Red Army Faction

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The Red Army Faction or RAF (German Rote Armee Fraktion) (in its early stages commonly known as Baader-Meinhof Group [or Gang]), was one of postwar West Germany's most active and prominent militant left-wing groups. It described itself as a communist "urban guerrilla" group engaged in armed resistance, while it was described by the West German government as a terrorist group. The RAF was formally founded in 1970 by Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler, Ulrike Meinhof, Irmgard Möller and others. The Red Army Faction operated from the 1970s to 1993, committing numerous crimes, especially in the autumn of 1977, which led to a national crisis that became known as "German Autumn". It was responsible for 34 deaths including many secondary targets such as chauffeurs and bodyguards—and many injuries in its almost 30 years of existence. Amidst widespread media controversy, the German president had considered pardoning RAF member Christian Klar, who filed a pardon application years ago, but on 7 May 2007 this was denied. RAF member Brigitte Mohnhaupt was granted a release on a five year parole by a German court on 12 February 2007 and Eva Haule was released Friday August 17, 2007.


The origins of the group can be traced back to the student protest movement in West Germany. Industrialised nations in late 1960s experienced massive social upheavals stemming from dissatisfaction with capitalist society among both workers and students. Newly-found youth identity and issues such as racism, women's liberation and anti-imperialism were at the forefront of radical politics. Algeria and Cuba were still consolidating their revolutions and socialist-infused national liberation movements were engaging colonial and post-colonial regimes across the globe.

The Communist Party of Germany had been outlawed since 1956. Elected and unelected government positions down to the local level were often occupied by ex-National Socialists. There was anger at the varying levels of post-war denazification in West Germany and Europe, which was seen by some as ineffective (Konrad Adenauer, the first Federal Republic chancellor had even kept on the German chancellery secretary, Hans Globke).

The conservative media was considered biased by the radicals as they were owned and controlled by conservatives such as Axel Springer, who was implacably opposed to student radicalism. The late-1960s saw the emergence of the Grand Coalition between the two main parties—the SPD and CDU with Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former NSDAP member as chancellor. This horrified many on the left and was viewed as monolithic, political marriage of convenience with pro-NATO, pro-capitalist collusion on the part of the social democratic SPD. With 95% of the Bundestag controlled by the coalition, the APO or 'Extra-Parliamentary Opposition' was formed with the intent of generating protest and political activity outside of government. In 1972 a law was passed—the Berufsverbot, which banned radicals or those with a 'questionable' political persuasion from public sector jobs.

"They’ll kill us all. You know what kind of pigs we’re up against. This is the Auschwitz generation. You can’t argue with people who make Auschwitz. They have weapons and we haven’t. We must arm ourselves!"—Gudrun Ensslin speaking after the death of Benno Ohnesorg.

Young people were alienated from both their parents and the institutions of state. The historical legacy of fascism drove a wedge between the generations and increased suspicion of authoriarian structures in society (Some analysts see the same occurring in Italy, giving rise to "Brigate Rosse" or Red Brigades). The radicalized took the view that West Germany did not need to be an out-and-out totalitarian state and were, like many in the new left influenced by:

  • Sociological developments, pressure within the educational system in and outside Europe and the U.S together with the background of counter-cultural movements.
  • Post-war writings on class society and empire as well as contemporary Marxist critiques from many revolutionaries such as Franz Fanon, Ho Chi Min and Che Guevara as well as early Autonomism
  • Schools of philosophy such as the Frankfurt school, Critical theorists and associated Marxian philosophers.

Some of the RAF founders such as Meinhof were already scholars in their own right and also took inspiration from their own personal experiences and assessments of the socio-economic situation.

It is claimed that property destruction during the Watts Riots in the United States in 1965 influenced the practical and ideological approach of the RAF founders as well as some of those in Situationist circles.

On July 30, 1977, Jürgen Ponto, the head of Dresdner Bank, was shot and killed in front of his house in Oberursel in a kidnapping that went wrong. Those involved were Brigitte Mohnhaupt, Christian Klar, and Susanne Albrecht, the last being the sister of Ponto's goddaughter.

Following the convictions, Hanns Martin Schleyer, a former officer of the SS and NSDAP member who was then President of the German Employers' Association (and thus one of the most powerful industrialists in West Germany) was abducted in a violent kidnapping. On September 5, 1977, his driver was forced to brake when a baby carriage suddenly appeared in the street in front of them. The police escort vehicle behind them was unable to stop in time, and crashed into Schleyer's car. Five masked assailants immediately killed the three policemen and the driver and took Schleyer hostage.

A letter then arrived at the Federal Government, demanding the release of eleven detainees, including those from Stammheim prison. A crisis committee was formed in Bonn under the lead of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, which, instead of acceding, resolved to employ delaying tactics to give the police time to ascertain Schleyer's location. At the same time, a total communication ban was imposed on the prison inmates, who were only allowed visits from government officials and the prison chaplain.

The state crisis dragged on for more than a month, while the Bundeskriminalamt carried out its biggest investigation to date. Matters escalated when, on October 13, 1977, Lufthansa Flight 181 from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt was hijacked (Landshut Hijacking). A group of four Arabs took control of the plane (named Landshut). The leader introduced himself to the passengers as "Captain Mahmud" who would be later identified as Zohair Youssef Akache. When the plane landed in Rome for refuelling, he issued the same demands as the Schleyer kidnappers, plus the release of two Palestinians held in Turkey and payment of US$15 million.

The Bonn crisis squad again decided not to give in. The plane flew on via Larnaca to Dubai, and then to Aden, where flight captain Jürgen Schumann, whom the hijackers deemed not fully cooperative, was brought before an improvised "revolutionary tribunal" and executed on October 16. His body was dumped on the runway. The aircraft again took off, flown by the remaining co-pilot Jürgen Vietor, this time headed for Mogadishu, Somalia.

A high-risk rescue operation was led by Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, then undersecretary in the chancellor's office, who had secretly been flown in from Bonn. At five past midnight (CET) on October 18, the plane was stormed in a seven-minute assault by the GSG 9, an elite unit of the German federal police. All four hijackers were shot; three of them died on the spot. Not one passenger was seriously hurt and Wischnewski was able to phone Schmidt and tell the Bonn crisis squad that the operation had been a success.

Half an hour later, German radio broadcast the news of the rescue, to which the Stammheim inmates listened on their radios. In the course of the night, Baader was found dead with a gunshot wound in the back of his head and Ensslin hanged in her cell; Raspe died in hospital the next day from a gunshot to the head. Irmgard Möller, who had several stab wounds in the chest, survived and was released from prison in 1994.

The official inquiry concluded that this was a collective suicide, but again conspiracy theories abounded. However, none of these theories were ever brought forward by the RAF itself. Some have questioned how Baader managed to obtain a gun in the high-security prison wing specially constructed for the first generation RAF members. Also, only a total commitment to her cause would have allowed Möller to have herself inflicted the four stab wounds found near her heart. However, independent investigations have shown that the inmates' lawyers were able to smuggle in weapons and equipment in spite of the high security. Möller claims that it was actually an extrajudicial killing, orchestrated by the German government, in response to Red Army demands that the prisoners be released.

On October 18, 1977, Hanns-Martin Schleyer was shot to death by his captors on route to Mulhouse, France. The next day, on October 19, Schleyer's kidnappers announced that he had been "executed" and pinpointed his location. His body was recovered later that day in the trunk of a green Audi 100 on the rue Charles Péguy. The French newspaper Libération received a letter declaring:

After 43 days we have ended Hanns-Martin Schleyer's pitiful and corrupt existence... His death is meaningless for our pain and our rage... The struggle has only begun. Freedom through armed, anti-imperialist struggle."

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a serious blow to left-wing groups, but well into the 1990s attacks were still being committed under the name "RAF". Among these were the killing of CEO of MTU, a German engineering company, Ernst Zimmermann; another bombing at the US Air Force's Rhein-Main Air Base (near Frankfurt), which targeted the base commander and killed three bystanders; the death in a car-bombing of Siemens executive Karl-Heinz Beckurts and his driver; and the shooting of Gerold von Braunmühl, a leading official at Germany's foreign ministry. On November 30, 1989, Deutsche Bank chairman Alfred Herrhausen was killed with a highly complex bomb when his car triggered a photo sensor, in Bad Homburg. On April 1, 1991, Detlev Karsten Rohwedder, leader of the government Treuhand organization responsible for the privatization of the East German state economy, was shot dead. The assassins of Zimmermann, von Braunmühl, Herrhausen and Rohwedder were never reliably identified .

After German reunification in 1990, it was discovered that the RAF had received financial and logistic support from the Stasi, the security and intelligence organization of East Germany, which had given several members shelter and new identities, although this was already generally suspected at the time.

In 1992 the German government assessed that the RAF's main field of engagement now were extrication missions of former RAF-members. To weaken the organization further the government declared that some RAF-inmates would be released if the RAF refrained from violent attacks in the future. Hereafter the RAF announced their intentions to "take back the escalation" and refrain from significant activity.

The last action taken by the RAF took place in 1993 with a bombing of a newly built prison in Weiterstadt by subduing the officers on duty and planting explosives afterwards. Although no one was seriously injured this action caused property damage comprising 123 million Deutsche Marks (over 50 million euro).

The last big action against the RAF took place on June 27, 1993. A Verfassungsschutz (internal secret service) agent named Klaus Steinmetz had infiltrated the RAF. As a result Birgit Hogefeld and Wolfgang Grams were to be arrested in Bad Kleinen. Grams and GSG-9 officer Michael Newrzella died during the mission. While it was initially concluded that Grams committed suicide, others claimed his death was in revenge for Newrzella's. Two eyewitness accounts supported the claims of an execution-style murder. However, an investigation headed by the attorney general could not substantiate such claims. Due to a number of operational mistakes involving the various police services, German Minister of the Interior Rudolf Seiters took responsibility and resigned from his post.

On April 20, 1998 an eight-page typewritten letter in German was faxed to the Reuters news agency, signed "RAF" with the machine-gun red star, declaring the group dissolved:

Vor fast 28 Jahren, am 14. Mai 1970, entstand in einer Befreiungsaktion die RAF. Heute beenden wir dieses Projekt. Die Stadtguerilla in Form der RAF ist nun Geschichte." ("Almost 28 years ago, on May 14, 1970, the RAF arose in a campaign of liberation. Today we end this project. The urban guerrilla in the shape of the RAF is now history.")