February 8, 2023

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Prince Henry XIII and the plot to overthrow the German government

The crenellated hunting lodge of Prince Heinrich XIII. von Reuss is perched on a steep hill overlooking the snow-covered and Christmas-lit houses in Bad Lobenstein. Popular with the local mayor and many surrounding villagers, the prince spent his weekends in the spa town, bringing an aristocratic flair to this sleepy corner of rural East Germany.

But his idyll also had a darker side.

According to prosecutors and intelligence officials, Henry XIII. also his lodge to hold meetings at which he and a group of far-right co-conspirators plotted to overthrow the German government and execute the chancellor. The group stored weapons and explosives in the basement. They sometimes held target practice in the forest that sloped down below the hut.

Last week, Waidmannsheil, a three-hour drive south of Berlin in Thuringia, was one of 150 targets searched by security forces as part of one of Germany’s largest post-war anti-terror operations. By Friday, 23 members of the cell had been arrested in eleven German federal states and 31 others were being investigated. Police uncovered weapons and military equipment, as well as a list of 18 politicians and journalists believed to be enemies.

Prince Henry XIII, 71, a wealthy descendant of a 700-year-old noble family, may seem an unlikely leader in such a terrorist plot. But, prosecutors say, he was singled out by his co-conspirators to become head of state in a post-coup regime.

Nostalgic for the pre-1918 German Empire, when his ancestors ruled over a state in East Germany, he had openly embraced a conspiracy theory that has gained traction in far-right circles: Germany’s post-war republic was not a sovereign state, but a conglomerate from the post-WWII Allies World War erected.

Followers of this conspiracy theory call themselves Reich citizens. And there are many of them in south-east Thuringia, the federal state in which the National Socialists first seized power locally over 90 years ago, before founding the Third Reich.

Today, the country’s biggest political force is the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party – one of its former MPs was arrested last week as part of the prince’s alleged plot.

But it’s the Reichsbürger who have brought Bad Lobenstein the most notoriety, much to the chagrin of local hoteliers and winemakers, looking to lure tourists to the area, where stone buildings and medieval church spiers dot the hilly landscape dotted with pine forests and lakes.

“They keep us pretty busy,” says municipal councilor Andree Burkhardt. “But I never imagined that we would have a scene here that is so militant.”

Whenever Mr Burkhardt and his fellow councilors set up a stall at the local market to hear locals’ concerns, they end up being met with a torrent of abuse from people who insist he works for a country that doesn’t are.

“They yell at us and say, ‘We are not Germans. We are not in a real German state! We’re just a branch of a GmbH!’” he said, referring to the German acronym for a limited liability company.

But the Reichsbürger seemed to be just a local nuisance until Henry XIII. appeared on the scene.

The prince pursued his goal of rebuilding the German Empire on several fronts, as if he believed his fantasy realm already existed.

The editor of the Bad Lobensteiner local newspaper, Peter Hagen, first learned that the village had a prince in April 2021 when local residents told him about strange election posters posted on the streets below the Waidmannsheil, urging residents to get in touch with the “electoral commission.” Reuss.”

There were no official elections at the time.

Mr. Hagen became more suspicious last summer after beating Henry XIII. and followed another local Reich citizen to a municipal office which the then mayor had made available to them for a lecture entitled “An information event on the BRD GmbH” acronym for the Federal Republic of Germany.

The title clearly implied a connection to the beliefs of Reich citizens. But when Mr. Hagen arrived, the organizers refused to start the meeting and he was unable to listen to the lecture.

The uneasiness in Bad Lobenstein began to grow in July when a letter landed in people’s mailboxes. It was punctuated with exclamation marks and capital letters and asked them to register for citizenship of the House of Reuss through a website. (Titles of nobility were abolished after World War I, but many former royal families eagerly trace their lineage.)

“Do you also have the feeling that something is wrong in this country?” the letter read. “Did you know that you actually have no citizenship, that you are actually stateless and have no rights?”

Bad Lobenstein is home to 6,000 residents, and some say it feels more like a village than a town. Everyone knows everyone, and the only café there sells out pastries and coffee by midday. Within hours of receiving the letter, Herr Burkhardt, the local council, realized he wasn’t the only one who had received it – everyone had received it.

He spoke to Mr Hagen, and after exchanging what he had seen or heard, Mr Burkhardt began to feel uncomfortable. “I thought, maybe we should get this checked out. So we actually reported it to the domestic intelligence agency. They told us, ‘We’re on this case.’ And I honestly think they took it more seriously than I did.”

Secret service agents have been observing the prince since autumn 2021, and what they discovered was far more sinister: the group of co-conspirators surrounding Henry XIII. included current and former elite special forces soldiers, police officers, reservists and others with ties to the military, which had been formulating concrete plans and even probable dates for a coup, officials said.

Already twice this year the group appeared poised to act — once in mid-March and once in September, which put security agencies on high alert but was postponed each time, intelligence officials said.

The prince not only recruited support from right-wing extremist circles close to the military. He also sought allies among other aristocrats and traveled to Austria and Switzerland to solicit donations from German-speaking nobility to fund his plot, officials familiar with his travels said. With the money raised, his group bought satellite phones to communicate off-grid during and after the planned coup. The phones were later found during the raid at the lodge.

Henry XIII also made contact with Russian diplomats, assisted by a younger Russian friend, identified only as Vitalia B by prosecutors. She arranged meetings several times, although prosecutors said they had no evidence of a Russian response.

After the attack, the German interior minister wants to tighten the weapons law to make it more difficult for extremists to get hold of weapons.

When and how Henry XIII. It’s unclear who was radicalized for the first time, intelligence officials say. He lived in the affluent West End of Frankfurt, where he worked as a real estate agent and consultant.

When he started spending weekends in Bad Lobenstein regularly last year, he was already deeply rooted in the Reich Citizens’ Movement. But his anti-Semitic tendencies and interest in conspiracy theories are well documented.

In January 2019, he gave a lecture at the WorldWebForum in Zurich entitled “Experience the Rise and Fall of the Blue-Blood Elite”. In the 15-minute speech, he railed against the Rothschild family, claiming that international financial interests forced World War I on the German Kaiser – both common anti-Semitic dog whistle – and insisting that modern democratic Germany is just an illusion.

“Ever since Germany surrendered on May 8, Germany has never been sovereign again,” said Prince Henry XIII. in his speech, referring to the day of his defeat in World War II. “It was made into an administrative structure of the allies in the so-called unified economic entity of the Federal Republic of Germany – in other words, into a commercial structure.”

It was speeches like these that began to alienate him from relatives of the Reuss family. The head of the Reuss family, a distant cousin who is also named Heinrich like all male heirs to the Reuss throne, called him “a confused old man” and pointed out that even if his coup had been successful, he would only be 17 in the succession to the throne.

“That means 16 of us would have to die before his turn,” he said, adding that what drove his distant cousin into his world of conspiracy was likely years of bitterness with the German courts.

After the German reunification, Heinrich XIII. For years about regaining ownership of family estates and lodges that had been nationalized in the former communist GDR. “He never got any land restitutions,” said the head of the Reuss family, though the prince did manage to get some of his family’s furniture and artwork back.

Ultimately, Henry XIII. repurchase the ornately decorated castle with its stone-carved boars and Gothic-style tower.

Many in this remote town of former communist East Germany share his sense of nostalgia – albeit for a very different kind of past.

Mr Burkhardt said he was disturbed by how many local sympathizers of the Reichsbürger faith expressed a nostalgia for the days of communist Germany and despised the current German government, which they saw as discredited.

A local shopkeeper, who declined to give her name, said she liked the prince – he seemed “classy”. She wasn’t sure if the Reichsbürger plan to use force was correct or not. “But I think a lot of us here have that feeling,” she said. “It is, well – something has to happen here.”

This sentiment has grown stronger since the pandemic as conspiracy theories emerged. Now, in the face of an energy crisis and the crushing blow of inflation, bitterness is growing in Germany’s poorer eastern regions and the ruling elites can be an easy target.

Mr. Burkhardt had no firm estimates as to how many people in the city were active supporters of the Reich Citizens’ Movement, but it was enough to make the place uneasy.

The raid, he said, was like a reckoning.

“It was about time,” said Mr. Burkhardt.

Christopher F. Schütze contributed a report from Berlin.