Far back in the distant past, long before Al-Qaeda or ISIS, even before the Twin Towers were built and when Oklahoma City was just another state capital, the most frightening terrorist group in the world was the Red Army Faction, popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. On and off for more than 20 years the RAF, based in Germany, held much of Europe in a grip of terror, blowing up banks and office buildings, shooting police officers and hijacking airliners. These were the days when Western Europe was thought of as a hotbed of radicalism and when Middle Eastern terrorist groups were more motivated by Mao’s little red book than fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran. It seems an epoch ago, and in many ways it was, but the heyday of left-wing ideological terrorism, which the Red Army Faction exemplified, provides some fascinating insight into the damaged psyche of the western world after World War II, and a number of bizarre episodes and mysteries that still puzzle us today.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang has been on my list of potential blog posts for a very long time. The subject is so complicated that the hardest thing about it is deciding where to start and how to tell the story. I am not an expert on the subject and thus there’s a lot that I’m going to miss. But I’ve decided that, largely for lack of a better starting point, my story of the Red Army Faction is going to begin with the people who founded it back in 1970, and their stories will tell us a lot about where these terrorists came from and what motivated them to do the awful and strange acts that they committed. In Part II of this article series I’ll detail the elaborate and eventful process surrounding the trials of several RAF members in the 1970s and the dramatic events of 1977, and in the final installment I’ll chronicle the decline and fall of the group in the 1980s and 1990s.

gudrun ensslin

Gudrun Ensslin

Arguably the story of the Baader-Meinhof Gang begins with a young woman named Gudrun Ensslin. Born in Nazi Germany during World War II–like most of the RAF’s core members–she grew up to be a very good, thoughtful student and a powerful intellectual. She studied at various universities in West Germany, had boyfriends who were also writers and active in left-wing causes, and she took part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War that were starting to appear in Germany in the mid-1960s. Then, in June 1967, the Shah of Iran came to Berlin, and Ensslin’s life changed forever.

Many left-wing groups in Germany planned demonstrations against the Shah, who was associated with brutal repression in his own country and the imperialism abroad of his ally, the United States. Using the Shah as a focal point to demonstrate the perceived repressive tendencies of West Germany–whose government was stocked with former Nazis–the left-wing groups brawled raucously with right-wing counter-protesters, and a university student was killed in the fighting. Outraged, Gudrun Ensslin wrote an article denouncing West Germany as a fascist regime. Later that summer, as radicalism roiled through West Germany, she met Andreas Baader and began a love affair with him, which would lead eventually to the formation of the RAF.

andreas baader

Andreas Baader

Far from being an effete intellectual with a passion for social justice, Andreas Baader was a career criminal, perhaps a sociopath, who seemed mostly to live for the thrill of crime and violence. Born in 1943 during the darkest days of the war, he grew up a juvenile delinquent in the 1950s and 1960s. He had some kind of brain operation in 1962–whether it affected his behavior is unknown–and never attended college. Darkly attractive and with an obvious wild side, Baader fell in with Gudrun Ensslin and her left-wing friends in 1967. Although Ensslin was pregnant with the child of her previous boyfriend, she broke up with him in early 1968 to remain with Baader. Not long after, Baader and Ensslin plotted the bombing of a department store in Frankfurt to protest the Vietnam War. Although there were no injuries, this crime, on April 2, 1968, was the first violent act of what was to become the Red Army Faction. Baader and Ensslin were pretty vocal about their participation in the act; two days later they were arrested. In October 1968 Baader, Ensslin and two accomplices were sentenced to three years in prison.

ulrike meinhof c free use

Ulrike Meinhof

At about this time, another influential member began drifting into ultra-leftist radicalism. By the spring of 1968 Ulrike Meinhof was already a respected journalist, well-known in leftist intellectual circles in Germany. She’d been attracted to socialist causes for much of her life, was a member of the German Communist Party (which was outlawed in West Germany) and in 1962 became the editor of leftist magazine konkret–the lack of capitalization is intentional–which was published by her husband. In 1968 Meinhof began writing about the Frankfurt arsons as political acts, and met Baader and Ensslin. Sympathizing with their cause, Meinhof drifted away from konkret and eventually openly broke with her husband.

In 1969, living in Berlin, Meinhof’s fashionable apartment became a hangout for left-wing Germans and sort of a nerve center of radicalism. In February 1970 Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin knocked on her door. They were on the run, having been released from prison and then recalled. Meinhof took them in. By now a nucleus of extreme left-wing radicals was beginning to form. Who among Ensslin, Baader and Meinhof was dominant or directing the group is open to question, but one more addition to the team turned the nucleus of brainy radicals into a real terrorist organization.

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Horst Mahler

Mahler was a lawyer, who prior to his baptism in terrorism made a point of defending left-wing political causes. In 1960, he tried to turn an organization for progressive German university students into a radical paramilitary organization. He and his law firm defended students arrested for protest actions, sometimes violent ones. He was a natural to defend Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader in their trial for the fires in the Frankfurt department store. But later in 1969 he began to think bigger: he decided what they should do is form their own paramilitary organization, arm it with heavy weaponry and go out and battle imperialist baddies in the streets.

In May 1970 Horst’s revolutionary army, which didn’t yet have a name, got its first opportunity. In early April Baader was re-arrested after a traffic stop. Gudrin Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof and Horst Mahler developed an elaborate plan to break him out of prison involving a ruse about interviewing Baader in the prison library for a publisher. The caper ended in violence and an unidentified accomplice pumping bullets into the liver of a 64-year-old librarian. He survived, but the fugitives fled without the police firing a shot. Already the press began to call the group the “Baader-Meinhof Gang.”

On June 2, 1970, the leftist newspaper Agit 883 published a manifesto under the headline “BUILD UP THE RED ARMY!” The editorial claimed responsibility for the prison breakout of Baader, promised more attacks in the future and ranted about “babbling intellectuals” and “bootlickers.” The author of the piece, almost certainly Ulrike Meinhof, called upon those in German society fed up with ineffectual liberals who failed at real change, and issued a call to direct–and obviously violent–action. The flyer galvanized the revolutionary underground and changed the history of terrorism right then and there. The bloody heyday of the Red Army Faction had arrived.

In Part II of this series, I’ll briefly detail the RAF’s actions in the ’70s, culminating in a bizarre show trial and the mysterious fates of several of the terrorists. Check back tomorrow!


The photo of Gudrun Ensselin is by Ali Limonadi, originally from a 1967 film featuring Ensselin, and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of Andreas Baader may be copyrighted; however, as it is used for illustrative purposes only, the subject in question is deceased and there is no non-free alternative available, fair use is claimed. The photo of Ulrike Meinhof is copyrighted but its owner, Bettina Röhl, has allowed free use for any purpose. The images of the RAF logo and pamphlet are public domain.