It is hard to imagine a more evocative place to plan a coup than the Waidmannsheil hunting lodge. Built in the 19th century in the neo-Gothic style, complete with battlements and turrets, the lodge is perched on a rocky outcrop outside the small spa town of Bad Lobenstein, in the central German state of Thuringia. It would make a movie-location scout salivate. The 71-year-old owner of the lodge, with his flamboyantly long gray hair, eccentric pursuits, and penchant for tweed and putsches, would similarly excite a casting director.
Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss, the owner of the lodge, was arrested last week along with 24 other members of an alleged plot to overthrow the German state. When images of the aristocratic Reuss—who is said to have been the mastermind of the coup attempt—emerged on social media, the fact that he looked like a provincial English antiques dealer led many to suppose that talk of a putsch was overblown and that the arrests were an over-reaction by the security forces.
But for those who know their German history, the plot could be considered anything but farcical. It has long been a dirty little habit of the German aristocracy to seek to overthrow the state.
The roots of this habit lie in the simmering resentment over the abolition in 1919 of the monarchy and nobility by the democratic Weimar Republic. (After that date, nobles absorbed their titles into their surnames.) However, since the monarchy’s disappearance, plenty of Germans have wished to restore it. This, apparently, was one of the motives for the plot that was uncovered last week, and it is believed that Heinrich Reuss had lined himself up to be the new kaiser.
When images of the aristocratic Reuss emerged on social media, the fact that he looked like a provincial English antiques dealer led many to suppose that talk of a putsch was overblown.
Reuss would not have been the first German aristocrat involved in such dastardly stuff. Take the noble Baron Theodor von Cramer-Klett, who agreed in 1921 to become the president and chief financier of a conspiratorial movement called the Aufbau Vereinigung, or Reconstruction Organization.
Behind this somewhat bland title lay a plan to restore the monarchies in both Germany and Russia. While such aims in themselves might not necessarily be disgraceful, many members of the group were deeply anti-Semitic, and are also thought to have participated in organizing the killing of—among others—the German foreign minister of the time.
Unlike Heinrich Reuss, it appears that Cramer-Klett did not wish to become head of state himself—the role was earmarked for his chum Prince Rupprecht von Wittelsbach of Bavaria—but there are similarities between the membership of the Aufbau and the group arrested last week.
In addition to aristocrats, both groups included former army officers and minor political figures. In the case of the recent group, those figures reportedly include the former paratrooper Colonel Rüdiger von Pescatore, whose impeccable aristo credentials put him 2,278th in line to the British throne. There is also a former member of the Bundestag, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, who represents the far-right political party Alternative for Germany.
The group includes Colonel Rüdiger von Pescatore, whose impeccable aristo credentials put him 2,278th in line to the British throne.
This connection with the far right was also a feature of the Aufbau. It came in the form of General Erich Ludendorff and activist Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, both of whom were leading lights in the group and both of whom would forge such close links with the nascent Nazi Party that they would participate in Adolf Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch, in Munich in 1923.
When the Nazi Party came to power, a decade later, Hitler immediately sought to curry favor with the aristocracy. As the historian Stephan Malinowski has calculated, the percentage of the nobility who were members of the Nazi Party by May 1933 easily outstripped the percentage of those who had joined from the population as a whole.
Why was this? The simple answer was that Hitler had proved himself to be sympathetic toward them. It was not just because he wanted their riches but also because Hitler knew that some members of the public were still deferential toward the nobility. That was a power he could harness.
For the nobility, the Nazis gave them a chance of clawing back their prestige, something that was not going to happen with a continuance of the Weimar Republic or, worse still, a Germany controlled by the Communists.
Ironically, it was members of the aristocracy who would be instrumental in carrying out the July plot of 1944, an attempted coup against Hitler, which came close to success when a bomb in a briefcase exploded but failed to kill him. At least 55 members of the plot bore the noble “von” element in their surnames, including the man who planted the bomb itself, Claus von Stauffenberg.
Hitler knew that some members of the public were still deferential toward the nobility. That was a power he could harness.
It would be reasonable to assume that Heinrich Reuss believes himself to be the heir to this noble tradition of aristocratic subversion. He does indeed come from a noble lineage, and his “title” was doubtless instrumental in his being made patron of the Fürstlicher Hickory Golf Club Reuss, an organization dedicated to playing a traditional form of golf with wooden golf clubs. In 2019, Reuss was honored to be invited to fire a ceremonial cannon to open that year’s German Open Hickory Championship, although such an invitation is unlikely to be issued again.
Such desperate hearkening back to the past seems to be a hallmark of the wider group with which Reuss is associated: the Reichsbürger movement. This organization does not recognize the legitimacy of the post–Second World War German state, and its estimated more than 20,000 members refuse to cooperate with the law and sometimes violently break it.
A desire to recover lost glories and to blame one’s ills on external forces are characteristics of nearly all members of radical terrorist movements. Although such perceived grievances are often associated with those outside the aristocracy, in Germany it seems that societal privilege does not offer immunity from radicalization.
The grievances of Heinrich Reuss appear to lie partly in the fact that he was later forced to buy back some of his family’s properties—including the hunting lodge—that were expropriated by the East German government after the Second World War. Some say that a recent divorce may also have played a role in making him vulnerable to the call of the coup.
For the time being, laughing off Heinrich XIII just because he is a seemingly eccentric aristocrat would be folly. While we may be fairly certain that a Boston Brahmin would never be the type to storm the Capitol, in Germany they would be first in line.