existence of a secret alliance consisting of sympathetic foreign intelligence services — including ones belonging to the United States and Russia — that 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.

“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 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 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 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 a 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.

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. The prince had long been angry over what he considered lost ancestral lands, and many of the former army officers believed the government was badly mismanaging the country.

During the summer of 2021, according to prosecutors, the group planned to overthrow the government by entering 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.

But group members started turning against one another in the fall 2022, when the council and military arm started favoring separate strategies, according to prosecutors. While Mr. von Pescatore was designing uniforms based on old Wehrmacht uniforms, the prince increasingly worried that some of the group’s documents were becoming too widely distributed. And some of its former army officers had contacted active-duty army generals, who rejected their advances and alerted the authorities.

Although he did not found 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 World War I, he was the ideal figurehead for the group, which believed only a member of true royalty could sign a lasting peace treaty with foreign governments.

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