THE TYRANNY OF PARLIAMENT.
‘Parliament used to understand that it knew it needed a mandate for the public to accept fundamental change. Parliament always had the power, but they also knew that without a mandate, they did not have the right.
The biggest changes need the consent of the people. This is the underpinning, the mechanics, the underlying grammar of British democracy. It strikes at the heart of the rule of law. The law isn’t respected because the Supreme Court says so, but because, at its most fundamental level, the public know that they have a hand in making it.’,
‘Parliament is now unmuzzled. Manifesto pledges are for wimps. The consent of the people is unnecessary. MPs know best.’ – John Hartigan, from 20th March 2019.
The Baader-Meinhof group, a left-wing terrorist collective born of the student revolutions of the Sixties, terrorised West Germany with a series of bombings, assassinations and hijackings in the Seventies.
On the eve of a new film about the movement, Neal Ascherson – who met key members of the group as The Observer’s correspondent in Germany at the time – reflects on the legacy of those turbulent years and the strange hold they had – and still have – on the national psyche
Sun 28 Sep 2008
When I first met Ulrike Meinhof, before she took up the gun, I thought her tender and vulnerable. As The Observer’s correspondent in Germany, I had gone to interview her in Hamburg for a left-wing view of the poverty and exploitation hidden behind the shiny ‘economic miracle’. I found her in a suburban house, a nervous, pretty woman of 30 with two blonde little girls rolling round her feet.
At that time – it was 1964 – she was editing the political journal konkret, and already making a name as one of Germany’s most eloquent columnists. Politically, she was a pacifist and committed to the nuclear disarmament campaign, like her strong-minded, idealistic foster mother, Renate Riemeck, who had adopted Meinhof and her sister after the death of their parents.
In 1968, she left her husband and her good job, and moved to Berlin. I was living there, and a message came from Riemeck asking me through a mutual friend to ‘keep an eye on Ulrike, because she’ll be lonely’. I never got round to looking her up. But she was meeting far more exciting company: Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, who had already been convicted for setting fire to a department store.
Counselling girl delinquents, Ulrike became convinced that they were victims of the system who should be trained to fight and smash it, not to adapt to it. Soon afterwards, when Baader was re-arrested in 1970, Meinhof planned and took part in a daring shoot-out to rescue him and herself went underground.
Ensslin urged her to get rid of the children, both then still aged under 10. After first refusing, she gave in. They were spirited out of Germany and dumped in a hippy commune in Sicily. She did not see them again until they visited her in prison two years later.
Last weekend, the audience trickling out of Cologne’s biggest cinema looked shattered. Earlier, as they waited to see the premiere of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, they had been in high spirits: the city’s young, sparky, arthouse mob laughing and sipping white wine.Advertisement
In the cinema, their happy mood drained away. Two-and-a-half hours later, as the credits began to roll, there was at first silence and then only quiet, stunned applause.
The film itself is powerful, showing the foul reality of urban guerrilla struggle and what it does to its victims and its perpetrators. But the myth of the Baader-Meinhof group is powerful too, still haunting German imaginations more than a generation later. The young people who see the film now were not born when it all happened. And yet the German past now intrigues them, in contrast to the deliberate deafness of their parents to their own recent history. Other films with a historical basis – Downfall and The Lives of Others – have pulled big attendances.
That Cologne audience, utterly opposed to terrorist violence, nonetheless felt a pang of sympathy with the protagonists. Thirty years ago, would they have turned away those terrorist boys and girls if they had come begging for shelter? Would they have called the police?
This film provides no easy answers. Many Germans seem to find it admirable, including – surprisingly – the children of some of the gang’s victims. Others are outraged, seeing it as a glamorisation of terror. One right-wing critic said bitterly: ‘It doesn’t clear away the myth… It gives it a new foundation’.
The roots of the Baader-Meinhof group (the ‘Red Army Faction’ or RAF) were in the revolutionary student movement which swept West Berlin and West Germany between 1967 and 1969. While the movement acted mainly through mass demonstrations, permitting only ‘symbolic counter-violence against objects’, its rage against the American war in Vietnam (‘genocide’) was incandescent.
So was its hatred of the West German state, an economic triumph which had preserved suffocatingly authoritarian structures in the universities and not least in the police, trained to regard all protest as Communist subversion.Advertisement
In West Berlin, I soon began to meet angry young militants who thought that the student movement should stop waving posters at the state and attack it physically. Events soon gave them force. I was there on 2 June 1967, at a demonstration against the Shah of Persia, when the police ran wild and shot dead the student Benno Ohnesorg. And I remember the tears of impotent fury and grief all around me when Rudi Dutschke, the Danton of the SDS, was gunned down by a hyped-up boy screaming ‘Communist swine!’
So it seemed that there was already a war on. To take up arms against the imperialist killers, to act and fight, seemed to some like an ethical response.
One of these radicals was Andreas Baader, an unstable tearaway with devastating charisma and a taste for violence. Born in 1943, he had lost his father in the war and grew up a spoiled child bullying a household of women. As a teenager, he stole motorbikes, wrecked cars and enjoyed pub brawls. In 1963 he moved to West Berlin to avoid military service, became involved in the ‘bohemian’ political scene and acquired a taste for natty dressing unusual in that milieu. Here he met his true love, the extraordinary Gudrun Ensslin.
Daughter of a deeply serious and compassionate Lutheran minister in Swabia, herself highly intelligent and socially conscious, she spent a year at a Methodist college in America, where she was shocked into radical socialist politics.
Back in West Berlin, she became totally disillusioned with the ruling Social Democrats and with all conventional morality. In 1968 she met Baader, went fire-bombing stores with him and landed in jail. It was in prison that she met Ulrike Meinhof, who had come to interview her.
The culmination of that friendship was the 1970 springing of Andreas Baader. Afterwards the gang, now growing in numbers, went to Lebanon for military training with Palestinian guerrillas. Back in Germany, the shooting war began with a series of spectacular bank raids and clashes with the police, In May 1972 came lethal bomb attacks on American army bases, once accepted as West Germany’s defence against Soviet invasion but now seen as integral to the hated Vietnam war. German prosecutors and right-wing newspaper offices were also targets.Advertisement
By now, the ‘Baader-Meinhof Gang’ was obsessing West German politicians and dominating the media. There were deaths – American soldiers, German policemen and the first Red Army Faction victim: Petra Schelm. She was only one of many young women fighting in the group and leading its ‘commandos’.
Around the group, there was soon a wide ‘sympathiser’ network of people who shared the RAF aims, even though they rejected their terrorist methods. Opinion polls showed that one in four West Germans under 30 felt ‘a certain sympathy’. In liberal northern Germany, one in 10 was prepared to shelter a RAF fugitive.
Soon after the bombings, in June 1972, the police’s luck changed. They cornered Andreas Baader and two of his comrades in a Hamburg garage; Baader was wounded and captured. A week later, Ensslin was caught in a Hamburg boutique. The ruthless Brigitte Mohnhaupt was arrested in Berlin and Meinhof was betrayed by her host in a Hanover flat.
Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof, with several other RAF fighters, ended up in a specially constructed super-prison at Stammheim, near Stuttgart. But meanwhile the ‘second wave’ RAF went into action. In April 1975, they stormed the West German embassy in Stockholm, took hostages and demanded the release of the Stammheim prisoners.
The siege ended in carnage and failure. The following month, the trial of the Stammheim three, plus Jan-Carl Raspe, began its chaotic and often farcical three-year course. But Meinhof did not see the end of it. Tormented by a sense of failure, and bullied for weakness by Baader and Ensslin, she hanged herself in May 1976.
Outside, the ‘second wave’ was preparing a new campaign, after a group had undergone training in South Yemen. And in 1977 they launched the crescendo of horror and tragedy which is now remembered as ‘the German Autumn’ – although it began in spring.Advertisement
In April, the chief federal prosecutor, Siegfried Buback, and his bodyguard were killed by motorcycle gunmen (or possibly women) as their car waited at traffic lights. On 30 July, the banker Jürgen Ponto was fatally wounded by Brigitte Mohnhaupt and Christian Klar in a bungled kidnap attempt, meant to spring the Stammheim survivors. On 5 September, the gang successfully abducted Hanns-Martin Schleyer, chairman of the employers’ federation, after killing his driver and escorts.
Again, they demanded the release of the prisoners and a plane to fly them to the Middle East. The government stalled. Mohnhaupt persuaded Palestinian militants to hijack a Lufthansa jet. It was done, but no country in the region would accept the plane, which eventually landed at Mogadishu in Somalia. There, on 17 October, it was stormed by German special forces and the passengers released.
Next morning, Baader, Ensslin and Raspe were found dead in their cells. The two men had apparently shot themselves with smuggled pistols; Ensslin had hanged herself. A fourth prisoner, Irmgard Möller, had stab wounds but survived.
Two days later, Schleyer was taken to a wood on the Dutch/German border and executed. Baader, Ensslin and Raspe were buried in Stuttgart among emotional crowds raising clenched fists. For years, the orthodoxy of the German far left insisted that they and Meinhof had been murdered in their cells. Some still believe it.
That is where the film ends. But the book by Stefan Aust on which it is based, a revised edition with the same title as the film, takes the story further. The Stammheim deaths were not quite the end of the RAF. Some of them took refuge in East Germany, where they were protected and given new identities by the Stasi. In the 1980s, another string of murders began, targeting mostly industrialists and bankers.
It was not until 1998 that the authorities received a bulletin announcing that the urban guerrilla movement was over. The communiqué ended with the words: ‘The Revolution says: I was, I am, I will be’….Advertisement
So why are they remembered so acutely, these intelligent young men and women who turned to terrorism? Why did that Cologne audience creep out into the autumn night looking as if they had been mugged? In Britain, such people would be regarded as mere criminals, their gun-slinging career not without glamour but their political ideas of no possible interest. In Germany, even 40 years on, it is different.
There is a whole shelf of older movies about Baader-Meinhof, most of them elegiac and to some degree defensive. The Baader-Meinhof Complex sets out neither to condemn or excuse. The method adopted by producer Bernd Eichinger (Oscar-nominated for his work on Downfall) is to throw at the viewer one astonishing scene after another without stringing them together into some psychological narrative. He calls this technique Fetzendramaturgie – the drama of fragments. You and I can put the fragments together into any pattern we please.
The main characters – Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof – are allowed to say what they actually did say , especially at the outset of their campaign. And what they said is now repeated with all the professional skill and force of some of Germany’s best actors. And the result – an unnerving one – is that the arguments begin to convince.
Here sit these nice Cologners from a liberal, reunited, 21st-century Germany, safe inside the eurozone. And yet as they listen to Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinhof or Johanna Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin, they find themselves tempted to agree that they had no alternative but to take up arms.
And then the logic leads down into darkness, into places where arguments are no longer about noble ends but about whether you can harden yourself to use terrible means. Meinhof relied much on words by Bertolt Brecht: ‘If you could change the world at last/ What would be beneath you? …/ Sink in the dirt,/ Embrace the slaughterer./ But change the world; the world needs it.’Advertisement
They certainly embraced the slaughterers. After those first seven years of urban guerrilla war, 47 people were dead, including most of the group’s original members. They sank in the dirt: the murders, especially those in the final ‘autumn’, had a quality of forced viciousness about them, a revelry in blood, which is truly evil.
As for changing the world, they failed. All they achieved was to make West Germany a less tolerant, more paranoid society than it had been before. Laws passed in panic banned all ‘radicals’ (whatever that meant) from public service. Worst of all, the RAF terror campaign weakened the whole democratic left in Germany. The ‘Wanted’ posters, with faces crossed out in red as each was caught or killed, blazed on the walls of every police station, railway station, airport or frontier post. The 1968 visions of a new world of freedom, peace and fraternity were themselves driven underground.
In notes made in Stammheim, Meinhof tried to explain the RAF’s mission. ‘Nauseated by the… system, the total commercialisation and absolute mendacity… deeply disappointed by the actions of the student movement… they thought it essential to spread the idea of armed struggle.’ They were not so blind, she went on, as to think that they would bring about revolution in Germany, or that they would not be killed and imprisoned. The point was to ‘salvage historically the whole state of understanding attained by the movement of 1967/68; it was a case of not letting the struggle fall apart again.’
These are words with long echoes in the German past. Not really in the Nazi past, although many foreigners assume that the Baader-Meinhof gang were simply rebelling against the Nazi generation of their parents. Neither Stefan Aust’s book nor Bernd Eichinger’s film suggests that, and they are right not to. These echoes are from other places in German history: from the tradition of doomed struggle, fighting to the end in order to leave a message for the future.
This is about the poet Georg Büchner’s failed revolution in the 1830s (‘Peace to the cottages! War on the palaces!’). It is about Eugen Leviné, who led a Munich revolution in 1919 which he knew was hopeless and was shot for it (‘We are all dead men on leave’). It is about the plotters against Hitler, who hoped not to survive but to atone (‘For the sake of 10 righteous men, may the city be spared’).Advertisement
Those were all better causes than the RAF’s. But the idea – the revolution as a message in a bottle, cast into the ocean from a drowning ship – still floats down into the present.
The book and the film have the same title. But they are very different artefacts. The book was originally published in 1985 by Stefan Aust, a Spiegel journalist who had known some of the gang before they went underground. He himself arranged the benevolent kidnap of Ulrike Meinhof’s small daughters, when he discovered that the RAF had decided to dump them in a Palestinian orphanage.
Aust wrote a minutely detailed and closely researched account, which has now been brought up to date to take in new information from the Stasi files and elsewhere. It’s especially good on the years at Stammheim, where the authorities committed every possible error, above all by keeping the prisoners in collective isolation as a group.
The film, directed by Uli Edel, is also minutely detailed. It’s brilliant, it’s fearsomely convincing. But then, because this is a film about the perpetrators and not the victims, the sheer power of the telling has upset some citizens. They ask: ‘Whose side are you on?’ The film-makers would retort that they are on no side, just telling it as it was.
Another criticism is that the RAF actors are so good-looking. Were they really so gorgeous? A few certainly were. Meinhof was more attractive than she seems here, while Ensslin – gauntly elegant – was less disco-sexy than Johanna Wokalek makes her. But the point about looks is political. One critic in Welt am Sonntag complained that the screen Baader and Ensslin were like Germany’s answer to Bonnie and Clyde – a slander on both movies. But he went on to say that The Baader-Meinhof Complex ‘brings to light a repressed truth about the allure of the RAF. Girls with guns are the ultimate desire and fear fantasy of a patriarchal, inhibited society.’
Meinhof would have agreed with that. So might Ensslin. A wonderful scene in the film shows her strutting naked in the Lebanese sun, jeering at shocked Palestinian recruits. ‘What’s the matter? Fucking and shooting; it’s the same thing!’
In Europe’s endless quest for true liberation, the RAF perished on the dirtiest and darkest of short cuts. They deserved to. But it was the same search.
· The Baader Meinhof Complex is released on 14 November
· A revised edition of The Baader-Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust is published in paperback by Random House on 6 Nov
Elegantly dressed, charismatic and violent, Baader was one of the founder members of the Red Army Faction who developed a taste for radical politics after moving to west Berlin in 1963. He is played by Moritz Bleibtreu, who starred in the 1998 German film Run Lola Run and appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film MunichAdvertisement
The brilliant young political journalist who turned her back on pacifism to help found the RAF and embark on a campaign of bank robbery and arson. She is played by Martina Gedeck, best known for playing the female lead in the Oscar-winning Stasi film The Lives of Others. She also appeared in the Robert De Niro-directed historical drama The Good Shepherd
The socially engaged daughter of a Lutheran minister, Ensslin became disillusioned with conventional politics and embraced the violent activism of her boyfriend, Andreas Baader, and the RAF, which she helped establish. She is played by Johanna Wokalek who won Best Actress at the Munich Film Festival for her role in the 2003 family drama Hierankl
Originally a member of the leftist Socialist Patients’ Collective, Mohnhaupt became a leader of the second-generation RAF after the original leadership were imprisoned. She is played by Nadja Uhl, who was nominated for a German Film Award for her starring role in the 2005 tragicomedy Summer in Berlin
A committed RAF member who became a martyr for the group in 1971 when she was killed (according to some accounts, executed) following a shootout with police. She is played by Alexandra Maria Lara, who appeared as Hitler’s secretary in the 2004 historical drama Downfall and last year played Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’s mistress in Control
A left-wing student campaigner who split from the RAF founders before its inception. He survived an assassination attempt by a right-wing extremist in 1968. He is played by Sebastian Blomberg, who will appear in Wim Wenders’s forthcoming film Palermo Shooting.