A Plot to Overthrow Germany’s Government Heads to Court

A year and a half after police and intelligence officers in Germany uncovered a plot to overthrow the country’s government and replace its chancellor, the first of three trials in the sprawling case is set to begin on Monday in Stuttgart.

Most of the would-be insurrectionists were arrested in December 2022, when heavily armed German police officers stormed houses, apartments, offices and a remote royal hunting lodge and made dozens of arrests. Those charged included a dentist, a clairvoyant, an amateur pilot and a man running a large QAnon telegram group. The German authorities contend that their figurehead was Heinrich XIII Prince of Reuss, an obscure and conspiracy-minded aristocrat who would have been made chancellor if the coup had succeeded.

Despite that idiosyncratic membership, the group was well organized and dangerous, investigators said. Some of its members were former officers trained by German elite military forces. One was a judge turned far-right lawmaker with Alternative for Germany, the surging populist party known as the AfD. The police said the group had stashed more than a half-million dollars in gold and cash; amassed hundreds of firearms, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition and a cache of explosives; and secured satellite phones to communicate once it disabled national communications networks.

“All the satirical elements that are naturally present in this group — elements of QAnon, the belief in U.F.O.s, esotericism, the idea of being able to overthrow the system of the Federal Republic of Germany — should not distract from the fact that this group posed a grave potential threat,” said Jan Rathje, a member of a nongovernmental organization that monitors conspiracy theories and right-wing extremism.

The trial scheduled to begin on Monday is the first of three set for this spring, and takes place as Germany wrestles with continuing fears about a rising far right in its politics and a week after the arrests of several people accused of spying for Russia and China.

Now, federal prosecutors will try to prove that a different group came dangerously close to launching an attack on the democratic foundation of Europe’s largest country.

The 26 defendants set to face trial this spring (a 27th died in jail last month) are part of a growing and increasingly dangerous movement called Reichsbürger, or citizens of the Reich.

What sets them apart from other far-right extremists, according to the German authorities and experts on right-wing extremism, is their refusal to accept the idea of the modern German state, which some of them contend is actually a corporation run by shadowy bureaucrats of a “Deep State.”

Once dismissed as harmless eccentrics, Reichsbürger used to be known more for making their own passports or for refusing to pay taxes or government fines. But that view changed in 2016 when a follower killed a police officer during a raid on his home.

While the authorities put the number of active members of the Reichsbürger movement in Germany at around 23,000, experts say the actual number is far higher. Last year, a study suggested that nearly 5 percent of Germans were open to some form of the conspiracy-based ideology.

“Even if many of the ideologies of the Reichsbürger seem bizarre — extremists often pursue far-fetched goals — that does not make them any less dangerous,” Konstantin von Notz, the chair of Germany’s parliamentary intelligence oversight committee, said in an email exchange.

Prosecutors believe the accused plotters — 21 men and five women — were planning to launch the coup by attacking Germany’s Parliament. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his ministers would be tied up and presented on national television to convince the public of the regime change, according to a version of the plan that investigators leaked last year.

As part of the planning, they said, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, the former AfD lawmaker, had led three of the men — at least two of them military-trained — into Parliament, where they scouted and photographed the premises.

Once the plotters controlled Parliament, the authorities said, the homeland protection brigades would spring into action, quelling local dissent and recruiting soldiers for an army loyal to their cause.

The nine defendants on trial in Stuttgart are accused of being part of the “military arm” of the plot. Prosecutors contend that they were responsible for organizing and recruiting for the 286 “homeland protection brigades” that the plotters planned to deploy. These brigades, prosecutors will argue, were designed to put down resistance and liquidate enemies at the local level once the national government had been overthrown.

They face charges of planning treasonous action and joining a terrorist organization. Both charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years, although a combined sentence could be longer.

Some of the accused are also charged with breaking weapons laws, and one is facing charges of attempted murder for shooting a police officer during his arrest.

Do not expect verdicts soon. German trials of this complexity can take years to prosecute, and this case already involves more than a dozen judges and nearly 100 defense lawyers.

A quirk of German law also requires that all testimony and evidence be heard and seen by the panel of judges overseeing the case.

Each defendant also has several defense lawyers, each of whom is then entitled to follow-up questions.

Prince Reuss, his Russian girlfriend and the group’s founders will begin their trial next month in Frankfurt. Because of the large number of participants — seven men and two women are on trial in those proceedings, attended by an array of judges, lawyers and court officials — a new temporary courtroom had to be built on the city outskirts to handle the trial.

A third trial, held at a high-security court in Munich, will deal with eight more defendants accused of serving as the plot’s leadership council, the coup’s cabinet in waiting.

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