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Germany arrests 25 suspected of planning to overthrow government

Police walk to a residence that they raided earlier today on Dec. 7, in Berlin, Germany.Carsten Koall/Getty

BERLIN — The plan was to storm the German Capitol, arrest lawmakers, and execute the chancellor. A prince descended from German nobility would take over as the new head of state, and a former far-right member of parliament would be put in charge of a national purge.

To facilitate the coup, the electricity network would be sabotaged. Satellite phones to communicate off grid had already been bought.

That is what German prosecutors and intelligence officials say a nationwide far-right terrorist network was plotting before 3,000 police officers and Special Forces fanned out across the country Wednesday to raid 150 homes and arrest 25 suspected coconspirators. They included an active duty soldier, a former officer in the elite special forces, a police officer, and at least two army reservists.

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Among the items uncovered was a list containing 18 names of politicians considered enemies, possibly to be deported and executed, among them Chancellor Olaf Scholz, people familiar with the raids told The New York Times, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.

This was the latest of a series of plots discovered in recent years of extremist networks preparing for a day the democratic order collapses, a day they call Day X.

“This is not the first case of a cell like this planning for Day X,” said Konstantin von Notz, a lawmaker and member of the intelligence oversight committee in the German parliament. “The number of these cases are piling up and the question is to what extent are they connected.”

It is not clear how capable the plotters would have been at executing such an attack, nor how close they were to attempting to carry out their plan: According to some intelligence officials, the group had twice missed dates when they had aimed to trigger their attack. But many of those arrested were known to be heavily armed, prosecutors said, describing the plot as possibly the most brazen in Germany’s postwar history — one aimed directly at the heart of the state.

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“This represents an escalation. They had plans to march into Berlin and take out part of the federal government,” said Stephan Kramer, head of domestic intelligence of the state of Thuringia, where several of the raids took place. “In their plan to overthrow the government, they were willing to accept deaths.”

Beyond the immediate threat, the scale of the raids and the ambition of the plot prosecutors outlined pointed to persistent vulnerabilities to extremism in Germany’s core institutions — its parliament, its judiciary, its local and state police, and even its most elite military forces — which German authorities have struggled to root out in recent years.

One of the sites raided Wednesday was a military barracks. Among those detained around the country were a member of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party who had served in the German parliament; a German prince; and a Russian citizen accused of supporting the group’s plans. Federal prosecutors said they were investigating a total of 27 other suspects as well.

Two people arrested were detained outside Germany, one in Austria and another in Italy.

Prosecutors said the group was formed in the past year, influenced by the ideologies of the conspiracy group QAnon and a right-wing German conspiracy group called the Reichsbürger, or Citizens of the Reich, which believes that Germany’s post-World War II Republic is not a sovereign country but a corporation set up by the victorious Allies.

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In recent years, and especially since the pandemic, the group gained new energy as its followers and thinking combined with the conspiracy theories of the QAnon movement, in particular seeing a threat from the “deep state,” a shadowy cabal of corrupt elites they imagine running the government.

One conviction shared by its members was that “Germany is currently ruled by members of a so-called deep state” that needed to be overthrown, a statement from prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said that to carry out its plans the group had formed a military wing, which was actively trying to recruit in police and military, and a political wing, which it called the council, a sort of shadow government it intended to install in Berlin.

“The military arm would build a new German army, consisting of ‘homeland security companies’ yet to be established,” the federal prosecutor, Peter Frank, said Wednesday. Members of the military faction had also been active in the in the federal armed forces, he said.

The attackers, prosecutors said, seemed willing to use violence. “Members of the organization were aware that this goal can only be achieved through the use of military means and violence against state representatives,” the prosecutor’s statement added. “This also included commissioning killings.”

It was not the first plot against government officials that law enforcement agencies have foiled this year.

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In April, officers arrested four people who had been plotting to kidnap the health minister, Karl Lauterbach, and cause nationwide power outages. Police said that the suspects were linked to the Reichsbürger and antivaccine movements.

In the plot exposed Wednesday, an AfD member, identified in German media as Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a lawmaker until last year, was designated to become the group’s justice minister in the post-coup regime, prosecutors said.

The ringleader of the group was identified as Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss, the 71-year-old descendant of a former German royal family. He was designated to take over as the new head of state.

Already, the Reuss family this year distanced itself from Heinrich XIII because of his involvement in the Reichsbürger scene, calling him a “conspiracy theorist” and a “confused old man.”

According to the members of the group, liberation is promised by the imminent intervention of the “Alliance,” a technically superior secret coalition of governments, intelligence services, and militaries of various states, including Russia and the United States, according to the prosecutors.

Heinrich XIII had tried to make contact with representatives of the Russian government through the Russian Embassy in Berlin. A Russian citizen, whom the prosecutors identified as “Vitalia B.,” is believed to have helped him in trying to establish contact with Moscow. But prosecutors said there were no indications that they had received a positive response from the Russian sources they had contacted.

A Russian government spokesperson on Wednesday called the plot “a German internal problem.”

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“There can be no question of any Russian interference,” the spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters.