German authorities said Thursday that further arrests are likely after a far-right plot to overthrow the government was thwarted. Prosecutors said they had identified over 50 suspects in the case.
Three thousand police officers raided properties across Germany early Wednesday, arresting 25 people. Police in Austria and Italy also carried out several raids.
The suspects are alleged members of the Reichsbuerger movement (Citizens of the Reich), who have been accused of hatching a plan in November 2021 to overthrow the German government.
Police say they found rifles, ammunition, crossbows and protective vests, along with plans to recruit soldiers and police officers.
“Based on current findings, the suspected terrorist group ... was founded based on coup d’etat fantasies and conspiracy ideologies,” Germany’s Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told reporters Wednesday.
“Only a further investigation will give us a clear picture how far advanced those coup plans were. The militant Reichsbuerger are united by the hatred for democracy, for our state and for people who support our community,” she said.
The suspected ringleader of the Reichsbuerger plan calls himself Prince Heinrich XIII and is a descendant of the former royal House of Reuss. He was arrested in Frankfurt. The Reuss family once ruled large parts of eastern Germany before the monarchy was abolished a century ago.
Police are searching a hunting lodge belonging to Heinrich in eastern Germany. Prosecutors say the 71-year-old contacted Russian officials to ask for help. There was no evidence of a positive response, and Moscow has denied involvement.
Police also arrested Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a former lawmaker for the far-right Alternative for Germany political party, or AfD, who currently serves as a judge.
A soldier serving in the German army’s Special Forces Command and several military reservists were also detained.
Peter Frank, Germany’s federal prosecutor, said Thursday the suspects shared ideologies.
“The arrested are followers of conspiracy myths consisting of different narratives of the Reichsbuerger ideology, as well as the QAnon ideology,” Frank told reporters.
The QAnon movement originated in the United States. Its followers falsely claim the world is controlled by a deep state government. Several QAnon followers have been accused and in some cases convicted of taking part in the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, following the defeat of former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
In August 2020, German far-right protesters stormed the steps of Germany's parliament building following a march against coronavirus restrictions. Police prevented them from entering the building.
Inspired by Capitol insurrection?
Conspiracy theories have been amplified between similar groups around the world, said social scientist Alexander Haeusler, a research associate in right-wing extremism at FORENA, a research center that studies right-wing extremism and neo-Nazism at the University of Applied Sciences Duesseldorf.
“The pandemic fueled the conspiracy theories present in these circles, and the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine fueled those theories with its political alternatives, which are admired by these circles. And not least, the storming of the U.S. Capitol after the last presidential election showed these people that there are options to destroy the state order,” Haeusler told Reuters.
Anke Hoffstadt, also a research associate at FORENA, told VOA the assaults on the German parliament and the U.S. Capitol bear striking similarities.
“You see some habitual similarities — the chanting, the banners, and the absolute want to reach the symbol of democracy,” Hoffstadt said.
“The idea of running a coup d’etat is, in their universe, really possible. So, we have to look that this is a really dangerous situation, because the people and activists who do this are armed, well-prepared and in knowledge of how to use the weapons,” she added.
Georg Maier, interior minister of the eastern German state of Thuringia, accused the AfD Party of helping to "spread fantasies about toppling the state." The AfD is the second-largest party in eastern Germany and has 78 lawmakers in parliament.
“People are scared, and the AfD takes advantage of that and offers simple solutions,” Maier told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk on Thursday.
AfD lawmakers have frequently attended demonstrations against policies on matters such as coronavirus restrictions and migration in recent years, Hoffstadt noted.
“We find people who are members or supporters for the QAnon ideology maybe in the first line of demonstrations or as participants in the demonstrations. And there you can see politicians from the AfD, as well, maybe even the most famous ones. So, I don't know if you really can say they are to blame ... but they are obviously making a good job to fix the narratives,” she said.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the AfD condemned the coup plot and expressed confidence in the investigation.