Diego Gambetta: The Legacy of the Red Army Faction





[Diego Gambetta is a professor of sociology at Oxford University and the author, most recently, of Codes of the Underworld.]

On April 20, 1998, Reuters in Cologne received a letter mailed from Chemnitz, near the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. It read, in part: "Nearly 28 years ago, on May 14, 1970, the RAF was born in a liberation action. Today we end this project. The urban guerrilla battle of the RAF is now history." A bizarre coincidence: April 20, 1998, was the 109th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birth.

The typewritten letter was anonymous and eight pages long--conciseness seldom being a virtue of violent extremists, even in the throes of dissolution. It was authenticated by the police on the basis of its style and paper. (Both had been used in previous communiqués by the group.) It also bore the group's emblem, a five-pointed star, with "RAF" (Rote Armee Fraktion, or "Red Army Faction") inscribed over a drawing of a Heckler & Koch submachine gun, a German-made weapon used by the military of the very state against which the RAF had declared war. The group had also been dubbed the Baader-Meinhof Gang by the media, after two of its main protagonists, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. (The press spotlighted Meinhof because she was a well-known journalist before she went underground.) As Stefan Aust explains in Baader-Meinhof, the Gang had intended to adorn its emblem with the image of a Kalashnikov, the Russian assault rifle and symbol of liberation movements around the world. Instead, it made a mistake that stuck....

In 1968, in the group's prehistory, Baader and Ensslin firebombed two department stores. From then to 1991, the RAF robbed banks; bombed police stations, army barracks and embassies; took hostages; and killed people. Some of its victims were mistakes or "collateral damage," others the result of unplanned shootouts with police. Many of its attacks were "endogenously" generated--that is, aimed at freeing jailed comrades. But there were also a number of purely politically motivated attacks and, most shocking of all, targeted assassinations of industrialists, administrators and judges....

At the time of this writing, three RAF members are still on the run. Six died in some violent episode before being arrested, and sixty-six have been caught and sentenced to jail over the years. Among the latter, six died of natural causes and seven committed suicide. Fifty-one have been released. Only Klump and Hogefeld remain behind bars. Nineteen members are dead, a rate of mortality that, considering their line of work, is not particularly high for their age group.

Most of those freed now lead quiet lives far from media scrutiny. Not Horst Mahler, whose claim to infamy has taken a surreal turn. A lawyer and member of the original Baader-Meinhof Gang, he later recanted terrorism and was released from jail early, in 1980. He went on to join the NDP, a neo-Nazi party. In February 2009--exactly sixty years after his father, "a fanatical Nazi and anti-Semite, had shot himself," Aust notes--Mahler, who is now 74, was sentenced to six years in jail for posting videos on the Internet denying the Holocaust and for distributing CDs promoting anti-Semitic hatred....

In 1972 I was a 20-year-old philosophy student in Turin, a hotbed of student-worker protest. The Red Brigades had started to kidnap people, mostly foremen and factory managers who, they thought, treated workers harshly. During the following three years, their repertoire extended to kneecapping and, eventually, assassinations. My reaction back then was disbelief. The means did not match any viable revolutionary end; also, the Brigades were ideologically at odds with true comrades, who do not wage war against individuals, whether judges, industrialists, trade unionists or journalists, and do not stoop to acting as mafia hit men or loony anarchists. They may have used violence, but as participants in a revolutionary or resistance war. I and several of my friends thought that the Brigades were innocent, and that the violent acts attributed to them were false flag operations by the fascists....

The RAF seems even more incomprehensible than the Red Brigades. The Brigades had a membership more than twice the RAF's size. It was a proper organization, with a cell structure and a reasonably clear hierarchy. Its members, unlike those of the Baader-Meinhof, were not always fugitives. Many remained unknown to the police for years and were able to keep up a front as ordinary citizens. In West Germany there were other groups variously linked with the RAF--the June 2 Movement, Red Aid, the Socialist Patients' Collective (SPK, "patients" of the mental variety)--but the constellation of sympathizers and kindred spirits on which the RAF could count, though it oscillated over time, sometimes peaking after the deaths of RAF members, was far less populous than that of the Red Brigades....

The RAF's fantasy of unleashing a revolution was even more farfetched than the Brigades'. Renate Riemeck, Meinhof's foster mother and a talented historian and peace activist, wrote an affectionate open letter to Meinhof that was published in konkret, the main left-wing magazine in West Germany, in November 1971, when Meinhof was on the run: "The Federal Republic is not the place for an urban guerrilla movement in the Latin American style. The country offers, at most, suitable conditions for a gangster drama." Paying no heed to Riemeck's entreaties, Meinhof, who had been close to her foster mother, issued a dismissive, haughty reply, imbued with a slightly demented Brechtian tone, which was found three weeks later in a garbage bin in a Berlin park....

The RAF's attitude was reminiscent of a teen tantrum: The state is bad; it deserves to be hit hard. Instead of a pat on our head it responds by shooting us when shot at, arresting and putting us in jail! Bastards! Fascists! You see, we were right all along. The state is so very fascist! Free the comrades! Avenge the fallen! Lots of people on the German left were seduced by the Gang's Sturm und Drang. But it wasn't true. At his trial Baader was an irrepressible whiner: he compared the policy of the federal prosecutor's office toward the RAF to the "terrorist" policies of Israel toward the Palestinians, to the United States in Vietnam and the Pinochet junta in Chile. He said, "Its basic rule being as many dead fighters as possible, as many dead prisoners as possible, executions in the open street, shooting to kill, and so on." Yet Baader was allowed to make that farcical parallel because he was alive and free to speak and be heard. The police had used restraint when they surrounded Baader and Holger Meins in a garage and arrested them in June 1972. Baader's speeches had an effect only because the press was allowed to attend and report on the trial. In jail the RAF members "compared themselves with the inmates of Nazi concentration camps," Aust writes, a comparison at once laughable and offensive to the millions who died in the camps. Yet people outside saw the picture of Meins's arrest: "TV cameras were rolling. The picture of the skinny, almost naked figure of Holger Meins went around the world. And RAF sympathisers, or those close to them, were reminded of the pictures of concentration camp inmates. The myth of the pitiless persecution of the RAF warriors had been born." One wonders if Mahler learned something from those days: his six-year jail sentence for denying the Holocaust came from a court case he brought against himself, in order to use the courtroom as a stage....

Although Germany and Italy were and have remained democratic countries, the possible resurgence of fascism--which worried not only the RAF but the student movement in its entirety--did not seem farfetched at the time. And for good reasons. Many people in the postwar establishments of both countries--judges, industrialists, academics and politicians--were compromised by contact with the Third Reich or Mussolini's regime. In Germany, the leader of the grand coalition between the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Party was Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and worked on radio propaganda during the war. Portugal and Spain were still ruled by fascist dictatorships. Further, in 1967, when the student movements around the world erupted, there was a coup d'état in Greece that inaugurated a series of ultra-right-wing military governments ending in July 1974.

In postwar Europe, however, we are grappling with a more precise question. Although many were worried about fascism and its viral representatives hidden in the neodemocratic states, only a handful leapt into armed struggle. Why did Meinhof jump out of that window? Why did I not even think of jumping? It is in the shadow of Germany's past that we need to look for an answer, because that is where the thinking protagonists of the RAF looked. As Meinhof wrote in a column in konkret in 1961 titled "Hitler Within You," they were members of a generation that "was not involved in the crimes of the Third Reich or in determining the direction that was taken in the postwar period; it has grown up with and into the arguments of the present, entangled in the blame for something it is not responsible for." Even if technically blameless, being the children of a certain generation of Germans exerted a great and special pressure....


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