For forty-four harrowing days in the fall of 1977, which came to be known as the German Autumn, the urban guerrillas of the Red Army Faction (RAF) held captive a major German industrialist, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, demanding in exchange for him the release of their imprisoned leadership. The West German government launched an obsessive manhunt that shut down train and bus terminals, posted police checkpoints on roads across the country, and tapped the phones of thousands of leftists. The ordeal ended with the spectacular liberation of a hijacked jumbo jet, the collective suicide of the RAF prisoners, and the cold-blooded murder of the kidnapped businessman.

The images associated with Germanys left-wing terrorism of the 1970s remain vivid for anyone who lived through it: Chancellor Helmut Schmidts grave television addresses to the nation; the “Wanted” handbills with blurry black-and-white photos of the fugitives, among them the groups leaders, Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, and Gudrun Ensslin; and the eerie maximum-security Stammheim Prison near Stuttgart, the seventh floor of which held the political prisoners. The violence of the urban guerrillas rattled the state and terrified ordinary Germans. It is no exaggeration to say that the trauma experienced by many West Germans during that time can be likened in intensity to that endured by Americans in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But most of the meaningful parallels between the two periods stop there.

Three decades later, this grim chapter in the republics history still remains remarkably present in the culture and consciousness of contemporary Germany. Marking the thirtieth anniversary of the German Autumn a couple of years ago, some of the countrys magazines reprinted (yet again) the images now seared into the memory of the Federal Republic: Baader in leather jacket and sunglasses pinned to the asphalt by police, Ensslin hanged in her cell, and an array of smashed, bullet-riddled BMWs with sheet-covered corpses lying next to them. This epoch and its most spectacular episodes have generated a regular stream of cultural material, including feature and documentary films, novels, exhibitions, plays, and even techno T-shirts sporting the RAF logoa machine gun set against a red star. In addition, as the last of the imprisoned ex-guerrillas came up for parole recently, there was a fierce discussion about the terms of their release, with relatives of victims and former guerrillas weighing in on talk shows.

Among Germanys many chronicles of its homegrown terrorists, Stefan Austs 1985 600-page Baader-Meinhof Komplex stands out as the classic, although not necessarily the best, study. There isnt a single left-leaning German who doesnt have a copy on his or her bookshelf. The film version came out in 2008, studded with Germanys flashiest stars. Inexplicably, it was nominated for an Oscar, in the category of best foreign-language film.

In the world of German media, Aust isnt just anybody. He is one of the countrys premier alpha journalists and was until recently the editor of the countrys leading newsweekly, Der Spiegel. While there, he had half a dozen staffers working full-time following the few remaining threads that could answer the few remaining questions about the dramatic showdown between the state and the urban revolutionaries. His RAF files are said to fill sixty meters of shelf space.

The 2008 reworked translation of Austs book, Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F., provides English readers with the German Autumn story, updated with Austs latest findings: evidence that Germanys secret services had the RAF prisoners in the Stammheim cells under full surveillance and thus almost certainly knew about their suicide pactand did nothing to stop them. It includes fascinating material on the collaboration between the authorities of Communist East Germany and the RAF militants (a collusion that is mutually indicting), as well as additional verification that the RAF leadership deliberately and cynically staged their own deaths as murders in order to spawn new generations of like-minded revolutionaries to fight the fascist police state. (They were successful in this goal, causing yet more innocents to die in the name of revenge and First World revolution.)

Aust himself is part of the RAF story, something that would justifiably raise the eyebrow of any historian worth his salt. Aust was a teenager in the late 1960s, and fell in with the staff of the radical monthly konkret, the chief editor of which was none other than Ulrike Meinhof. (In the film, Austs character appears in the background every now and again, a dorky kid with oversize eyeglasses and an ill-fitting denim jacket.) He was involved in one of the oft-told stories of the radical 70s, having traveled to Sicily to intercept Meinhofs twin daughters, whom she had abandoned for her life as a Marxist revolutionary. She was in the process of sending the girls to a Palestinian orphanage run by Fatah, where they, too, presumably, would become revolutionaries. As payback for foiling the plan, the RAF plotted to kill Aust. The plot was unsuccessful, but one can reasonably assume that such an experience, among others during that time and beyond, colored Austs interpretation of the events and their characters. It is above all his characterization of Meinhof as a hopelessly naive girl, overpowered by the domineering, misogynistic Baader, that riles many of his co-experts. (Few, however, object to his portrayal of Baader, about whom the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre declared after meeting him in prison, “That guy is such an asshole!”)

The West German terrorism of the 1970s clearly displays parallels with that of todays fundamentalist Islam. There are, of course, similarities in the nature of the revolutionary zeal and callous revolutionary logic. There is the black-and-white perception of the societies they target, of friends and foes, of good and evil. In the same way that the RAF hoped to jar the proletariat from its slumber, Islamic fundamentalists aim to radicalize and mobilize misguided mainstream Muslims. One could argue that, like the RAFs goal to “bring the struggle of the Third World to the First World,” the aim of Osama bin Laden and Co. was to bring the holy war from Afghanistan to the rest of the world.

But most of this could be said about any revolutionary movement. In fact, I think that more separates these two movements than links themfirst and foremost their completely different historical backgrounds. One is rooted in the specific historical circumstances of postwar Europe and the protest movements of the 1960s, the other in obscure strains of Islam that had long floated around the Arab world. One is Enlightenment based, the other explicitly religious. The German radicals targeted an economic elite in one country, while the Islamists battle whole civilizations. In contrast to the RAF, which drew its numbers from a contingent of perhaps several thousand sympathizers in West Germany, Islamic fundamentalism is supranational and spans continents, with millions of potential and actual sympathizers.

Can anything be learned from the German experience that is useful today? Perhaps so: the German state conducted its own “war on terror” in the 1970s, cracking down on the entire left-wing movement, raiding harmless Saturday-night parties, and putting many thousands of innocent people under surveillance. Those who experienced this pressure describe it as overwhelmingfilmmaker Margarita von Trotta dubbed it “the leaden time.” It created extreme paranoia on the left, which had the effect of radicalizing the scene and lending credibility to the RAFs claims of the republic being a police state. Likewise, many would argue, the Bush administrations war on terror fueled extremism in the Islamic world, alienating rather than winning over the Wests skeptics.

My problems with the Aust book, as well as with the film, are significant. For one, both versions of the story lack basic, requisite background information, particularly for the non-German audience. Austs political thriller, told in crime noir deadpan, skates over the archconservative postwar decade in which the RAF militants grew up. It was a time before West Germany had begun to come to grips with the Nazi past, and former Nazi Party members still remained in high posts in the federal government, the judiciary, and, not least, the school systems. Although the historical chronology doesnt excuse the militants misguided diagnosis of the Federal Republic as a post-fascist state, it does explain the process that led them to these conclusions.

Aust also neglects to flesh out the 1960s student movementdie Studentenbewegungwhich grew out of the disarmament campaigns of the 50s and early 60s. German students began to organize to liberalize the educational system, purge academia of old Nazis, and explore the roots of Third World poverty. Their inspiration was the U.S. civil rights campaign, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and the earliest Marches on Washington. It was the brutality that the police inflicted on
the student protesters that radicalized the movement, which originally was not violent, revolutionary, or ultraleftist.

Austs underlying thesis is that the armed struggle of the 70s was the inevitable, logical outgrowth of the student movement. It is undeniable that the RAF emerged from the ruins of the student movement, taking its most radical ideas and acting upon them. But, I argue, they did this in a way the students had never envisioned. Of the tens of thousands of young Germans who marched against the war in Vietnam and in favor of university reform, only several hundred, at most, interpreted those ideas in a way that ended in terrorism. Particularly unfair is Austs depiction of the charismatic student leader Rudi Dutschke, an arresting figure little known outside of Germany. It is sad that the wider worlds introduction to him through the film portrays him as a demonic advocate of violence ber alles and as the spiritual father of the RAF.

When the student movement imploded in 1969, the vast majority of its membersmost of whom never embraced revolutionary politics in the first placeeither threw in their lot with Willy Brandts reinvigorated Social Democrats or struck out on their own to organize grassroots civic projects that eventually morphed into the powerful womens and environmental campaigns. These are the rightful heirs of 1960s German activism, not the confused handful of ultraleftists who became the RAF. And it was these mass movementsof which the 1980s Green Party was one productthat had an incomparably greater impact on the political culture of modern Germany. But thats another storyand probably one not sensational enough to be nominated for an Oscar.

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Paul Hockenos is a writer living in Germany. His most recent book is Joschka Fisher and the Making of the Berlin Republic.