Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F., by Stefan Aust (Oxford University Press, 480 pp., $29.95)

The Weather Underground, a leftist terrorist group from the 1970s, played a bit role in last fall’s presidential election through the association of unrepentant former Weatherman Bill Ayers with his fellow Chicagoan, Barack Obama. That kind of connection would have come as no surprise in Germany, where the Weather Underground’s far more deadly counterpart, the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, continues to cast a shadow over the country’s politics.

In 1985, German journalist Stefan Aust published the definitive book on the RAF, The Baader-Meinhof Complex. His book has since been turned into a successful feature film of the same name, which was nominated last year for a foreign-language Oscar and is slated for U.S. release this summer. Aust, a former editor of Der Spiegel, has now reissued his earlier work, changing the title to Baader-Meinhof and updating it with information that has come to light since the end of the RAF’s reign of terror in West Germany 30 years ago. The new edition deserves attention, and not just because Anthea Bell’s deft translation preserves the dynamic, detail-rich prose that made Aust’s original read like a real-life thriller. Dense with insights into the psychology of terrorism, this history of West Germany’s struggle against RAF radicals also serves as a cautionary tale for the West in its war against the modern threat of jihadist terror.

From the day of its founding in 1970, the Baader-Meinhof gang wasn’t what it appeared to be. Though Andreas Baader was the group’s leader (along with his lover-cum-comrade Gudrun Ensslin), the leftist journalist Ulrike Meinhof was always a secondary figure. Indeed, the RAF was something of a personality cult built around the volatile Baader. More sociopath than socialist, the speed- and LSD-addled Baader parlayed a troubled youth as a car thief and street hooligan into a career as the RAF’s “general,” leading the guerilla group on everything from combat training missions in Jordan under the tutelage of Palestinian terrorists to bombing raids on German department stores and police stations and U.S. military bases in Frankfurt and Heidelberg. An RAF slogan—“Madmen to arms!”—was as apt a description as any of Baader’s modus operandi.

The contrast with Meinhof was striking. Ten years Baader’s senior, the cerebral Meinhof hailed from a respectable middle-class family famous for producing Protestant theologians. She joined the RAF after her increasingly militant writings in the left-wing journal konkret led her to practice what she preached. But Meinhof was never fully accepted into the RAF’s senior command; Baader especially tormented her with accusations that she was a would-be class enemy and a “knife in the back” of the RAF. The abuse had its effect. In one of the RAF’s routine exercises in “self-criticism”—a Maoist practice in which members were expected to engage—Meinhof denounced herself as a “hypocritical bourgeois bitch.” Meinhof remained the RAF’s main ideologist, producing most of its political writings, but there was never any doubt about who was in charge.

Like its supposed dual leadership, the RAF’s revolutionary political agenda was something of a chimera. In theory at least, the group had come together to oppose the Vietnam War abroad and what it decried as the nascent police-state of West Germany at home. (This as opposed to the actual police state of communist East Germany, whose much-feared Stasi secret police aided and abetted the RAF.) The RAF’s solution was communist revolution, and the group peppered its aggressively unintelligible political manifestos with Marxist clichés about the evils of capitalism, “American imperialism,” and the “state oppression” of West Germany.

Yet, as Aust clearly shows, for Baader in particular and for the RAF generally, revolutionary politics were soon subordinated to the thrill of direct action. Whether it was stealing cars, committing countless bank robberies, or merely the adrenaline rush of being on the lam, the RAF found liberation in lawlessness. Even the group’s favored euphemisms—a bank heist became an “expropriation action”—could not disguise its criminality, which became an end in itself. It was no oversight that the RAF’s chief political manifesto, The Urban Guerilla Concept, had more to say about the urgency of fighting one’s enemies than what one should be fighting for. The RAF were rebels without a cause.

For many on the Left, that did not seem to matter. Thus the Nobel Prize-winning author Heinrich Böll defended the group as “desperate theoreticians” driven into a “corner” by the German authorities, and famously romanticized what he called the war of “six against 60 million” West Germans. Absurd on its face—it was the RAF that was terrorizing the West German state, not the other way around—this David-vs.-Goliath storyline was enthusiastically embraced by the young and politically naïve. In a famous 1971 poll, one in four West Germans under 30 admitted to “a certain sympathy” for the RAF. Germans of an older generation had fewer illusions. Nevertheless, guilt-ridden about Germany’s Nazi past, they were reluctant to condemn a group that styled itself, however improbably, as a resistance movement fighting the Third Reich’s political heir.

Ironically, the RAF had its most devastating impact only after it had been defeated. In 1972, the core leadership—including Baader, Ensslin, and Meinhof—was arrested in rapid succession. Imprisoned in Stuttgart’s Stammheim prison, they became instant symbols of resistance, inspiring followers in a way that their reader-proof political tracts never could. At the time of their arrest, the group reportedly had a few dozen members. By 1974, when the RAF existed only in prison, police were searching for some 10,000 RAF sympathizers.

It was this “second generation” of the RAF that was responsible for the worst period of violence in Germany’s postwar history: the so-called “German Autumn” of 1977, a 44-day terror spree that saw the kidnapping and subsequent murder of German Employers Association president Hans Martin Schleyer and the hijacking of a 91-passenger Lufthansa airliner by RAF-linked Palestinian terrorists. Aust reconstructs the events in vivid detail. For Germany, he writes, the fall of 1977 was the equivalent of the September 11 attacks.

In these parallels to today’s terrorism, Aust’s book seems as timely as when it was fist published. Over 30 years ago, West Germany anticipated many of the challenges facing democratic states as they confront terrorists who spurn the rules of war and exploit legal restraint for lethal ends. Long before American policymakers debated the merits of wireless wiretapping and coercive interrogations, German politicians deliberated whether it was going too far to bug the RAF in their prison cells and whether solitary confinement was a form of torture. West Germany’s experience offers some valuable lessons.

One is that, too often, excessive caution proved counterproductive. Kidnap victim Schleyer, for instance, might have been saved had police been allowed to search the Cologne apartment where he was being kept. For 11 days, police had suspected Apartment 104 as Schleyer’s likely location; one investigator even rang the doorbell. Bureaucratic timidity prevailed, however, and the required search warrant was never issued. Several weeks later, Schleyer’s lifeless body would turn up in France in the trunk of an abandoned Audi.

More assertive measures yielded results, especially the counter-terror program devised by Horst Herold, the unacknowledged hero of Aust’s book. Herold was a former public prosecutor from Nuremberg who became the chief of the Bundeskriminalamt, the German equivalent of the FBI, and almost singlehandedly brought down the RAF. His major contribution was to design a COMPSTAT-like computer program that recorded data on all aspects of RAF terrorism—names, dates, targets, escape routes, methods, car registrations, residences—and distributed it to regional police departments, ultimately allowing them to close in on the group.

Alas, Herold received little thanks for his efforts. Derided for creating a “Big Brother” monitoring system, he was forced into early retirement in 1981. Allegations that he presided over the creation of a “surveillance state” were overwrought even then, but they continue to be repeated today. Aust himself, in an unfortunate departure from his carefully objective approach, echoes the repellent claim that there was some moral equivalence between the RAF’s indiscriminate terrorism and the security services’ precisely targeted response to it. This is a rare lapse, however. Aust is anything but an admirer of the RAF—not least because the group targeted him for assassination after he helped return Meinhof’s children to her estranged husband. She had previously arranged for them to be raised in a Palestinian refugee camp.

The RAF died as violently as it began. On October 18, 1977, an elite German counter-terrorism unit stormed the hijacked Lufthansa airliner, freeing the passengers and ending any chance that Baader and his cohorts may have had of being released in exchange for the hostages. Later that day, what remained of the RAF leadership (Meinhof had earlier hanged herself in her cell) killed themselves in a prearranged suicide pact. It was a grimly fitting conclusion: a senseless act of destruction that foretold the tactics of the RAF’s Islamist successors. Three decades hence, no one has told that story better than Stefan Aust.


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