21st May 1975: Two members of the terrorist Baader-Meinhof terrorist group: Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Germany’s Red Army Faction

Ominous parallels between 1970s West Germany and Britain today

Artillery Row

Ulrike Meinhof’s manifesto “The Urban Guerrilla Concept” began and ended with two interesting quotes. The first read: “we must draw a clear line between ourselves and the enemy.” The second read: “Either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution.” The first was attributed to Mao Zedong, whose policies had starved millions in the Great Leap Forward and whose Cultural Revolution was killing hundreds of thousands. The second was attributed to Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther whose book Soul on Ice described his history of violent rape and who was in the middle of an ideological romance with Kim Il-Sung’s Juche regime in North Korea.

The very formation of the RAF, often known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, illustrated the liberality of the West German state

In two quotes, Meinhof illustrated the scale of the projection inherent to West European left-wing radicalism. Meinhof and her comrades in the Red Army Faction diagnosed a creeping fascism in West Germany, yet also valorized explicitly totalitarian states.

The very formation of the RAF, often known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, illustrated the liberality of the West German state. Andreas Baader, a left-wing activist and criminal fugitive, had been arrested for speeding and failing to answer questions about his identity. Somehow, fifty years ago, in May 1970, the West German authorities still agreed to allow him to leave prison to be interviewed by the radical journalist Ulrike Meinhof. Baader was freed, in an operation which involved an elderly librarian being shot in the chest, and the RAF was born.

Andreas Baader was a bohemian bully who, according to Jillian Becker in Hitler’s Children, had as a young man insisted that he was suffering from cancer so to gain sympathy from his peers. Despite the informal name by which the group is popularly known, his partner was not Meinhof, who he rather disliked, but the academic Gudrun Ensslin. After his escape, the pair travelled to Jordan along with Meinhof, the lawyer Horst Mahler, and other members of the RAF for training with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The young Germans irritated their Arabic hosts, because of their lack of discipline and because of their enthusiasm for sunbathing in the nude. Somehow, the reality of internationalist struggle was less romantic than it had sounded at home.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that there was no basis for outrage on the youthful Western left. The Cold War had heightened fears of nuclear atrocities, and the conflict in Vietnam was plastered across newspapers and TV screens in the form of devastated villages and screaming children. Still, it is not hard to discern baser motives in the struggle of the RAF: the attraction of middle-class Europeans to the gritty romance of distant foreign revolutionaries, and the desire to do what most of their parents did not do and stand up to an inhumane and oppressive government. That the West German state bore no resemblance to that of Hitler’s was a minor inconvenience.

On their return to Germany, the RAF carried out bank robberies and bomb attacks against military bases, police stations and arms of the hostile press. Their targets were chosen with a view towards minimising civilian casualties, though the less a state has done to warrant insurrection the less singling out its officials becomes cause for one’s defence. Herbert Schoner was the humble chief of a police dog squad when he tried to stop an RAF bank robbery and was gunned down, leaving a wife and two children bereft. The thuggish Baader, meanwhile, allegedly maintained RAF discipline by executing the 23-year-old member Ingeborg Barz after she had phoned her mother and said that she would leave the group.

The bourgeois nature of most of the RAF members’ backgrounds was obvious. (When the banker Jürgen Ponto was assassinated by a group of “second generation” RAF militants, it was because he had politely invited them into his house as one, Susanne Albrecht, was a family friend.) Still, their commitment was undeniable. After most of the core members of the “first generation” had been arrested in 1972, they organised hunger strikes in protest against the  conditions of their confinement. One of them, Holger Mains, starved to death. The demands the hunger strikes were based on were preposterous – including, according to Stefan Aust’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex pensions for all prisoners, unsupervised visits and uncensored mail – but his sacrifice affirmed the myth of the brutal capitalist state oppressing the valiant revolutionaries and inspired others to take up arms. After seeing Meins’ self-imposed emaciation, Hans-Joachim Klein, Jean Paul Sartre’s chauffeur when he visited the RAF in prison, joined the militant group Revolutionary Cells and took part in acts of terrorism before abandoning the group when, he alleged, they developed plans to attack German Jewish communities.

The Baader-Meinhof gang has long been draped in glossy legends. Baader, Meinhof and others’ deaths in prison were reported to be suicides but rumours persist that the RAF militants were murdered. Irmgard Möller, who was found with stab wounds in her chest but who survived, denied that she and her comrades had wanted to kill themselves. Why, on the other hand, state agents would have failed to finish her off is a valid question.

The second generation of the RAF were both more brutal and less appealing to the imagination, and its members were involved in various attacks until 1992. Horst Mahler went on to convert from Maoism to neo-Nazism, and has been in and out of prison on charges of Holocaust denial, proving that radicalism can be an underlying cause of ideology. One of Ulrike Meinhof’s daughters, Bettina Röhl, followed her mother into journalism, though she is an outspoken conservative.

Ulrike Meinhof being taken in custody. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

No amount of bubble bursting will pop the romantic allure of the group. Beautiful young men and women struggling against the state would have to be drowned in civilian blood before they lost their residual glamour, whatever their murderousness, foolishness, hypocrisy, selfishness and spite. Still, it is worth remembering the RAF. In her manifesto, Meinhof wrote:

Without political practice, reading Capital is nothing more than bourgeois study. 

In those times, the RAF’s form of “political practice” was all too prevalent. Ireland had the IRA and the UDA. Italy had the Red Brigades and the New Order. Spain had the ETA. England, with its rather pathetic Angry Brigade, could conceive of terrorism as a largely foreign phenomenon.

As rioting spreads across the US, and erupts, to a lesser extent, in Britain it is worth remembering that intranational conflict took violent forms in Europe even in recent memory. The Red Army Faction may have been a lot of contemptible things but they were also lawyers, academics and artists who at one time would have been considered respectable if unconventional members of society. They were not, in other words, neanderthalic monsters mankind has evolved away from, and their kind could return.

In her manifesto, Meinhof quoted Cleaver as saying “most of what happens in this country does not need to be analyzed any further.” Once people reach that stage, however mistaken they are is beside the point.

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