This is Part III 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. Part II, about the heyday of the group in the 1970s, is here.
After the spectacular events of 1977, during which the Red Army Faction kidnapped prominent Germans and hijacked planes to try to get their people out of prison–only to have them die in their cells under mysterious circumstances–the fortunes of the terrorist group declined precipitously. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t still quite dangerous. They were. It’s just that the late ’70s, the ’80s and particularly the ’90s were a pretty tough time to be an ultra left-wing, radical Marxist terrorist organization. But what was left of the gang gave it their best shot.
After 1977, the membership of the group was decidedly less experienced and fanatical than the core founders. Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof were all dead and Horst Mahler was in prison. Leadership of the RAF fell to people who had joined later, most importantly Christian Klar (joined 1976) and Angelika Speitel, both of whom were involved in the kidnapping and murder of industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer in October 1977. Several more deadly attacks were attributed to the RAF, but some were relatively spontaneous, such as the murder of a German police officer in September 1978 who happened upon RAF members engaged in target practice. A shootout ensued, killing the cop and two terrorists. In June 1979 the group tried to assassinate U.S. General Alexander Haig, then commander of NATO forces. Haig had previously been Chief of Staff to President Richard Nixon and would later go on to be Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of State. The bomb set by the terrorists under the bridge in Mons, Belgium was just a few seconds too late. When it blew up it injured some members of Haig’s party traveling in the car behind him, but the General himself was unhurt.
Alexander Haig, NATO Supreme Commander, almost became a victim of the Red Army Faction in 1979.
In August and September 1981 the group tried a new wave of attacks. On August 7, in Kaiserslautern, Baader-Meinhof terrorists ambushed a U.S. Air Force security officer who was on his way to work on a bicycle. He wasn’t hurt badly. Later that month the RAF detonated a car bomb at a U.S. Air Force base in Rammstein. In September 1981 in Heidelberg, Klar and Speitel tried to blow away a German military commander with a rocket propelled grenade. Luck just wasn’t with them. None of these attacks killed their intended targets, but over the next few years the RAF did wreak plenty of havoc, and several fatalities resulted. American and European security forces continued to consider the Baader-Meinhof Gang a live threat. Since I began running this article series on Tuesday, several people from Germany have commented to me on Twitter that they remember being afraid of the RAF during the 1970s and 1980s. In this period the RAF weren’t very effective guerrillas, in that many of their attacks failed, but they were effective terrorists, in the sense of spreading fear.
What was not known about the RAF until years later was that pretty much all along they’d been receiving financial and some logistical assistance from the Communist government of East Germany, specifically through their secret police force, the Stasi. Officially even Communist bloc governments couldn’t be publicly seen as supporting terrorism, but a chance to destabilize West Germany was too good to pass up, so the DDR (Deutsche Democratic Republic, or East Germany) got into the act, at least tepidly. By the late 1980s, though, Soviet satellite states had much more pressing problems to worry about than funding terrorists. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 sounded the death knell for Communist bloc governments. In 1990 Germany was reunified, and the Communist regime was gone. The USSR itself collapsed the following year. Communism had been placed on the dustbin of history.
Since his involvement with the RAF, Horst Mahler (at left, pictured with Christian Worch) has become an extreme right-wing Neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier. Extremism has no loyalty to ideology.
But, like a hung-over guest who couldn’t quite bring themselves to leave the party, the Red Army Faction clung to life support. They still existed in 1992, but their main aim seemed to be to get their own members out of prison, not to ferment world revolution. Their final attack occurred in March 1993 when they tried to blow up a prison that was under construction in the town of Weiterstadt. No one was killed, but the financial losses were heavy. The German authorities managed to round up several terrorists who were involved in this attack. One terrorist and one police officer were killed in the process.
Five years later, on April 20, 1998, a fax machine in a newsroom at the Reuters news agency spat out an 8-page letter signed with the gang’s logo. The letter declared that the “campaign of liberation” begun by the group in 1970 was now at an end. The Baader-Meinhof gang had officially dissolved, declaring themselves to be Geschichte (history). It was all over.
Various former RAF members carried on with their lives. Christian Klar, captured in 1982, was released from prison in 2008 despite showing not an ounce of remorse for any of his crimes. Angelika Speitel had been pardoned in 1989 and went to live a quiet life. Horst Mahler, one of the founding members, got out of prison in 1980 and even returned to practicing law. Oddly–or perhaps not so oddly, if you think about it–this radical left-winger turned, during the 2000s, into a radical right-winger. He now supports Neo-Nazi causes and was imprisoned for various crimes related to denying the Holocaust, which is illegal in Germany. He is now back in prison serving a 12-year sentence for these crimes. It may have been the RAF’s violent radicalism, rather than the particular stripe of ideology, that appealed to people like Mahler, which may make it plausible that he turned right-wing in later years. If Ensslin, Meinhof or Baader survived, perhaps they too would have become right-wing extremists in the 2000s. After all, left-wing terrorism is now so passé.
The 2008 film The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a vivid dramatization of the career of the Red Army Faction.
The group is gone and their crimes mercifully finished, but the enigma of the Baader-Meinhof gang lives on. In 2008 an excellent film called The Baader-Meinhof Complex, directed by Uli Edel, was released in Germany. This film is a very in-depth portrayal of the group, its ideology and its crimes. It was controversial upon its release, but any depiction of the group was bound to be. Families and loved ones of the group’s victims continue to express outrage that many former members of the gang were released. The sting of their crimes has never faded.
Now in the 2010s the “flavor of the month” in terrorism is ISIS, the natural progeny of Al-Qaeda and other groups motivated primarily by religious fundamentalism, with their politics forming an outgrowth of a theological worldview. The Baader-Meinhof Gang was, by contrast, motivated by pure political theory that found expression in mad-dog crime. Thankfully they’re gone. But there are plenty of other hateful ideologies in the world to choose from, and any of them can breed terrorists just as ferocious and cold-blooded as the Red Army Faction was.