Nearly thirty years ago, I watched a tv interview with Horst Mahler, a former member of West Germany’s infamous Red Army Faction (RAF), originally known as the Baader-Meinhof group. As I recall, he was still serving a prison sentence for robbery and aiding a prison escape. Mahler explained how he had rejected his life as a “bourgeois lawyer” and become an urban revolutionary and, eventually, a would-be political theoretician for the group.
Ever since, I’ve been intrigued and fascinated, albeit in a highly critical way, with the Baader Meinhof group. Most likely, it is all due to their brutal affronts to my liberal outlook. 1967 is widely remembered for the “summer of love” in the “western” democracies. The demonstrations, upheavals and protests of 1968 have made that year one of the most over-chronicled, over-analysed and over-hyped years in history. Still, the baby boomers were unleashed as a potent political force and more importantly, the ‘68ers’ general questioning of authoritarianism gradually became ingrained into many countries’ politics. [Click here]
Yet the RAF / Baader-Meinhof group, a band of middle class, far-left radicals, living in what looked like a model liberal democracy, turned to murder, robbery, bombing and kidnapping as a way of furthering their goals. Instead of the “summer of love”, the RAF gave their country “the German autumn” and fostered the very type of authoritarian state they claimed to oppose.
This month has seen the general release of the film The Baader Meinhof Complex, a well-produced docudrama based on the latest book by Stefan Aust. He is one of the leading authorities on the group and knew some of its leading members. I saw the film the other night and found it totally riveting.
The motives of the group’s leading lights are laid out from the beginning. Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedick) is shown as a radical journalist who is appalled by police brutality against demonstrators and disillusioned with her marriage and comfortable life. She walks out on her unfaithful husband, taking their two children and goes on to write many of the RAF’s political tracts.
Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) despises the Vietnam War and leaves home after an argument with her father, a liberal Lutheran minister, and starts using arson as a means of protest. Andreas Baader (Mortitz Bleibtreu), her lover, is disgusted at the existence of western consumerism alongside poverty in the third world. So he starts bombing department stores.
These three team up with like-minded radicals and their rage soon finds its outlet in acts of violence against all kinds of targets. Banks get robbed, US military bases, shops and newspaper offices bombed. People are shot, maimed and killed. The RAF see themselves as utopians even who want to change the world and end the exploitation and suffering of poor and oppressed people everywhere. But they are too impatient and too angry to trouble themselves with the complex choices, compromises and frustrations required when ideals are pursued through democratic methods.
The film builds up some kind of understanding (but not a sympathy) of why the group went down the path of violence. And it’s not incidental that all this happened in West Germany. Many of that country’s baby boomers felt a deep burden of guilt for what their parents’ generation had unleashed on the world. One of the first studies of the Baader Meinhof group / RAF was called Hitler’s Children.
Whilst the film does not make the point as clearly as it might, the RAF and their sympathisers believed that Nazism was not really defeated in 1945 and that it still lurked not far below the surface of West Germany’s political culture. In their eyes, this accounted for the brutality of the police – the “police state” - and other authorities as well as well as the country’s apparent support for American “imperialism”. The RAF also linked what they saw as a latent form of Nazism to the suppression of Palestinians and the exploitation of poor people, both in the west and the developing world. At one stage, opinion polls showed that 25 per cent of the West German population supported them.
The film shows us the group close up, and in so doing, makes the political judgements much less straightforward. Andreas Baader is depicted as charismatic and determined - and a spoilt brat; a narcissitic, self-centred bully. Hot-tempered, arrogant and intolerant, he is incapable of engaging in the most basic political debate, let alone formulating a coherent revolutionary strategy and sticking to it.
Andreas Baader: We are forming a group. We will change political affairs.Ulrike Meinhof: How is that supposed to work out.Andreas Baader: What kind of f**king bourgeois question is that? We will do that if it kills us.
Baader’s hates the “fascist pigs” and “liberal jerk-offs”. He is also misogynistic (repeatedly calling his female comrades “c**ts”) and refers to his Arab host at a Jordanian training camp as “Ali Baba”. What Baader really seeks is his own personal liberation from sexual and social mores. He thrives on the excitement and freedom of life as an urban guerrilla. In one scene, he drives along an autobahn at night in a stolen car, firing guns at road signs as The Who’s “My Generation” plays on the car radio. There is little sign of a utopian political ideology at work. Personality and psychological disorders seem more likely explanations for Baader’s destructive behaviour.
Meinhof and Ennslin are scarcely more sympathetic characters. As portrayed in this film, the former seems to have more than her share of emotional problems and her political writing seems neither profound nor illuminating. She is not the co-leader of the group - Ennslin is but, like Baader, she is more concerned with self-fulfilment and has little sense of revolutionary discipline. The group never really addresses basic questions; for instance, whether they should kill “workers”, including even those employed by conservative newspapers. During their trial, Meinhof and Ennslin are shown arguing bitterly about this and other matters. Their relationship, never exactly easy, breaks down completely.
Still, the film sometimes portrays the group as victims rather than villains. The trial, at Stammheim prison, of Baader, Ennslin, Meinhoff and Jan-Carl Raspe (Niels-Bruno Schmidt), is a farce, if not a travesty of justice. To take the film’s sense of moral ambiguity further, Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the chief of the Federal German police, latches on to a key insight: this kind of urban terrorism can be neutralised only by getting into the heads of the terrorists and their sympathisers, appreciating the nature of their grievances and working out how to defuse their emotions. According to the film, his gambit worked.
None of this can erase, however, what the group becomes – the murderers, the authoritarians, the fascists of the New Left.
As Stefan Aust said in a recent interview:
“[The Baader Meinhof group] mainly lost their realistic view of reality. Suddenly, when they went underground, they thought and felt that they lived in a police state, a fascist police state. And when you are living in a fascist police state you are allowed to do anything. They had to change reality and their view on reality first in order to be able to do all these terrible things . . .“They forgot that they weren't putting bombs in "dead places" ... but on living human beings [and] became very cruel in their attempt to fight the cruelty of the world”.“. . . Terrorism is terror, and people sometimes forget that.”
Footnote: Horst Mahler, whom I watched on TV all those years ago, is portrayed in the film as a radical chic (radical geek?) lawyer, and an object of ridicule for the sneering Andreas Baader. In real life, he was released from prison in 1980, having served ten years of his fourteen year sentence. Mahler’s attempt at a group manifesto was disowned by the rest of the RAF. In the 1990s, he began to align himself with Germany’s nationalist far right and eventually joined the neo-Nazi NPD. He has also been closely involved with a holocaust denial group. Last year, Mahler was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment without parole for having performed the Hitler salute when reporting to prison for a nine-month term in 2006.