Heinrich XIII: Germany's far-right prince who planned a coup
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A hereditary prince and co-leader of a right-wing terror cell was plotting to overthrow the German government. How did a minor member of a noble family go from real estate to the center of an extremist plot?
More than a century ago, the ancestors of Heinrich XIII, Prince Reuss, held sway over the city of Gera and its surroundings in what is now Germany's eastern state of Thuringia.
If Heinrich, a minor member of the family, had gotten his way, all that and much more would have been his, following a planned coup against the government in Berlin. On Wednesday morning, German police arrested the prince and 24 alleged accomplices to this plan at locations across Germany.
"Meet the man who wanted to become Germany's king" was a tweet gleefully shared on social media, for example by Left Party leader Dietmar Bartsch.
The suspects who were arrested, authorities have said, belong to a network of so-called "Reichsbürger" (sovereign citizens of the Reich) conspiracy theorists.
A once-fringe group that is estimated to have 21,000 affiliates, the Reichsbürger contend that the German government has been illegitimate since the end of World War II. They believe that the German constitution, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and the Bundestag are part of a system created by the Allies at the end of the Second World War to make Germany a vassal state to their interests.
The Reichsbürger movement in Germany
They join protests against measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, and reject the legitimacy of Germany's government. Some are prepared to use violence. Who are the Reichsbürger? And what is Germany doing about them?
Image: picture-alliance/chromorange/C. Ohde
What do Reichsbürger believe?
"Reichsbürger" translates to "citizens of the Reich." The nebulous movement rejects the modern German state, and insists that the German Empire's 1937 or 1871 borders still exist and the modern country is an administrative construct still occupied by Allied powers. For Reichsbürger, the government, parliament, judiciary and security agencies are puppets installed and controlled by foreigners.
What do they do?
The Reichsbürger refuse to pay taxes or fines. They see their personal property, such as their houses, as independent entities outside the authority of the Federal Republic of Germany, and reject the German constitution and other legal texts, but also swamp German courts with lawsuits. They produce their own aspirational documents such as passports and driving licenses.
How much of a threat are they?
The Reichsbürger scene began to develop in the 1980s and is a disparate, leaderless movement that has grown to about 19,000 supporters, according to German intelligence officials. Of those, about 950 have been identified as far-right extremists and at least 1,000 have a license to own firearms. Many subscribe to anti-Semitic ideologies.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Weihrauch
Who are its members? One was Mr. Germany
According to German authorities, the average Reichsbürger is 50 years old, male, and is socially and financially disadvantaged. The movement's members are concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of Germany. Adrian Ursache, a former winner of the Mister Germany beauty pageant, is also a Reichsbürger and was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2019 for shooting and injuring a policeman.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt
The case of Wolfgang P., who in October 2017 was sentenced to life in prison for murdering a police officer, is seen as a turning point for how German authorities deal with the extremist group. P., an alleged Reichsbürger member, shot at officers who were raiding his home to confiscate weapons. The case gained international attention and set off alarm bells over the escalation of violence.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Karmann
What are the authorities doing about it?
German authorities were accused of long underestimating the threat. In 2017 for the first time Germany’s domestic intelligence service documented extremist crimes perpetrated by individual Reichsbürger. Since then there have been several raids on Reichsbürger targets and subgroups have been banned. Police and military have also probed whether they have Reichsbürger in their own ranks.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken
International parallels, conspiracy theories
Reichsbürger have been seen waving Russian flags, leading to allegations that they are funded by Russia with the aim to destabilize the German government. Germany's Reichsbürger are also compared to US groups such as "freemen-on-the-land," who believe that they are bound only by laws they consent to and can therefore declare themselves independent of the government and the rule of law.
Image: DW/D. Vachedin
Golf, real estate, and global conspiracies
The prince, 71, split his time between Frankfurt, where his property development company is located, and his hunting lodge in Thuringia. It was at this lodge that he hosted Reichsbürger sympathizers, as well as the "Princely Hickory Golf Club Reuss."
Between organizing golf clubs for local elites and selling real estate, Heinrich XIII found time to give a speech on these topics at the World Web Forum in Zurich, Switzerland 2019.
Heinrich reiterated the belief that because there was no peace treaty at the end of World War II, the current democratic Federal Republic has no valid basis. He then trotted out several well-worn antisemitic tropes before concluding that the only logical next step was to return Germany to the time of the Kaiser, who had been removed from power more than 100 years ago against the wishes of the people, he claimed.
Horrified attendees either booed or left the speech, which the prince had been invited to give at the global conference for business, tech and political leaders at the last minute when someone else dropped out.
Suing the German government
Heinrich XIII, who was married to a model and is a lover of motor racing, campaigned for years to have his family's mausoleum in downtown Gera reconstructed.
Like other members of the family — the prince has five siblings — Heinrich XIII has sought compensation from the German state for expropriated art and cultural assets. In 2017, as a result, the group of heirs received €3.1 million.
The remains of nobility in Germany
The last Emperor of Germany abdicated, and monarchy was abolished in the country a century ago, but there are still traces of nobility. Here's what it means.
Image: picture-alliance/imagebroker/D. Plewka
The Kaiser and his court
If you know the different German ranks of royalty, you're probably a medieval history buff: Kaiser (emperor), König (king), Erzherzog (archduke), Grossherzog (grand duke), Kurfürst (elector), Herzog (duke), Landgraf (landgrave), Pfalzgraf (count palatine), Markgraf (margrave), Fürst (prince), Freiherr (baron), Ritter (knight), Junker (squire)… But are there any kings and queens left in Germany?
Image: Harald Richter/Bildagentur-online/McPHOTO/picture alliance
The abolition of monarchy
Following the German Empire's defeat in World War I, civil unrest across Germany led to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II (portrayed above). A parliamentary democracy was proclaimed on November 9, 1918, and the Prussian monarchy and Germany's 22 constituent monarchies were abolished.
Image: Ralf Hirschberger/dpa/picture alliance
Symbols of nobility
Traces of nobility can still be found in people's names. The particles "von" (which means "descending from") or "zu" ("resident at") preceding a German surname indicate that the person belongs to a family with a former heredity title — which is estimated to be the case for around 80,000 people in Germany. The titles only have a symbolic value today.
Image: picture-alliance/imagebroker/D. Plewka
Austria's abolition of nobility titles
The last Emperor of Austria, Karl I (picture), didn't officially abdicate, so the laws abolishing the monarchy were stricter in the Austrian Republic. Germany's Weimar Republic allowed aristocrats to keep their family's nobiliary particles, but Austria determined in 1919 that such markers of identity were to be removed from names. Some politicians say a similar law should apply in Germany too.
Image: imago images
An extra boost
Belonging to the nobility does not provide any legal advantages in Germany, but studies have found that people with a nobiliary particle in their name had more chances of landing a job interview than those without one. Nobility associations also provide networking opportunities that can contribute to gaining access to influential circles.
Image: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/picture alliance
Joining a noble family
Proof that some people still believe that nobility has its perks, it is possible to acquire a genuine title through marriage or adoption. It's not cheap, however: Consultants offering such services mention fees "in the five to six-digit range." You'll also need to convince the family court that you're not getting adopted only to obtain the noble name — in that case, the name change can be refused.
Image: picture-alliance/Chromorange/H. Richter
A prince's title
It's actually really cheap to buy a German nobility title from a feudal line whose family members are all deceased. The companies selling those titles compare it to choosing your own artist's pseudonym, a right that's protected in Germany. But it's not a title that can be added to your identity card — unless you manage to prove that everyone knows you as "Prince."
Image: Keystone/dpa/picture alliance
Is that a real one?
Picking up a title for fun is one thing, but that doesn't mean you suddenly belong to nobility. Pretending you do can damage your credibility. For instance, the media investigated the title of a politician from the far-right AfD party, Doris Fürstin von Sayn-Wittgenstein. It turned out to be one that "has been sold at a high cost for a certain time already," according to the "Süddeutsche Zeitung."
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Scholz
A touch of irony
Additionally, not everyone is impressed by nobiliary particles. The expression "Herr von und zu" or "Frau von und zu" — without referring to an actual family name — is sometimes used to mock a man or a woman who takes on pretentious airs. Haughty Ladies and Sirs should try kissing a frog; it might remind them that they're just mortal humans — and no noble title will ever change that.
Image: M. Weber/Chromorange/picture alliance
But subsequent attempts by Heinrich to sue the German government to try and regain lands and properties he claims are his birthright failed. He spent large sums of money on this crusade and began to claim that there was a conspiracy against him in the judicial system.
At the same time, he was coordinating a "homeland defense troop," which according to security services had a few dozen members planning an armed overthrow of the government. Among his fellow suspects are former and current members of the military and the police.
According to local media, people who knew the prince said they had no idea he was the ringleader of a far-right terrorist group. However, his family distanced themselves from him in the summer of 2022. A spokesman for House Reuss, whose history goes back at least 700 years, said that Heinrich was a confused old man who believed "erroneous conspiracy theories."
After World War One (1914-1918) Germany's first democratic constitution officially abolished royalty and nobility, and the respective legal privileges and immunity appertaining to an individual, a family, or any heirs. Today, German nobility is no longer conferred and the constitution stipulates that the descendants of German noble families do not enjoy legal privileges.
Concern over extremists in German state institutions
Russia denies involvement
The prince's fellow suspects include both men and women and are mostly German, authorities said. They had already created an "outline," for the organization of the German government after the coup, they added, on top of which Heinrich XIII would sit as head of state.
Reuss' alleged partner, the Russian Vitalia B., was also arrested during the raid. According to the attorney general, she is strongly suspected of having "supported the association, in particular by assisting the accused Heinrich XIII P. R. in establishing contacts with representatives of the Russian Federation."
The Russian Embassy in Berlin has denied allegations that they are tied to the Russian woman accused of helping facilitate the plot.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg