The first time Christa Eckes made the news was back in 1970, when as a teenager growing up in the West German city of Hamburg she was expelled from high school for starting a political action group. The “Basisgruppe LS-Schülerinnen” (LS Students Grassroots Group) was said to have distributed leaflets, organized resistance to the school board, the school administration and the parents’ advisory board, organized a questionnaire about sexual problems without informing the school administration and also to have disrupted a Christmas party.
Her mother hired Kurt Groenewold, a renowned left-wing lawyer, to oblige the school to readmit her daughter – an effort which proved successful.
The decision to hire Groenewold was perhaps a fateful one; within a few years he would be known throughout West Germany as one of the attorneys for prisoners from the Red Army Faction, an anti-imperialist guerilla organization. By this time Eckes would be working as his legal assistant, and as such would be part of the defense team for Margrit Schiller, a prisoner from the RAF held in Hamburg.
Eckes’ political activity was not limited to the courtroom. Another signal moment in her development occurred when she was involved in physically defending the Ekhoffstraße squat in Hamburg. As detailed elsewhere:
On the morning of May 23, 1973, the squat was sealed off by six hundred policemen and attacked by a SWAT team equipped with machine guns. More than seventy squatters were arrested, and thirty-three of them were charged with “membership in or support of a criminal organization” (§129), which later led to a number of convictions. It was the first time that the paragraph was used under such circumstances.
[Geronimo, Fire and Flames: A History of the German Autonomist Movement, 57]
Eckes was clubbed on the head and arrested during the police attack, but was not held. She was one of many who responded to this State violence with a deepened sense of commitment to resistance – several of these would eventually join the Red Army Faction.
Eckes was amongst this number.
As Margrit Schiller would later recall:
She had worked as legal assistant for my lawyer. After being with the Trotskyists for a long time, she had now left them. She was on the lookout for the opportunity to put her politics into practice as she was sick of all the fights about theory. After following my trial she had become interested in the RAF and the prisoners. … Christa had also brought someone else along … The severe confrontation surrounding the house in Ekhoffstrasse had given them the final motivation to come to the RAF.
[Margrit Schiller, Remembering the Armed Struggle: Life in Baader Meinhof, 113]
The RAF at this time had been almost wiped out in a wave of arrests that had followed the 1972 May Offensive. In late 1973, someone who had rented a safehouse in Hamburg lost their nerve and snitched to the Hamburg Verfassungsschutz (the Office for the Protection of the Constitution). The Verfassungsschutz opted to not proceed with arrests immediately, but rather decided to keep the house under surveillance for as long as possible. This surveillance continued until February 4, 1974, on which day police rounded up all of the guerillas in simultaneous predawn raids; Eckes was captured along with Ilse Stachowiak and Helmut Pohl in Hamburg. [Margrit Schiller, Remembering the Armed Struggle: Life in Baader Meinhof, 122-5]
Of all those arrested on February 4, Eckes would receive the longest sentence – seven years – as she was the only one police managed to tie to any actual actions: a bank robbery. She served her complete sentence, and was released 1981. Like the other prisoners, her time in prison had been punctuated by numerous hunger strikes, including the third (1974-5) and eighth (1981) of the RAF prisoners’ collective hunger strikes, in which two prisoners died. [Holger Meins in the first of these, Sigurd Debus in the second one.]
Shortly after her release in 1981, Eckes returned to the underground. This was a time of important political changes in the West German anti-imperialist guerilla, as the RAF was coming to terms with the challenges and setbacks of previous years, while attempting to reach out to a new militant youth movement that had emerged while Eckes was in prison. The result was a document released in 1982, The Guerilla, The Resistance and the Anti-Imperialist Front, also known as the May Paper, that signalled a re-orientation towards struggles within West Germany, and a desire for the guerilla to work alongside the aboveground militant left.
There were no RAF attacks for two years following the release of the May Paper, as the guerillas busied themselves with establishing the infrastructure and political basis for this new front concept to take root.
Then, on July 2, 1984, before they could go into action, a Frankfurt safehouse in which a number of members of the RAF were staying was identified after someone accidentally shot a hole in the floor while cleaning a gun. Eckes, along with Helmut Pohl, Stefan Frey, Ingrid Jakobsmeier, Barbara Ernst, and Ernst-Volker Staub, were all captured.
Eckes and Jakobsmeier went to trial in 1985 along with Manuela Happe (who had been captured 2 weeks earlier). The three were charged with weapons offenses, falsification of identity papers, and membership in a “terrorist” organization. (Under paragraph 129a, guerillas and aboveground anti-imperialists alike could be prosecuted for belonging to or even just supporting a “terrorist” organization, even where there was no evidence tying them to any specific actions.) In March 1986, Eckes received an eight-year prison sentence.
The tenth hunger strike by the prisoners from the RAF occurred in 1989; it was a rolling hunger strike, meaning prisoners would begin at different times, two weeks apart. Eckes and Karl-Heinz Dellwo were the first two to refuse food, on February 15. They would remain on hunger strike for three months, until May 14, by which point dozens of RAF members and other political prisoners had joined them.
As a result of this tenth hunger strike, isolation conditions were relaxed and several small groups were established: Eckes was now part of one such group in Cologne-Ossendorf, along with Heidi Schulz, Sieglinde Hofmann and Ingrid Jakobsmeier.
Eckes (like many others) served her sentence to its last day, only being released in 1992.
She did not rejoin the RAF after her release in 1992 – the revolutionary movements that had emerged from the 1960s and 70s were in disarray, not only as a result of their own contradictions, but also due to the drastically different political conditions following the implosion of the Soviet bloc. The RAF carried out its last action (the bombing of a newly-built high security prison) in May 1993, and would experience a bitter split just five months later.
In March 1998, years after most had thought it long gone, the RAF declared that it had disbanded.
The guerilla remains a bitter memory for the State. It desperately wants to prevent tomorrow’s rebels from learning the lessons of, or taking inspiration from, the experience of these armed groups. Severing the historical cord connecting the revolutionary movements of the past from those of the future remains an important counterinsurgency objective today.
The prosecution of former guerillas is one means used to accomplish this goal – not only to intimidate comrades (“we’ll get you in the end”) but also because such trials serve as an opportunity to rehash counterinsurgency fabrications and provide a stage on which those former guerillas who have broken with their past can do their dirty work, part of a perpetual campaign of preventative psychological warfare.
Some former RAF members addressed this in 2010:
The RAF was dissolved in 1998, based on its assessment of the changed political situation globally. The fact that it was its own decision and that it has not been defeated by the state, obviously remains a thorn in the flesh. Hence the eternal lament of the “myth” yet to be destroyed. Hence the political and moral capitulation demanded from us. Hence the attempts to finalize the criminalization of our history, up to the mendacious proposal of a “Truth Commission”. Whereas the search for those who are still underground, the smear campaigns in the media and the legal procedures against former prisoners continue, we are expected to kowtow publicly. As, in all these years, it didn’t work by “renunciation”, we are now to denounce each other. Save yourself if you can.
[A note regarding the current situation – by some who have been RAF members at various points in time, May 2010]
The form this is currently taking in Germany is a hypocritical and sanctimonious media-inspired obsession with finding out which RAF member pulled the trigger in the 1977 assassination of Attorney General Siegfried Buback. Despite the fact that RAF members were already convicted of this action, and spent decades in prison, a new investigation was opened and former RAF member Verena Becker charged with the murder. Becker had already spent 14 years in prison, from 1977 until 1991, and for a period snitched to the Verfassungsschutz in the hope of improving her prison conditions.
Although Becker has long since broken with the RAF’s politics, the position of former RAF members, including Brigitte Mohnhaupt, Knut Folkerts, Christian Klar, and Stefan Wisniewski, all of whom were called upon to testify, has been to refuse to cooperate in any way, even when threatened with “coercive detention” – a return to prison – as a result. As explained by some former RAF members:
None of us has testified, not because of any specific “agreement” among us, but because it is a matter of course for anyone with a political consciousness. A question of dignity, of identity – of the side we once took.
Not to testify is not a RAF invention. It has been an experience of the liberation movements and guerilla groups that it is vital to provide no information whatsoever when in custody, in order to protect those who continue the struggle. We have the historical examples of the resistance against fascism. Whoever seriously wanted something politically over here has reflected on these and learned from these. In the student movement, the refusal of testimonies was a widely understood necessity when its criminalization started. Ever since, militants in various contexts have been confronted with the question. For us within the RAF, it has just as much been a necessary condition that no-one testifies. There is no other protection – for those in prison, for the group outside and for the illegal space as such, its movements, its structures and its relationships.
[A note regarding the current situation – by some who have been RAF members at various points in time, May 2010]
Christa Eckes was subpoenaed to testify in Becker’s trial in 2011. It had been almost twenty years since she had been released from prison, but her response was both unambiguous and unflinching: she refused to go along with the State’s witch-hunt.
Despite the fact that she was undergoing chemotherapy in a final battle against cancer, in late 2011 she too was threatened with “coercive detention”, which would have meant spending her last days behind bars. In other cases like this, the State merely used coercive imprisonment as a threat, but in Eckes’ case an order was issued in December for her to be sent back to prison.
Still, she did not budge.
It was only following protests in a number of cities in Germany and elsewhere in Europe that the State backed down, with the High Court in Karlsruhe (the BGH) ruling that due to her health, any period in prison would put her life at risk.
Shortly after this ordeal, on January 22, Eckes made a public statement to those who had supported her in this final battle with the State:
To my friends and all of the others who acted against my coercive detention:
The BGH has rejected my coercive detention. That’s good. However, the dispute over political justice and the proceedings against left militants from the 70s are not over, neither in terms of the refusal to provide evidence, followed by coercive detention, on the part of others nor generally speaking. That is perfectly clear.
However, I must say that the experience of your solidarity, friendship and concrete support truly moved me and provided me with security and strength, which was very important to me, given my current state of health.
It is also clear that the huge effort and the numerous protests had an effect. Who knows how things might have gone otherwise.
On Wednesday, May 23, Christa Eckes died at a hospital in Karlsruhe, surrounded by her friends and family.
Her life, her work, her contribution to the struggle – these things inspire us.
Honor her memory – fight for a world worth living in!
To read a statement by Ronald Augustin and a poem by Gisela Dutzi regarding their comrade and friend, click here.