Crazy conspiracy theorists? Harmless critics of the state? Dangerous putschists? It is impossible to look into the heads of the men sitting behind thick bulletproof glass in the strictly secured hall of the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court.

One thing is clear: they seem anything but intimidated. With their chests broad, they allow themselves to be led into the hall in handcuffs. They whisper to each other in the dock, smile, wave to the audience, only a few of them hide their faces from the photographers. When the charges are read out, they repeatedly shake their heads – as if they couldn’t take the allegations seriously. It’s about terrorism and high treason, about “Reich citizens”, coup plans and conspiracy myths.

With the terror trial against the alleged group of conspirators around Henry XIII. Prince Reuss has begun historic proceedings before the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court. The suspects are said to have planned a violent overthrow of the federal government, an attack on the heart of democracy. It is one of the largest terror trials in the history of the Federal Republic, and trials in Frankfurt and Munich are also coming up soon.

“Purges” planned

The men in the dock don’t look like terrorists, some of them look more like insurance salesmen. But the picture that the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office paints of the group is bleak: there is talk of a deep rejection of the free basic order and of the fact that they wanted to violently eliminate the order of the Federal Republic of Germany. The defendants are said to have committed themselves to “reactivating Germany” and have signed a confidentiality agreement – under threat of the death penalty. An armed group was supposed to break into the Reichstag. “Cleansing” and “clean-up work” were said to have been planned. There is talk of enemy lists, with the names of district administrators, medical officers and bailiffs.

But the narratives of the QAnon cult also play a significant role in the indictment, the firm conviction that conspiratorial elites control the fate of the world, that they practice the ritual abuse of children in underground tunnels and obtain “rejuvenation cures” from children’s bodies. According to the prosecution, the defendants wanted to expose these crimes and trusted that the population would then wake up and support their seizure of power.

How dangerous are these men really? This question hangs over the proceedings, which are likely to take a very long time. In Stuttgart it is primarily about the military arm of the group, which should have enforced the takeover of power by force of arms. A total of nine men, although not Reuss himself, have to answer in Stammheim – where the RAF top brass once stood trial.

Shot at police officers several times

The men, between 40 and 60 years old, are accused of membership in a terrorist organization and of so-called “preparation of a treasonous enterprise.” One of the defendants is also on trial for attempted murder – this is the man who is said to have shot several times with a rifle at police officers from a special operations squad during a search of his apartment in Reutlingen in March 2023, injuring officers in the process.

The trial promises excitement: two of the men said on Monday that they wanted to comment on the allegations. It is still unclear when they will testify. Another defendant announced that he would at least provide personal information. The remaining six defendants initially do not want to provide any information at all.

Former soldiers are also among the accused

The group around Henry XIII. Prince Reuss became known after a large-scale anti-terror raid in several federal states and abroad shortly after St. Nicholas Day 2022. Reuss should have acted as the head of a new form of government. The former AfD member of the Bundestag and former Berlin judge Birgit Malsack-Winkemann should have been responsible for the justice department. Ex-soldiers are also among the accused. According to the indictment, work has already begun to set up a Germany-wide system of more than 280 military-organized homeland security companies.

According to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, the establishment of these associations was already well advanced in some cases. In two cases, the so-called homeland security companies themselves were able to take action, said a representative of the authority when reading out the indictment. Within “Company 221”, which was supposed to be responsible for the Tübingen and Freudenstadt areas in Baden-Württemberg, people had already been appointed to be responsible for recruiting additional personnel.

In the “Reichsbürger” scene, the prevailing view is that the historic German Empire, founded in 1871 with an emperor at its head, still exists today. The Prince Reuss case is split into three proceedings – for practical reasons and due to the sheer number of suspects. As of May 21st, the suspected ringleaders, including Reuss, have been charged in Frankfurt. The remaining alleged members will be on trial in Munich from June 18th.

Dates scheduled until 2025

Some of the 22 defense lawyers in the Stuttgart trial criticized on Monday the splitting of the case between the three higher regional courts. They requested that the Stuttgart proceedings be discontinued or suspended and that the three processes be merged. Effective criminal defense is not possible because it is difficult for the findings in one trial to flow into the others. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office is always present in all three proceedings, but this is not logistically possible for the defense attorneys, so the argument goes – this violates the “principle of equality of arms.” The presiding judge Joachim Holzhausen rejected the request to suspend the proceedings. The demand for a merger of the three processes will be postponed.

Otherwise, at the start of the trial, the details were quite detailed – for example, there was a long discussion about the seating arrangement in the hall and the question of how information such as audio recordings could be made available to the defendants in custody. The process is scheduled to continue next week. The court has set dates until 2025 – from the point of view of observers, that may not be enough.