This is Part II of a series on the Red Army Faction, the West German terrorist group. Part I, detailing the group’s origins and core membership, is here.

In June 1970, after the RAF declared itself to the world, the core members of the group decided to go all-in on terrorism. They left West Germany for Jordan, where they trained with a group of Palestinian terrorists called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). This group was Marxist in its ideological orientation, seeking not only the destruction of Israel but the establishment of Palestine as a socialist state. In the early 1970s, theory and ideology were a very key part of terrorist infrastructure. Believing that the Baader-Meinhof Gang were their ideological comrades-in-arms for the world struggle against imperialism, the PFLP terrorists trained the Germans how to fire military-grade weapons, throw grenades and engage in true guerrilla combat operations. Unfortunately just being fellow Marxists didn’t endear them. The Palestinians became thoroughly disillusioned with the Germans after only two months and eventually threw them out of the camp. Baader, Ensslin and the others went back to Berlin, but their contacts with the PFLP would prove important later.

By the fall of 1971, now full up with eager new recruits and having issued an official manifesto setting out the group’s convoluted Communist ideology, the Red Army Faction was ready to begin its reign of terror. After a furtive prelude of bank robberies and car thefts during 1971, the group struck hard in the fall, blowing away two policemen, one in Hamburg, one in Kaiserslautern. Nineteen-seventy-two was the year of the bomb. In that year Baader-Meinhof blew up a U.S. Army base (1 dead, 13 wounded), two German police stations on the same day (5 wounded), a publishing house headquarters (17 wounded), and another U.S. Army installation in Heidelberg (5 dead, 5 wounded). They also set a car bomb for a judge which injured his wife. But it was a year of reverses too. The West German authorities became frantic to arrest members of the gang and they swept Germany with dragnets. In June they finally got several of the big fish: Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader were all arrested–the latter after a dramatic shootout in Frankfurt–and several others. Horst Mahler was already in jail. Plenty of junior RAF members were still on the streets, but the group’s main leaders, at least of its first wave, were behind bars.

frankfurt bombing 1972 pd

Some of the handiwork of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. This U.S. Army installation was destroyed by an RAF bomb in 1972. The RAF targeted U.S. facilities as symbols of imperialist domination.

Now the action shifted to the courtroom. The West German government planned to conduct highly public trials of the terrorists, but the main RAF members determined they would use the high-profile nature of the trial to explain the theory behind their ideology and try to gain sympathizers for their cause. Due to the RAF’s habit of committing more dramatic crimes to try to get their own people out of prison, the Bonn government built a special wing of Germany’s highest-security prison, Stammheim, specifically to hold the terrorists. They also took extreme precautions to try to keep the terrorists from communicating amongst themselves in prison–precautions which utterly failed, as they carefully coordinated their media and ideological strategy that they planned to pursue at the trial. The German authorities also seem to have committed numerous breaches of their own laws, procedures and good faith, such as excluding the defendants’ lawyers from the trial or even arresting them. To protest these and other actions the terrorists went on a hunger strike. One of the defendants, Holger Meins, starved to death.

The authorities could not prevent further acts of terrorism on the outside by other members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, most of whom had joined after the wave of initial arrests. In April 1975 six RAF terrorists took over the West German embassy in Stockholm, Sweden and took its occupants hostage. When the Bonn government refused to negotiate, the RAF started killing hostages–they offed two before accidentally blowing themselves up, killing two of their own people in the process. Terrorists associated with the RAF also conducted several ingenious “Robin Hood” type operations, such as stealing bunches of Berlin subway tickets and handing them out to the public as a form of protest against rising transit prices.

lufthansa flight 181 bundesarchiv

Former hostages disembark from Lufthansa Flight 181 after their rescue by German military commandos. The plane was hijacked by the PFLP and Baader-Meinhof Gang in collaboration.

As the trial ramped up the next cycle of death began. The first to die was Ulrike Meinhoff, who was found dangling from a homemade noose in her prison cell on May 9, 1976. There is evidence she was growing estranged from her fellow defendants and possibly depressed, but some naturally suspect murder. The lengthy trial–during which the terrorists requested unsuccessfully that they be treated as “prisoners of war”–ended on April 28, 1977 with all the remaining defendants found guilty. The RAF members on the outside went berserk. In early September they kidnapped a powerful German industrialist, Hanns-Martin Schleyer–spraying a hail of bullets that killed 4 people in the process–and held him for ransom. The West German government refused to release the RAF members in prison. That’s when the RAF called upon their old friends, the PFLP, who helped them hijack a Lufthansa 737 whose passengers were also held for ransom. As the hijacked plane sat on the ground in Mogadishu, Somalia, the German government again refused to negotiate. The crisis ended when the plane was stormed by German commandos, who killed 3 terrorists in the process and freed the hostages.

That same night, October 18, 1977, three of the high-profile Baader-Meinhof terrorists also died. Gudrun Ensslin hanged herself with a cable in her cell. Andreas Baader shot himself, as did another defendant, Jan-Carl Raspe. Amazingly, Irmgard Möller, another convicted RAF terrorist, managed to stab herself in the chest; she survived. The simultaneous deaths were very suspicious. Authorities blamed Baader and Raspe’s lawyers for smuggling guns into the high-security area, which the lawyers vehemently denied; the guns were clean of fingerprints, as was the knife found in Möller’s cell. She insisted she was stabbed by guards and the other prisoners were murdered on the authority of the German government. The exact circumstances of these deaths, and whether they were suicides or murder, remains unclear to this day.

hanns martin schleyer bundesarchiv

Hanns-Martin Schleyer, German industrialist, was murdered by the Baader-Meinhof Gang after they found out about the deaths of their comrades in prison on October 18, 1977.

The cycle of murder was not yet complete, though. Also that same night, October 18-19, the RAF members on the outside shot their hostage, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, who they’d held for 43 days. His body was found in the trunk of a car in the French countryside. At last what came to be known as the “German Autumn” was over, and the Baader-Meinhof Gang began its slow decline into irrelevance and obscurity.

In Part III of this series, I’ll talk about the demise of the Red Army Faction, and some of the surprising twists that later occurred in the lives of its surviving members. This will likely run on Friday.


The photo of the Lufthansa jet and former hostages is credited to Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F051866-0010 / Wegmann, Ludwig and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of Hanns-Martin Schleyer is credited to Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F041440-0014 / Reineke, Engelbert and is also used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of the German flag in the header image is by Flickr user fdcomite and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The images of the RAF logo and 1972 terrorist attack are public domain.