The Red Army Faction (RAF)
The 1960s were very turbulent in the United States with the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and antiwar protests, but also carried great significance in Germany. Germany was still recovering and learning how to deal with the memories of World War II, but also had to contend with the reality of the Berlin Wall that crushed many hopes for reunification. Furthermore, Heinrich Lübke was elected president twice despite his Nazi past. This, including a lack of parliamentary opposition, fueled fears of a revival of the Nazi State among students. Concerns only grew when, in response to student protest movements such as those founded by the Socialist Student Union (SDS) and the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (APO), the Notstandsgesetze (German Emergency Acts) were passed in 1968, which allowed the State to assume control in case of an emergency situation, such as a natural disaster, insurgency, or war. Many students active in protest movements feared that these emergency acts could be used to further limit civil rights and liberties. In addition to this, the Springer Verlag, owned by Axel Springer, had a monopoly over several newspapers distributed throughout Germany, often criticizing the students, who felt that this publishing company was dividing Germany even further. The influence of the Vietnam War was also felt, leading to protests against American imperialism and colonialism. With these and many more conflicts accumulating, it was only a matter of time before the feather broke the camel’s back.
With the death of Benno Ohnesorg, a student who was shot and killed at a protest against the Iranian Shah’s visit to Germany in 1967, as well as the attack on Rudi Dutschke, a very popular and well-known leader of the SDS, by a right-wing extremist, many had had enough. The student movement already had groups within it that were more extreme than others, but the death of Ohnesorg and the attack on Dutschke were a sign for many that protesting would not be enough, and that violence had to be used against violence, leading to the formation of the Red Army Faction (RAF).
The original founding members of the terrorist group RAF were Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, and Gudrun Ensslin. Born in 1934, Meinhof was the daughter of Werner and Ingeborg Meinhof, both of whom were art historians. Her father, Werner Meinhof, was a member of the Nazi Party and donated several artworks to the exhibition of Degenerate Art. After the war, Ulrike Meinhof distanced herself from her father’s Nazi past, becoming chief editor of the left-wing magazine konkret. When considering Meinhof, it appears unusual that she would have joined a violent terrorist group like the RAF, especially because she did not believe in using violence as a weapon against the State. However, Meinhof did believe that violence was justified as a method when no other options were available. Meinhof had been influenced by her father’s Nazi past, seeking to distance herself from it. She had written about the death of Benno Ohnesorg, known Rudi Dutschke, and supported the student protest movements. In 1968, Meinhof wrote an article in response to the attack on Dutschke, criticizing the Springer Verlag and the Vietnam War, and recognizing force and violence as a valid weapon in resisting the oppression of the State.
Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin were the other two founding members of the RAF, both of whom had been active before Meinhof joined them. Similar to Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin had families with ties to the Nazi past. For instance, Baader’s father had fought in the war, and was officially declared dead in 1955. Gudrun Ensslin, on the other hand, was the daughter of an evangelical pastor. Although Ensslin’s father had been a pastor, she nevertheless questioned those who had done nothing to protest the Nazi regime during the war. Ensslin and Baader met each other in the APO, and set two department stores on fire in 1968. In 1970, Ensslin and Meinhof worked together to free Baader from prison, this event marking the birth of the RAF. The group fled to Jordan to receive paramilitary training from Palestinian guerrillas.
Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, and Gudrun Ensslin
In 1971, Meinhof published “Das Konzept Stadguerilla,” a pamphlet justifying the use of the Stadtguerilla, or “city guerilla,” and the use of force for the reformation of society. In 1972, after returning to Germany, the RAF initiated four bombings in one month, the targets including American barracks in Frankfurt, a police department in Augsburg, the lawyer and judge Wolfgang Buddenberg, and the Springer-Verlag. All of these attacks were meant to be symbolic, the targets representing things like American imperialism, the corrupt German police and justice system, and the manipulation of the media.
Nevertheless, the RAF’s actions were short-lived when, in June 1972, Ensslin and Meinhof were arrested while Baader and other RAF members were captured in a police shoot-out. Following this, the Stammheim trial was conducted, named after the Stammheim maximum-security prison the RAF members were kept in. This trial became one of the biggest and most important trials of the Federal Republic of Germany. A special room was constructed for this event, with the whole trial lasting 192 days, including a case file of 50,000 pages and 997 witnesses. In 1976, after the RAF members on trial admitted to, and stood by, their crimes, Meinhof increasingly distanced herself from the other members, becoming more and more isolated, and was found dead in her prison cell shortly after. It was found that she had hung herself. Finally, in the “Stammheim Death Night,” RAF members Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Gudrun Ensslin were found dead in their cells. The official report stated that Baader and Raspe had shot themselves while Ensslin had hung herself, although theories exist as to how it was possible for Baader and Raspe to have had access to guns in a maximum-security prison.
The Stammheim Trial
Nevertheless, the deaths of this first generation of the RAF fueled the continuation of the group itself, leading to a subsequent second and third generation of members. Each generation became more and more violent, losing the symbolism of the first generation, and committing more murders in the process. The RAF was weakened by the fall of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1991, the group officially dissolving in 1998 with the end of the Soviet Union. Although the Red Army Faction was a terrorist group that caused a great deal of death and destruction, they nevertheless raise important questions regarding differences between revolutionary and terrorist groups, and the extent to which a person or a group will go to fix what is perceived as broken, highlighting the need to ask questions to better understand one’s surroundings and ties to the past.
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