By Miranda Murray, Rachel More and Max Schwarz
BERLIN/BAD LOBENSTEIN, Germany (Reuters) -German authorities on Thursday ordered 23 people to be held for questioning as they investigate a far-right group that prosecutors say wanted to overthrow the state and install a former member of a German royal family as national leader.
Investigators have said the group, many of whom were members of the movement Reichsbuerger (Citizens of the Reich), planned to install aristocrat Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuss as leader of a new state and found evidence that some members planned to storm the German parliament and seize lawmakers.
Heinrich, 71, a descendant of the royal House of Reuss in the eastern state of Thuringia, was working as a real estate developer. He was arrested in the financial capital Frankfurt on Wednesday in a swoop on the group that has shocked many in one of Europe's most stable democracies and its largest economy.
The House of Reuss, now headed by Heinrich XIV who lives in Austria, disowned the alleged plot.
"Of course, this reflects catastrophically on the family," Heinrich XIV told broadcaster MDR, speaking about his distant relative with whom he said he had not had contact for 10 years.
"For 850 years we were, I think, a tolerant, cosmopolitan royal house in East Thuringia and now we are seen as terrorists and reactionaries all over the world, all the way to America. That's quite terrible," he added.
An Interior Ministry spokesperson said raids the previous day, in which 25 people were detained across Germany as well as in Austria and Italy, were the most extensive "executive measures" against the Reichsbuerger ever seen in Germany.
"The most important consequence is that everyone knows we have a resilient state and democracy whose security organs can penetrate and counter such crimes and plans," Chancellor Olaf Scholz told a news conference on Thursday evening.
Alongside the 23 remanded in custody, two people arrested outside Germany are set to be extradited. Many of the suspects are over 50, and they encompass right-wingers, COVID deniers and people who reject the modern German state.
More arrests are likely in the coming days. Holger Muench, head of the federal police office, told broadcaster ARD on Thursday there were now 54 suspects in the case.
Wednesday's raids were carried out across 11 German federal states, stunning many in the country.
"It’s not really comprehensible: you hear about such plans from other countries but for this to happen outside my front door?" said Melanie Merle, who lives close to the apartment in Frankfurt where Heinrich was arrested.
Prosecutors said the group was inspired by the deep state conspiracy theories of Germany's Reichsbuerger and QAnon, whose advocates were among those arrested after the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.
Members of the Reichsbuerger do not recognise modern-day Germany and its borders as a legitimate state. Some are devoted to the old German "Reich" (empire) under a monarchy, with some also sharing Nazi ideas and believing Germany is under military occupation.
Police on Thursday searched Waidmannsheil hunting lodge in town of Bad Lobenstein, Thuringia, said to belong to Heinrich.
The town's deputy mayor said local people had been sent a letter, saying their German passports were not valid.
"All citizens of Bad Lobenstein received a letter this past summer in which we were told that we were not German because our passports were not German," Andree Burkhardt told Reuters.
"We were then given the opportunity to apply for our German origin documents with the Reuss administration. This of course provoked a huge outcry among the population,” he added.
A former lawmaker from the far-right Alternative For Germany (AfD) was among those detained, prosecutors said.
Thuringia interior minister Georg Maier singled out the AfD, which is in the state parliament, as an interface for right-wing extremists, saying it spread what he called fantasies about toppling the state.
"People are scared, and the AfD takes advantage of that and offers simple solutions," said Maier, who is from Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democratic Party.
The AfD said in a statement on Wednesday that it condemned the far-right group's efforts and expressed confidence in the authorities' ability to bring clarity to the situation.
(Reporting by Miranda Murray, Rachel More, Max Schwarz, Timm Reichert, Tom Simms, Christoph Steitz and Thomas Escritt; Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Nick Macfie and Edmund Blair)