David Crawford | December 28, 2007
THE terrorists who killed Alfred Herrhausen were professionals.
They dressed as construction workers to lay a wire under the pavement
of the road along Herrhausen's usual route to work. They planted a
sack of armour-piercing explosives on a parked bicycle by the
roadside. An infrared beam shining across the road triggered the
explosion just when the limousine, one of three cars in a convoy, sped by.
The operation, from the terrorists' point of view, was flawless:
Herrhausen, the chairman of one of Europe's most powerful companies,
Deutsche Bank, was killed in the explosion along that suburban
Frankfurt road on November 30, 1989.
But was everything what it seemed?
Within days, the Red Army Faction - a leftist terrorist group that
had traumatised West Germany since 1970 with a series of high-profile
crimes and brazen killings of bankers and industrialists - claimed
responsibility for the assassination.
An intense manhunt followed. In June 1990, police arrested 10 Red
Army Faction members who had fled to East Germany to avoid arrest for
other crimes. To the police's surprise, they were willing to talk.
Equally confounding to authorities was that all had solid alibis.
None was charged over the Herrhausen attack.
Now, almost two decades later, German police, prosecutors and other
security officials have focused on a new suspect: the East German
secret police, known as the Stasi. Long fodder for spy novelists like
John le Carre, the shadowy Stasi controlled every aspect of East
German life through imprisonment, intimidation and the use of
informants - even at one point placing a spy in the office of West
German Chancellor Willy Brandt.
According to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the
murders of Herrhausen and others attributed to the Red Army Faction
bear striking resemblance to methods and tactics pioneered by a
special unit of the Stasi. The unit reported to Stasi boss Erich
Mielke and actively sought in the waning years of the communist
regime to imitate the Red Army Faction to mask their own attacks
against prominent people in West Germany and destabilise the country.
"The investigation has intensified in recent months," says Frank
Wallenta, a spokesman for the Federal Prosecutor. "And we are
investigating everything, including leads to the Stasi."
If those leads turn out to be true, it would mean not only rewriting
some of the most dramatic episodes of the Cold War, but would likely
accelerate a broader soul-searching now under way in Germany about
the communist past.
In building a reunified country, many Germans have ignored discussion
of the brutal realities of its former communist half. When the former
East Germany is discussed, it's often with nostalgia or empathy for
brothers hostage to Soviet influence.
That taboo is slowly being broken. Last year's Oscar-winning movie
The Lives of Others chronicled in dark detail a Stasi agent's efforts
to subvert the lives of ordinary people. Material in the Stasi
archives shows that senior leaders had a shoot-to-kill order against
those fleeing from East to West - a controversial order that
contradicts East German leaders' claims that they never ordered any shootings.
This story is based on more than a dozen interviews with police,
prosecutors and other security officials. Several policemen and
prosecutors confirmed that the allegation of extensive Stasi
involvement with the Red Army Faction is a key part of the current
Court cases in West Germany in the 1990s established that members of
the Red Army Faction were granted free passage to other countries in
the 1970s and refuge in East Germany in the 1980s. But the current
investigation and documents from Stasi archives suggest far deeper
involvement - that members of the Red Army Faction were not only
harboured by the Stasi but methodically trained in sophisticated
techniques of bombing and murder.
Traudl Herrhausen, Herrhausen's widow, is one of those pushing for
further investigation. She says she long suspected involvement by the
Stasi or other intelligence service such as the KGB, but never spoke
publicly because she didn't have evidence and didn't want to
interfere in the investigation. She says she is now breaking an
18-year silence in her desire to see justice done. "Now I want to
look my husband's killers in the eye," she says.
The Red Army Faction was founded about 1970 by a band of leftists who
justified their terrorism based on opposition to West Germany's
ruling elite. Killing members of this elite would provoke the West
German state to take repressive measures that would show its true
fascist face, Red Army Faction leaders believed.
In its early years the group, also known as the Baader-Meinhof band,
made headlines with prison breaks, bank robberies, bomb attacks and
deadly shoot-outs. Four gang members led by Ulrike Meinhof freed Red
Army Faction leader Andreas Baader from a Berlin jail a month after
Red Army Faction violence in West Germany intensified in 1977 when
Jurgen Ponto, then head of Dresdner Bank, was shot and killed at his
home. Five weeks later, the group killed four people and abducted the
chairman of the German employer association, Hans-Martin Schleyer,
one of West Germany's most prominent businessmen. It was the start of
a six-week ordeal in which neither government nor terrorists would compromise.
To support the Red Army Faction cause, Palestinian terrorists
hijacked a Lufthansa jet in Spain, forcing it to land in Mogadishu,
Somalia. After the plane was rushed by West German commandos, top Red
Army Faction leaders in West Germany committed suicide and Schleyer
was executed by his captors.
Red Army Faction violence began to abate in the late 1970s after the
Lufthansa incident. Many in Germany thought the group - whose attacks
were often crude - lost its will to kill after the arrest of its
senior leaders in 1982. So when the group appeared to renew its
terror campaign with a series of high-profile attacks in 1985, police
were stunned by the level of their sophistication and determination.
This time, the group dazzled police with its ability to hit targets
and leave little substantial evidence behind. They used hi-tech
devices no one thought they possessed. Their marksmen killed with
Surprisingly, members of the Red Army Faction so-called third
generation had a policeman's understanding of forensic science. From
1985 onwards, the Red Army Faction rarely left a fingerprint or other
useful piece of evidence at a crime scene, according to court
records. The murder cases from this era are still open. Some
suspected Stasi involvement, but no one could ever prove it,
according to a senior police official.
The 1989 car-bomb murder of Herrhausen particularly stunned police
with its audacity and sophistication. Herrhausen was the head of
Deutsche Bank, Germany's largest bank. He was part of the
political-business elite that helped turn West Germany from a
war-ravaged rump state into an economic powerhouse - all while East
Germany languished in frustration. Herrhausen was a vocal proponent
of a united Germany.
In November 1989 Herrhausen was following the fall of the Berlin wall
and events in the Soviet Union closely, conferring frequently with
Mikhail Gorbachev, according to his wife and friends. Then on
November 27, Herrhausen announced a plan to acquire the investment
banking firm Morgan Grenfell - at the time a record-breaking bank acquisition.
Also during November, a spot along Herrhausen's usual route to work
was closed because of construction. Terrorists, dressed as
construction workers, laid an electric wire under the road's
pavement. On November 29, the stretch reopened.
On the morning of November 30, as on every workday morning,
Herrhausen stepped into his limousine around 8.30. Herrhausen's
driver waited about one minute to allow the first of the three-car
entourage to drive ahead and survey the road.
"It was the route they hadn't used in weeks," Traudl Herrhausen says.
As Herrhausen sped down the road, a team of terrorists waited. Beside
the road, a parked bicycle held a sack of armour-piercing explosives.
The detonator was connected by an electric wire under the road to a
trigger activated by an interruption in an infrared beam shining
across the road.
A terrorist activated the detonator after the first car of bodyguards
drove past the bomb. Herrhausen died at the scene.
As they had during previous attacks, police set up dragnets to round
up Red Army Faction members. But the June 1990 arrests of 10 members
of the group who had earlier been granted political asylum in East
Germany produced no leads. All the seized Red Army Faction members
had solid alibis.
In July 1991, prosecutors believed they had a breakthrough when an
informant claimed he had allowed two members of the Red Army Faction
to stay at his home near the Herrhausen residence. Prosecutors
followed that trail for 13 years before dropping charges in 2004.
Frustrated with the inability of prosecutors to solve the Herrhausen
case, and believing that prosecutors were ignoring other leads
including possible Stasi involvement, German officials replaced the
prosecutor overseeing the case.
Police acknowledge that part of the reason for their focus on
possible Stasi involvement was that all other leads had dried up. But
they say they also knew that over the years the Stasi had worked with
and given explosives to other terrorists, including "Carlos the
Jackal" and the Basque group ETA in Spain. And in 2001-2003, an
undercover police officer met with a man who claimed he had been a
killer for the Stasi operating in West Germany, although police were
never able to tie him to specific murders.
German investigators turned their attention to Wartin, a small
eastern German village nestled in yellow-brown fields of grain near
the Polish border. Today, sheep graze in a field dotted with wooden posts.
In the 1980s, however, Wartin was home to the Stasi's AGM/S -
"Minister Working Group/Special Operations". It got its name because
it reported to Erich Mielke, the minister who headed the Stasi for
almost all of East Germany's 40-year history.
The Wartin unit's peacetime duties included the kidnapping and murder
of influential people in the West, according to Stasi records
reviewed by The Wall Street Journal in the Stasi archives in Berlin.
The documents say the unit's activities included "intimidating
anti-communist opinion leaders" by "liquidation", and "kidnapping or
hostage taking, connected with the demand that political messages be
read", according to a description of the unit's activities written by
a senior Wartin official in 1982.
Based on these documents, German investigators increasingly believe
that the Stasi played a more active role than previously believed in
Red Army Faction terrorism. After years of not being able to draw
parallels between the Stasi unit in Wartin and the Red Army Faction
killings, police are now focusing closely on such a link.
Joachim Lampe, who assisted the successful prosecution of the first
wave of Red Army Faction terrorists up until 1982 and was then
assigned to prosecute Stasi-related crimes in West Germany, says it's
time to compare the activities of Wartin with the activities of the
Red Army Faction to see where they overlap. "It is an important line
of investigation," he says.
A year after the Red Army Faction's first generation collapsed in
1972, an internal Wartin report said co-operation with terrorists was
possible if the individuals could be trusted to maintain secrecy and
obey orders. Initial contacts, however, may not have taken place
until later in the decade.
Disillusionment gripped many of the terrorists living as fugitives,
according to court records citing witness statements by accused
terrorists. Beginning about 1980, the Stasi granted refuge to 10
members of the Red Army Faction in East Germany and gave them assumed
The Stasi sympathised with the anti-capitalist ideals of the Red Army
Faction, but Stasi leaders were concerned about placing their trust
in a group of uncontrollable leftist militants, a review of Stasi
records shows. Stasi officials did not want to tarnish East Germany's
international reputation, so they toyed with different concepts for
co-operation with terrorist groups, according to a prosecutor who has
investigated Stasi involvement with terrorism. One suggestion,
contained in a document prepared for new officers assigned to the
unit, was to emulate Romanian intelligence, which successfully worked
with the terrorist "Carlos" to bomb the Radio Free Europe office in
Munich, Germany, in 1981. To assist in such operations, the Wartin
unit developed highly specialised explosives, poisons and miniature firearms.
About 1980 the Stasi also proposed a second strategy: instead of
using a terrorist group directly - such co-operation always contained
risk of discovery - they could simply execute attacks so similar to
those of known terrorists that police would never look for a second
set of suspects, according to Wartin records. The Wartin leadership
called this strategy the "perpetrator principle", according to Stasi
records. The unit's progress in implementing the steps to imitate
terrorist attacks is described in a series of progress reports by
Wartin officials between 1980 and 1987.
In September 1981, Red Army Faction terrorists attempted to kill US
general Frederick James Kroesen in Heidelberg, Germany, by firing a
bazooka at his car. About the same time, members of the same Red Army
Faction team visited East Germany, where they were asked by the Stasi
to shoot a bazooka at a car containing a dog. The dog died, according
to court records.
In Wartin, officials wrote up a detailed description of the Red Army
Faction members' re-enactment of the Kroesen attack. "It is important
to collect all accessible information about the terrorist scene in
imperialist countries, to study and analyse their equipment, methods
and tactics, so we can do it ourselves," a senior Wartin official
wrote in February 1982, according to the report.
In 1982, West German police discovered two caches of Red Army Faction
weapons and documents buried in German forests. Three terrorists,
including Red Army Faction leader Christian Klar, were arrested when
they approached the sites. The material was buried in locations easy
to find at night, a tactic used by Wartin's own agents to store
operational equipment in West Germany, according to an investigator.
That same year, a Wartin official described the staged bombing of a
moving vehicle. According to the report, several Stasi officers shed
"tears of joy" when electronic sensors detected the approaching car
and ignited the detonator.
A spokesman at Germany's federal police investigative agency, the
equivalent of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, declined to
comment on the close similarity between the detonator used in the
demonstration and the device that killed Herrhausen, saying this was
part of their investigation.
Wartin officers continued their preparations for imitating terrorist
attacks in West Germany, according to a 1985 internal Wartin report.
They created a special archive profiling the characteristics of known
terrorists and terrorist groups, and taught staff members to execute
nearly identical attacks, according to Stasi records.
Then, in 1987, the AGM/S stopped offensive operations. The unit was
disbanded. Werner Grossmann, a former three-star Stasi general and
former head of foreign intelligence operations, says the AGM/S was
responsible for planning attacks in West Germany, but was dissolved
"because it didn't produce results".
Grossmann assumed control of part of the AGM/S after most of the unit
was dissolved. Grossmann says he wanted to run intelligence
operations against West Germany's civil defence infrastructure.
"I refused to have anything to do with terrorism and terrorists,"
Grossmann said in an interview. He said he didn't have any influence
over the AGM/S activities before 1987 and wasn't informed about the
unit's activities before it came under his control.
Olaf Barnickel, a career Stasi officer who served at Wartin, says his
unit planned murders in West Germany, but never committed one. "It
was all theory and no practice."
But some German police are unpersuaded. They believe the seeds may
have been planted for future violent attacks.
In November 1989, as East Germany disintegrated, groups of citizens
forced their way into Stasi installations, seizing control. In
Wartin, a local church minister led a group of demonstrators to the
main entrance of the Stasi base. The base closed.
Within the Stasi as a whole, the chain of command began to
disintegrate. Links to organisations in West Germany, including the
Red Army Faction, were broken.
Sixteen months after Herrhausen's murder, the Red Army Faction
claimed its last victim, killing Detlev Karsten Rohwedder, the head
of the Treuhandanstalt, the powerful trust that controlled most
state-owned assets in the former East Germany and was overseeing
their privatisation. Rohwedder was killed while he was standing by
the window of his house in Dusseldorf.
The murder was performed by a trained sharpshooter. The Stasi trained
members of the Red Army Faction in sharpshooting skills and had its
own teams of sharpshooters, according to witness statements by Stasi
officials to a Berlin prosecutor and Stasi records.
In 1998, the Red Army Faction announced it was disbanding. German
police attribute the group's disappearance to changing times, which
made it seem a relic of the past. Indeed, the Red Army Faction today
is largely seen by the German public as part of the social upheaval
that plagued West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.
More than one in four Germans consider former Red Army Faction
members to have been misguided idealists. More than half now think
the investigations should be closed for good in the coming decade
when the current group of Red Army Faction prisoners finish their
German prosecutors say their investigation of the Stasi's role is continuing.
Since August, Traudl Herrhausen has been in contact with the next of
kin of victims in the other unsolved Red Army Faction murder cases,
looking for support to push the investigation. The bomb that killed
her husband nearly 18 years ago exploded within earshot of their home.
"I still hear that bomb every day," she says.
The Wall Street Journal
Additional reporting: Almut Schoenfeld, Berlin