The Baader Meinhof Gang, also known as the Red Army Faction, was one of the most active militant left-wing groups of postwar West Germany that gained prominence in the 1970s and 80s. Like may other radical communist groups of its time, it was formed with the objective of overthrowing social and political order to give rise to a totalitarian socialist state. Although the group described itself as a ‘Communist Urban Guerilla Group engaged in armed resistance’ its use of arms and weaponry quickly gained it the reputation of being one of the most deadly terrorist groups in Europe at that time.
By the end of the 70s the group was responsible for over 30 killings and a series of bombings and kidnappings that aroused severe social and political unrest in the country. The Backdrop of Social & Political Unrest The formation of the Baader Meinhof Group or Gang can be traced back to the social and political instability in West Germany in the late 1960s. As in many industrialized nations, young students and workers disillusioned with the ‘oppressive’ regimes of the capitalist government began to stage massive protests.
Their objective was to fight for freedom and human rights and they brought issues such as anti-imperialism, racism and the Vietnam War to the forefront of radical politics. The ‘German student movement’ as it was later termed was fuelled by a series of events that took place in the arena of German politics. In 1956, the Communist Party of Germany was banned. Government positions were occupied by ex-Nazis resulting in anger and frustration at the ineffectiveness of de-Nazification after World War II.
The media was considered biased as it was controlled by anti-radical conservatives. The mid 1960s saw the merging of the country’s two major political parties- the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) and the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) to form a new government. This was referred to as the ‘grand coalition’ in Germany in 1966, with a former Nazi, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, as chancellor. This development was received with outrage from the radicals who viewed it as a collusion of capitalist power as a convenient way to block out the left-wing opposition parties.
Since 95% of the Bundestag (West German Parliament) was controlled by the coalition, a new opposition party was formed called the Ausserparlamentarische Opposition (APO) or Extra Parliamentary Opposition, with the objective of carrying out political activity and protests independent of the government. The APO provided a platform for student radicals to wage resistance against the coalition and played a central role in the German student movement.
What started out as peaceful demonstrations turned into violent protests on June 2, 1967 when the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, visited West Berlin. During one such demonstration outside the opera house where he was visiting, German student, Benno Ohnesorg was shot in the head and killed. The police officer responsible for the shooting was later acquitted. Outrage of the radicals led to the creation of a new militant group called ‘Movement 2 June’, named after the date of Ohnesorg’s death.
Formation of The RAF It was against the backdrop of this social and political environment and the impact of Ohnesorg’s death that led to the formation of an alliance between Thorwald Proll, Horst Sohnlein, Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader. Together they detonated home made bombs in several Frankfurt department stores to protest against the Vietnam War. All four were subsequently arrested on April 2, 1967 and later convicted of arson and sentenced to three years imprisonment.
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justify;">Three of the members including Baader and Ensslin managed to escape during a special parole for political prisoners. Baader was soon recaptured, while the remaining members fled to France and Italy and hid underground. During his stay in prison, Andreas Baader gained permission to write a book on ‘organizing young people on the fringes of society’. For this he was granted the privilege of visiting a library accompanied by uniformed armed guards. It was during one such library visit in 1970 that Baader managed to escape with the help of left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof.
It was here that the Baader-Meinhof duo came together, referring to their alliance as the Red Army Faction. Soon after, several members of the group went to Jordan where they received training in the use of arms by a military camp run by the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The Rise of the RAF Hereafter the RAF slowly grew to become one of the most prominent left-wing militant groups in West Germany and was engaged in numerous killings, bombings and robberies in attempt to get their message across through force.
It attracted members and supporters from several other radical groups across the country such as the ‘Revolutionary Cells’, ‘Movement 2 June’, the ‘Situationsists’ and the ‘Socialist Patients’ Collective’. Its rules and mission were partly modeled after a revolutionary group in Uruguay called the ‘Tupamaros Movement’ which succeeded in bringing guerilla war against imperialist oppression, under Che Guevara’s government, from rural areas to metropolitan cities. To avoid capture, most members operated under code names and carried out terrorist activities under a single contract.
In June 1972, Baader was recaptured along with his accomplice Jan-Carl Raspe, followed by his girlfriend Ensslin and later Meinhof. Although kept in solitary confinement in a high security prison – Stammheim Prison in Stuggart, the group members devised a means of communicating with one another through letters delivered through their lawyers. With the core members of the group in prison, the group’s activities were taken over by a second generation of militants whose aim now was to secure the release of its leaders.
This led to some of the worst terrorist attacks in the group’s history. The German Autumn On April 24, 1975, the RAF occupied the German Embassy in Stockholm where it demanded the release of its leaders in return for the freeing of hostages. When the German government refused, the RAF murdered two of the hostages. Baader and his fellow accomplices were finally put on trial in May 1975 – one of the most long drawn out and costly trials in West German history.
Exactly a year later in May 1976, Ulrike Meinhof was found dead in her prison cell after an apparent suicide in which she had hung herself with a rope of towels. As the trial progressed, a number of high profile attacks took place. These involved the killing of Federal Prosecutor Siegfried Buback at a traffic signal, along with his driver and body guard, by two members of the RAF in April 1977. Three months later, in July 1977, Juergen Ponto, the CEO of Dresdner Bank was shot and killed outside his home in the German town of Oberursel.
The following September, Hans Martin Schleyer, head of the German Association of Employers and one of the most powerful industrialists in the country, was kidnapped after his driver and bodyguards were shot dead by RAF militants. After taking Schleyer hostage, the RAF demanded the release of eleven prisoners including the leaders of the RAF at Stammheim Prison. Under the advice of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the government decided not to accede and instead set up a crisis committee to investigate the whereabouts of Schleyer.
Before the situation could be resolved, another attack took place which marked the culmination of terrorist activities associated with the RAF. This attack took place in October 1977 when Lufthansa flight 181 from Majorca to Frankfurt was hijacked by a group of Arabs who appeared to have close links with the RAF as they also demanded the release of the same prisoners as in the Schleyer case. The crisis committee again refused to give in to the hijackers demands, after which the flight captain was murdered and his body disposed of on a runway.
A rescue operation was quickly put in motion led by under-secretary Hans Jurgen Wischenewski, during which the elite force of the German Federal Police were finally able to free the aircraft by shooting down all four hijackers. Shortly after, success of the rescue operation, with not a single passenger hurt, was made public by the media. The same night, three of the imprisoned RAF members – Baader, Ensslin and Raspe were found dead in their cells in what appeared to be a planned and collective suicide.
The same night Schleyer was shot dead and the location of his executed body was communicated to the French press the following day. It was this string of bloody events that is frequently referred to as the German Autumn (Der Deutsche Herbst) The Downfall The ideology behind the 70s killings is still unclear and by the end of the 1970s the group’s sole objective appeared to be the release of its imprisoned leaders. The second generation of RAF members remained active in the 1980s gaining some East German support in the form of shelter and funding.
The group continued to target prominent industrialists and executives and in 1985 murdered Ernst Zimmerman, CEO of a German engineering company. This was followed by a bombing at a US airforce base near Frankfurt which killed three. Seimen’s executive, Karl-Heinz Beckurts was killed by a car bomb in 1986. In 1989, Duetsche Bank chairman, Alfred Herrhausen was also killed by a car bomb planted by the RAF. As attacks continued throughout the 1980s and early 90s, the RAF attracted increasingly fewer supporters and less sympathy from the left.
Its popularity quickly waned after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and after a long silence the group announced its dissolution in April 1998. References Alpert, Jane. (1987) The Baader-Meinhof Group: The Inside Story of a Phenomenon. Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Bodley Head. Becker, Jillian. (1977) Hitler’s Children: The Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang. Philadelphia: Lippincott. Katsiaficas, George. (1987) The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968. Boston: Beacon Press.
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