Prince Accused of Plot in Germany Is Said to Have Visited Russian Diplomats
BERLIN — The German prince accused of organizing a plot to overthrow the German government met at least once with Russian diplomats at a consulate in Germany, according to two people familiar with the investigation into the conspiracy, a meeting that investigators are examining to determine how aggressively the prince tried to involve Moscow in the plot.
The two people also described striking new details about the plot, offering a dramatic portrait of how much planning the network had invested in its effort.
Investigators told lawmakers that in the course of raids against the group, which targeted 150 locations across the country, they confiscated around 40 firearms. But they also found thousands of bullets for other weapons they have yet to locate, leaving police on the hunt for hidden caches of weapons.
Three people familiar with the investigation — a lawmaker, a top aide to another lawmaker, and another German official — discussed details of the investigation on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the case publicly. Lawmakers on certain parliamentary committees were briefed on the investigation Monday night.
The raids also found more than 100 nondisclosure agreements, two of those people said, swearing signees to secrecy over the group’s plans, which involved storming the German Parliament and arresting its members, as well as killing the chancellor. So far, police have arrested 23 suspects and are investigating another 31 people.
Many of these contracts, the lawmaker and the lawmaker’s aide said, were signed with an acknowledgment that breaking their silence should be punishable by death.
“The grossest scandal for our country will be if this is true — that a number of people signed these, including some people in government offices,” said Matthias Quent, a professor of sociology at Magdeburg University of Applied Sciences and an expert on the far right. “And that apparently nobody, or at least very few of them, reported it or criticized it.”
The Return of the Far Right in Germany
- Reichsbürger: The fringe group, which is accused of plotting to overthrow the government and install a German prince as the new head of state, gained momentum from QAnon during the pandemic.
- Day X: The far right’s resurgence in Germany has deep roots. A 2021 Times podcast examined the rise of a new brand of extremism, and one shadowy figure in the middle of it.
- A Threat From Within: Germany has woken up to a problem of far-right extremism in its security services. But the threat of neo-Nazi infiltration of state institutions is much broader.
- Online Hate Speech: Battling far-right extremism, Germany has gone further than any other Western democracy to prosecute people for what they say on the internet. But how far is too far?
Lawmakers said they have been equally troubled by potential links between the prince accused of being a ringleader of the plot and a Russian consulate in the eastern city of Leipzig.
Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss, identified as the designated leader of a shadow government the plotters had formed, had twice visited the Russian consulate in Leipzig, where he was said to have met with Russian diplomats, the people familiar with the investigation said. One of the visits occurred on Russia’s National Day in June, a lawmaker said.
The Russian consulate in Leipzig did not respond to requests for comment, but last week Russian officials denied any involvement with the plotters, calling it a domestic German affair. So far, investigators have said they found no evidence that Russian officials responded to the group’s outreach.
The fantastical plot contrived by the plotters, who were followers of a German conspiracy group known as the Reichsbürger, has stirred debate in Germany, as the country tries to grapple with how dangerous the threat to its democracy was.
The Reichsbürger, or Citizens of the Reich, believe a conspiracy theory that has gained momentum in far-right circles: that Germany’s postwar republic is not a sovereign country but a corporation set up by the Allies after World War II.
Some of the people supporting Heinrich XIII were active members of the military or the police, and others had training in weapons. But it remains unclear how capable the plotters were of actually implementing their plans, or how close they were to acting. Twice, they had planned to attack and did not.
Investigators also told the parliamentary briefing that there were ongoing disputes among leading conspirators over cabinet positions in the shadow government they aspired to set up, the lawmakers said.
But what was clear, the lawmakers said, is how exhaustively the group had planned for its plot, and that it could have been deadly.
Investigators found photographs on one of the accused plotters’ mobile phones documenting the different barriers into one of the buildings that houses offices of members of Parliament, as if for scouting purposes.
Investigators also told lawmakers they found cash as well as silver and gold coins in possession of the suspected plotters that are worth hundreds of thousands of euros.
Among the open questions are not only the potentially undiscovered weapons caches but also the implication of several lists found with people’s names on them; investigators have declined to disclose the names or say what the lists might mean, citing the ongoing investigation.
They also declined to tell lawmakers whether any of the people who signed vows of silence were also members of the military, the lawmaker and the aide said, or whether the weapons they had so far seized were licensed or illegally obtained.
One matter raised by the hearings that lawmakers say is likely to spark intense debate is the involvement of a political party that has members in German Parliament — the Alternative for Germany, known as the AfD in German.
One former AfD lawmaker, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, now a judge in Berlin, was already reported to be involved in the foiled plot. Investigators told the parliamentary hearings they have also discovered two other AfD members who were part of the network, the lawmaker and the aide said.
AfD leaders have said that the involvement of such a small number of participants should not put the party under further scrutiny — several state branches of the party are already under surveillance by domestic intelligence.
But Mr. Quent, the analyst of far-right groups, argued that the numbers were enough to merit concern. He pointed out that there have been several cases of violence by people who were AfD supporters, but not members — including the murder of a pro-immigration, conservative politician, Walter Lübcke.
Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting.