Baader-Meinhof: The legacy

raflogoThe Baader Meinhof Group, also known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), officially disbanded in 1998, after many years of relative inactivity. But it has never really gone away.

We’ve already mentioned the massive scale of support that the group enjoyed in its day among young West Germans. RAF members were also, as Michael Burleigh has put it, “the darlings of Germany’s left-wing cultural elite.” Among those who defended them publicly were such internationally famous writers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Heinrich Böll. When RAF leaders Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader fled for a time to France and Italy, Tennessee Williams reportedly played host to them. Marianne Faithfull’s 1979 song “Broken English” was inspired by the group.  

Then there’s Brian Eno’s 1978 song “RAF,” which incorporates “sound elements from a Baader Meinhof ransom message made by public telephone at the time of the Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking.” Adorable.

In more recent years RAF has not only been remembered in films (as we saw yesterday) but also celebrated in song and story – and T-shirt.

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The “Prada Meinhof” T-shirt

Aside from Che Guevara T-shirts, the “Prada Meinhof” T-shirt is perhaps the famous sartorial example of what has been called “terrorist chic.” A 2005 exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin drew widespread criticism. “The RAF’s terrorism is downplayed, if not even glorified,” Friedbert Pflueger, a member of the German Parliament, told the Washington Post after viewing the exhibit, adding that it made “no distinction between culprits and victims.” Another source has noted that “photographs of Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof’s suicides feature in New York’s Museum Of Modern Art’s permanent collection.” Ulrike Meinhof’s story, moreover, has figured in the work of Nobel Prize-winning authors Günter Grass and Elfriede Jelinek. 

If the RAF’s members were outraged that many former Nazis remained ensconced in the West German government of the 1970s, today’s Germans have reason to be outraged that their current cultural, media, and political elite is packed with people who, in their youth, cheered on the RAF. As a 2009 article observed, “many people from the protest movement went into German institutions as judges, lawyers, journalists and politicians, and…had far more impact than Baader-Meinhof’s violence.” 

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Bettina Röhl

In 2001, for example, Bettina Röhl unearthed an archival film clip in which Joschka Fischer, who at the time was German Foreign Minister, could be seen beating up a cop in 1973, when he belonged to a Marxist group called the Cleaning Brigade. Röhl also claimed to possess taped witness accounts attesting that Fischer, back in the 1970s, had been a leading figure among far-left militants in Frankfurt, had advocated the use of Molotov cocktails, and had led a gang of bullies “who would come in and beat up his opponents or anyone standing in his way.” Other sources, meanwhile, alleged that Fischer had hidden RAF terrorist Margrit Schiller in his flat.

BRU102 - 20021025 - BRUSSELS, BELGIUM : German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer pictured during a news conference prior to the second working session at the European Council building in Brussels, 25 October 2002, the second day of the European Summit of Heads of State and Government, due to prepare the financing of the enlargement. EPA PHOTO BELGA/ BENOIT DOPPAGNE
Joschka Fischer

But Fischer wasn’t alone. As Röhl put it, he was just one of many Germans of his generation who suffered from the “Baader-Meinhof complex” – meaning that they were “traumatised by the roles they played during the student demonstrations” and “horrified by the recognition that they enjoyed the violence and are somehow nostalgic for it.” Röhl noted that in an interview with her years earlier, Fischer had bragged about the non-violent activity of his youth, clearly wanting her had “to see him as a hero of the 70s.” Such, indeed, is the mentality of many members of today’s German establishment.  

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