In the 1970’s, it was not uncommon for German travelers to exit the autobahns (freeways) only to be brought to a dead stop by a cadre of law enforcement officials. Cars waited in line while officers armed with automatic weapons made a thorough search of the passenger compartment, trunk, and undercarriage. This scene was reminiscent of something one might have expected to see in one of Eastern Europe’s police states. The West German government found such drastic measures necessary, however, to counter the most serious internal threat since the rise of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party nearly half a century earlier: the Red Army Faction (RAF).
From 1970 until 1977, this band of armed urban guerrillas terrorized the citizens of West Germany and West Berlin, conducting a series of bank robberies, car thefts, kidnappings, and even murders of public officials. The RAF carried out these attacks in the name of armed revolution against a state that its leaders declared to be nothing more than a corrupt and dictatorial reinstatement of the fascist regime that had led Germany into World War II. Frequently referred to by law-enforcement and political officials as the Baader-Meinhof gang, the group was led by Andreas Baader, a disaffected ne’er-do-well who lived outside the law in order to combat the many social ills he believed were plaguing West Germany and other Western nations. Joining Baader in the inner circle of RAF leaders were Ulrike Meinhof, a leftist journalist who eventually abandoned her family (including twin daughters); Gudrun Ensslin, the daughter of a Protestant pastor; and a handful of other young radicals, including Jan-Carl Raspe, Holger Meins, and Irmgard Müller.
Baader’s active participation in criminal activities was relatively brief. In the late 1960’s, ostensibly to protest the government’s support of right-wing regimes and activities against oppressed peoples throughout the world, he organized a small group of like-minded individuals to call attention to what he perceived as the State’s drift back toward fascism. A 1967 visit to Germany by the shah of Iran provided the impetus for Baader to launch a crime spree that eventually landed him in prison.
At this point, Baader might have been considered little more than a common criminal and a nuisance to law-enforcement officials, who were relieved that he was now in custody. In 1970, however, Ulrike Meinhof was recruited by Baader’s followers to help organize a plot to break him out of jail. For the next two years, Baader and Ensslin, who was his girlfriend and the second in command of his fledgling organization, built up the group’s membership and carried out crimes against key organizations within the West German state.
Baader also found a highly visible international target for his anger in the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. After the U.S. government mined Hanoi harbor and began bombing North Vietnam, he escalated his group’s activities to include bombings in which a number of innocent civilians were injured and even killed. This loss of life did not seem to bother Baader, although some members of the group took issue with the indiscriminate nature of the RAF’s activities. Meanwhile, Meinhof began composing a series of political tracts laying out the intellectual foundations to justify the RAF’s actions. Over the next few years, a number of disaffected young people found this leftist propaganda and the lure of life outside the law attractive. Among them were Peter Jürgen Boock and Brigitte Mohnhaupt, who became leaders within the RAF.
German law enforcement quickly infiltrated the RAF. Within months after Baader was freed from prison, members of his gang were being arrested and incarcerated. By the end of 1972, all the leaders were in custody, and for the next five years the German government systematically developed a case against them for their terrorist activities. Eventually, all of them were brought together in the...
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