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 in film: celebration or indictment?

The 2008 movie The Baader Meinhof Complex runs two and a half hours, and it is as ambitious as it is long. It seeks to tell the history of the Baader-Meinhof Group, or Red Army Faction (RAF), as fully as possible – to include every act of terrorism and every important RAF personage. The production is fastidious: the filmmakers reportedly went out of their way to re-create events, whenever possible, in the very spots where they had taken place. The attention to period detail, and to other particulars, is remarkable, as is the effort to create rich, rounded portraits of the major figures of (at least) the RAF’s first generation.

The film – directed by Uli Edel from a script by himself and Bernd Eichinger, which is based on a book by Stefan Aust – was a huge hit in Germany. It was a nominee for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. There was, however, much debate as to whether or not it romanticized  the terrorists. Some felt it portrayed RAF members as “Bonnie and Clyde-style heroes.” One film critic objected that Edel had given Andreas Baader “what he always wanted. Posthumously he has become the hero of a real action film.” Bettina Röhl called the film “the worst-case scenario – it would not be possible to top its hero worship.” The widow of banker Jurgen Ponto, who’d been assassinated by the RAF, protested the government’s financial support of the film by returning a Federal Cross of Merit. Michael Buback, son of a murdered federal prosecutor, complained that Edel had shown “little consideration…towards the family members” of the RAF’s victims.

Christopher Hitchens, however, praised the movie for not romanticizing the RAF. As he saw it, the film “interrogates and ultimately indicts (and convicts) the West German terrorists rather than the state and society which they sought to overthrow.” And Jorg Schleyer, son of another RAF victim, affirmed with admiration that Edel showed the RAF to be a “wantonly brutal band of murderers.”

BODY OF EVIDENCE, director Uli Edel, on set, 1993. ©MGM
Uli Edel

Well, which is it? On the one hand, the movie doesn’t stint on spelling out the main characters’ many flaws (including the fact that they’re cold-blooded killers). On the other hand, its use of cutaways to stock footage of the Vietnam War – bombings, terrified natives, etc. – seems to impute legitimacy to the RAF’s view of America as a cruel imperialist power. This impression is enhanced by the film’s almost total failure to remind the viewer that America was, in fact, at war with Communism, thanks to which East Germans were living under a totalitarian government under the thumb of the Kremlin. In the end, whether a particular viewer considers the characters in The Baader-Meinhof Complex sympathetic may depend mostly on that viewer’s own politics.

But the movie fails in at least one important, indisputable way: for whatever reason, it essentially omits the role of the Stasi in the history of the RAF. And without the Stasi, the film’s story, however crowded with accurate specifics, becomes a lie.

By contrast, consider Volker Schlöndorff’s 2000 movie The Legend of Rita. It’s the story of a well-off young West German woman, Rita Vogt (based in part on RAF member Inga Viett), who becomes involved in a RAF-like group because, as she puts it, “Riding horses, playing tennis or guzzling down salmon doesn’t interest me.” After she makes the front pages by killing a cop in France, she flees to East Germany. The Stasi’s RAF links are made clear from the start, and it’s the Stasi that gives her a new identity (and then yet another identity after the first one is blown).

There’s no doubt what Schlöndorff’s film wants us to make of Rita: she’s an oddball, as perversely happy with her new life in grim, oppressive East Germany than she was unhappy as an affluent citizen of the West. In the East, she’s grinning like a fool while everyone else is miserable. Ideology, clearly, is realer to her than reality. She doesn’t understand their attraction to the West:  “Why do so many people want to leave here?” For their part, they mock the naïvete with which she contributes to a Sandinista solidarity fund: doesn’t she realize it’s a government scam?

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Volker Schlöndorff

When the Wall comes down, her colleagues’ newfound joy enrages her, and she lectures them about the value of what they’re losing: “This here was a great attempt at a revolution!” At the end, there’s no doubt about her utter foolishness. As a portrait of the RAF mentality, The Legend of Rita is shorter on documentary fact than The Baader Meinhof Complex, but scores far higher on moral clarity. Alas, one hesitates to say the same thing about its portrait of the Stasi mentality; to anyone familiar with the real Stasi, the consistent kindness of Rita’s Stasi contact is beyond improbable.

A third film merits mention here. Germany in Autumn (1978), the work of ten high-profile German directors, including Schlöndorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is a bizarre mishmash of images, staged scenes, documentary footage, and impromptu monologues and arguments, all directly or indirectly about the RAF; it concludes with the October 1977 funeral of Baader, Enslin, and gang member Jan-Carl Raspe, at which dozens of mourners raised their fists and screamed “Murderers!” at cops. The filmmakers obviously felt they were paying some sort of tribute to the RAF, or at least doing them the honor of tackling the issues they’d raised, but today the film serves mainly as a document in 1970s-era useful stoogery in West Germany, where for many members of the cultural elite democracy was fascism and Communism was liberation.

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.”

22. Bundesparteitag der CDU in Hamburg (Hanns-Martin Schleyer) 18.-20.11.1973
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.