The Baader-Meinhof Group, otherwise known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), represented itself as a small, independent group of heroes taking on not only West Germany but the entire American Empire. In fact – as has been increasingly well documented in the years since the fall of the Iron Curtain – they were far from independent.
After German reunification in 1990, massive East German archives were opened and discoveries began to be made. One of those discoveries, made in 1991, was that a 1981 RAF attack on a U.S. Army base, which included a failed attempt to kill U.S. General Frederick Kroesen, commander of American forces in Europe, was in fact a joint operation with Stasi, East Germany’s brutal secret police. Stasi officers, it turned out, had trained RAF members to use anti-tank grenades and had also supplied them with the grenades. Later information showed that the Stasi also trained RAF members responsible for the 1981 bombing of the U.S. air base at Ramstein, which wounded 17 people.
These revelations severely damaged the RAF’s reputation among its many West German fans. But they were just the beginning.
As we noted yesterday, one of Ulrike Meinhof‘s daughters, Bettina Röhl, went on to become a journalist herself – and a fierce critic of the RAF. Röhl, who was ten years old when Meinhof was captured and incarcerated, and fourteen when she committed suicide in prison, published a book in 2006 about the RAF that was sardonically entitled Making Communism Fun.
Among Röhl’s revelations, based on archival research, was that konkret, the far-left magazine that was published by her father and edited by her mother, was for many years wholly financed and directly controlled by the East German government. Far from being a free voice of dissent, in other words, it was, at least in the early 1960s, an out-and-out East German propaganda organ, and Röhl’s father was, in Bettina’s own words, a bought-and-paid-for “useful idiot” who accepted 40,000 deutsche marks per issue for following the Honecker regime’s orders. Later, Röhl was able to document the regular transfer of funds from the East German government to the RAF.
In 2009, further archival studies forced a total rewrite of the event originally cited by the RAF as having triggered its founding. In 1967, the shooting by a police officer of university student Benno Ohnesorg at a demonstration against the visiting Shah of Iran outside the opera house in West Berlin had solidified young West German leftists’ hostility toward their government – and had intensified their belief that things were better on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The 2009 revelations, however, showed that Karl-Heinz Kurras, the cop who killed Ohnesorg, was in fact a Stasi spy and a member of the East German Communist Party. There’s no definitive evidence as to motive, but as at least one observer has pointed out, the likely reason for Ohnesorg’s murder is that “Kurras on his own or under orders from the Stasi decided to give the left wing a matryr to mobilize them.”
In 2011, the Guardian reported that Horst Mahler, one of the RAF’s founders, had reportedly been a paid Stasi informant until 1970. (By the way, in what may be regarded as a reflection of the ideological confusions that marked most of the RAF’s high-profile members, Mahler later became a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.)
Over the years, the picture has come ever more sharply into focus – and the role of the Stasi in the story of RAF has loomed larger and larger. It was, for example, the Stasi that smuggled RAF leaders Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader back into West Berlin after they’d spent some time laying low in France and Italy, waiting for things to cool down back home.
The Stasi’s involvement grew with the rise of the so-called second and third generation of the RAF, who came to the fore after the first generation were sent to prison (and the top names committed suicide). Thanks to Stasi training, this new wave of RAF members were able to carry out more professional-quality acts of terrorism. Many of these later RAF members eventually retired in East Germany, where they were given new identities and rewarded with lifestyles that ordinary East Germans could only dream about – only to be arrested, tried, and imprisoned after German reunification.
In short, it’s clear by now that the RAF was, when you come right down to it, a Stasi operation. But this aspect of the RAF story is still often overlooked – for example, in the 2008 German movie The Baader Meinhof Complex. We’ll get around to the movie tomorrow.