Friday, September 11, 2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex

Yesterday I attended a local screening of “The Baader Meinhof Complex.” Directed by an experienced hand, Uli Edel, and featuring a talented group of young actors, this high-profile film portrayed a crisis that convulsed West German society throughout the 1970s. The screenplay is based on a bestselling book by Stefan Aust. Earlier this year the movie made the shortlist for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards.

What was the Baader-Meinhof group? This band of friends was the nucleus of a larger entity known as the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion), shortened to RAF. The RAFers styled themselves a Marxist "urban guerrilla" group engaged in armed resistance against what they deemed to be a fascist state. The RAF was formally founded in 1970 by Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler, and Ulrike Meinhof. Irmgard Möller and Brigitte Mohnhaupt joined early in 1971. Meinhof, a journalist, provided the group’s public interface with the media.

The Red Army Faction operated from 1970 to 1993, committing numerous violent actions. These culminated in the autumn of 1977, precipitating the national crisis known as "German Autumn.” Over time the group was responsible for 34 deaths, including secondary targets—chauffeurs and bodyguards—and many serious injuries.

While it had analogues in other Western countries, the Red Army Faction's urban-guerilla concept emerged in the special context of the disenchantment of young educated people with the Federal Republic and West Berlin. To be sure, during the late 1960s most advanced industrialized nations experienced social upheavals related to the maturing of the baby boomers born after World War II, the Cold War, and the end of colonialism. Youth identity and such issues as racism, women's liberation, and anti-imperialism were at the forefront of New Left politics. By contrast, gay liberation was an American invention, spreading gradually to other countries.

A number of factors contributed to the rise of these insurrectionary groups. Sociological developments included pressure within the educational system in and outside Europe and the U.S., set against the background of the counterculture. The writings of Mao Zedong enjoyed wide circulation, with many uncritically spouting their mantras despite very differnt Western European conditions. In fact there was a host of postwar writings on class society and empire, as well as contemporary Marxist critiques from such revolutionaries such as Franz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara. Theorists associated with the Frankfurt School (Habermas, Marcuse, and Adorno) played a more distant role.

There were a number of specific German elements. Many of the radicals felt that Germany's lawmakers were relentlessly pursuing authoritarian policies without any serious opposition. The media, especially the Springer press, was strongly criticized. The public's apparent acquiescence was seen as a continuation of the social-solidarity indoctrination the Nazis had pioneered (Volksgemeinschaft). The Federal Republic was exporting arms to African dictatorships. It was also seen as supporting the war in Southeast Asia and engineering the remilitarization of Germany in the framework of the U.S.-led entrenchment against the Warsaw Pact nations. Added to all these elements was a more positive one (though rarely explicitly stated): Karl Marx was in fact German.

As Stefan Aust (author of the book on which the film is based) remarked:

"World War II was only 20 years earlier. Those in charge of the police, the schools, the government — they were the same people who’d been in charge under Nazism. The chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, was a Nazi. People started discussing this only in the 60s. We were the first generation since the war, and we were asking our parents questions. Because of the Nazi past, everything bad was compared to the Third Reich. If you heard about police brutality, that was said to be just like the SS. The moment you see your own country as the continuation of a fascist state, you give yourself permission to do almost anything against it. You see your action as the resistance that your parents did not put up."

Aust further remarks:

"The Baader-Meinhof Gang drew a measure of support that violent leftists in the United States, like the Weather Underground, never enjoyed. A poll at the time showed that a quarter of West Germans under 40 felt sympathy for the gang and one-tenth said they would hide a gang member from the police. Prominent intellectuals spoke up for the gang’s righteousness (as) Germany even into the ’70s was still a guilt-ridden society. When the gang started robbing banks, newscasts compared its members to Bonnie and Clyde. [Andreas] Baader, a charismatic, spoiled psychopath, indulged in the imagery, telling people that his favorite movies were Bonnie and Clyde, which had recently come out, and The Battle of Algiers. The pop poster of Che Guevara hung on his wall, (while) he paid a designer to make an Red Army Faction logo, a drawing of a machine gun against a red star."

Eventually the leading members of the gang were caught and confined in Stammheim Prison, where they were tried. On May 9, 1976, Ulrike Meinhof was found dead in her cell, dangling from a rope made from jail towels. An investigation concluded that she had hanged herself. Hotly contested at the time, this assertion triggered a plethora of conspiracy theories. A more mundane explanation is that she took her life because she was in despair at being ostracized by the rest of the group.

Eventually, on April 28, 1977, the trial's 192nd day, the three remaining defendants were convicted of several murders, more attempted murders, and of forming a terrorist organization. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Later Baader was found dead with a gunshot wound in the back of his head and Ensslin was found hanged in her cell; Jan-Carl Raspe died in hospital the next day from a gunshot wound to the head.

The official inquiry concluded that this was a collective suicide, but again conspiracy theories proliferated. Yet none of these theories was ever endorsed by the RAF itself. Some have asked how Baader managed to obtain a gun in the high-security prison wing specially constructed for the first-generation RAF members. Moreover, only a total commitment to her cause could have allowed Möller to have herself inflicted the four stab wounds found near her heart. Yet independent investigations showed that the inmates' lawyers were able to smuggle in weapons and equipment despite the high security ostensibly maintained at the prison.

The aftermath may be briefly noted. While the effect has often been denied, the fall of the Soviet Union left the remnants of the 1970s insurrectionary groups in disarray. Much diminished, the RAF essentially disappeared in 1993.

For his part, the RAF lawyer Horst Mahler crossed the lines to the far right. In 2000 he joined the National Democratic Party of Germany (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands), an extreme nationalist group. A Holocaust denier, he has also supported some of the American “truthers” who claim that al-Qaeda had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11. Mahler holds that Adolf Hitler was "the savior of the German people [but] not only of the German people.”

In accordance with German laws against stirring up ethnic hatred, Mahler has faced trial on several occasions. Finally, on February 21, 2009 a Munich court sentenced Mahler to six years imprisonment without possibility of reduction of time or bail. He is on record as saying that his beliefs have not changed: Der Feind ist der Gleiche (the enemy is the same).

Mahler’s intellectual journey (if such it can be termed) illustrates the truth of the old French maxim, “les extrêmes se touchent,” the extremes of left and right are in fact so closely allied that they rub shoulders.

However that may be, the events of the Baader-Meinhof era continue to fascinate Germans, at least those of the older generation. Yet the matter enjoys little resonance on these shores. This neglect is curious because many of the issues that vexed the RAF are still with us: police brutality and repression of dissent; vast disparities in income levels; the Israel-Palestine problem; and of course the US waging hostilities in Asia. The only difference in the latter sphere is that in the sixties and seventies we were engaged in a hopeless war in only one country, Vietnam. Now we have two: Iraq and Afghanistan.

There were parallels to the RAF in many advanced countries. In the United States one need only think of the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Weather Underground.

One interesting comparison is with the Charles Manson gang in Los Angeles. To be sure, Manson’s crime spree did not last long and, as an uneducated person, he had no real theoretical base. However, Manson came up with the concept of helter-skelter; that is, by a series of violent acts one could drive society into a state of chaos. In due course this chaos would foster the emergence of a new, presumably juster social arrangement.

Ultimately the strategy of violent provocations espoused by Manson stemmed from the anarchist attacks of the late nineteenth century, though Manson demonstrated a vein of sadism his predecessors generally avoided. An autodidact, the California guru was blissfully unaware of his debt. For their part, the RAFers thought that they had the benefit of a more up-do-date ideology.

Like many German intellectuals of the time, the RAFers were close students of Marxism, at least according to their lights. In one scene in the film a character is shown reading a pamphlet on Lenin by Leon Trotsky. This contrast seemed to put their problem in a nutshell. Lenin had a plan, and when he took over the state he was able to govern, however brutally. Yet after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Trotsky and his hapless followers were never able to take over anywhere. Eventually he was assassinated in Mexico City.

Looked at more closely, the RAF consisted of a disparate gaggle of individuals, some clearly disturbed and others (sometimes the same people) simply thuggish. The thuggishness recalls the American outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. As it happens, two books have recently appeared clearing up some of the myths fostered by the popular film with Warren Beatty and Fay Dunaway.

It has been said that at one time the the RAF could command the sympathy of one-quarter of younger West Germans. That may have been so. With its constant emphasis on the acts of violence, though, the film implies that the RAF was closer to success than it actually was. And what would success actually have meant? Unlike, say, Fidel Castro, the RAFers had no real strategy for taking over the state apparatus once their rampages had taken their toll. Eventually revulsion set in against their robberies and explosions, kidnappings and assassinations. Then it all faded away,



Blogger Burk said...

Particularly, one has to ask why so much sympathy was extended to the RAF in a country otherwise so buttoned down and repressed. What a curious anomaly! I'd put it down to unexpiated guilt from WWII. The Germans got off easy, and it did not sit well with many of the survivors and the next generation that such great evil could be succeeded by forgiveness and forgetfulness. The gratefulness of the mass of the people, and their re-entrance into normal bourgeois was repellant to Günter Grass and many others of the remembrance industry, finally meeting with a proper bout of self-flagellation at the hands of the RAF, whatever their putative ideology.

And perhaps it was not so much the fall of the Soviet Union that changed the emotional landscape, but the re-integration process with East Germany, which was paradoxically a healthy process for West Germany, taxing it to the utmost to rejoin its brethren and undoing some of the toxic legacy of the war for both sides. Reintegration seemed to mark the maturity of the West German state, with confidence that it had successfully become a pacifist pan-European state, had exorcised many of its collective demons, and had earned the right to unify the fatherland, as it were.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Burk Braun's points are well taken. West Berlin played a special role because young men could escape military service by moving there. This factor tended to create a concentration of counterculture types. Here is a
paradox. In the US young men became radicalized because they were
subject to the draft; in West Berlin they became radicalized because they escaped it.

I am not a great believer in national- character theories. I have been
visiting Germany since 1957, and when you are actually there it seems
a normal oountry, not very different from England or the Netherlands.
However, Germans do tend to take things very seriously. So that when
they got into revolt, they did it bigtime.

Christopher HItchens, who claims some expertise, has an interesting piece on the film in Vanity Fair. He says that when you subtract theseparatists, like the IRA in Ireland and the ETA in Spain, the insurrectionary movements are restricted to the former big Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. This does not seem literally true, because France
had Action Direct and we had the Weathermen. Still, guilt over WWII
seems to have played a major part, contributing to intergenerational
tensions. Paul Berman says that that was so in France.

5:53 AM  

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