The movie Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, 2008, chronicles the first and most important decade of the notorious “Red Army Faction” (RAF), popularly known in Germany as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. The heyday of the original movement spanned an arc from 1967 to the so called “German Autumn” of 1977 — when most of the founders were either dead or out — though actions by persons claiming continuity continued for two more decades after that. The film is as mesmerizing to watch as a good gangster film. It is far more than the fascination of seeing mini-skirted girls toting machine guns. On the other hand, one does not necessarily finish the movie with a greater understanding than could have been gained by an hour or two studying the events described in print, such as this excellent one by Richard Huffman.
- The time-compression of a film can give the misleading impression that the bombings and assassinations were daily fare in Germany. One must remember that they were stretched out over ten years (though there were several dizzying bursts, as in May 1972), and “life goes on” just as it does for us in America despite the urban crime that is daily happening all around us. Nevertheless, the events did create a social tension that was felt by everyone (and still is).
- It does not have time to stop and reflect on the underlying issues.
- Poetic license has been taken. The gang is shown as sexually libertine, Ensslin shouting “fu@%ing is the same as shooting” to the confused Arab at one point. But gangsterette Brigitte Mohnhaupt, released from prison a couple years ago, has sued the film for defamation for depicting her in a promiscuous situation. So this is a danger of filmmaking that must be kept in mind: what is real and what is extrapolated?
I have had general acquaintance with the story of the Baader-Meinhof gang for at least three decades now. There are ethical issues and tactical issues, all of which may have continuing relevance as it looks more and more as though our people are going to have to rise up, eventually, and attempt another war of independence sometime in the next generation. And that war will clearly not be lines of clam-diggered musket-shooting gentlemen facing each other.
Here are some striking features about the movement:
- The gang was marked by intense loyalties, so that much of the action was aimed at rescuing captured comrades and/or inducing the government to release them. Usually, the targets were deliberately selected as responsible for the persecution of their comrades, or as willing agents of a system that needed to be destroyed because of its injustice. Thus, a distinction needs to made between this group and terrorists that select victims at random.
- Though ruthlessly violent, quite possibly a majority of the major players were young women.
- Though the movement was self-consciously leftist, it is interesting as being a peculiarly non-jewish and even anti-jewish form of leftism, even while seeing itself as “anti-fascist.” Thus the American jewish press, that is (to say the same thing more briefly), the American press, has been somewhat more negative toward the gang compared to its normally indulgent attitude toward leftist terrorists. By itself this is a reason to take a closer look.
- In addition to some wild-eyed fanatics, the movement included some serious intellectuals, including especially Horst Mahler, who in the meantime has become a full-blown National Socialist. What is interesting is that he does not see his current position as a radical break with his earlier activities. Mahler will be worth while discussing in much greater detail anon.
Some Key Events
Though the Huffman site linked to above should be consulted to get the fuller story, it might be helpful to extract a briefer summary as a preliminary orientation. It will probably aid to scan these events prior to viewing the film, as the events depicted may be confusing without some prior orientation.
To set the context, one needs to recall the student demonstrations during the 1960s on US campuses, which protested the Vietnam War, oppression by right-wing dictatorships, and world hunger. Similar demonstrations took place in Germany, but there, there was in addition a guilt-driven specific reaction to the “fascism” of their parents’ generation, which many thought was continuing under the guise of American-dominated capitalism. In contrast, the American youth movement was to a far greater extent merely hedonistic, since in rebelling against their parents’ generation they were rebelling against a generation they had been taught to regard as “heroic” in its “struggle against fascism” in WW2. Thus the German rebellion was more existential, touching the deep sinews, while the American rebellion was much more egocentric. I will come back to this theme in a future post.
Now, there was a great deal of balderdash in those demonstrations, on either side of the Atlantic, and many were probably instigated and pushed by communist front groups. However, we must recall that there are many different motivations that might lead a young person to show up at a demonstration. There is the hard core, but they are few. For others, it is just something to do. One is part of an “event” that is covered on the news. You get to hang out with friends. There are those that feel sympathy from youthful idealism even if it would not have taken this form spontaneously. There are those that are curious onlookers, who would like to be there, especially if something big might happen. So the presence of a huge crowd does not necessarily mean much. It is the small subset that have true concerns and are not pawns of communist governments that should be of particular interest for us.
In my condensed summary, I will lay particular emphasis on persons and events of international status. Many shootouts, cop-killings, and gang member killings are left out of this account for introductory brevity.
1. June 2, 1967: There is a massive demonstration against the visiting Shah of Iran, in which Benno Ohnesorg, a pacifist that probably was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, is shot by police, quite possibly by accident. It becomes a cause célèbre. The date lives on in memory and is even taken on as a name by a later RAF affiliate.
2. A new “Bonnie and Clyde” dynamic duo emerge from the protest movement, Andreas Baader and girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin. They bomb a department store, and are soon arrested, in early April, 1968.
3. A week later, leftist agitator Rudi Dutschke is gunned down by a citizen in cold blood.
The leftist movement pins the entire blame on the Springer Press, and mobs their headquarters. Springer publishes many of the garish tabloids that are read by millions of the working class in Germany. It was considered not only right-wing in orientation, but provocative and scandalous in its approach. The incident was important, among other reasons, because it drew the attention of the brooding, intellectual leftish girl-journalist Ulrike Meinhof.
4. March 1970, the nascent gang is formed, initially under the leadership of lawyer Horst Mahler. Baader has been let out of prison on a technicality but the sentence is reinstated and he is now a fugitive. On April 3, he is apprehended again.
5. May 14, 1970, the gang pulls off a sensational rescue of Baader. Meinhof, using her reputation as a serious journalist, arranges for an “interview” of Baader for a book to be written. The interview is to be at an off-site Research Institute, and the prison administration is somehow gulled into allowing it. At the Institute, two girl gang members, Irene Goergens and Ingrid Schubert, who had earlier made themselves known to the guard by showing up to use the reading room, “happen” to show up again during the Meinhof interview and, recognizing them, the guard lets them in. A little later Ensslin and another gang member show up at the door with guns, and Goergens and Schubert buzz them in.
The gang shoots their way out. The movie shows that Meinhof was supposed to stay behind and feign lack of knowledge but at the last minute bolts with them. Whether that detail is “historical fiction” or not, I don’t know. But as a result of this incident, the Springer press dubs the gang “Baader-Meinhof.” Pastor’s Kid and Baader’s girl Ennslin seems to have been the actual feminine force of the gang, and Baader did not become the top leader until a little later, but Springer’s name stuck from that moment on.
6. After the break, the gang goes to Jordan to receive guerrilla training from a Palestinian group. However, the libertine Germans are more than the Arabs can bear, and after two months they are sent packing.
7. In September, Mahler organizes the simultaneous robbing of four banks. One is stymied, but three are successful, netting 200,000 DM, and leading to a surge in recruitments, including Jan-Carl Raspe and film student Holger Meins. This is the first in a long string of bank robberies used to finance the outfit.
8. October 8, 1970, a meeting is ambushed by police, leading to the arrest of Mahler and Goergens among others. Andreas Baader, still at large, becomes the head of the gang.
9. July 15, 1971, a couple of gang members bolt from a police roadblock in Hamburg.
Shots are fired; gangsterette Petra Schelm, age 20, is dead.
10. September 1, 1971, Horst Herold is made head of the new Budeskriminalamt (BKA), a federal-level investigating unit similar to our FBI, which is established for the first time in Germany, in response to the RAF gang. This man is well-played in the movie by Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler in the film Downfall.
11. Dierk Hoff is recruited in December, and becomes the bomb fabricator. His most infamous invention is a bomb shaped like a large helmet that a woman can wear over her belly to look like she is pregnant to smuggle the bomb into buildings.
12. Over a 12 day period in May, 1972, the US Army HQ in Frankfurt is bombed by Baader, Ensslin, Meins and Raspe, killing American Lt. Col. Bloomquist; the Augsburg police station is bombed by gangsterettes Moeller and Luther in retaliation for the earlier shooting in that city of one of the gang members; Baader, Meins, and Enssler set off a huge car bomb in Munich; the car of Judge Buddenberg is bombed by Baader, Raspe, and Meins; the Springer Press building in Hamburg is bombed by Meinhof and Stachowiak; the US Supreme Command in Heidelberg is bombed (Moeller and Luther again), killing three Americans.
13. Over a two-week period in June, in three episodes, Baader and Meins, then girlfriend Ensslin (who foolishly let a gun bulge out of her jacket while shopping), and finally Ulrike Meinhof, are all nabbed.
14. The “Black September” terror attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics takes place, seen by the whole world.
15. On March 3, 1973, Palestinian terrorists kill American diplomats in Khartoum. Among others, they demand the release of the Baader-Meinhof gang, but their demand is not met.
16. November 9, 1973, Meins dies of self-imposed hunger strike. Riots break out as a result, and the next day, Judge Drenkmann is assassinated by the gang.
17. The same month, Meinhof’s suggestion of an interview between Jean Paul Sartre and Andreas Baader actually takes place!
18. Feb. 27, 1975 the CDU (~our “Republican”) candidate Lorentz is kidnapped in Berlin. Five terrorists are released as ransom and given a plane that takes them to Yemen. However, Horst Mahler refuses to be released under these circumstances. Lorentz is released unharmed.
19. May 21, 1975, the big trial begins in Stuttgart in the newly constructed Stammheim prison courtroom. The courtroom was constructed at a cost of DM 15,000,000. The roof is covered with jagged razor wire to prevent helicopter landings and steel nets to prevent any potential airborne bombs from doing damage, and the entrance has a sophisticated metal detector.
20. May 9, 1976, Meinhof hangs herself in her cell.
21. June 7, 1976, the famous hijacking of an airline from Israel to Idi Amin’s Uganda. A number of the gang are involved. They demand the release of Baader-Meinhof gang as well as others. The Israelis swoop down and kill them.
22. April 7, 1977, the gang murders Attorney General Siegfried Buback in Karlsruhe.
23. July 30, 1977, upper-class Susanne Albrecht with Brigitte Mohnhaupt and Christian Klar “pays a visit” to the home of Jürgen Ponto, a friend of her father’s and chairman of the Dresdner Bank. They gun him down.
24. Sept 5, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, an important industrialist, is kidnapped after no fewer than three bodyguards around him are gunned down.
25. Oct. 13, 1977. In concert with the Schleyer kidnapping, Palestinians hijack a Lufthansa plane to Mogadishu, Somalia, demanding the release of the Baader-Meinhof gang. A German swat team secretly lands there and storms the plane, killing or capturing all the hijackers.
26. As a result of this, the gang leaders throw in the towel. Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe commit suicide in their respective cells. They were in communication with each other by using jerry-rigged radios hooked up to the power lines. A day later, Schleyer is murdered and his body dumped. (Later, Nov. 13, Ingrid Schubert hangs herself.) On Oct. 27, Baader, Ensslin and Raspe are interred in Stuttgart, with thousands in attendance. The public plot was provided, against public outcry, by order of Mayor Romfred Rommel, son of the great WW2 General.
Thus ended the so-called “German Autumn.” A film (Deutschland im Herbst) was made by the New German Cinema group to document the events, with a leftish spin.
This was the high-water mark. The gang continued for two more decades, but the founding nucleus was gone.
There was a time when we would have all written this movement off as simple communist evil. The suspicion can scarcely be suppressed, that the gang was helped by and thus collaborated with communist governments — think of the procurement of weapons, the communications gadgets, the forged documents, the ease of international travel, the network of safe houses. (Some [e.g. Susanne Albrecht and Inge Viett] actually escaped to the “German Democratic Republic” and cooperated with the Stasi, being arrested only after the wall came down.) Baader, Ensslin, and Meinhof all abandoned their own children for the “cause.” Moreover, if the depiction of personalities in the film is accurate, Baader and Ensslin were simply crazy self-indulgent fanatics. However, as mentioned above, there is some reason to doubt the uniform accuracy of the film on such points. Above all, Mahler does not write them off completely, so we should not either. And Ulrike Meinhof cannot be written off at all so easily.
Even if someone accepts support from a communist state — and I am not suggesting that this was true of all the gang members by any means –, this doesn’t tell the whole story from a human standpoint. People are not just cardboard characters called “agent of X.” They have a story, that sometimes leads to willingness, for a cause, to embrace death, to inflict death, even to commit suicide. They must be distinguished from worthless people that betray their country for money.
Not just the case of Horst Mahler, but our new insight into the American problem, is cause to reflect on this matter with more nuance than we all would have once. We too think we are facing a regime that is simply going to act according to its nefarious plan and ignore all objections; a regime that is deaf to appeal. Our rulers meet at midnight to pass laws they haven’t read, on weekends and holidays. We are going to have to extract a number of threads carefully. More will need to be said before the right way to think about this arc of recent history can be considered resolved.
The movie can be rented from Netflix or members can watch on-line as one of their freebies.
Warning: there is a lot of violence, occasionally reaching the intensity of the assassination of Sonny in Godfather. There is also some full nudity, but I should qualify that by observing that the nudity, as often is the case in German films, is not particularly erotic and thus does not seem voyeuristic. There is something perfunctory about its presence in German films. (I can just hear the producer talking with his screenwriter: “Hans, Abe just called from Hollywood. If we want them to distribute the film in America, they insist there be at least one sex scene. Do you think you can work it in?”) German nudity has a tradition going back to the barbarian days, when the women goaded their men into realizing the cost of military defeat by baring their bosoms as the men marched into battle. I wonder if the German appropriation of nudity is as a result somewhat different from that of us, as consumers of jewish Hollywood. It may help explain the acceptance of photography even in the street-level press that shocks our Victorian sensibilities, despite the generally exemplary German Sittlichkeit. Nevertheless, fair warning.