May 22, 2009
WHEN author and journalist Stefan Aust began his career at a small
left-wing journal, he had little inkling that one of his colleagues,
Ulrike Meinhof, would become one of Germany's most notorious
The author of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, who is visiting the Sydney
Writers Festival this week, was in a unique position to record the
lives of the well-educated, middle-class men and women who formed a
radical German resistance group that carried out bank robberies,
bombings and kidnappings during the early 1970s.
Like Aust, individuals such as Andreas Baader, Meinhof, Gudrun
Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe were the children of German parents who
had lived through World War II.
While their parents' generation harboured guilt or anguish over
Germany's Nazi past, Aust's generation was primed to resist even the
faintest hint of fascism or the misuse of state power.
As a youth movement protesting against the war in Vietnam gathered
momentum, those on the far Left incited a more radical resistance
movement, and the Red Army Faction was born, an organisation
described as a forerunner of international modern terrorism.
Aust first met Meinhof, who committed suicide in her jail cell in
1976, when both worked at the left-wing journal konkret during the
1960s. Aust said it was clear to him that the future resistance
leader was prone to radicalism.
"She was a very impressive person: good-looking, intelligent," he
said. "But she saw everything through political eyes, and she was a
Aust believes Meinhof did not plan to fall in with the Red Army
Faction, which used arson, kidnap and murder to attempt to achieve
its radical political aims.
"I think it was not a plan; I think she was desperate," Aust said.
"She was desperate about her personal life, she was despondent about
her own influence as a journalist, she thought writing was not enough
to promote revolution and political change."
Aust, who edited German news magazine Der Spiegel for 14 years, had
60m worth of files lining his apartment during the writing of The
He said that probing the psychological make-up of the Red Army
Faction ringleaders was one of the most absorbing parts of writing the book.
"What I have learned about terrorism through writing my books is that
the real reasons why people are attracted to extreme movements are
beyond what they claim as being their political goals," Aust said.