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German far-right group on trial over coup plans

May 17, 2023

They are accused of planning a coup and to kidnap German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach. Now, five suspected members of a terrorist group linked to the "Reichsbürger" movement are facing trial.

A 75-year-old woman, part of the so-called "United Patriots" terror group, appears in court accompanied by armed police in the Germany city of Koblenz.
Five suspects, four men and one woman, appeared in court in the western German city of KoblenzImage: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture alliance

The trial of five suspected members of the "Vereinte Patrioten" (United Patriots) group begins on Wednesday (May 17) at the Higher Regional Court in the western German city of Koblenz.

The four men, along with a 75-year-old woman who is suspected of being the group's ringleader, are accused of planning to overthrow the German government. According to federal prosecutors, they got together in mid-January 2022 and called themselves the "Vereinte Patrioten". They are now charged with founding or being a member of a terrorist organization.

The group stands accused of wanting to unleash a civil war-like situation by causing an electricity blackout and kidnapping German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach. Their goal: the end of the parliamentary democracy in Germany.

After their planned takeover, the accused wanted to assume control of government agencies themselves. Federal prosecutors, therefore, accused them of "preparing high treason against the federal government."

Karl Lauterbach holding a press conference
The plotters had been planning to kidnap Health Minister Karl Lauterbach. Image: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

How advanced were the group's plans?

Investigators have described "concrete preparations" by the accused, who communicated primarily via a chat group on the Telegram online messaging service and met several times in various locations.

One of the accused scouted targets for attacks on the electricity network. Another planned the kidnapping of the health minister, "if necessary, by killing his bodyguards."

To that end, the group obtained kalashnikovs and pistols as well as ammunition. They also wanted to import barrels of explosives from the former Yugoslavia.

Part of the 'Reichsbürger' movement?

The alleged ideological leader of the group is a 75-year-old former pastor and teacher who most recently lived in Saxony. Her writings were found on the blogs of the "Reichsbürger" (Citizens of the Reich) movement. They are written in the characteristic style of the 23,000-member movement which claims that the German Reich — Germany under the rule of an emperor — still exists as it did until 1918. The Reichsbürger reject all current state authorities as unlawful. 

Open letters the woman is accused of writing on "Reichsbürger" blogs are addressed to Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, or "the Allies." In them, she expresses antisemitic thoughts, signed with "Wilhelm-Emperor-Rex-Descendants," implying that she saw herself as a successor of the last German emperor.

Federal prosecutors are convinced that the woman and her accomplices were more than eccentric imposters. According to the group's theory that the German Reich continues to exist based on the constitution of 1871, they would conclude that the democratic order of the Federal Republic of Germany was invalid. Instead, an authoritarian system of government modeled on the German Empire must be reintroduced.

Why target the health minister?

Karl Lauterbach has long been considered a bogeyman by Germany's "Querdenker" (lateral thinkers) and "Reichsbürger" movements. Even before he was appointed health minister in December 2021, the professor of medicine made countless media appearances as an expert during the COVID-19 pandemic. During these, he advocated for strict measures such as limitations on interpersonal contact to combat the spread of the virus. He continued this course when he entered office as minister.

In doing so, he drew hatred from extremist circles who rejected government measures to combat the pandemic in Germany. Lauterbach remains under round-the-clock protection to this day.

How was the group discovered?

An undercover investigator is said to have played a key role in the arrests of the suspects. He was deployed in the surroundings of the accused for months.

On April 13, 2022, the four accused men were arrested, and the woman on October 13 the same year. Since then, they have been remanded in custody.

If the court finds them guilty, they are likely to face several years in prison.

This article was originally written in German.

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Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille