A Documentary History: Volume 1, Projectiles for the People
Book by J. Smith and André Moncourt; Kersplebedeb Press & PM Press,
Montreal & Oakland, 2009, 736 pp.
It's easy to forget that armed struggle within the "first world" was
once the concern of organizations ostensibly dedicated to a social or
even socialist liberation project. The Weather Underground and the
Black Liberation Army in the U.S., the Angry Brigade in the UK, the
Red Brigades in Italy, the Revolutionary Cells in Germany, Direct
Action in France, and the Fighting Communist Cells in Belgium are
just a few such organizations. And there were many more who thought
that it was enough for small groups of dedicated individuals, rather
than the working class itself, to oppose and overthrow capitalism.
But it is the West German Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion-RAF),
that, long after its dissolution, still sparks the greatest amount of interest.
The RAF has spawned a virtual cottage industry of books, from Stephan
Aust's liberal account to Jillian Becker's rightist one and Tom
Vague's situationist telling, along with documentaries and feature
films like Margarethe Von Trotta's Marianne and Juliane based on
Gudrun Ensslin's story. The latest addition is J. Smith and André
Moncourt's sprawling The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History. The
first volume is more than 700 pages covering the group's origins to
1977. A projected second volume will continue the account to its
dissolution in 1998.
Whether or not you accept the politics and strategy of the RAF, if
you want to read their definitive history, this is the book.
Available in English for the first time, it is an amazingly complete
collection of documents from the RAF and its supporters. In addition,
the book provides an informative and meticulously documented account
of the social milieu from which the RAF emerged, as well as telling
the group's story in a critical essay, while analyzing the strengths
and weaknesses of the organization.
Near the end of the book, the efforts of the RAF to free its leaders
are condensed to a maxim: daring to struggle, failing to win. Six
years after its founding, its leadership was in jail and many of its
members were dead. Yet the Red Army Faction was about to be part of a
series of events that would become known as the German Autumn, an
autumn which would shake the country.
West Germany after WWII was a country of contradictions. Although it
had been defeated and divided, it was of strategic importance to the
U.S. and the other Western powers in the fight against Soviet
Communism. As a result, the allied powers massively aided the
reconstruction of the West German economy, leading to a level of
prosperity not enjoyed elsewhere in Europe. The West German
government, too, was allowed to practice a level of repression
against the left. Such was the confidence of the Adenauer government
that the Stalinist Communist Party of Germany, never very radical,
was banned in 1956 and not re-constituted until 1968. But if the left
was repressed, the right was rehabilitated. After a rather tepid
de-nazification, many prominent Nazis once again assumed leading
positions in society.
A generation born too young to remember the war regarded these
policies as the creeping hand of fascism. Then, on June 2, 1967 a
spark ignited a fire. The Shah of Iran, no stranger to repression
himself, visited West Germany. During a protest, a 26-year-old
student, Benno Ohnesorg, was executed by a police officer (recently
revealed as an undercover Stasi agent, though the killing was
apparently unrelated to his spying).
On April 3, 1968, two department stores in Frankfurt were firebombed.
No one was injured, but the flames caused several hundred thousand
dollars in damage. Two days later, Horst Söhnlein, Thorwald Proll,
Gudrun Ensslin, and Andreas Baader were arrested and charged with
arson. The four put forward a confused defense of "solidarity with
the Vietnamese," which was never fully explained. Nevertheless,
within the activist community, the action was defended and applauded.
Among its supporters were the noted journalist Ulrike Meinhoff and
the radical lawyer Horst Mahler.
In October 1968, the four were sentenced to four years in prison, but
were later released on parole. In November 1969, they were ordered to
return to jail, but instead they went underground. Baader was
captured in April 1970.
The Red Army Faction dated its birth to an "act of liberation" on May
14, 1970 when Meinhoff and others helped Baader to escape police
custody. In the course of the escape, a librarian was seriously
injured and the group went underground.
Almost a year later, in April 1971, the communiqué "The Urban
Guerrilla Concept," which outlined the philosophy and strategy of the
group, supplemented by generous helpings of Mao, was published. While
it was conceded that Germany was not in a revolutionary situation, it
argued the goal of the guerrilla was to: "Attack the state's
apparatus of control at certain points and put them out of action, to
destroy the myth of the system's omnipresence and invulnerability."
During the repression the state practiced in its struggle against the
RAF, novelist Heinrich Böll characterized the RAF's struggle as a war
of six against sixty million. In this, he sought to criticize the
state's repressive actions as an unnecessary over reaction. Yet,
while his overall point was correct, his math was faulty. The leaders
of the RAF were not rootless. They came from existing social
movements. They had roots in the student, leftist, and squatters'
struggles, though these were abandoned. As they noted in their
initial communiqué, individuals could not combine the legal and
illegal struggle. The legal struggle was reduced to support for the
guerrilla struggle. As it began its life, the RAF severed its links
with its base. For all the RAF's subsequent talk about "serving the
people," its strategy essentially dictated to "the people" what their
role would be.
The year following the publication of "The Concept of the Urban
Guerrilla" was intense. On July 15, 1971, 19-year-old RAF member
Petra Schlem was killed in a shoot-out with the police. Soon after,
three more RAF members were killed by the state, while many others
were arrested and received heavy prison sentences. At the same time,
the RAF began to put its urban guerrilla politics into practice:
banks were robbed, bombings took place at U.S. army barracks and the
Springer Press, and the assassination of a federal judge was attempted.
In June 1972, a few months after the RAF's initial bombs were
detonated, almost the entire original leadership of the group,
including Baader, Ensslin, Meinhoff, and Holger Meins were captured.
The RAF leadership was kept in Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart, a newly
constructed high-security federal prison where the state was able to
test various psychological and physical tortures, including isolation
cells where prisoners were cut off from all human contact, cells
where lights were never turned off, and suspension of regular
privileges. When the prisoners responded with hunger strikes, they
were force fed. On November 9, 1974 Holger Meins died while on a
hunger strike. Over six feet tall, Meins weighed 92 pounds at the
time of his death.
Hans Joachim Klein, later one of the Revolutionary Cell's members who
participated in an attack at an OPEC meeting in Vienna a month after
Meins's death, famously wrote, "I have kept this picture [of Meins's
emaciated corpse] in my wallet to keep my hatred sharp." A few months
later, in April 1975, the Holger Meins Commando group seized the West
German Embassy in Stockholm to demand the release of the RAF
prisoners. Within a day, the operation failed. One RAF member was
killed and another critically injured, dying a few days later. It was
a humiliating failure.
In May 1976, Meinhoff was found hanging in her cell. The official
verdict was suicide, but independent investigations reached other
conclusions. In an almost comic afterword, one doctor who examined
Meinhoff concluded that her actions may have been the result of brain
surgery she received a decade earlier for a tumorrebellion against
the state as mental illness was a "medical" diagnosis often pursued in Germany.
In April 1977, the RAF leadership was convicted of the charges
against it and the four prisoners were sentenced to life
imprisonment. Five months later, on September 5, 1977, Hanns-Martin
Schleyer, the president of the Confederation of German Employers'
Associations, was kidnapped by the Siegfried Hausner Commando group.
(Hausner was one of the RAF members killed in the Stockholm embassy
occupation.) Freedom for the RAF prisoners was the price of his life.
Schleyer was not an accidental victim. Months before his 18th
birthday in 1933, Schleyer joined the SS. He was a young and
enthusiastic partisan of fascism. After the war, he served three
years in prison as part of the de-nazification process. However, upon
his release, Schleyer played the role of the unapologetic face of
German fascism, fiercely opposed to workers' rights. His kidnapping
was a call to the original goals of the RAF and the leftist movement.
The negotiations dragged on, when on October 13, a month after
Schleyer's kidnapping, a Lufthansa jet was hijacked. The hijackers
were members of Waddi Haddad's Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine-External Operations, which since 1972 had been separate
from the better known Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The demand of the hijackers, although they were personally
unconnected to the RAF, was for the release of its prisoners. The
plane was refueled and moved several times as negotiations were
conducted. The plane eventually landed in Mogadishu. On October 19,
the plane was stormed and all but one of the hijackers were killed.
The same evening, Baader and Jan-Carl Ruste died from gunshot wounds,
while Ensslin was found hanging in her cell. Irmgard Möller was
stabbed in the chest four times. According to the authorities, the
deaths were the result of a suicide pact.
Shortly after the news was made public, Schleyer was shot and killed
and his body was dumped near the French border. Smith and Moncourt's
narrative ends with the Stammheim deaths. While the RAF continued for
another two decades, its first phase was over.
Despite their origins within an anti-authoritarian or anarchist
milieu, the RAF saw themselves as Marxists. The RAF's theory, while
it mentioned socialism, the working class, and opposition to
imperialism, had an extremely flawed conception of what these things
actually meant. Despite its assertion that "the urban guerrilla is a
weapon in the class war," there is no evidence that the RAF had a
working class orientation of any kind. In addition, the RAF's
endorsement of what it called anti-imperialist politics had little to
do with proletarian internationalism. The RAF's anti-imperialism was
support for the nationalism of the "oppressed peoples," particularly
the Palestinians and the Vietnamese. The RAF also identified
repressive state-capitalist regimes like China, North Korea, and even
Soviet states like East Germany, as some form of socialism. The words
of Mao and even Kim Il Sung litter RAF documents.
To be fair, although some at the time realized and criticized the
hollowness of Mao's Cultural Revolution, tens of thousands of
leftists in the West were fooled into believing that it was genuine.
Forty years on, the squalid truth of China's revolutionary
credentials have been documented for all who have eyes to see. These
regimes and politics were not working class or proletarian internationalist.
The subtitle of this first volume is "projectiles for the people,"
and it is the second part of this sentence which is troubling. One of
Mao's most famous utterances is that "political power flows out of
the barrel of a gun." Instead of serving the people, the guerrilla
viewpoint is in fact an extreme vanguardist notion of leading the
people. After all, aren't guerrilla fighters willing to die for the
cause? But rather than a revolutionary conception, this is a liberal
conception; the notion of a small group leading the way, stepping out
of the crowd, and by eliminating elements of the ruling class, by
propaganda of the deed, imperialism will be defeated. The working
class does not need people to serve it. It doesn't need handfuls of
urban guerrillas. It must be the class for itself.
The original leadership of the RAF spent a little more than two years
as urban guerrillas. After their capture, the final years of their
lives were spent in brutal conditions. Those that followed them had
their lives cut short through the state's bullets or prisons. Those
that supported them accepted the pessimism inherent in their
worldview. The Red Army Faction is destined to become the definitive
work on the group. Certainly nothing exists in English, perhaps any
language, with such a detailed history of the organization. Readers
can judge the organization by both their deeds and their words.
Although, the authors defend the RAF against the slanders and
outright falsehoods manufactured over the years, their account is not
uncritical. However, despite these criticisms, the biggest weakness
is that the overall thrust of the group's politics and its strategy
are never seriously questioned.
Smith and Moncourt have produced an outstanding history. Yet, as good
as this book is in documenting its subject, it will no doubt
strengthen the mystique of groups like the Red Army Fraction.