Red Army Fiction
Andrew Stevens interviews Richard Huffman.
Richard Huffman is the creator of baader-meinhof.com, a site devoted to providing both an objective slant on the gang’s activities and a comprehensive resource of links to other sites on the net. He is also the author of The Gun Speaks: The Baader-Meinhof Gang and the German Post-War Decade of Terror 1968-1997.
3:AM: I suppose I should begin by asking: why Baader-Meinhof? What inspired you to put together this site and sit down to write a book on the subject?
RH: Until about 1996 I was completely unaware of the Baader-Meinhof Gang or left-wing European terrorism for that matter. I was having lunch with my dad and he disparaged in a passing comment the bomb squad efforts of the FBI. I was surprised to say the least; what would my dad know about effective bomb disposal? He told me that when our family was stationed in Berlin in the early 70s he was the head of the US Army’s Berlin Brigade bomb disposal unit and he had defused about six or seven bombs of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
I wasn’t sure what to make of my dad’s story; so I checked out some books from my university library. Slowly I began to realise that it was all true; the US Army picked the right guy when they hired my dad, he had never really told me or anyone in his family about what he had done in Berlin. My mom knew, but she never realized what a big deal it was or how dangerous it was until I talked to her about it in 1997. So this revelation got me interested in the subject. I think the fact that my dad seems to completely not care that some of these bombs were directly targeted at him was influential in my attempts to cover this subject as fairly and objectively as possible. After a few months of research I began to realise that the bombs he defused were almost certainly from the Movement 2 June, who were somewhat friendly with the Baader Meinhof Gang, but the bombs weren’t actually Baader-Meinhof Gang bombs.
Quickly my research became my senior project at the University of Washington-Bothell. While working on my research, I bemoaned the lack of information about the Baader-Meinhof Gang on the Internet and the general inaccuracies of the information. The unfortunate reality of the information available was that it only seemed to come in two flavors:
1) Baader-Meinhof and the other revolutionary groups were glorious martyrs for a good cause, and 2) Baader-Meinhof and the other terrorist groups were pure evil, probably controlled from Moscow. I felt that the net would benefit from a site that tried to be as factual as possible, and refrain from too much editorialising.
3:AM: On that note, why do you think there was a dearth of objective journalistic or academic information sources on Baader-Meinhof?
RH: At the time I originally created the site there wasn’t a single comprehensive source of information about the Baader-Meinhof Gang and what WAS out there was almost uniformly, somewhat comically, slanted. A good bellwether for me was seeing how a site treated the deaths of Ulrike Meinhof in 1976 and the deaths of Jan-Carl Raspe, Andreas Baader, and Gudrun Ensslin in 1977. Pretty much it’s a given that if you’re leftist or radical you believe that they were murdered by the state in their prison cells. It’s also pretty much a given if you are mainstream or conservative you believe that they committed suicide. I personally believe that the facts demonstrate that it is an almost certainty that the deaths were suicide; the greatest achievement of Stefan Aust’s Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex was his demonstration that the deaths were likely suicides. (Aust was a friend of Meinhof’s who followed her as editor of the lefty political journal Konkret and later became the editor of Der Spiegel.)
What frustrated me was sites that seemed to use these ‘murders’ as the centerpiece for their arguments about the ‘fascist state’ etc. Generally, they wouldn’t even acknowledge the possibility of other explanations because, it seemed, they didn’t fit into their overall thesis. The same applied to more conservative sites that would dismissively refer to the suicides without even acknowledging why the suicides seemed so unlikely to so many people (the German government had spent years emphasizing how Stammheim prison was the most secure prison in the world and then people were asked to believe that the terrorists had managed to smuggle not one but TWO guns into the prison, with which they committed suicide.)
It seemed to me that the controversy surrounding the deaths was as important to discuss, or at least acknowledge, as the deaths themselves. And in fact to NOT acknowledge the centrality of the controversy is an indicator of the bias of the source. I’m not trying to say I’m not biased; everybody is biased. I have just tried to explore the German terrorist era from a sociological perspective and not from my own political perspective.
But ultimately the major reason I put the site up was because like a lot of subjects in the early years of the Internet, it was woefully unexplored on-line and I felt I had the chance to create the definite source. Nowadays if you type “Andreas Baader” into a Google search, you will get 49,000 pages returned to you. I can still remember my very first Alta Vista web search in 1996 which turned up just 14 references!
3:AM: Of late, there has been a resurgence of interest in Baader-Meinhof — some of it through the whole ‘Prada Meinhof’/terror chic exploitation by the fashion industry, others through nostalgia — what do you make of this as an author dealing with the historical and sociological context of the gang itself? Is there anything you’ve come across in your research to explain this fascination and retreat into nostalgia?
RH: Prada-Meinhof and other manifestations of the recent resurgence in “coolness” of the Baader-Meinhof Gang troubles me somewhat, but it also offers a sort of odd proof that Germany has clearly moved beyond that era.
Baader-Meinhof was always a cool and hip reference point. The ‘Wanted’ poster with Meinhof in her Ray Ban Wayfarers; the crushed velvet pants that Baader wore; the group was in many ways hip personified. I argue on my web site (with admittedly little proof!) that the Baader-Meinhof Gang’s supposed preference for the BWM 2002 models (thus earning them the common nickname “Baader-Meinhof Wagen”) was a significant reason that BMW emerged from the their late 60s doldrums as an almost bankrupt, dowdy car maker, into the hip carmaker of the 70s and 80s. The cars didn’t change that much, but the perception of them did; helped to a certain degree by the association with the notorious yet hip outlaws.
The recent wave of nostalgia began about five years ago in conjunction with several anniversaries of events from that era. June 2 1997 marked the 30th anniversary of the killing of Benno Ohnesorg, whose death at the hands of Berlin police created a martyr for the movement. September and October of 1997 marked the 20th anniversary of the “German Autumn” which saw the kidnapping of a prominent German industrialist, the hijacking of a German plane (and eventual rescue of all the passengers), and the suicides of the imprisoned leadership of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. There were TV specials, magazine covers, and whole reams of books printed. Then, in early 1998, the last lingering remnants of the Red Army Faction (the true name of the Baader-Meinhof Gang), issued a communiqué officially dissolving themselves.
All of these demonstrated pretty clearly that the era was over. That’s when a lot of the pop culture references began to crop up. In many ways I find them extremely sick. I think of the four-year old American boy who watched as authorities piled up parts of his dad’s body into pillowcases at the Heidelberg Army base where the Baader-Meinhof Gang had set off two car bombs. I’ve spoken with family members of victims and it is hard for me to put that out of my mind when presented with a hip Baader-Meinhof reference.
I’ve had many, MANY people ask for me to sell on my site copies of the famous Wanted posters, bumper stickers, etc. It seems to me inappropriate, but then again I have a big copy of the poster right on the wall in my office; who am I to judge myself better than others? I recently e-mailed a copy of the poster to a guy in the UK who is silk-screening the image onto his motorcycle. It seemed relatively harmless…
Ultimately the whole “Prada-Meinhof” phenomenon is probably a good thing, because it shows that people are so far removed from the era that the iconography has become just a hip commodity. I seriously doubt that any woman buying a “Prada-Meinhof” shirt thinks terrorism is cool; in fact I seriously doubt that this woman has done much thinking about the issue at all. That couldn’t have happened in the 70s, 80s, or very early 90s, when Germany was still very much terrorised.
3:AM: There is, of course, a school of thought that Baader-Meinhof, in comparison to the deaths incurred at the hands of the West during that period of the Cold War, killed few people, and some of those they did kill had in fact committed war crimes. How do you respond to this? Similarly, some have argued that it was an essential cathartic process for the German psyche for it to come to terms with its role in WW2, partition as East and West, and the continued presence of NATO in West Germany.
RH: When the RAF disbanded in April of 1998, their communiqué ended by listing the 26 members who had been killed since 1970. Left out of that communiqué were the 25 or so victims. Mostly their victims were either individuals carefully selected for their ties to the state, or they were US Army personnel, who were not typically selected individually, but happened to be in the radius of a bomb explosion.
For the Red Army Faction, these victims were all combatants in their war. Cops that were killed were representatives of the state. Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the industrialist they kidnapped and later killed in 1977, was a former Nazi; an important distinction to the group. In comparison to the level of suffering brought at the hands of America in Vietnam, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other places during the cold war, the suffering caused by the Baader-Meinhof Gang was relatively slight. I think putting the actions of the gang members in the context of the Cold War is the ONLY way to understand their actions. It doesn’t excuse murder though, just as the brinksmanship of the Cold War doesn’t excuse the deaths of 50,000 Guatemalans or 1,000,000 Vietnamese at the hands of the United States.
Immediately prior to serving in Berlin, my dad ran the largest ammunition dump in the world, just outside of Saigon. 95% of all ordnance and ammunition used in Vietnam in the year from around March of 1969 to March of 1970 passed through my Dad’s hands. You could argue that the blood of around 150,000 Vietnamese is on my father’s hands. Had the bomb that was set to kill him in Berlin’s Templehof airport been successful, you could argue that he was a victim of the Vietnam War. And I probably wouldn’t have argued with that. It doesn’t justify their actions, but it goes a long way to explaining them. It’s interesting to note that the group received a lot of flak from leftists and even other European terror groups for an early 80s incident in which one of the female members of the group enticed an American servicemen with promises of companionship, only to kill him for his ID card (which was used to enter his base and plant bombs). The major argument of the leftists and other groups was that they shouldn’t have killed him; he could have been tied up and released; it was an unnecessary killing which was bad for the movement. I personally think you could have made a similar argument for all of their attacks though. I also find it baffling that some methods of killing were considered good and some evil, and somehow this particular killing had crossed the line.
Unfortunately for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, their war on the United States, capitalism, and the fascist underbelly of the West German state had absolutely no favourable impact in the way that they had hoped. They didn’t usher in a revolution. But they did fundamentally change German society and, for better or for worse, helped West Germany shake off the remnants of World War II and mature as a nation. One of the reasons that the Baader-Meinhof Gang was so successful in eluding the police in the early 1970s was that Germany was essentially structured as a very loose confederation of states, with no real national police force and little cooperation between the states. It was very much akin to the United States in the 1920s, prior to the advent of the FBI. The Baader-Meinhof Gang was the driving force behind the rapid expansion of the BKA, which until then had only served as essentially border patrol for Germany. Afterwards they had broad powers throughout the states. Germany also passed broad new anti-terrorist laws, which just like in the United States now, were mostly used against left-leaning undesirables and not terrorists.
3:AM: The experiences and role played by your father clearly brought about your interest in Baader-Meinhof, do you think the possibility of his fatality could have had any effect on your stated desire to be objective and balanced in your writing?
RH: Totally. I would have been a completely different person. Of the families of victims that I’ve talked to, many of these people’s lives have become defined by the deaths of their parents; I doubt that I would have been any different. But the fact that my father doesn’t seem to particularly care about these people that tried to kill him — or more accurately the fact that he doesn’t spend any time thinking about — it helps me to not get particularly riled up about it. On the complete flipside, I am a pretty left-leaning guy and am fairly horrified by what George W.Bush is doing; I consider it to be as big of a challenge to be objective in regards to the general political bent of the Baader-Meinhof Gang — politics that I tend to share or sympathize with — as it is a challenge for me to be objective about their killings.
3:AM: Regardless of one’s stance on the gang’s activities, the German state didn’t react in a judicious manner to the prosecution of those involved. Do you think the role of the showtrial has had an enduring effect on the group’s historical and cultural legacy? The only thing in England that came close to an Anglo Baader-Meinhof was the Angry Brigade and its showtrial in 1972, this being grossly disproportionate to either the group’s crimes or the threat they posed. By the same token, people now look back at the Symbionese Liberation Army as a joke — why do you think Baader-Meinhof/Red Army Faction carried on so long in comparison?
RH: The German state’s response to the Baader-Meinhof Gang served to greatly legitimize them and in many ways it was, as you suggest, a disproportionate response. Germans who might have thought of the Baader-Meinhof Gang as an annoying subtext to their society learned from the Stammheim trial and the Lex Baader-Meinhof (revisions to the “Basic Law” of West Germany that limited civil liberties) that their Government felt the group to be the country’s biggest threat. With 25-30 years hindsight, it is remarkable how little relative death and destruction was wrought by the group during the 1970s and how massive the German response was. How could one be dismissive of the group when the German government was putting so much energy into stopping them? We have this habit in America of calling certain trials “the Trial of the Century” from the Scopes Monkey trial to the OJ Simpson trial. But none of them hold a candle to the Baader-Meinhof trial. The thing stretched out for over a year. Dozens of judges and lawyers. The government secretly, illegally taping the prisoners. Extraordinary (yet completely ineffectual) searches of defense lawyers. The presiding judge filtering information illegally to other judges (who passed it along to the press). A specially-built courtroom right on the grounds of the prison. To call the trial a spectacle doesn’t do it justice!
The reasons that the Baader-Meinhof Gang/Red Army Faction continued on for so long are diverse; they had as much to do with inertia as with anything. The reason that they are a more “legitimate” group than the SLA is because, I believe, they were more representative of a legitimate, though extremely radical line of thought in their society. There were many groups like the SLA active in America (George Jackson Brigade, Weather Underground, etc.) The Weather Underground was the most effective (and the closest in thought and action to the Baader-Meinhof Gang), but they are all relegated to footnotes in our history because they were not representative enough of a larger line of thought in American society, and they were more effectively and quickly shut down by US Federal Agents and local law enforcement.
3:AM: Much of what came out of the 60s and into the 70s was either people getting carried away with their own rhetoric (Up Against The Wall in New York) or people just having a laugh (Mick Farren and the White Panthers). Obviously Baader-Meinhof put their politics into action, but do you feel they were inept in many ways and were just repeating worn-out cod radical cliches?
RH: I’m not so sure I would call them inept… The German police forces were fairly inept early on, which gave the group the freedom to explore the limits of their radicalism. I suspect that had the group robbed a couple of banks in early 1970 and then got caught; the entire escalation of violence wouldn’t have necessarily happened. In many respects these folks were very similar to other groups, like the ones that you mentioned, who clearly got caught up in their own rhetoric.
But looking at the Baader-Meinhof era in the context of the German student movement of the 60s paints their activities in a more generous light. As is typical for Germans, students in the 60s had spent much of their energies endlessly debating turning their radical Marcusian arguments into “praxis”; the Baader-Meinhof Gang became important because they were living the reality of a radical vanguard that so many students had argued for. I think one of the main reasons that the Red Army Faction seems so much more effective and prominent, than say, Italy’s Red Brigades (which had approximately 100 times the number of actions than the RAF undertook) was that they were putting into action exactly what a generation of students had argued was necessary for the Revolution in their society, in that uniquely German student way. In other words, a significant percentage of the population had been well prepped for a Baader-Meinhof Gang to come into existence; to be ready to accept a group like them as a legitimate vanguard. Even to middle-of-the-road Germans, the politics that they were espousing, while disagreeable, was legitimate.
3:AM: The group received tactical support from the (East German) authorities in the GDR, that is well-known, but doesn’t this strike you as ironic in some ways?
RH: What’s interesting about the Baader-Meinhof era was that so many cold-warrior analysts assumed that all left-wing terrorism was a grand Communist conspiracy orchestrated directly from Moscow. In reality, Moscow wanted absolutely nothing to do with these movements. But what shocked everyone was the revelations after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the GDR had housed about 10 Red Army Faction members, and in some cases provided training and weapons for further attacks back in West Germany. The GDR kept this a secret from Moscow and everyone else; and in many ways seems to have been a pet project of a select few in the corrupt GDR leadership.
One of the great ironies of the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was that it effectively shut off daily interaction with East Germany for young westerners (especially West Berliners). Fuelled by frustration over the cold war and the Coca-Cola society that they lived in, many West German students began to view East Germany as a bit of a paradise, or at least a more perfectly-realised German society. Because the Berlin Wall prevented them from being exposed to the oppressive Government, the shortages, and the corruption, many of these young West Germans looked happily towards the East. Reports to the contrary were pretty much always dismissed as Western propaganda. When those members fled to the East, in many ways they felt they were fleeing into a better society. For an absolutely first rate accounting of this I highly recommend Volker Schloendorff’s film The Legend of Rita.
3:AM: Anyhow, what correspondence have you received in relation to the site over the years? Any hate mail or legal action?
RH: I haven’t gotten much hate mail. I have received some very thoughtful letters though. Early on, as I was researching the subject, I began to feel like a metaphorical ‘prisoner’ of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. So for fun I had a photo taken of myself somewhat mimicking the famous photo of an imprisoned, kidnapped Hanns-Martin Schleyer. A woman wrote me a fairly angry letter, indicating that she found the image to be in very poor taste and extremely disrespectful. I thought about it and realized that she was exactly right. I took the photo down.
I received a letter from a lawyer in Germany who apparently represented the interests of the remnants of the Socialist Patients’ Collective (SPK). Briefly, the SPK is this amazing sub-thread of the whole Baader-Meinhof story: a psychiatrist in Heidelberg believed that mental illnesses were caused by the excesses of capitalism, and the only real cure was glorious Revolutionary Socialism — this could ONLY have happened in Germany in the 60s and 70s!. They planned many low-level actions to “help” their illnesses. After the initial leadership of the Baader-Meinhof Gang was imprisoned in 1972, many former members of the SPK formed the nucleus of the next generation of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Mental patients becoming terrorists to cure their mental disorders: you really cannot make something like that up. Anyway, this lawyer took offence to many parts of my web site. She was wrong, I didn’t change anything on my web site, and three years later I received another note from her thanking me for changing the web site. Perhaps she was one of the patients as well!
About half the comments I get from the site are from younger folks who think the Baader-Meinhof Gang are ‘cool’ and seem to assume that because I made a visually appealing site I find them and their actions ‘cool’ as well. I usually respond by trying to help them understand the difference between ‘cool’ and ‘fascinating’ and encourage them to go beyond the surface.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 23rd, 2002.