The deadly fanaticism of Germany's Red Army Faction.
APRIL 3, 2009
By DAVID GRESS
Even during the 1970-77 heyday of the Red Army Faction -- West German
terrorists also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang -- the group
operated in a claustrophobic, paranoid atmosphere. "We were afraid of
discussion; it seemed like treachery," Astrid Proll, who was a junior
member of the gang, tells "Baader-Meinhof" author Stefan Aust. "And
we tried fending off danger by involving ourselves in it more and
more. Illegality became an end in itself, the means of holding the
The story has been told before: how a disparate group of bright but
morally and intellectually confused young Germans met in the late
1960s and decided that society was so irredeemably corrupt and
oppressive that violence was the only legitimate response. But there
has never been an account as authoritative, or as gripping, as
"Baader-Meinhof," which has the advantage of being related by a
journalist who was once so close to the action that the gang targeted
him for death.
Mr. Aust -- the former editor of the German newsweekly Der Spiegel --
has produced a riveting portrait of the gang and its two leaders,
Andreas and Ulrike Meinhof. Or at least Meinhof, a left-wing
journalist before joining the gang, was supposed by outsiders to
share in the leadership. But as Mr. Aust makes clear, it was Baader
whose charismatic appeal drew in misguided followers and persuaded
them to rob, kidnap and kill.
In 1970, Baader, a rabid opponent of the Vietnam War whose protests
had involved arson, was in prison. Meinhof, an increasingly militant
writer, had joined the nascent gang coalescing around him. The group
broke Baader out of prison, in the process severely wounding a guard.
Meinhof's young twin daughters had been sent into hiding in Sicily,
but Baader convinced her that they should be moved to the Middle East
so that Palestinians could groom them as terrorists.
Mr. Aust, who at the time was a television reporter covering the
Baader escaped-prisoner story, was told about the plan by a fugitive
from the gang. Mr. Aust went to Sicily, posing as Meinhof's emissary,
and collected the girls. The gang vowed to kill him but failed, and
so he lived to tell the story. He published an earlier version of
"Baader-Meinhof" in 1985, but since then former gang members have
testified in investigations and new information has emerged from East
German secret-police files, enabling Mr. Aust to provide a fully
Like millions of German boys born during World War II, Baader was
fatherless, but that explains little, since most such boys did not
become terrorists. From an early age he fought and argued
obsessively. Meinhof, 10 years older than Baader, came from a long
line of southwest German pastors and scholars. By the late 1960s,
each was thoroughly radicalized, rejecting the "capitalist system"
and adopting a Marxist revolutionary code.
Older but not wiser than others in the gang, Meinhof tolerated
Baader's bullying harangues and what would today be called his male
chauvinism -- a typical trait of 1960s revolutionaries -- and yet
Meinhof also flared with moments of feminist rebellion. She never
tried to become Baader's lover; that role was occupied by Gudrun
Ensslin, a minister's daughter who impressed Meinhof with the
ruthless consistency of her ideology.
Not long after Baader's prison break, the gang decamped to Jordan,
where they were given terror training by the Palestinian Liberation
Organization. In the early 1970s, they terrorized West German urban
centers, robbing banks and bombing buildings. In 1972, a pivotal
year, Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin and others were finally caught and put
in a jail specially constructed to hold them. But then a second
generation of sympathizers picked up where they had left off.
Over the next five years, the rejuvenated Red Army Faction robbed,
kidnapped and killed. One of its targets was capitalism itself -- in
1977, it abducted and murdered industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer.
The gang also took aim at the supposedly crypto-Nazi rulers of West
Germany, hoping to force a release of its imprisoned compatriots. It
made no impression on any of these revolutionaries, of course, that
West Germany's allegedly oppressive government spared no expense in
providing legal counsel for the prisoners. On one day in 1975 Baader
was visited separately by no less than four lawyers.
As Mr. Aust reports, East Germany secretly aided the terrorists, with
both funds and logistical support. That is understandable, given the
communist goals of the time. Harder to credit is the considerable
public support that the gang enjoyed in West Germany -- at one point,
a quarter of young Germans expressed sympathy for the terrorists.
Opinion-makers on the left also showed a certain affinity for the
gang -- Nobel Prize-winning author Heinrich Böll admiringly called
the Red Army Faction's campaign the "war of six against sixty million."
One of the gang's most prominent strikes was at the West German
embassy in Stockholm in April 1976. The terrorists occupied the
building, but German chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- having failed
previously to respond aggressively to the terror campaign -- approved
the storming of the building by Swedish police. It was a turning
point: Germany was clearly on the offensive against the Red Army
Faction. The next month, Meinhof killed herself in her prison cell.
Mr. Aust tells the Baader-Meinhof story with journalistic care but
also with an acute sense of drama. We watch in horror as the
terrorists commit kidnappings and murders in a frantic effort to
force the release of Baader and his accomplices. After the gang
hijacks a Lufthansa airliner and forces it to Somalia in 1977, we
cheer as the German government sends in a strike team that frees the
passengers. News of the raid breaks the will of Baader and of
Ensslin, his lover, and another imprisoned gang member: On Oct. 18,
1977, they all commit suicide. Though remnants of the gang would
perpetrate violent acts in the 1980s, the Red Army Faction is
"Baader-Meinhof" might seem an unlikely book to recommend -- after
all, it's about far-away and long-ago antiwar radicalism. But it is
also a clear-eyed look at the inner workings of a group driven by
violent fanaticism, and on that score Mr. Aust's indispensable work
could not be more timely.
Mr. Gress is the author of "From Plato to NATO."