The RAF (Red Army Faction – aka. The Baader-Meinhof Group, or ‘Gang’) did more than just kidnappings, bombings, hostage-taking, murder – it made an historical intervention into the political story of a difficult chapter of German history. Its particular importance for the German national understanding should be made clear.
Stefan Aust’s journalistic career eventually led him to the group. He has also been involved with the film on the same subject. In his telling, the RAF’s initial leaders, Baader and Meinhof, may well evoke the American culture they opposed, by ‘helping’ the oppressed human beings by killing others. The gang’s exploits included bank robberies and the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet.
The reasons that the Baader-Meinhof Group was able to rise to prominence in the modern climate is down to public opinion; conversely, the bombings and bank robberies later turned opinion sharply against the group.
The German authorities bugged the group, and, listened in on legally confidential conversations. It turns out they found the terrorists and their violence fascinating, a weakness the terrorists exploited. Public sympathy also helped the group when it went on the run. Part of the book’s strength is its detail – there are attempts at showing the social conditions, and the repression of the time is highly dramatised. A seemingly significant, almost unnoticed detail is in how Ulrike Meinhof was a journalist who wrote about the poor, about people in sweat shops, and in the end could not live in a Germany where these issues could not have been heard.
Although unwilling to call them friends, Aust downplays how useful he was for them, claiming instead to be openly critical. To what extent his experience with the group clouds his judgement is open to interpretation. Aust’s explanation of events leaves open one door as it leads to another. The group’s inner workings are not at the heart of his account. It focuses instead on how the police tried to catch them, and their years in prison. Helmut Schmidt’s government successfully captured or killed the core of the RAF within a short period. In fact, the enormous buildup of the security agencies in Germany could not have been as effective without the RAF.
So how is the book still relevant? Firstly, any kind of terrorist activity is always a part of a bigger radical movement. A terrorist group is imbedded in a longer period of time. It seems to me that in the modern climate, particularly since 9/11, it would be extremely hard for any radical movement of urban revolutionaries to wage a war that COULD succeed.
When the book first came out in 1985, a lot of copies were being bought by RAF lawyers and, later, members of parliament. And it still sets some uncomfortable questions in motion. The moment you write about groups like this you need reasons why you explain bombings and killings in detail. How can such high moral standards in extreme politics be turned into immorality? Did the book itself become a platform for the group to air its grievances against society? Throughout the years, Der Spiegel magazine published dozens and dozens of retrospective articles to address questions like these. The public still seems to have that fascination / weakness that the authorities had in its interest in continuing to talk about the subject.