The Baader-Meinhof gang were hopelessly incompetent, befuddled by
drugs and casual sex
By MICHAEL BURLEIGH
7th March 2008
Before the final moment, he turned on his record player. The album
was Eric Clapton's There's One In Every Crowd, the Seventies classic
that became known for its interpretation of the negro spiritual dirge
Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
Then the prisoner took the pistol he'd kept hidden in the secret
compartment he had built into the gramophone. As the music blared, he
fired a few shots into the wall and afterwards shot bullets into his
mattress. Next, 34-year-old Andreas Baader held the muzzle to his
neck - and pulled the trigger.
The guards who had taken breakfast day after day for years to his
cell on the seventh floor of Stuttgart's Stammheim prison discovered
him in a pool of blood at 8am on October 18, 1977.
Immediately fearing a suicide pact, they raced to open the other
cells occupied by his co-terrorists. One they found slumped on his
bed dying from a wound to his right temple.
A Heckler & Koch 9mm pistol was in his hand. Along the corridor-they
burst open the cell door to find 37-year-old Gudrun Ensslin hanging
from an electric flex threaded through the grille of her window.
A few cells along, they found another woman who, after pulling up her
jumper, had stabbed herself in the breast four times with a table
knife. She was bleeding copiously but still alive.
Another of the terrorists, the hapless and drug-addled former
Left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof, had hanged herself just over a
year earlier in the very cell in which Baader had taken his life.
So ended the lives of the core members of one of the most terrifying
terrorist groups the West had ever seen - the Baader-Meinhof group or
Red Army Faction - which from the late Sixties onwards plunged West
Germany into a state of siege through bombings, shootings and
aircraft hijackings conducted in alliance with the PLO.
Hopelessly incompetent, these terrorists were products of the
Left-wing counter-culture of the Sixties, a group who railed against
the Establishment and had bonded around casual sex, rock music and
the ingestion of massive quantities of illegal drugs.
But despite their inadequacies, they left a trail of destruction and
dead bodies in their struggle against the 'capitalist exploitation'
What is most shocking, though, is the support they attracted from the
liberal-Left not just in Germany but throughout the western world.
The Baader-Meinhof story is a chilling lesson in the appeasement of
terrorism by a Left-wing consensus so blinded by ideology that it
glosses over horrendous crimes in support of its cause.
These terrorists were the lethal face of the radical generation who
went on to occupy the heights of the liberal establishment across the
In Britain, the Left-leaning universities, the arts, the BBC, and
many more institutions are still dominated by survivors of an era
whose ideologies - a disrespect for authority, contempt for the
family unit, an emphasis on human rights not responsibilities -
permeate every facet of our lives 40 years on.
The group originated amid an international wave of student militancy
which was strong in Germany, where spoiled middle-class kids revolted
against parents who had arduously rebuilt the country from wartime rubble.
They wanted a Marxist revolution, claiming that Germany's democracy
was really a "Fascist" state perpetuated by surviving members of the
Nazi party. Anyone who did not agree with them was shouted down as a "Nazi".
Never mind that real German workers wanted a Volkswagen, holidays in
Torremolinos, and new kitchens - ambitions which idle student
Leftists despised. Or that real workers knew about communism - their
relatives lived under it in a police state across the Berlin Wall -
and had no time for the views of drug-fuelled layabouts.
It was the Wall that caused West Berlin to become the birthplace of
Sixties terrorism. As a beacon of western freedom, the city was
There were plenty of cheap, spacious apartments for the disaffected
young to turn into squats for a life of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll
amid overflowing ashtrays, posters and fetid sheets. Students flocked
there and increasingly angry demonstrations in support of causes from
the Viet Cong to the PLO - the militant Palestinian movement - became
a feature of life.
By 1967 student demonstrations in Berlin had become so violent they
were banned. In this explosive atmosphere, a protest against a visit
by the Shah of Iran ended in the accidental shooting by the police of
a university student.
It was an event that triggered hysterical protests. At one, the
willowy provincial pastor's daughter Gudrun Ensslin declaimed: "This
is the generation of Auschwitz - you can't reason with them! They
have weapons and we haven't. We must arm ourselves too."
Ensslin was a dope-smoking anti-nuclear protester with serial
boyfriends who had given away an illegitimate child for adoption. She
had already starred in a soft porn movie when she fell under the
spell of Andreas Baader, the son of a gifted historian who'd gone
missing on the Eastern Front in 1945.
Good-looking, with his sunglasses and black leather jackets, Baader
had been thrown out of school and failed at a succession of jobs; he
had eked out a living as a male model, supplemented by robbing
customers in the lavatories of gay bars and stealing cars. Like
Ensslin, he too had an illegitimate daughter - and was also a
Inevitably, Baader and Ensslin became lovers, with ever-larger
quantities of amphetamines and LSD expanding their revolutionary fantasies.
In early 1968 Baader and Ensslin burned down a large Frankfurt
department store as a symbol of consumer capitalism. They got the
idea from a fire in a Belgian store in which 251 people had died. It
was the opening salvo in their terroristic rampage.
Captured within days, the duo turned their trial into a piece of
radical theatre, drawing support from liberals everywhere. Their
defence team included lawyer Horst Mahler, a radical who was himself
under a suspended sentence for public disorder offences and who soon
afterwards joined Baader's revolutionary gang.
The arsonists received three years' imprisonment but were released
after 14 months, pending an appeal.
Baader and Ensslin celebrated by injecting themselves with liquefied
opium and settled into a free flat provided for them by a radical
When they lost their appeal, they fled to France and Italy, where
they were feted by Leftist sympathisers such as U.S. playwright
Eventually they sneaked back to West Berlin, where the duo latched
onto Ulrike Meinhof, a prominent Leftwing journalist who was soon
competing with Ensslin for Baader's attentions, lapping up the
foul-mouthed abuse he hurled at both men and women.
Ensslin proclaimed an 11th Commandment: 'Thou must kill', and the
group called itself the Red Army Faction. Their second outing as
terrorists was as futile as the first. Attempting to buy guns, they
were stopped by police, and Baader was arrested and returned to serve
his original sentence, but before long he escaped.
Now they decided they needed professional training. In June 1970,
Baader, Ensslin, Mahler and Meinhof surfaced at a Palestinian
guerilla base outside Amman, Jordan. Tough Algerian and Palestinians
were not impressed.
Instructed how to prime a Russian grenade, Meinhof pulled the pin
without realising she had to throw it. Catastrophe was narrowly
averted when someone grabbed the fizzing grenade from her and hurled it away.
The budding terrorists fired so many rounds wildly from AK-47s that
the PLO rationed the bullets. The angry Germans protested by
sunbathing naked on the roof of their quarters.
Aided by contacts in the Stasi, the East German secret police, the
group were smuggled back to Berlin. Using BMWs - soon dubbed
"Baader-Meinhof-Wagons" - they sped along the autobahns high on drink
and drugs. They raided three banks, although Meinhof with
characteristic incompetence overlooked steel boxes containing vast
sums as she scooped up modest amounts from the tellers' drawers.
Meinhof used the money to acquire arms while Baader and Ensslin
sought young recruits, for the original band had dwindled to a dozen
or so. There was one unlikely source: the insane.
A radical psychiatrist at Heidelberg university had formed a
socialist collective among those he was treating. Baader and Ensslin
visited the university and recruited 12 under the slogan "Crazies to arms".
Their ranks replenished, the Red Army Faction mounted bomb attacks
across the country. A car bomb gravely injured the wife of a judge.
Gun battles resulted in the first death in July 1971 when police
chased a BMW that had gone through a checkpoint, forced it to stop
and were shot at by the couple who got out. They returned fire and
killed a 20-year-old hairdresser who had followed her boyfriend into
The terrorists murdered an American lieutenant-colonel and wounded 13
others in an attack on a U.S. barracks in Frankfurt. Police
headquarters and publishers were bombed.
Finally, in June 1972, Baader was caught in Frankfurt when 150 police
officers and an armoured car surrounded a backstreet garage as part
of a nationwide series of raids and he was shot in the thigh by a sniper.
Ensslin was soon arrested in a Hamburg clothes store where, tired and
nervous-looking, she was trying on clothes. A shop assistant who
moved her jacket felt the gun in its pocket and phoned the police.
A few days later, police were tipped off about a suspicious couple in
a flat in Hanover. Inside they found guns, grenades and ammunition,
as well as a sickly-looking woman whom they identified as Ulrike Meinhof.
The Baader-Meinhof myth was born inside Stammheim prison. Leftwing
sympathisers, including the country's most prominent writers and
intellectuals, maintained that they were being tortured in appalling
conditions. Stammheim was "like Auschwitz", they absurdly claimed.
Celebrities, like the novelist Heinrich Bll and the French
philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, were wheeled in to dramatise their
plight. Although the aged Frenchman privately observed "what an
a***hole" after being lectured by Baader in the jail's spartan
visitors' suite, on live German TV he lied: "Baader has the face of a
Sartre claimed the terrorists were being kept in blindingly white
minimalist cells to disorientate them.
Actually, their wing was comfortable; they could choose the colour of
the walls. Their cells had libraries and Baader had 974 books
including Contemporary Explosives Technology and the Special Forces Handbook.
When Baader claimed his cell was too small, the authorities knocked
down a wall to create a suite, adding a further connecting door when
this was also deemed too cramped.
The cells had electric blankets, which the terrorists had insisted
on, to keep the electricity on at night.
The inmates promptly converted high-fi amplifiers and the warders'
intercoms into a communication network.
They also received endless visits from lawyers (Baader had 58 visits
in a single month) who smuggled messages out while smuggling in
miniature cameras and three guns (and strips of explosives),
concealed in hollowed out legal files.
And their trial in May 1975 was turned into a political farce by
lawyers calling such "witnesses" as U.S. President Richard Nixon.
Meanwhile, relations between the group deteriorated. Baader and
Ensslin turned on Meinhof, who was a depressive. She hanged herself
during the trial.
After 190 days Baader and Ensslin were sentenced to life
imprisonment. By this time, their comrades outside had murdered the
Federal chief prosecutor, Siegfried Bubeck, machinegunned in his car,
along with his driver and bodyguard. In July 1977, they shot
prominent banker J¸rgen Ponto.
Two months later they kidnapped industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer.
His three bodyguards and chauffeur were killed in a hail of bullets,
while Schleyer was drugged and spirited away. He was later found dead
after the government refused to negotiate for his release.
Meanwhile, in conjunction with the PLO, the terrorists hijacked a
Lufthansa jet bearing 90 passengers after boarding at Palma, Majorca,
and diverted it to the Middle East.
The plane's pilot was executed in Aden when he took too long
inspecting the undercarriage. The remains of his brain were thrown
out the cockpit window before the co-pilot took off for Mogadishu, Somalia.
There the hijackers doused the passengers with duty free alcohol and
threatened to blow the plane up if the Stammheim inmates were not
freed. As negotiations dragged on, the terrorists failed to notice a
jet land under cover of darkness full of commandos who stormed the
plane, shooting three of the hijackers dead. News of this was
broadcast on German radio in the dead of night.
The usually dispassionate Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, wept with
relief. Other listeners were Baader and Ensslin, and two comrades in
Stammheim's cells. In a final act of destruction, they decided to
kill themselves, to create martyrs to rally future terrorists.
Their deaths - which Baader had arranged to look like murder by the
authorities - inspired younger fanatics who for the next two decades
coldly and clinically murdered prominent figures in German public life.
As a young lecturer in London in the 1980s, I once had the task of
consoling a German student whose godfather, the prominent banker
Alfred Herrhausen, had been blown up in his armoured Mercedes by a
remote controlled bomb.
And the Baader-Meinhof sympathisers and lawyers? Why, one was Gerhard
Schroeder, who became German Chancellor; another became the Interior
Minister responsible for counter-terrorism in Schroeder's government.
And, as elsewhere in Europe, the others are now firmly ensconced in a
"liberal" establishment that, on closer inspection, does not seem
'liberal' at all.
Michael Burleigh's Blood And Rage: A Cultural History Of Terrorism is
published by Harper-Collins at £25