The Weather Underground, a leftist terrorist group from the 1970s, played a bit role in last fall’s presidential election through the association of unrepentant former Weatherman Bill Ayers with his fellow Chicagoan, Barack Obama. That kind of connection would have come as no surprise in Germany, where the Weather Underground’s far more deadly counterpart, the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, continues to cast a shadow over the country’s politics.
In 1985, German journalist Stefan Aust published the definitive book on the RAF, The Baader-Meinhof Complex. His book has since been turned into a successful feature film of the same name, which was nominated last year for a foreign-language Oscar and is slated for U.S. release this summer. Aust, a former editor of Der Spiegel, has now reissued his earlier work, changing the title to Baader-Meinhof and updating it with information that has come to light since the end of the RAF’s reign of terror in West Germany 30 years ago. The new edition deserves attention, and not just because Anthea Bell’s deft translation preserves the dynamic, detail-rich prose that made Aust’s original read like a real-life thriller. Dense with insights into the psychology of terrorism, this history of West Germany’s struggle against RAF radicals also serves as a cautionary tale for the West in its war against the modern threat of jihadist terror.
From the day of its founding in 1970, the Baader-Meinhof gang wasn’t what it appeared to be. Though Andreas Baader was the group’s leader (along with his lover-cum-comrade Gudrun Ensslin), the leftist journalist Ulrike Meinhof was always a secondary figure. Indeed, the RAF was something of a personality cult built around the volatile Baader. More sociopath than socialist, the speed- and LSD-addled Baader parlayed a troubled youth as a car thief and street hooligan into a career as the RAF’s “general,” leading the guerilla group on everything from combat training missions in Jordan under the tutelage of Palestinian terrorists to bombing raids on German department stores and police stations and U.S. military bases in Frankfurt and Heidelberg. An RAF slogan—“Madmen to arms!”—was as apt a description as any of Baader’s modus operandi.
The contrast with Meinhof was striking. Ten years Baader’s senior, the cerebral Meinhof hailed from a respectable middle-class family famous for producing Protestant theologians. She joined the RAF after her increasingly militant writings in the left-wing journal konkret led her to practice what she preached. But Meinhof was never fully accepted into the RAF’s senior command; Baader especially tormented her with accusations that she was a would-be class enemy and a “knife in the back” of the RAF. The abuse had its effect. In one of the RAF’s routine exercises in “self-criticism”—a Maoist practice in which members were expected to engage—Meinhof denounced herself as a “hypocritical bourgeois bitch.” Meinhof remained the RAF’s main ideologist, producing most of its political writings, but there was never any doubt about who was in charge.
Like its supposed dual leadership, the RAF’s revolutionary political agenda was something of a chimera. In theory at least, the group had come together to oppose the Vietnam War abroad and what it decried as the nascent police-state of West Germany at home. (This as opposed to the actual police state of communist East Germany, whose much-feared Stasi secret police aided and abetted the RAF.) The RAF’s solution was communist revolution, and the group peppered its aggressively unintelligible political manifestos with Marxist clichés about the evils of capitalism, “American imperialism,” and the “state oppression” of West Germany.
Yet, as Aust clearly shows, for Baader in particular and for the RAF generally, revolutionary politics were soon subordinated to the thrill of direct action. Whether it was stealing cars, committing countless bank robberies, or merely the adrenaline rush of being on the lam, the RAF found liberation in lawlessness. Even the group’s favored euphemisms—a bank heist became an “expropriation action”—could not disguise its criminality, which became an end in itself. It was no oversight that the RAF’s chief political manifesto, The Urban Guerilla Concept, had more to say about the urgency of fighting one’s enemies than what one should be fighting for. The RAF were rebels without a cause.
For many on the Left, that did not seem to matter. Thus the Nobel Prize-winning author Heinrich Böll defended the group as “desperate theoreticians” driven into a “corner” by the German authorities, and famously romanticized what he called the war of “six against 60 million” West Germans. Absurd on its face—it was the RAF that was terrorizing the West German state, not the other way around—this David-vs.-Goliath storyline was enthusiastically embraced by the young and politically naïve. In a famous 1971 poll, one in four West Germans under 30 admitted to “a certain sympathy” for the RAF. Germans of an older generation had fewer illusions. Nevertheless, guilt-ridden about Germany’s Nazi past, they were reluctant to condemn a group that styled itself, however improbably, as a resistance movement fighting the Third Reich’s political heir.
As Laksin writes, communist East Germany’s Stasi “aided and abetted the RAF.” In 1967, they also created the atmosphere that incubated their violence, Ronald Radosh notes on his Pajamas Express blog:
A story appeared recently in The New York Times, and the revelation shook Germans to the core. It tells of an incident that took place in 1967, when an unarmed left-wing student demonstrator, one Benno Ohnesorg, was shot and killed by a West German police officer, Karl-Heinz Kurras. It had a lot to do with the German Left’s turn to violence, and to the formation of the ultra-radical Red Army Faction, also known as the Beider-Meinhoff gang. Arguing that the democratic West German state had become a “pre-fascist state,” the murder was used to rationalize the turn to terror as a tactic. The violent New Left in Germany was akin to our own Weather Underground on steroids.
It turns out that German researchers, examining the Stasi files- the Stasi was the Stalinist East German regime’s secret police- found out that Kurras, the policeman, was in reality a member of the East German Communist Party and even more importantly, a secret member of the Stasi who had infiltrated the West German police.
As the Times story makes clear, “it was as if the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard had been committed by an undercover K.G.B. officer.” The shooting, after all, was the excuse for the movement’s turn to violence, since to them it proved that West Germany was not a democracy, but an unjust fascist state that permitted no dissent. Later, when the terror became extreme and regular, and the West German government passed laws to protect itself, the Left in America vigorously protested their measures as unnecessary and argued, like their left-wing German counterparts, that the West German government had become authoritarian and anti-democratic.
Yet, the supposed fascist cop was in fact a committed Marxist and Communist, ideologically aligned to the politics of the young man he killed. It raises the possibility that the killing of young Ohensorg was in fact an act meant by the Stasi to destabilize the West German government, and to provoke precisely the outcome that took place. Was he an agent-provocateur, who shot and killed on the order given by Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi?
I profiled an earlier and even more significant 1960s Cold War murder right here in the US back in 2007.
Concurrent with West Germany’s Red Army Faction of the late ’60s and ’70s, a self-professed “American Red Army” was afoot; Sister Toldjah reminds us of their founder and his motives, here.