MAINZ, Germany — Authorities in Germany arrested 25 people Wednesday who are suspected of planning to violently overthrow the government in a far-right extremist plot.
More than 3,000 police officers, including special forces members, made 130 early morning searches across 11 of Germany’s 16 federal states in one of the biggest counterterrorism operations in the country’s history.
Suspects from the so-far-unnamed group include a nobleman with a historic royal title and various armed forces veterans. It is centered on the so-called Reichsbürger, or Reich Citizens, movement, which is motivated by conspiracy theories about the role and the legitimacy of the modern German state.
The suspects will appear in court Wednesday and Thursday. The homes of a 27 more people suspected of being members or supporters of the group have been searched.
“We defend ourselves with all strength against the enemies of democracy,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser wrote on Twitter.
She said the group was “driven by fantasies of violent overturn and conspiracy ideologies” and hated democracy and the state. “Further investigations will give a clear picture of how far the coup plans had progressed,” she said.
The German prosecutor’s office said the suspects belong to a terrorist group founded in November 2021 at the latest, which aims to overthrow the government in Berlin and install its own leaders through the “forcible elimination of the democratic constitutional state.”
“The members of the association are aware that this project can only be realized through the use of military means and violence against state representatives,” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement early Wednesday. It said there was “the suspicion that individual members of the association have made concrete preparations to forcibly invade” the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, “with a small armed group.”
“The details are yet to be worked out,” it added.
The statement said the group was motivated by a rejection of the “free democratic basic order of the Federal Republic of Germany.”
Some members of the group’s “military arm” are former members of the German army, the Bundeswehr, prosecutors said. The German armed forces have been beset by a series of scandals involving personnel belonging to far-right groups.
A spokesman for the German Military Security Service confirmed that “an active member of the military’s special forces (KSK) group” was also under investigation. The spokesman stressed that the suspect is not part of the special forces itself and would not confirm whether he had been arrested.
The group is heavily influenced by right-wing conspiracy theories, authorities say, including a belief in a secretive, malign “deep state” running the country, as seen in the QAnon movement. It believes that the Federal Republic of Germany is not a sovereign state, and its members espouse antisemitic conspiracy theories, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution said.
Reichsbürger activists and members of other closely related groups commonly take part in protests against Covid-19 restrictions. The pandemic was a rallying cause for far-right activists across Europe, adding to baseless accusations of a wider government plot to control people.
Prosecutors also said the group believes that “the Alliance,” a group of national governments and intelligence services, including those of the U.S. and Russia, is active in Germany and about to launch an attack on the “deep state.”
Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has been officially observing the “Reichsbürger” scene since 2016. The agency counts around 21,000 followers, according to its website, a little more than a thousand of whom are also considered right-wing extremists.
Authorities said that among those arrested was “Heinrich XIII P. R,” named in German media as Prince Heinrich XIII of the House of Reuss, which ruled parts of Germany until 1918. NBC News has not verified his identity.
He is considered to be a future head of state after an insurrection, and he heads the group’s ruling council, which has met to discuss the planned takeover, prosecutors said.
Prince Heinrich, who still uses his title despite its constitutional irrelevance, is accused of contacting representatives of the Russian Federation both in Russia and in Germany in the hope of winning support for the overthrow of the Berlin government.
One suspect was also arrested was in Perugia, Italy, while another was in Kitzbühel, Austria. A Russian national named as Vitalia B. is accused of helping the organization try to contact Russian officials.
German prosecutors say, however, that there is no evidence Russian officials reacted positively to the request.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at his daily news briefing Wednesday that the investigation was “an internal matter for Germany, and they themselves state there is no question of Russian interference.”