[Notes from the Underground] The Red Army Faction – A Review

On the left communist Notes from the Undergound blog, Fischer has written a lengthy review of Projectiles for the People. It is reposted here with permission:

The 2008 movie Der Baader Meinhof Komplex has sparked interest again in the Red Army Faction. Below is a review, written earlier this summer, of a massive new account of the RAF’s history.


Smith, J. and André Moncourt. The Red Army Faction A Documentary History: Volume 1 Projectiles for the People. Kersplebedeb Press & PM Press: Montreal & Oakland, 2009

At the 2009 Montreal Anarchist bookfair, the publishers of this book held a workshop entitled “Whatever happened to Armed Struggle?” A more accurate title might be whatever happened to leftist armed struggle? Armed struggle has not disappeared, but instead its advocates and most dedicated practitioners are the warriors of Jihad or ‘political Islam.’ In the post September 11 world, it’s easy to forget that once armed struggle was the concern of organizations ostensibly dedicated to a social or even socialist liberation project: The Weather Underground Organization and the Black Liberation Army in the US, the Angry Brigade in the UK, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Revolutionary Cells in Germany, Direct Action in France, and the Fighting Communist Cells in Belgium to name just a few organizations. And there were many more who thought that it was enough for small groups of dedicated individuals to oppose and overthrow capitalism rather than the working class itself.

But it is the West German Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion – RAF), with the possible exception of the Weather Underground, that long after its dissolution, still sparks the greatest amount of interest. The RAF has spawned a virtual cottage industry of books, from Stephan Aust’s liberal account to Jillian Becker rightist one, and Tom Vague’s situationist account, along with documentaries and feature films like Margarethe Von Trotta’s Marianne and Juliane based on Gudrun Ensslin’s story. The latest addition to this library is J. Smith and André Moncourt’s sprawling The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History. The book is an almost 700 page first (!) volume covering the group’s origins to 1977. A projected second volume will continue the account to its dissolution in 1998. In some ways, it is a difficult task to assess this book. I have little sympathy for the politics and strategy advocated in this book, but the book itself provides a gripping account. Whether or not you accept the politics and strategy of the RAF, and I will discuss these at the end of this article, if you want to read the definitive history of the Red Army Faction, this is the book. It makes available in English, for the first time, an amazingly complete collection of documents from the RAF and its supporters. In addition, the book provides an informative and meticulously documented account of the background to the social milieu from which the RAF emerged, as well as telling the group’s story in a critical essay, which, while not without blind spots, analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the organization.

Near the end of the book, the efforts of the RAF to free its leaders are condensed to a maxim: Daring to struggle, failing to win. Six years after its founding, its leadership was in jail and many of its members were dead. Yet the Red Army Faction was about to be part of a series of events that would become known as the German Autumn, an autumn which would shake the country. What was the context for these events?

West Germany, after the Second World War, was a country of contradictions. Although it had been defeated and divided, it was of strategic importance to the United States and the other western powers in the fight against Soviet Communism. As a result, the allied powers massively aided the reconstruction of the West German economy, leading to a level of prosperity not enjoyed elsewhere in Europe. The West German government too was allowed to practice a level of repression against the left. Such was the confidence of the Adenauer government that the Stalinist Communist Party of Germany, never very radical, was banned in 1956 and not re-constituted until 1968. But if the left was repressed, the right was rehabilitated. After a rather tepid de-nazification, many prominent Nazis once again assumed leading positions in society.

A generation born too young to remember the war began to wonder just what their parents did during the war. Small wonder, they regarded these policies as the creeping hand of fascism. Then, on June 2, 1967 a spark ignited a fire. The Shah of Iran, no stranger to repression himself, visited West Germany. During a protest, a 26 year-old student Benno Ohnesorg was executed by a police officer, who it was recently revealed was an undercover Stasi agent. If fascism had seemed to shadow the Federal republic in a nice suit, here was the ugly side revealed. Talk turned to something stronger.

On April 3, 1968, two department stores in Frankfurt were firebombed. No one was injured, but the flames caused several hundred thousand dollars in damage. Two days later, Horst Söhnlein, Thorwald Proll, Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader were arrested and charged with arson. The four put forwarded a confused defence of ‘solidarity with the Vietnamese,’ which was never fully explained beyond the sense that actions speak louder than words. Incidentally, the authors of the book offer no rationale for the target either. Nevertheless, within the direct action community of the movement, the action was defended and applauded. Among its supporters were the noted journalist Ulrike Meinhoff and the radical lawyer Horst Mahler.

In October 1968, the four were sentenced to four years in prison, but were later released on parole. In November 1969, they were ordered to return to jail, but instead they went underground. Baader was captured in April 1970.

The Red Army Faction dated its birth to an “act of liberation” on May 14, 1970, when Meinhoff and others helped Baader to escape from police custody. In the course of the escape, an elderly librarian was seriously injured, and the group disappeared into the underground. It was the beginning of the German guerrilla.

Almost a year later, in April 1971, the communiqué, “The Urban Guerrilla Concept” which outlined the philosophy and strategy of the group, supplemented by generous helpings of Mao, was published. And while it was conceded that Germany was not in a revolutionary situation, it argued the goal of the guerrilla was to:

Attack the state’s apparatus of control at certain points and put them out of action, to destroy the myth of the system’s omnipresence and invulnerability.

During the repression the state practiced in its struggle against the RAF, novelist Heinrich Böll characterized the RAF’s struggle as a war of six against sixty million. In this, he sought to criticize the state’s repressive actions as an unnecessary over-reaction. Yet, while his overall point was correct, his math was faulty. The leaders of the RAF were not rootless. They came from existing social movements. They had roots in the student, leftist, and squatters’ struggles. These were abandoned. As they noted in their initial communiqué, individuals could not combine the legal and illegal struggle. The legal struggle was reduced to support for the guerrilla struggle. As it began its life, the RAF severed its links with its base. For all the RAF’s subsequent talk about “serving the people,” its strategy essentially dictated to “the people” what their role would be.

The year following the publication of “The Concept of the Urban Guerrilla” was intense. On July 15, 1971, nineteen year-old RAF member Petra Schlem was killed in a shoot-out with the police. Soon after, three more RAF members were killed by the state, while many others were arrested and received heavy prison sentences. At the same time, the RAF began to put its urban guerrilla politics into practice: Banks were robbed, bombings took place at US army barracks, the Springer Press, and the assassination of a federal judge was attempted.

In June 1972, just a few months after the RAF’s initial bombs were detonated, almost the entire original leadership of the group including Baader, Ensslin, Meinhoff and Holger Meins were captured. They would never be free again. It was these crucial arrests that changed the focus of the RAF for the next five years as the organization was now forced to react to the fate of its leaders. While the organization’s members continued to produce a stream of letters and communiqués, they only produced only two major documents; one, on the Palestinian Black September organization, and the other, which dealt with political rights for imprisoned workers.

The RAF leadership was kept in Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart. Stammheim was a newly constructed high security Federal prison where the state was able to test out various psychological and physical tortures. These included: isolation cells where prisoners were cut from all human contact, as if the intention was to induce madness; cells where lights were never turned off; not to mention the suspension of regular privileges. When the prisoners responded with hunger-strikes, they were force fed. On November 9, 1974 Holger Meins died while on a hunger strike. Over six feet tall, Meins weighed just 92 pounds at the time of his death.

But in the guerrilla organization, those who die as martyrs can be useful as a way to motivate others. Hans Joachim Klein, later one of the Revolutionary Cells members who participated in the attack in an OPEC meeting in Vienna a month after Meins’ death, famously wrote, “I have kept this picture [of Meins’ emaciated corpse] in my wallet to keep my hatred sharp.” A few months later, in April 1975, the Holger Meins Commando seized the West German Embassy in Stockholm to demand the release of the RAF prisoners. Within a day, the operation failed. One RAF member was killed and another critically injured, dying a few days later. It was a humiliating failure.

In May of 1976, Meinhoff was found hanging in her cell. The official verdict was suicide, but independent investigations reached other conclusions. In an almost comic after word, one doctor who examined Meinhoff concluded that her actions may have been the result of brain surgery she received a decade earlier for a tumour: rebellion against the state equals mental illness. Of course, this kind of ‘medical’ diagnosis was actively pursued in East Germany too.

In April 1977, the RAF leadership was convicted of the charges against it, and the four prisoners were sentenced to life imprisonment. The German Autumn loomed. Five months later, on September 5, 1977, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations was kidnapped by the Siegfried Hausner Commando (Hausner being one of the RAF members killed in the Stockholm embassy occupation). Freedom for the RAF prisoners was the price of his life. Schleyer was not an accidental victim. Months before his eighteenth birthday in 1933, Schleyer joined the SS. He was a young and enthusiastic partisan of fascism. After the war, he served three years in prison as part of the de-nazification process. However, upon his release, Schleyer played the role of the unapologetic face of German fascism, fiercely opposed to workers’ rights. His kidnapping was strategic; a call to the original goals of the RAF and the leftist movement.

The negotiations dragged on, when on October 13, a month after Schleyer’s kidnapping, a Lufthansa jet was hijacked. The hijackers were members of Waddi Haddad’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Organization, which since 1972 had been separate from the better known Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The demand of the hijackers, although they were personally unconnected to the RAF was for the release of its prisoners. The plane was refuelled and moved several times as negotiations were conducted, but the plane eventually landed in Mogadishu. On October 19, the plane was stormed, and all but one of the hijackers were killed. The same evening, Baader and Jan-Carl Ruste died from gunshot wounds, while Ensslin was found hanging in her cell (reminiscent of Meinhoff’s death a year earlier and a grim foreshadowing of the fate of Ingrid Schubert). Irmgard Möller was stabbed in the chest four times. According to the authorities, the deaths were the result of a suicide pact. As in the case of Meinhoff’s death, the official story had glaring inconsistencies. Smith and Moncourt present compelling evidence in support of murder. They conclude by quoting the Frankfurter Rundschau: “The Parliamentary Commission is faced with…three sorts of witnesses: those who know nothing, those who don’t want to know anything, and those who aren’t allowed to make a statement.”

Shortly after the news was made public, Schleyer was shot and killed and his body was dumped near the border with France. Smith and Moncourt’s narrative ends with the Stammheim deaths. While the RAF continued its existence for another two decades, its first phase was over.

The Red Army Faction is destined to become the definitive work on the group. Certainly nothing exists in English, perhaps any language, with such a detailed history of the organization. Readers can judge the organization by both their deeds and by their words. Although, the authors defend the RAF against the slanders and outright falsehoods manufactured over the years, their account is not uncritical. However, despite these criticisms, the biggest weakness is that the overall thrust of the group’s politics and its strategy are never seriously questioned.

Despite their origins within an anti-authoritarian or anarchist milieu, the RAF saw themselves as Marxists. Marxism is a libratory social theory based upon the destruction of the law of value. The RAF’s theory, while it mentioned socialism, the working class and opposition to imperialism had an extremely flawed conception of what these things actually meant. Despite its assertion that “the urban guerrilla is a weapon in the class war,” there is no evidence that the RAF had a working class orientation of any kind. In addition, the RAF’s endorsement of what it called anti-imperialist politics had little to do with proletarian internationalism. Every revolutionary must be opposed to imperialism, but the theory of anti-imperialism is merely leftist cover for smaller nationalisms. The RAF’s anti-imperialism was support for the nationalism of the “oppressed peoples,” particularly the Palestinians and the Vietnamese; in other words, support for the establishment of independent capitalist states against larger ones. The RAF also identified repressive state-capitalist regimes like China, North Korea and even the Soviet states like East Germany as some form of socialism. The words of Mao and even Kim Il Sung litter the RAF’s documents. To be fair, although some at the time realized and criticized the hollowness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, tens of thousands of leftists in the west were fooled into believing that it was genuine. Forty years on, the squalid truth of China’s revolutionary credentials have been documented for all who have eyes to see. These regimes and politics were not working class or proletarian internationalist – they were anti-working class. No amount of ‘revolutionary’ sounding phrases will alter that fact.

The subtitle of this first volume is “projectiles for the people,” and it is the second part of this sentence which is troubling. One of Mao’s most famous utterances is that “political power flows out of the barrel of a gun.” He went on, “but it is the party which must control the gun.” And who controls the party? When you are used to looking down the barrel of a gun, the things you most often see are targets. Instead of serving the people, the guerrilla viewpoint is in fact an extreme vanguardist notion of leading the people: after all, aren’t the guerrilla fighters willing to die for the cause? But rather than a revolutionary conception, this is a liberal conception; the notion of a small group leading the way, stepping out of the crowd, and by eliminating elements of the ruling class, by propaganda of the deed, imperialism will be defeated. The working class does not need people to serve it. It doesn’t need handfuls of ‘urban guerrillas.’ It must the class for itself.

The original leadership of the RAF spent a little more than two years as urban guerrillas. After their capture, the final years of their lives were spent in brutal conditions. Those that followed them had their lives cut short through the state’s bullets or prisons. Those that supported them accepted the pessimism inherent in their worldview. Smith and Moncourt have produced an outstanding history. Yet, as good as this book is in documenting its subject, it will no doubt strengthen the mystique of groups like the Red Army Faction.


July 3, 2009


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