In the early hours of 7 December last year, German authorities carried out the largest counter-terrorist operation in the country’s post-war history. Three thousand police raided more than 160 sites across the Federal Republic. They made twenty-three arrests in seven of the sixteen federal states, and apprehended two further suspects in Austria and Italy. They seized 273 firearms, more than 44,000 rounds of ammunition, 259 knives, along with a considerable array of swords, axes, coshes, crossbows, night-vision goggles, satellite phones and Ecstasy pills. Nearly half a million euros in cash was discovered, and more than fifty kilograms of gold and other precious metals.
The suspected ringleader was a 71-year-old real-estate developer with an engineering degree who lived in a pre-war walk-up building not far from me, in the upscale Westend district of Frankfurt. Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss identified himself as a member of the ‘blue-blooded elite’, and was known for taking care to emphasise his aristocratic connections and monarchical fervour in a country that has gone without an emperor since 1918. His neighbours described him to me as an aloof, slightly eccentric man, who strongly favoured corduroy. The police arrested him for spearheading a terrorist organisation which had plotted to overthrow the German government and install a cabinet with Prince Reuss as the new head of state.
The House of Reuss is one of the oldest ‘noble’ families of Germany, with links to self-styled royals across Europe. Among its members is Anni-Frid Lyngstad, one of the A’s in the Swedish band ABBA, who was married to another Heinrich. Regnal names are unvaried in the House of Reuss. The Heinrichs’ regnal numbers reach well into the high twenties; each century, the ordinals begin anew. There are thirty-three living Heinrichs. The thirteenth has one sister and four brothers, who are all named Heinrich. Perhaps to avoid confusion, the family’s nickname for Heinrich XIII is ‘Enrico’. They have now distanced themselves from the man the German media has delighted in dubbing the Putschprinz, or the Terrorfürst.
For nearly a year, German authorities kept the plotters under surveillance. Through intercepted communications on messenger services, tapped phones and public YouTube channels, they gathered intelligence about the progress of the putsch. The plotters – who called themselves the ‘Patriotic Union’ – had allocated ministerial posts for a cabinet that would take over on ‘Day X’. The judge and former Alternative for Germany (AfD) Bundestag member Birgit Malsack-Winkemann was to be minister of justice. The military arm of the Union was to be run by former Bundeswehr paratrooper Rüdiger von Pescatore, who was dishonourably discharged in 1996 for stealing weapons from the army. (Following a suspended sentence, von Pescatore moved to Pomerode, a German enclave in Brazil. He returned to Germany in 2021 to, as he put it, ‘help out a friend’.)
The celebrity chef Frank Heppner, father of Real Madrid football player David Alaba’s girlfriend, was to be responsible for what the Germans call das leibliche Wohl – bodily well-being. Heppner was to cater the putsch. He had bought a mobile home with a kitchenette, including an emergency generator and cooking utensils. He was set to operate the cafeterias for the new government.
Over the course of two years before their arrest, the insurrectionists – who consisted largely of former police and military personnel, but also included a tenor, an art historian and a clairvoyant – held target practice, threatened to execute traitors within the group, and made members sign non-disclosure agreements. They drafted plans for license plates for the military vehicles of their new state, and had ordered rubber stamps for the authentication of documents. It was, after all, to be a German coup.
Unlike the Federal Republic of Germany, Enrico’s new state would not have a chancellor or president. It was to return Germany to the Kaiserreich, the German Empire, that ended with the abdication of Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, during the First World War. Heinrich, on the basis of his bloodline, was to be its unelected monarch. Berlin would no longer be the seat of government. Instead, the emperor was to rule from the spa town of Bad Lobenstein in Thuringia, where Enrico owns a small neo-Gothic castle, the Jagdschloss Waidmannsheil. Starting in November 2021, the council met roughly once a month at the castle to plot the coup.
Most members of the Patriotic Union are on remand awaiting trial. According to court documents concerning their current pre-trial detention, the ring was formed in late 2021 and meticulously schemed ‘to overthrow the existing state order in Germany and replace it with their own form of – already rudimentarily designed – government’. The Public Prosecutor General, Peter Frank, is convinced the Patriotic Union ‘made concrete preparations to forcibly gain access to the German parliament with an armed group of up to sixteen people.’ After gaining access to the Bundestag, the commando unit was supposed to arrest and tie up Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his cabinet, and parade the manacled ministers in the streets and in front of TV cameras to inspire the masses for the new German order.
The plan was outlandish, but the threat of violence was not. As a former member of parliament, Malsack-Winkemann retained parliamentary access. In September 2022, she gave three of the plotters a tour of the Bundestag. She showed them an underground entrance into the main building, and indicated where Scholz’s cabinet sat during Bundestag sessions. When Malsack-Winkemann was arrested in her Berlin-Wannsee home, authorities found more than 7,000 rounds of ammunition, a revolver, and a semi-automatic rifle with a mounted telescopic sight.
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