(Bloomberg) -- German authorities carried out the biggest-ever raid targeting right-wing extremists, saying a nationwide operation thwarted a domestic terrorist group planning to violently overthrow the government.
More than 3,000 German law-enforcement officers, including hundreds of special forces, participated in searches across 11 of the country’s 16 states early on Wednesday. Twenty-five people were taken into custody, including a nobleman ringleader, a former lawmaker with the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany and at least one member of an elite military unit.
Authorities didn’t describe an imminent attack. But members of the group, which adheres to a far-right ideology that rejects the legitimacy of Germany’s post-World War II order, planned to attack the German parliament in Berlin, according to the federal prosecutor.
“Right-wing extremism poses the biggest threat to our democracy,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s chief spokesman, Steffen Hebestreit, told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday. “From everything we know so far about the plans of those arrested, it shows how bitterly true this assessment probably is.”
Members of the group were also driven by the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, many of whose followers were present on the steps of the US Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack in the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“They are firmly convinced that Germany is currently ruled by members of a so-called Deep State,” the prosecutor said in a statement. They believe that the country will be liberated by the “Alliance,” a secret organization of governments, intelligence services and armed forces of various nations, including Russia and the US.
The group’s members fell within Germany’s so-called “Reichsbürger” movement, a loose agglomeration whose ideology draws from the country’s pre-World War I militaristic imperial rule and rejects the democratic structures of the Federal Republic, established in 1949 as West Germany.
Media images included armored police escorting the suspected group leader, identified as Heinrich XIII, the Prince of Reuss, from his apartment in Frankfurt. The nobleman led the group’s “council” and planned to take over the government after a coup.
Part of the plan was to set up an interim government and begin negotiations with the victorious World War II governments, above all Russia. Heinrich XIII made contact with Russian representatives in Germany, according to the prosecutor.
“There are however no indications so far in the investigation that representatives reacted positively to his suggestions,” the prosecutor said in the statement. Among those detained were a Russian citizen, identified as Vitalia B., a suspected supporter who is accused of facilitating contacts with Moscow.
Investigators are looking closely at any potential ties with Russia, an Interior Ministry spokesman told reporters in Berlin.
‘Tip of the Iceberg’
Members of the group began meeting regularly in November 2021, a month before Scholz took office with a coalition of Social Democrats, the Green party and the Free Democrats. The prosecutor described a concerted effort to recruit military personnel and police to the cause.
The organization is “united by their hatred of democracy, of our state and of people who stand up for our community,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said in a statement “That is why we are taking action against such efforts with the full force of the rule of law.”
Uli Groetsch, a lawmaker focusing on domestic policy for the Social Democrats, said it was the largest counterterrorism operation in German history and warned that it was only “the tip of the iceberg.”
As well as the Reichsbürger scene, Germany’s security agencies were also implicated, Groetsch said by email, adding that he was not surprised that some of the suspects appeared to have links to the far-right AfD.
“The hurdles for removing enemies of the constitution in the civil service must be lowered,” Groetsch said. “It’s unacceptable that an accused extremist was still working as a judge.”
The raid went beyond Germany’s borders. One of the people detained was taken into custody in Perugia, Italy and another in Kitzbuehel, Austria.
--With assistance from Mariajose Vera and Alexey Anishchuk.
(Adds Scholz spokesman comment, scale of raid, from second paragraph.)
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