All told, they’re considered to have been responsible for thirty-four deaths and scores of injuries. At their height in the 1970s, they bombed several U.S. Army installations, a police station, a judge’s car, the headquarters of the Alex Springer publishing house, and the West German embassy in Stockholm. They assassinated several bigwigs and, in doing so, also took the lives of a number of policemen, chauffeurs, and other bystanders. The worst year of all was 1977, when, during the so-called “German Autumn,” they murdered West Germany’s chief federal prosecutor, kidnapped and killed its leading industrialist, and, in collaboration with a Palestinian terrorist group, hijacked a Lufthansa commercial flight.
Why did they do all of this? Much has been said and written about the impact of Nazism and the Holocaust upon the first postwar generation of West Germans. They felt rage at their parents for not standing up to Hitler. They felt guilt over the Nazi era, which they tried to relieve by casting America as the new fascist empire and themselves as its virtuous anti-fascist opponents. That they could look at the free countries of the West and see a continuation of Nazi tyranny, while looking with indifference, or even a degree of admiration, upon the truly tyrannical regimes just across the border in the Soviet bloc, is only a measure of just how twisted a psychological impact the shadow of Nazism had upon many young West Germans of the 1960s and 70s.
But the members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, which called itself the Red Army Faction (RAF), weren’t content just to sit in their college dormitories, rant about the evils of America and capitalism and their parents’ generation, and attend the occasional far-left demo. They convinced themselves that the evils of America and its puppets in Bonn justified the most extreme kind of violence. After all, America was killing people in Vietnam. Many West German leaders were ex-Nazis. As far as the RAF was concerned, killing soldiers, bankers, jurists, executives, and police officers was a matter of an eye for an eye. Somehow it didn’t seem to occur to them that their view of these victims as subhumans deserving of coldblooded extinction was altogether too reminiscent of the Nazi ideology that they professed to despise.
Like many far-left European youths of their day, the RAF’s founders identified with obscure radical groups in distant corners of the globe. “Their role models,” as one observer has noted, “were the Tupamaros – the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional in Uruguay – which since the late 1960s had resorted to kidnappings and assassinations in its fight for social justice.”
Nobody played a greater role in formulating the RAF philosophy than Ulrike Meinhof. Prior to joining the group, Meinhof had been a prominent journalist and editor for a left-wing monthly, konkret, to which she contributed endless theoretical justifications for radical violence. She was, perhaps, the group’s most puzzling figure. Though an active member of West Germany’s illegal Communist Party, she also led a relatively bourgeois life, marrying Klaus Rainer Röhl, the publisher of konkret, and having twin daughters with him.
Not long after divorcing Röhl in 1968, however, she met various members of the RAF, and allowed herself to be drawn into a plot to spring Andreas Baader, who was then behind bars. As a credentialed writer, she managed to persuade a court to let Baader be escorted from his prison to an institute for social research where she could talk to him in connection with a book project. The two met up as planned, and three group operatives broke into the institute, shot a librarian, and left with Baader through a window. Meinhof, who had supposedly planned to stay behind and profess no involvement in the conspiracy, apparently changed her mind at the last minute, following her new confederates out the window.
Although she sought to represent herself, in her countless articles, as a profound student of radical political theory who’d done a great deal of deep thinking about how to translate theory into practice – Meinhof seems to have been, at best, something of a flibbertigibbit. After leaping out that window, she phoned a friend to pick up her daughters at school. Later, she arranged to have them kidnapped and sent to a camp for Palestinian orphans, but the girls were rescued and returned to their father. One of Meinhof’s daughters, Bettina Röhl, grew up to be a journalist herself – and an uncompromising critic of her mother’s cockeyed ideology, terrorist activities, and horrible parenting. We’ll look into that tomorrow.