Red Army Faction: A Short History of West Germany’s Most Wanted

Logo of the 1970's German underground organisation Red Army Faction (RAF) - a red star (similar to that of the Red Army of the Soviet Union) and a submachine gun Heckler & Koch MP5. Sometimes, people get confused because on most pictures available today, the MP5 has a curved magazine, whereas the weapon in the logo has a straight magazine. However, the MP5 had a straight magazine until it was changed to curved in 1976 due to technical reasons, so this is no contradiction. The MP5 was at the time (and is until today) one of the standard submachine guns of the German police. The logo designer, a young design student, apparently did not know this when choosing the weapon.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang, also known as the Red Army Faction, terrorised West Germany throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Like many countries, West Germany experienced an insurgence of radical student movements throughout the 1960s and 70s. Opposed to what they saw as American imperialism, as typified by the war in Vietnam, young people took to the streets to protest throughout the western world. Most student movements were of a peaceful nature, preaching the ideals of free love and peace. But in West Germany, a group of restless young people opposed to authority began a rather unfocused campaign of armed resistance, at the end of which 30 people were dead.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang or Red Army Faction

The Baader-Meinhof gang was born of two incidents in West Berlin in the late 1960s. In the summer of 1967, the Shah of Iran paid a visit to the city and was met by several left-wing student groups who were protesting his regime. Deploying heavy-handed tactics, the police managed to shoot, possibly accidentally, a young man at his first (and last) protest to death.

In the spring of 1968, Rudi Dutschke, a leader of the radical APO movement, was shot three times by Joseph Bachmann. He amazingly survived the attempt on his life, but radical groups were incensed at what they felt was the right wing media’s ‘red baiting’ which led to the shooting.

Andreas Baader, at the time, was a small time criminal with a penchant for stealing cars. He was not involved in either of the incidents, but saw the radical leftist movement as a means of focussing his energies and obtaining followers. A charismatic leader, he soon found himself at the head of what became known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang or the Red Army Faction (RAF). He and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, were convicted of bombing a department store in 1968 in the first of the group’s many terrorist actions. While free on bail, he slipped out of the country, but soon found himself back in West Germany and in police custody.

Ulrike Meinhof, on the other hand, was not a radical student, but a left wing journalist who was finding herself increasingly disillusioned by her attempts to change society through peaceful means. She met Gudrun Ensslin during an interview and struck up a friendship with the young woman. In 1970, she offered her services to help Baader escape from prison by arranging an interview with him during which several members of the group freed him, seriously wounding an elderly librarian in the process.

Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin and others spent the next two years on the run, committing terrorist acts, mainly bank robberies, along the way. They spent some time in a terrorist training camp in Jordan, before angering their hosts with their cavalier treatment of weapons and nude sunbathing.

After a series of bombings, including the hated right-wing Springer Press, a police station and the headquarters of the US army, Baader and one of his comrades, Holger Meins, were captured after a lengthy police shootout. Shortly afterwards, Gudrun Ensslin was also arrested while trying on clothes at a dress shop and leaving her gun behind in a jacket pocket. Meinhof was also arrested in 1972 and most of the gang were now behind bars.

Members of the Red Army Faction were housed in different prisons and kept in solitary confinement. After a series of hunger strikes designed to bring attention to their plight, conditions were eased slightly and the group was eventually housed in the same wing of Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart while preparations were underway for what was to become West Germany’s longest and most expensive criminal trial. Holger Meins, however, was severely weakened by his weeks of starvation and died on 9 November, 1974.

Red Army Faction – the Next Generation

Although most original members of the Red Army Faction were now captured and awaiting trial, those on the outside were not sitting idly by. In what were to become the Red Army Faction’s most audacious acts of terror yet, a new generation of the group valiantly attempted to free their comrades from prison with a series of kidnappings, assassinations and even a hijacking.

In April 1975, next generation members of the RAF raided the West German embassy in Stockholm, taking 11 hostages. When Swedish police did not vacate the building as ordered, the terrorists killed the embassy’s military attaché to show they meant business. The terrorists then wired the building with explosives and killed another hostage when their demands to free the members of the group were not met. Things went badly wrong, however, when the explosives went off prematurely, injuring most of the terrorists and hostages and killing one terrorist. The terrorists were forced to give up without a fight and were taken into custody.

Although the embassy raid had failed, the RAF were not finished trying to force the government to free their heroes. In 1977, they targeted chief public prosecutor Siegfried Buback, who was killed by an RAF member riding a motorcycle alongside his car. An attempt to kidnap Juergen Ponto, the chief executive of Dresder Bank, also ended in his murder. On 5 September, 1977, Hans Martin Schleyer, one of West Germany’s most powerful industrialists, was taken hostage. His bodyguards were killed in the raid and his body was recovered a month later after the attempt to free the RAF members again failed.

Perhaps the most notorious action taken by the next generation RAF was their arrangement with Palestinian terrorists to hijack a Lufthansa flight with 88 passengers on board. Demanding the release of Baader, et al., the plane was forced from one location to another, before finally touching down in Mogadishu. There, German commandos conducted a raid, freeing all 88 hostages and leaving three of the terrorists dead.

By this time, Ulrike Meinhof, who had been suffering from depression and a feeling of isolation from the rest of the group, had already hanged herself in her cell. The rest of the group, upon hearing clandestinely of the failure of the hijacking, entered a suicide pact. On the night of 17 October, 1977, Baader shot himself with a smuggled gun, while Ensslin hanged herself with piano wire. Two other members similarly attempted suicide. Only one survived after attempting to stab herself in the heart.

Baader-Meinhof – The Legacy

After 1977’s ‘death night’, the group continued their attacks, but never to the same extreme it had done in its heyday. Its activities tapered off in the 1980s and, in 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the RAF officially called it quits. Although it had enjoyed popularity during the 1960s and 70s, especially among young people who were determined not to bow down to authority as their parents had in the Second World War, there was a collective sigh of relief.

In 2009, the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex was released in Germany charting the rise and fall of the RAF. Although it was released three decades after the events, the film opened old wounds for many. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language picture at the Academy Awards and enjoyed critical success.