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.  

Baader-Meinhof: The Stasi connection

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.

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1981: bombing of Ramstein AF Base

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.

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Bettina Röhl

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.

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1967: death of Benno Ohnesorg

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.”

ARCHIV: Der angeklagte Rechtsextremist Horst Mahler wartet vor dem Landgericht Muenchen (Bayern) auf den Beginn seines Prozesses wegen Volksverhetzung (Foto vom 12.01.09). Der Rechtsextremist und fruehere NPD-Anwalt Horst Mahler ist vom Landgericht Muenchen wegen Volksverhetzung zu einer sechsjaehrigen Haftstrafe verurteilt worden. Der Vorsitzende Richter Martin Rieder begruendete am Mittwoch (25.02.09) das hohe Strafmass damit, dass der Angeklagte "voellig uneinsichtig und unbelehrbar" sei. Zudem koenne das umfangreiche Gestaendnis Mahlers zu Beginn der Verhandlung nicht strafmildernd gewertet werden, da er keinerlei Reue erkennen lasse. Zu seinen Gunsten koenne lediglich das Alter des 73-Jaehrigen angefuehrt werden. "Der Angeklagte ist sogar stolz auf seine Taten", sagte Rieder. (zu ddp-Text) Foto: Joerg Koch/ddp
Horst Mahler

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.

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A wanted poster showing RAF members

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.

Theory into action: Baader-Meinhof’s depredations

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1968: Baader and Ensslin explode a department store in Frankfurt

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.

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1972: car bomb in Munich

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.

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1977: Federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback assassinated

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.”

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1978: Hanns-Martin Schleyer kidnapped and killed

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.

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Klaus Rainer Röhl and Ulrike Meinhof

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.

The deadly stoogery of Baader-Meinhof

It was a blast from the past. And boy, did these people know about blasts.

“Three veteran members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Germany’s most notorious homegrown terrorist organisation,” reported Justin Huggler in the Telegraph last May, “may have emerged from years in hiding to execute a series of armed robberies.” These crooks, who walked off with several hundred thousands of dollars, were part of the gang’s “third generation,” which had been notorious for act of terrorism back in the 1980s and 90s.

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The RAF’s official logo

How to sum up the long, eventful story of the Baader-Meinhof Gang (a.k.a. Baader-Meinhof Group), whose large cast of characters dominated headlines in 1970s West Germany with their seemingly random and meaningless acts of violence? Known by the names of two of its founders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, it actually called itself the Red Army Faction (RAF). Its members, most of them university students or former university students who had grown up in the years immediately following World War II, were young and angry. And extremely confused. For them, the Bonn government was little more than a continuation of the Nazi regime, and a tool of America – which, in their view, had inherited the Nazis’ role as the major worldwide force of fascist imperialism.

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Andreas Baader

One might ask how they managed not to recognize the rather significant difference between Hitler’s Germany and the West Germany in which they lived. One might further ask how a group of people who lived right next door to the Soviet bloc were so fiercely exercised over America’s supposedly imperial actions in far-flung places like Vietnam and Chile while showing nothing but fondness for the Moscow regime that subjugated Eastern Europe, ran the Gulag, and had built the wall around West Berlin, where many of them lived and operated.

But then, any American who encountered political-minded West German university students in those days can attest to the fierce anti-establishment and anti-American attitudes that ran rampant among them. Not all of them sympathized with the USSR, but even those who did not seemed to view it almost as an implacable fact of nature and appeared to see no point in criticizing its philosophy and policies.

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Ulrike Meinhof

As writer Michael Burleigh has put it, they were a generation of “spoiled middle-class kids [who] revolted against parents who had arduously rebuilt the country from wartime rubble” – and the RAF was “the lethal face of [that] radical generation.” (Indeed, Stefan Aust noted in his 1985 history The Baader-Meinhof Complex that while violent New Left radicals such as the Weather Underground were never popular in the U.S., fully a quarter of West Germans under forty actually felt sympathy for the Baader-Meinhof Group, with one out of ten saying they’d hide a member of the group from the police.)

But if RAF were their generation’s “lethal face,” they were hardly disciplined. Far from being worthy of the name “army” – theoretically coherent, strategically focused, tactically organized – the first generation of RAF members differed from the majority of their West German agemates largely by being bigger slobs, bigger screw-ups, and bigger screwballs: they lived, in Burleigh’s account, “a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll amid overflowing ashtrays, posters and fetid sheets.”

**ARCHIV** Andreas Baader, links, und Gudrun Ensslin in der Anklagebank vor der Urteilsverkuendung im Brandstifter-Prozess in Frankfurt am 31. Oktober 1968. Die zwei Angeklagten erhielten je Drei Jahre Zuchthaus. Vor 40 Jahren - in der Nacht zum 3. April 1968 - zuendeten die spaeteren RAF-Terroristen Andreas Baader und Gudrun Ensslin ihre ersten Brandsaetze. Im Kaufhaus Schneider auf der Frankfurter Zeil setzte ein verstecktes Schwefel-Phosphor-Paeckchen eine altdeutsche Schrankwand und im benachbarten Kaufhof Betten und Spielwaren in Flammen. Was auch manche Zeitgenossen als Happening von Bekifften ansahen, war der Beginn einer beispiellosen Terrorwelle, der in den naechsten drei Jahrzehnten mehr als 30 Menschen zum Opfer fielen. Auch viele Mitglieder der Terrorgruppe kamen ums Leben, bis sie sich 1998 für aufgeloest erklärte. Zunaechst als Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe oder Baader-Meinhof-Bande bekannt, nannte sie sich selbst Rote-Armee-Fraktion. (AP-Photo/fls) Andreas Baader, left, is seen together with Gudrun Ensslin during the proclamation of their sentence in their department store arson trial in Frankfurt/Main, Western Germany, on October 31, 1968. Baader was later one of the founders of the Western German terrorist group RAF (Red Army Faction). (AP Photo/fls)
Gudrun Ensslin

RAF co-founder Gudrun Ensslin, notes Burleigh, was “a dope-smoking anti-nuclear protester with serial boyfriends who had given away an illegitimate child for adoption” and who “had already starred in a soft porn movie when she fell under the spell of Andreas Baader.” As for Baader, he’d “been thrown out of school and failed at a succession of jobs; he had eked out a living as a male model, supplemented by robbing customers in the lavatories of gay bars and stealing cars. Like Ensslin, he too had an illegitimate daughter – and was also a drug-fuelled fantasist.”

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Christopher Hitchens

More than one observer has dismissed them as “psychopaths.” Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2009 that he’d been convinced since the late 1970s “that the Baader Meinhof phenomenon actually was a form of psychosis.” A principal recruiting ground for the RAF, he noted, “was an institution at the University of Heidelberg called the Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv, or Socialist Patients Collective, an outfit that sought to persuade the pitifully insane that they needed no treatment save social revolution.” When the RAF ran low on members and needed to replenish its numbers, it proselytized at the SPK.

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Che: a role model

In any event, the RAF unequivocally admired the Communist world. If West Germany was the Third Reich’s successor state, East Germany preserved the ideals of the anti-fascist forces, led by Moscow, that had defeated it. They loved Mao. They identified with Che Guevara. Like many members of the New Left throughout Western Europe and North America, they were steeped in the writings of the Frankfurt school and other Marxists, devouring, and frequently consulting and quoting, writers like Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and German-American theoretician Herbert Marcuse (1989-1979).

But theory wasn’t enough for the RAF. Above all, they were devoted to translating theory into action. More about that action tomorrow.