Between 1968 and 1977 several Germans became active in left wing terrorist organizations. It is argued that this time period represents one of the most tumultuous eras in West Germany’s entire internal social-political history. There were three dominant groups, the Red Army Faction (RAF), the Movement 2 June , and the Revolutionary Cells (RZ). The Red Army Faction was the most well known and was dubbed the Baader-Meinhof Gang by the media and public. Their offical name was chosen after that of the Red Army, a Japanese leftist terrorist organization and the word ‘faction’ tried to suggest that the group was part of a larger international Marxist struggle.
These groups were fueled by the evens of June 2. Benno Ohnesorg, a 26-year-old married college sutdent majoring in Romance languages and literature, whose wife was pregnant was shot by policeofficer, Karl- Heinz Kurras. Ohnesorg had never been to a demonstration before. Kurras cliamed that the gun ‘just went off’. He was charged with manslaughter but was aquitted on November 23, 1967.
Andreas Baader was both a namesake and leader of the group. He born May 6, 1947 and was a juvenial deliquent. He is rumoured to have been a spoiled and rebellious child. He had been drawn to the leftist student movement by the potential for violence. He met Ellinor Michel at the age of 20 and moved in with her and her husband, who made a perminent departure during Baader’s stay. He and Michel had a daughter named Suse in 1965. He was never faithful to his family and abandoned them after meeting Gudrun in 1967. He was convicted in 1968 of committing an act of arson in a Frankfurt department store. He escaped from police custody in May 1970 with the help of several founding members. He was finally re-captured two years later in a police shoot out on June 1, 1972. Baader spent the next four years in prison until his suicide on October 18, 1977.
The other namesake of the group was Ulrike Meinhof, born October 7, 1934. Her parents both died early so she was left in the care of a family friend, Renate Riemack, a devoted socialist. On September 21, 1962 Meinhof had twin girls, Bettina and Regine, with her husband Klaus Rainer Röhl. Shortly afterwards she left him due to his promiscuous nature. When she became part of the gang she put her daughters into hiding with Riemack. Although the media named the gang partially after her, she was no leader. It was likely because of her fame as a leftist journalist that she was so singled out. She was captured on June 15, 1972 and hung herself on May 9, 1976 after growing increasingly depressed because other members of the gang had ostracized her.
The actual co-leader of the gang was Baader’s girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin. She was born in August of 1940. She had a son named Felix Robert in May 1967 with her fiancé Bernward Vesper. As she became more immersed in radical actions, she felt a pull between that and her role as a mother. Ultimately she left the infant in the care of his father. Shortly thereafter she met Baader and was arrested with him for charges of arson. At her trial Vesper appeared in the courtroom to testify to her good character and presented her with a bunch of red roses. She was captured on June 7, 1972 in Hamburg and hung herself in prison on October 18, 1977.
Baader escaped from police custody after negotiating a trip to the library to do research for a book about organizing young people on the fringes of society that he had been contracted to write. He was allowed to go in civilian clothes but had to be accompanied by uniformed and armed guards. Meinhof went to the library the same day and convinced the librarian to allow her in (it was closed to the public while Baader was there) because she was working on the book with him. She and Baader appeared to settle into work when two young women came to the door and were instructed to wait in the hall. They were there to let in an armed man who proceeded to shoot the librarian and set off a gas bomb that allowed the whole group to climb through the window and escape in a getaway car.
The group went to Libanon to be trained in one of many Palestinian Guerrilla camps located there.
Since the members were considered to be such high risk escape prisoners, special cells were built especially for them at Stammheim Prison. They kept the prisoners under constant survelliance. The walls of the cells were painted white and their cell lights burned 24-hours a day. There were several protests to their mal-treatment and one of the methods was a hunger strike. Holger Meins, an incarcerated member of the group died of starvation on November 11, 1974. Although he was six foot four he weighed under 100 pounds at death. After Meins’ death, the 2 June movement took action. The Sunday after his death they arrived at Judge Gunter von Drenkmann’s 64 th birthday party and shot him to death. Although von Drenkmann had not handled any specific RAF cases he was the president of the West German Supreme Court.
Most of the core members were captured by mid-1972. During this time the group was revived when former members of a group of called the Socialist Patients Collective (SPK) joined up with the Red Army Faction revitalizing the group in what is known as the second generation of the RAF. This second generation kidnapped and killed close to a dozen people between 1972 and 1977 in an effort to have them released from prison. None of the attempts were successful.
October 18, 1977 is referred to as “Death Night”. It was on this night that Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe all committed suicide in their Stammheim prison cells. This interpretation of events has been disputed on the basis that the RAF cell block had been described as the most secure prison block in the world, so it is questionable whether or not the prisoners could have smuggled in guns. There are some who believe that the group was murdered.
Following 1977 the group shrank rapidly. On May 11, 1981 they assassinated Heinz Herbert Karry who was the economics minister of the West German state of Hesse. Karry had offered rewards for the arrest of remaining RAF members. The last act attributed to them was committed in 1993 and the few remaining members announced their disbanding in late April of 1998.
Although relatively few people were actually involved, young people thought that the group was ‘cool’. They are now experiencing a revival of popularity that has elevated them almost to pop status.
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The story of the RAF
Berlin 1970 Manifesto
Interview with Ben Lewis on his film