No remorse for leftist terror 30 years later Memories of the Red Army Faction's rampage live on, writes Marc Young
FT News, Education
15 April 2007
South China Morning Post
(c) 2007 South China Morning Post Publishers Limited, Hong Kong. All rights reserved.
Thirty years after the Red Army Faction went on a rampage of kidnappings, bombings and killings in West Germany, the leftist terrorist group continues to hold Germans hostage. Though the radical outfit disbanded years ago and hasn't held actual captives for decades, the recent release of one former Red Army leader, Brigitte Mohnhaupt, who spent 24 years in prison for her role in an unprecedented wave of terror in 1977, has many in Germany struggling with the group's violent legacy.
Known here as Deutscher Herbst, or "German Autumn", Mohnhaupt and other members abducted and killed leading West German public figures in an all-out assault against the country's capitalist establishment that year. Their Palestinian allies even hijacked a Lufthansa airliner in October 1977 in a vain attempt to force the release of imprisoned German terrorists.
Now three decades later, Mohnhaupt's release on parole three weeks ago - and the possibility of a presidential pardon for another ex-Red Army Faction member Christian Klar - has polarised German society like few issues in recent memory.
Michael Sontheimer, a correspondent for the leading German news magazine Der Spiegel, has covered the Red Army Faction saga for the better part of a quarter century. He believes the country has yet to come to grips with the especially turbulent episode of its history. "It was a collective trauma. I find the current debate quiet depressing. It shows how there's still no consensus on these events from 30 years ago."
Mohnhaupt, now 57, led the second generation of the Red Army Faction, which was first established in 1970 by a group of young and idealistic West German leftists including Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof. Also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Army Faction chose to wage a violent struggle against capitalism, the Vietnam war, and the widespread reluctance of many older Germans to face the country's Nazi past. The group was ultimately responsible for the deaths of at least 34 people until formally disbanding in 1998.
Born out of West Germany's student protest movement in the late 1960s, almost all the group's members were university educated and from affluent families. They tried to combine revolutionary chic with the era's prevailing counterculture, giving them - at least at first - quite a few admirers among leftwing intellectuals, who felt the police and government were taking a disproportionate response against student demonstrators. "It's hard to understand without putting it all in the zeitgeist of the time. It's only thinkable in the context of the cold war," said Sontheimer. "This wasn't just a German phenomenon. A lot of people back then believed some idea of revolution was necessary."
But as revolutionaries the coddled sons and daughters of West Germany were ultimately out of their depth. They were happy to live a freewheeling and criminal lifestyle while mouthing lip service to utterly unrealistic socialist ideals. And they deluded themselves into thinking kidnappings and killings would help rally others to their cause. "They either hadn't read or understood Mao, Marx or Lenin. They were the leisure children of the capitalistic west, who selfishly got the media's attention with a few bombs, murders and revolutionary romanticism combined with sex, drugs and rock n' roll," argues Bettina Roehl, who recently wrote a book about Meinhof - her mother.
Roehl and others have been drawn into the stormy public debate that has gripped Germany since a court announced in February that Mohnhaupt would be up for parole after serving 24 years in jail for nine counts of murder and multiple counts of attempted murder. That discussion has in turn stirred a media firestorm, which was already preparing to revisit the faction's legacy and the 30th anniversary of the Deutscher Herbst this autumn.
Though the Red Army Faction was responsible for several deaths from both shootings and bombings starting as early as 1971, it was six years later that the situation had escalated such that the nation was racked by fear. After Meinhof committed suicide in prison in 1976, the group's "second generation" became intent on freeing Baader, Ensslin and the other imprisoned members.
Mohnhaupt is widely considered the driving force behind 1977's wave of terror, which started with the assassination of West German chief federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback on April 7 of that year. A memorial ceremony - the first of several planned for this year - was held to honour Buback last weekend. His modern-day successor as chief prosecutor, Monika Harms, used the occasion to speak out against letting the faction's deeds be forgiven and forgotten. "The path to reconciliation is long," Ms Harms said. "The discussion over the last few months has been so heated because we were quiet too long."
But Buback's murder was only the beginning of what would become a very bloody year. On July 30, Mohnhaupt, Klar and two others attempted to kidnap Dresdner Bank chairman, Juergen Ponto. When he resisted they shot and killed him.
On September 5, the terrorists abducted the president of the German employer's association, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, killing several bodyguards and his driver in the process. As head of a capitalist organisation symbolising the interests of big business and a rehabilitated ex-member of Hitler's SS, Schleyer represented everything about West Germany the group wished to destroy. Holding him hostage for weeks, they demanded release for all Red Army Faction prisoners. But chancellor Helmut Schmidt refused to give in to their demands.
To increase the pressure on Mr Schmidt's government, the group organised the help of the Marxist-Leninist Palestinian terrorist group the PFLP, which hijacked a Lufthansa airliner on the Spanish island of Mallorca on October 13, 1977. But after the plane landed in Mogadishu, Somalia, the German anti-terror unit stormed the aircraft, freeing the hostages after a five-day ordeal.
That same day, Baader, Ensslin and another member committed suicide in jail. A fourth survived after stabbing herself repeatedly in the chest. Having failed in their attempt to free their comrades, the group around Mohnhaupt executed Schleyer with three shots to the head. To this day, those members involved have refused to say who pulled the trigger.
Deutscher Herbst was a watershed in the history of West Germany, Schleyer's son Hanns-Eberhard told author Anne Siemens for her book For the RAF He Was the System, For Me My Father. Published earlier this year, it documents through interviews how the relatives of victims of Red Army Faction's violence have dealt with their deaths. "I'm convinced [that] after the autumn of 1977 the way the group was perceived changed," he said.
After a few years on the run, Mohnhaupt and Klar were arrested within days of each other in November 1982. Since then the world they were so intent on altering through violence has undergone geopolitical changes that have probably been hard for them to accept: the cold war ended, communist East Germany reunited with the capitalist west in 1990, and their romanticised idea of revolution looks ridiculously outdated to modern Germans.
Neither, however, has given any indication that they regret their actions. While that has angered those hoping for some sort of public contrition, even the country's archconservatives have grudgingly admitted Mohnhaupt's release in the early morning hours of March 25 was done in accordance with the law.
Although she has said she only wants to be left alone, she has threatened legal action against Germany's largest and most provocative daily newspaper Bild if it continues to label her a "murderer" and "terrorist" outside of a "historical context".
Of the three ex-members still in jail, Eva Haule, Birgit Hogefeld and Christian Klar, attention has since focused on the 54-year-old Klar. Instead of waiting until he is eligible for parole in two years' time, Klar has petitioned for a presidential pardon for his crimes - outraging the families of their victims and many other Germans. Not only has Klar failed to show the remorse seemingly necessary to justify a pardon, he has also fed suspicions that he has not yet abandoned the ideology of violence.
Last month, it was revealed that Klar, in a written greeting to a leftist conference in Berlin on January 13, had expressed hope that the world still might embrace his views. "Where else will the will to fight come from?" he wrote. "Otherwise, it will not be possible to realise the defeat of capitalism's plans in order to open the door to a different future."
Those sympathetic to Klar said his comments were nothing that a modern anti-globalisation activist wouldn't say and they should have no effect on his request for a pardon from President Horst Koehler. But others were outraged. Ulrich Goll, the justice minister for the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Klar is imprisoned, promptly ordered a new psychological assessment to determine whether his parole process should even be started.
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