Outcast of the angry generation
Horst Mahler’s political journey from Baader-Meinhof terrorist to Holocaust denier illustrates Germany’s post-Hitler psychodrama
This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Imagine the horrors of twentieth century Germany synthesised in one man and you would produce an identikit of Horst Mahler. This is a study of the legacy of Nazism, the violent left-wing protests and terrorism of the late 1960s and 70s and the upsurge in far-right agitation following reunification.
It is little known around the world and no longer talked about much in Germany. But those who have followed it are intensely exercised. Does Mahler represent something German, or could he have belonged to any country? Is his ugly extremism a set of political decisions or can it be pathologised? Is his swing from the Baader-Meinhof group to neo-Nazism a dramatic lurch or part of a continuum?
Now 85, Mahler has spent the past five months as a free man, having been holed up for a decade in the prison near Berlin in which Erich Honecker spent time in 1930s. He has been released under strict conditions and any further attempt at Holocaust denial will likely land him back inside. His life is both stereotypically bourgeois and a study in turmoil.
The son of a dentist, Horst Mahler was born on 23 January 1936 in Haynau in Lower Silesia, a town now called Chojnow in southwestern Poland. Even though they had some Jewish ancestry, Mahler’s parents were staunch Nazis, both during and immediately after the Third Reich. Before every meal and at children’s bedtime they would pray to God to preserve the Führer. Young Horst was given his name in tribute to Horst Wessel, the stormtrooper shot dead by communists in 1930 and mythologised by the Nazis. His elder brother Klaus cut his own hair in the style of Hitler.
With the Red Army approaching in 1945, the Mahlers fled westwards, ending up in the Soviet-occupied eastern Germany, first in Naumburg, then in Dessau, two towns either side of Leipzig. They were now living in an “anti-fascist” model state where they were taught to unlearn everything they had learnt. Seemingly unable to cope with the loss of his political lodestar, father Willy sunk into a deep depression. In 1949, he killed himself.
That much is covered in the studies of the Mahler phenomenon. But, according to Wolfgang Kraushaar, an academic who has pursued the story in minute detail, the episode is considerably darker than that. Willy had given his three sons tablets to ward off the ‘flu. Klaus suspected it was something else and stopped the brothers from doing so. The idea that a parent would want to poison his three offspring is not one someone might easily recover from. In those desperate times, suicide and filicide were not uncommon. Curiously, the mother appears in virtually no account.
The remaining family fled again, from East to West Berlin, in another attempt to start over. Mahler finished school in 1955 and enrolled in the Free University of Berlin, the American-backed rival to the city’s top institution, the Humboldt, that was now part of the East. He gained a scholarship to study law and was seemingly an impressive student. In a sign of things to come, he joined a schlagende Verbindung, a militaristic student fraternity. After a year, he fell out with his new-found chums.
Soon after graduation he joined the centre-left Social Democrats, becoming chairman of his local youth organisation in Wilmersdorf. He had also become a member of the more radical Socialist Student Union (SDS). He was later expelled from the SPD because of its ban on affiliates which advocated Marxism-Leninism.
The mid-60s were a heady period in Berlin. The Wall had gone up, sparking protests but also turning the surrounded western side of the city into a counter-cultural island. Young Germans flocked there to dodge military service and to enjoy a Bohemian lifestyle that was frowned upon in stuffier cities elsewhere in West Germany.
After graduating in 1964, Mahler started his own law firm, which specialized in representing medium-sized businesses. He was doing well, but his passion lay increasingly in the left-wing protest movement. He had first come to the police’s attention while taking part in a march during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The Federal Republic of Germany was keen to show its pro-Atlantic credentials as a loyal member of the NATO alliance. The first Grand Coalition formed in 1966 embedded the SPD in a government under a Christian Democrat chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, like many contemporaries at the top of public life, a man with a Nazi past.
He had been in charge of the radio department of Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, although after the war he was absolved of any crimes. To many on the Left, the SPD’s willingness to work with him was the ultimate betrayal; they took their politics beyond the Bundestag and onto the streets, forming a group called the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (APO).
On 2 June 1967, at a protest against a visit by the Shah of Iran, a police officer shot dead at point blank range a 26-year-old student called Benno Ohnesorg. Several months later, one of the leaders of the movement, the charismatic Rudi Dutschke, was shot in the head and seriously injured by a far-right painter and decorator. One of the main objects of their ire was the Springer publishing house, which produced the conservative dailies Bild and Die Welt. After spells in Italy and Switzerland, Dutschke was invited by Cambridge University to finish his studies and recuperate. He was expelled by Ted Heath’s government in 1971, which feared he might foment trouble. He never fully recovered from his injuries and died in Denmark in 1979, aged 39.
Mahler had become the go-to defence lawyer for arrested activists, rising to prominence when he challenged the official version about Ohnesorg’s death and forced the authorities to conduct a full autopsy. He was in his element, basking in the plaudits. As he took on more clients from that scene, his business customers went elsewhere. Unabashed, alongside a few comrades he established the first “socialist lawyers collective”.
Activism became ever more militant. The Vietnam War became the focal point for many of the protests. Anti-Americanism, anti-consumerism and anti-imperialism were rolled into a single high-adrenaline cause. Buildings were burned down; police lines were stormed.
Eventually the 1968 movement fizzled out, but in Germany, as across much of Europe, its legacy was lasting. The “Economic Miracle” of the 1950s and 60s had enabled the country to rebuild, and to become a corporate success. Much of recent history had, however, been swept under the carpet. While a small slew of Nazi leaders had been prosecuted at Nuremberg and other trials, a real political reckoning was only really triggered by the protest movement. The Achtundsechzige, the 68ers, changed the way Germany looked at itself – for the good.
Most of its members integrated into mainstream life, some becoming highly successful. A hard core, however, split away. In 1970, four activists formed the Red Army Faction (RAF), otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof Group (if you were liberal) or Gang (if you were conservative). The journalist Stefan Aust has written extensively about the RAF. His own journey speaks volumes. He too was heavily involved, working for Konkret, the protest movement’s in-house publication, alongside Ulrike Meinhof. He went on to edit the main news weekly, Der Spiegel, and is now Editor at, of all places, Die Welt.
“World War Two was only 20 years earlier. Those in charge of the police, the schools, the government—they were the same people who’d been in charge under Nazism,” Aust writes in his book The Baader Meinhof Complex. Published in 1985 and later adapted into a film, it provides a definitive account of that mindset. He quotes one of the RAF members as saying: “We were the first generation since the war, and we were asking our parents questions.
“Due to the Nazi past, everything bad was compared to the Third Reich. If you heard about police brutality, that was said to be just like the SS. The moment you see your own country as the continuation of a fascist state, you give yourself permission to do almost anything against it. You see your action as the resistance that your parents did not put up.” Mahler would eventually draw somewhat different conclusions. But then, in the late 60s, he was central to the cause.
Between its formation in 1970 and the GÖtterdämmerung-style destruction of its first generation seven years later, the RAF was responsible for 35 murders and some of the most spectacular terrorist attacks of post-war history. Mahler didn’t just represent them in court (until he was barred from practising); he was the group’s chief organiser, ideologist and strategist.
At its peak, the RAF consisted of up to 30 cadres and 200 supporters. It was comprised largely of middle-class, social science graduates. The activists took their cues from revolutionaries such as Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and the Brazilian Carlos Marighella, alongside thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse, with his reinterpretation of Marxism. A common theme was a view of the working class as compliant, kept in its place by fears of unemployment and dreams of material wellbeing.
Following several convictions in 1970, including a ten-month suspended sentence, Mahler fled to Lebanon and Jordan with Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin and others, where they trained as guerrilla fighters with the Palestinians. Back in Berlin, Mahler was arrested two months later. He ended up serving a total of 10 years for a series of convictions. His exclusion from the bar followed in 1974. He remained in detention until 1980.
The autumn of 1977, the German Autumn, was the high point of the drama. The gang kidnapped Hans Martin Schleyer, president of the employers’ federation, the BDI. A typical establishment figure, he personified everything the radicals despised. Like many business leaders of the time, Schleyer had baggage. An avid Nazi, he became an adviser to the German administration in occupied Bohemia. He spent three years at a prisoner of war camp, where he understated his rank in the SS. By 1949, he was in charge of the Chamber of Commerce in Baden-Baden.
The government refused to negotiate. Four days later, four terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa Boeing 737 en route from Majorca to Frankfurt. The plane landed in Mogadishu; the passengers were used as collateral to secure the release of jailed RAF members and Palestinians. In a perfectly executed operation, Germany’s GSG-9 special forces stormed the plane, killed the hijackers and freed the passengers unharmed. In fury and in despair, Schleyer’s kidnappers killed him and left his body in the boot of a car in eastern France.
By the end of 1977, all the main figures had been rounded up. Several of them committed suicide in prison. The RAF did reconstitute itself, carrying out a third wave of violent attacks in the 1980s and into the early 90s. But the German Autumn was over. Its legacy has been furiously debated ever since.
Many of those who survived went on to play leading roles in mainstream society. That includes two lawyers Mahler worked closely with. In the 1970s, he and Otto Schily jointly represented RAF suspects in a number of court cases. In the 1980s, Gerhard Schröder represented him in his (successful) bid to have his right to practise law reinstated.
Schröder went on to become chancellor in 1998. Schily was his interior minister. Another erstwhile radical was Joschka Fischer, who went on to become one of the founders of the Greens, then foreign minister in that same government. The fact that such trajectories are regarded as the mere exuberance of youth, part of the rough and tumble of political life, is one of the many fascinations of German politics.
In an essay entitled “Horst Mahler and an ongoing refusal to accept guilt”, Wolfgang Kraushaar alights on a large illustration that appeared in Konkret in April 1969. It is a play on the Last Supper. Che Guevara is Christ. Among the disciples sitting alongside him are 68 icons such as Dutschke and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Further along is a shifty figure, concealing a knife, described only as the “APO-lawyer”. No prizes for guessing who that was supposed to be.
It was during this long stint in prison that Mahler embarked on his long (or perhaps not so long) journey from one extreme to the other. Three years before the German Autumn, the RAF forced him out after they had fallen out at their Middle East training camp. How much of his political re-casting was ideological, how much personal?
Mulling his future from inside jail, Mahler decided to make virtue of necessity. Shunned by what was left of the radical left, he decided to denounce them. By 1977, he was already writing of his “inner liberation from the dogmatic revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism”.
The radical left, he said, had failed to develop a mass following. Its campaign of violence was implicit recognition of that weakness. Having been allowed back into legal practice in 1988, Mahler focused on his job. So far, so mainstream. Indeed, the nature of his calm rejection of left-wing politics was praised by politicians and media at the time.
Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, reunification and the new Germany. As a number of former friends and allies were making their names, Mahler could see he was being passed by. Whether it was restlessness, missing the limelight or perhaps weightier concerns about the state of the world, in 1998 he made his big lurch.
Writing in a right-wing newspaper, Junge Freiheit (Young Freedom), he revealed his new beliefs, drawing a connection between his left-wing past activism and nationalist ideology. “The 1968 generation destroyed tradition and religion as world-shaping concepts. The ground is only now ready for completing this enlightenment,” he declared. “Let us be warriors of thought!”
Two years later he applied to join the neo-fascist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). His application borrowed from the Nazi playbook. Mahler speaks of a “secret government” by the “directors of the global economic and financial system” (for that read the deep state). The government of the time (Schröder’s Social Democrat/Green coalition), relied on “secret service provocations to stabilise the system, unleashing witch-hunts and campaigns of political persecution as required”.
What prevailed was “opinion-terror against all, even so timid, stirrings of the German people’s spirit”. He defended all forms of violence as “legitimate expressions of the natural resistance of the German people against their Überfremdung (swamping by foreigners) and Umvolkung (un-peopling) into an Afro-Euro-Asiatic crossbreed”. Permeating everything was anti-Semitism. The annihilation of Jews had represented “the actions of God, not those of humans”.
In 2005, Mahler was sentenced to nine months in prison for spreading anti-Semitic propaganda and inciting violence. On his release, he picked up where he left off. In 2009, he was sentenced to another 10 years. He was released under licence in 2015 due to illness, only to abscond to Hungary. Hopes that Viktor Orban’s government might protect him were dashed when he was extradited. That is where the narrative ends. And that is where much of the head-scratching begins.
The theory of the Sonderweg, Germany’s special path of ignominy, is not something Germans relinquish easily. If the debate was a sometimes clumsy, it was an important step along the road towards a more robust discussion about Vergangenheitsbewältigung, coming to terms with the past. It took until the 1980s for a more layered approach to the issue of war guilt to be developed.
Mahler has sparked an important debate about the extremism of both poles — is there a continuum?
Mahler didn’t just go for the risqué. In keeping with his past, once he committed himself to a cause, he took it to its logical conclusion. He heaped praise on the terrorists responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11, thanking those who had “struck at the heart of the monster”.
He saw enemies everywhere and sought allies where he could. In 2005, he gleefully accepted an invitation by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to an international conference promoting Holocaust denial. When the German government withdrew his passport, he wrote an open letter to Iran’s President praising him for having “opened the gates to the truth. For this deed the nations will be eternally grateful and remember you as the deliverer from Jewish enslavement.”
Whether on Left or Right, Mahler quickly tired of party politics. He founded the Deutsches Kolleg, calling it the “thought organ” of the German Reich. It advocated the
classic national-socialist mix of economic intervention, racial self-identification and social conservatism. Unemployment would be eliminated by excluding foreign workers; homelessness would be ended, the health service would be improved, a pure culture would be revived, the war on drugs would be won. Even traffic jams would be eliminated.
Why devote time and space to a man who could easily be dismissed as a crackpot? When he was released from jail last October, German media reported it, but only in brief. It would have been deemed tasteless, even dangerous, to do anything else.
Yet he has spawned an important discussion, even if it is confined largely to academia, about the relationship between the extremism of both poles. Is there a continuum?
Mahler certainly would like people to draw that conclusion. In his warped mind, both RAF and the Waffen-SS formed a praetorian guard against US-style capitalism and what he also called the global ambitions of the East Coast, a euphemism for “power Jews” running America. As he explained it, from the beginning of its history America “has been characterized by corruption, predatory capitalism, mind-control, false democracy, hypocrisy and bigotry”.
According to Alan Posener, a columnist at Die Welt and himself a former left-wing firebrand of that era, this period saw the trauma of the war play itself out. That generation was challenging its parents about Nazism while being also drawn into a politics that found its apogee in hostility to Israel. “The undercurrent of anti-Semitism was always there,” he says.
It is for psychologists to assess the state of Mahler’s mind. The circumstances of his father’s suicide and attempted murder of his sons took place when he was 13, at the height of puberty. It would be impossible not to have been affected. In his case, he had lost his two father figures — his dad and Hitler.
Another factor might have been good, old-fashioned professional jealousy. While most of the 1968 generation soon abandoned their socialist ambitions and returned to the bosom of bourgeois society and, in the case of some, to top positions, Mahler needed to find something to stay in the limelight he craved.
Horst Mahler was no incidental figure. He was instrumental in forming the RAF and turning it into an existential threat to the West German state. Then his restless mind needed to identify a new political cause to espouse. His fury, his desire for vengeance, dogged him throughout.
His political journey is far more interesting than the sad inadequate individual he became, or perhaps always was. It would be all too easy to see him as quintessentially German, a symbol of the anguish of the era. It is more than that, though. It shines a light on the fragility of democracy and the ease with which people around the world cleave to simple solutions. To that extent, he is an everyman.
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