Thousands of police in Germany carried out a series of raids early Wednesday morning against suspected far-right extremists who allegedly sought to overthrow the state in an armed coup. Officials said 25 people were detained.
The suspects allegedly wanted to install an elderly member of a German noble family as the country's new leader and had been in contact with Russian officials about the scheme.
The Russian embassy in Berlin denied having any links to terror groups or illegal organisations in Germany.
Federal prosecutors said the group was inspired by "deep state" conspiracy theories, including those spread by QAnon, whose backers were among those arrested after the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021.
Raids target 'Reich Citizens' movement
Some 3,000 officers conducted searches at 130 sites in 11 of Germany's 16 states against adherents of the so-called Reichsbuerger ("Reich Citizens") movement, prosecutors said.
Some members of the group are devoted to the German empire under monarchy, while some believe in Nazi ideas, reject Germany's postwar constitution and have called for the overthrow of the government.
Justice Minister Marco Buschmann described the raids as an “anti-terrorism operation”, adding that the suspects may have planned an armed attack on institutions of the state.
Prosecutors said 22 German citizens were detained on suspicion of "membership in a terrorist organisation". Three other people, including a Russian citizen, are suspected of supporting the organisation, they said.
Weekly Der Spiegel reported that locations searched include the barracks of Germany's special forces unit KSK in the southwestern town of Calw. The unit has in the past been scrutinised over alleged far-right involvement by some soldiers.
Federal prosecutors declined to confirm or deny that the barracks were searched. A military intelligence spokesperson told Reuters that one active soldier and several reservists were also among those being investigated.
Along with detentions in Germany, prosecutors said that one person was detained in the Austrian town of Kitzbuehel and another in the Italian city of Perugia.
Group 'had plans to storm parliament'
Prosecutors said the plot envisaged a former member of a German royal family, identified as Heinrich XIII P.R., as the leader of a future state. Another suspect, Ruediger v.P., would be the head of the military arm with the aim of building a new Germany army.
Those detained are alleged to last year have formed a “terrorist organisation with the goal of overturning the existing state order in Germany and replace it with their own form of state, which was already in the course of being founded.”
Investigators suspect individual members of the group had concrete plans to storm the Bundestag lower house of parliament in Berlin with a small armed group, prosecutors said. They had been procuring equipment, trying to recruit new members and holding shooting lessons.
The suspects were aware that their aim could only be achieved by military means and with force, prosecutors said.
They are alleged to have believed in a “conglomerate of conspiracy theories consisting of narratives from the so-called Reich Citizens as well as QAnon ideology,” according to a statement by prosecutors. They added that members of the group also believe Germany is ruled by a so-called "deep state"; similar baseless claims about the United States were made by former President Donald Trump.
Der Spiegel reported that one suspect was a well-known 71-year-old member of a minor German noble family, while the other was a 69-year-old former paratrooper.
Alleged contacts with Russian officials
Federal prosecutors said the group had contacted Russian officials with the aim of negotiating a new order in the country once the German government was overthrown. The would-be leader was allegedly assisted in this by a Russian woman, they added.
“According to current investigations there is no indication however that the persons contacted responded positively to his request,” prosecutors said.
The Kremlin said there could be no question of any Russian involvement in an alleged far-right plot to overthrow the German state, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that it "appears to be a German internal problem".
A further person detained by police Wednesday was identified by as a female judge and former lawmaker with the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
The party, known by its German acronym AfD, has increasingly come under scrutiny by German security services due to its ties with extremists.
In a statement, the AfD condemned the far-right group's efforts and expressed confidence in the authorities' ability to bring clarity to the situation quickly and completely.
Government condemns 'enemies of democracy'
A German interior ministry spokesperson said security agencies were looking closely at any possible contact with Russia.
The government will respond with the full force of the law, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said.
"The investigations provide a glimpse into the abyss of a terrorist threat from the Reichsbuerger milieu," Faeser said in a statement, adding that the constitutional state knew how to defend itself against "the enemies of democracy".
Faeser said she would present a bill in the next few days that would make it easier to remove civil service employees who were deemed to be enemies of the constitution.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency attributes some 21,000 people to the Reich Citizens movement, with around five per cent of them seen as far-right extremists.
The House of Reuss had previously distanced itself from Heinrich, calling him a confused man who pursued conspiracy theories, according to local media. Germany's monarchy was abolished a century ago.
Neither the House of Reuss nor Prince Reuss' Office responded to requests for comment.