Who are Prince Heinrich XIII and the ‘Reichsbürger’ who were plotting a coup in Germany?

The 25 suspects held on Wednesday are part of a far-right group that does not recognize the legitimacy of the Federal Republic that emerged from World War II

Police officers taking Heinrich XIII into custody on Wednesday from his home in Frankfurt, Germany.
Police officers taking Heinrich XIII into custody on Wednesday from his home in Frankfurt, Germany.Boris Roessler (AP)

His name is Heinrich XIII, he is 71 years old and part of an old German aristocratic family, the House of Reuss, which has the tradition of calling all male children Heinrich and distinguishing them with a Roman numeral. He was quite a well-known character in his city, Frankfurt, due to his lineage and his business activities. But since Wednesday, a very serious accusation has been weighing on him: being the leader of a group of 25 people arrested for plotting a coup. Described by German authorities as a terrorist organization, it is made up of members of a far-right movement called the Reichsbürger (Citizens of the Reich) that does not recognize democratic Germany.

The Reichsbürger are one of the main concerns for Germany’s security forces, who consider them to be very radical and, in some cases, ready to take up arms. It is not an organized group as such. Rather, they are small groups or individuals who feel nostalgia for the German Empire (1871-1918) and question the very existence of the Federal Republic of Germany and its legal system. They do not recognize the Constitution or Germany’s national borders, and they deny the legitimacy of democratically elected political representatives. They live in a kind of parallel reality where they refuse to use official identification documents and instead issue fictitious cards such as their own driving licenses and “German Reich” license plates. Many of them refuse to pay taxes.

This movement has been in the crosshairs of the authorities for some time. According to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the federal domestic intelligence agency, the Reichsbürger have “a high potential for violence.” In the last report on extremist threats to national security, drafted in 2021, the office estimated that there are around 21,000 people associated with this ideology and that, of these, 2,100 are violent or there is a clear risk of their becoming so. Their ideas overlap with those of far-right neo-Nazi groups, as they also espouse historical revisionism and National Socialist principles.

The 25 individuals arrested on Wednesday for plotting an assault on the German Parliament come from very different backgrounds. There is the self-styled Prince Reuss, who was going to be the head of state of the new order they wanted to impose; a former deputy from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party; former commanders of the German Army and ex-police officers. But there is also a chef, a pilot, a lawyer and an opera tenor. A wealthy doctor donated €20,000 to the group; according to Der Spiegel, the money was used for “spiritual matters” and to contact alleged fortune-tellers who were tasked with verifying whether potential comrades-in-arms were trustworthy.

The group is part of a widespread network with suspects in 11 of the 16 German Länder, Austria and Italy, and it also overlaps with a movement called Querdenker (lateral thinkers, according to their self-description), and supporters of the American conspiracy ideology known as QAnon, according to the German Prosecutor’s Office. Members of Querdenker, known for leading the protests against the German government during the coronavirus pandemic, include a variety of deniers, conspiracy theorists, far-right supporters and ordinary citizens angry about the Covid restrictions.

The detainees, federal prosecutor Peter Frank explained on Wednesday, fit both within the environment of the so-called Citizens of the Reich and in the radicalized world of conspiracy theories. Because they are not a part of a national organization and lack a well-defined ideology, they are difficult groups to monitor, although the police had been watching the network since at least last summer. Their phones were tapped and their chat groups were put under surveillance. This is how the police discovered that Prince Reuss was calling for violent action: “Now let’s crush them, the fun is over!” he exclaimed in one of the intercepted calls.

Investigators were surprised by the age of the terrorists: almost all of them are over 40 and their two leaders – Heinrich XIII and Rüdiger P., a former Army colonel – are around 70 years old. The aristocratic leader of the plot was already registered as a sympathizer of the Reichsbürger movement. Years ago, at a conference in Zurich, Switzerland, he denied the legitimacy of the Federal Republic, spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and spoke of Germany as “an occupied country.” He also defended the monarchy as the most perfect system of government. Researchers believe he wanted to be the next German kaiser (emperor).

A “bitter old man”

His family broke up with him a long time ago. In August, Heinrich XIV, spokesman for the House of Reuss, which ruled Thuringia for 800 years until the collapse of the German monarchy, told a regional newspaper that Heinrich XIII had distanced himself from them “of his own free will.” He called him a “bitter old man,” said he was fond of “conspiracy theories” and described him as confused. The Reuss family, he stressed, had nothing to do with his relative’s political statements. Despite the fact that there are no longer princes in Germany, Heinrich XIII continued to use that name.

The Reichsbürger consider themselves the continuation of the German Empire, and they spread their vision of the world through the internet, where they have their own web pages, social media channels and discussion forums. Some also make money by offering fake “Reich” identification documents. According to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, one such group, called the Bismarck’s Heirs, tried to create its own news website last year. The way they see it, they are the patriots, and that is why they want to free Germany from the current government.

The detainees are convinced that the country is ruled by members of a “deep state” and that a secret society called The Alliance is preparing to intervene to free the Germans. Members of the network’s military branch were supposed to help them depose the current powers. They were aware that deaths would occur, but they considered them an intermediate step to achieve the alleged “system change at all levels.”

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