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Police in Germany arrest 25 people allegedly planning to overthrow the government

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Germany, police have arrested 25 people they believe were plotting to overthrow the government. One of the things that they were allegedly planning to do? - storm the German parliament, the Bundestag. The suspects are members of various far-right extremist groups, some even inspired by QAnon.

And we're joined now by Esme Nicholson from Berlin, who has more details. Hey, Esme.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: OK. So these arrests, I know that they occurred during raids across Germany this morning and police investigations are still underway. But what can you tell us about the suspects so far and what they were allegedly planning to do?

NICHOLSON: Well, the raids targeted 52 people suspected of plotting a violent coup against the government. That was to include targeted killings of politicians and senior public servants. Federal prosecutors say there are indications the group was planning to storm the Bundestag with a small army. And police have detained 25 of the suspects who come from a number of far-right groups, including the so-called Reichsburger, which is a movement that doesn't recognize the modern German state and wants to abolish democracy. Others are members of the so-called Querdenken scene, which is a QAnon-inspired movement and really emerged during the pandemic and consists mainly of radicalized corona-deniers who adhere to conspiracy theories.

CHANG: And I understand that the alleged leader of all these disparate groups is someone who goes by Prince Heinrich XIII. Who is this person?

NICHOLSON: Yes. According to prosecutors, a 71-year-old man who goes by the name of Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss was allegedly going to be installed as the new leader of Germany. He's a descendant of Germany's monarchy, which, of course, was abolished by the Weimar Republic a century ago. But this ringleader rejects any form of German republic and doesn't recognize the fact that his title is meaningless in today's Germany.

Prosecutors say that he had started to nominate ministers for a post-coup government, including a former German army paratrooper as head of his military arm. They also say he contacted Russian officials in a bid to involve them in his new order in Germany but that there is no indication that there was a positive reaction to that request.

CHANG: And we're hearing now that these suspects have strong links to Germany's security services. What do we know about that?

NICHOLSON: Well, the federal prosecutor didn't go into detail about this during his press conference today, but the German press is citing unnamed intelligence sources who say an active Bundeswehr soldier, an active armed forces soldier and a number of reservists are under investigation. The active soldier is reportedly a member of the KSK, which is the German army's elite force where far-right sympathizers have previously been discovered. And according to these sources, one of the raids this morning took place at their barracks, although prosecutors are yet to confirm or deny this.

A number of police officers and former soldiers are also believed to be among those under investigation. But again, there's no confirmation from federal prosecutors on this particular point. Prosecutors did, however, confirm that a sitting Berlin judge was arrested this morning. Prosecutors believe she was to be installed as the new justice minister.

CHANG: Wow. OK. Well, right-wing extremism is not new in Germany, of course. How much of a surprise was today's news to people there?

NICHOLSON: Well, the Reichsburger scene is widely known about and considered dangerous. The QAnon-inspired Querdenker are also very vocal. So it doesn't come as a surprise here. That said, you know, this was the biggest terrorism rage in, I think, living memory. More than 3,000 officers were involved. And the details are pretty chilling. So we're seeing a crackdown on the far right.

And today, Germany's domestic intelligence chief, Thomas Haldenwang, said the Reichburger scene has seen a significant uptick in membership just over the past year. Domestic intelligence believes there are about 21,000 members. That might seem like a small number, perhaps, among 80 million Germans, but they are taking the threat seriously. What isn't clear at this stage of the investigation, though, is just how capable this group would have been in their aims to stage a coup, and how many weapons they had actually amassed.

CHANG: Chilling. That is Esme Nicholson reporting from Berlin. Thank you, Esme.

NICHOLSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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