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DG #49 preview: Behind the alleged coup plot in Germany

Masked officers lead Heinrich XIII, one of the alleged coup plotters, to a police vehicle in December 2022. Photo: DPA Picture Alliance / Alamy

The new issue of Delayed Gratification features an article by our editor at large Harriet Salem on an alleged plot to overthrow the government in Germany. Here, our associate editor Matthew Lee asks Harriet about her experience of reporting the story.

Matthew Lee: What initially drew you towards this story?
Harriet Salem: I first read about the arrest of the Reichsbürger coup plotters in the British newspapers. It immediately piqued my interest. In part because of the eccentricity of some of the conspirators – particularly Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss – but also because I had so many questions. Who are the Reichsbürger? Why do they oppose the state? What were their ties to Germany’s long defunct nobility? Should the coup plot be taken seriously? So, of course, I wanted to go to Bad Lobenstein and find answers to these questions.

ML: What were the biggest challenges you faced while reporting?
HS: The biggest challenge was finding a way into the story. East Germany isn’t a region that is reported on that much outside of Germany. I would also say that people there were a little closed or suspicious of what I wanted as a foreign reporter. I was fortunate enough to work with local reporter Paul-Philipp Braun on this story. His insights and connections were absolutely invaluable to my reporting. I couldn’t have done it without him.

ML: What was the atmosphere like in Bad Lobenstein – has the town been scarred by its links to this alleged coup?
HS: Absolutely. People had different concerns. Some were worried that the name of their town was tarnished and that they would, by virtue of living in Bad Lobenstein, be seen as part of this movement. Others were quite afraid of the extent that the Reichsbürger had been able to operate and galvanise support in Bad Lobenstein. In some respects, I think that these arrests could be positive for the town. The issue of the Reichsbürger has been bubbling away just below the surface in Bad Lobenstein for some time. I hope that these events will bring it out into the open and help people confront what’s going on, because there are lots of good, honest people in Bad Lobenstein who want better for their town.

ML: Did you have any difficulties getting people to talk openly about the coup plot?
: Yes, to some degree. Philipp and I spent quite some time planning how we would approach people. In the end most people were willing to talk to us. I think as journalists you always have to approach people with an open mind and show them that you want to hear their point of view. If you do this, I think that most people open up. The only person who flat out declined an interview with us was AfD politician Uwe Thrum .

ML: Some of the initial coverage of this story portrayed it as something bizarre or absurd, a bunch of nutters not to be taken too seriously. How serious was the threat the alleged coup-plotters posed?
HS: I absolutely think this should be taken seriously. These people are dangerous. Actually after I finished reporting this story, another set of police raids were conducted in relation to the alleged coup plot (on 22nd March). One of the suspects shot a police officer in the arm. And, as the piece mentions, a police officer was killed by a Reichsbürger member during a similar raid in 2016. I think a quote from an interview I did with Tobias Ginsburg – an investigative journalist who spent nine months undercover with the Reichsbürger – sums it up well: “If the question is: Do you think these right-wing extremists are capable of successfully pulling off a coup d’état? Then the answer is no, even with 200 or 300 supporters to carry it out, they will be stopped from doing this by the police. But if you ask: Do you think these people can kill other people? Then the answer is, yes you should be very afraid.”

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