West Germany’s Urban Guerillas: Overview

The following is a quick little overview of the four largest groups that engaged in armed struggle against the West German state from the 1970s until the 1990s. The authors, André Moncourt and J. Smith, are the ones behind the editing/translating of Projectiles for the People, a documentary history of the Red Army Faction.

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West Germany’s Urban Guerillas: Overview

by André Moncourt and J. Smith

The radical left in West Germany engaged in a particularly violent and militant form of struggle from the late 60s through to the mid-90s. While there were countless one-off actions carried out by ad hoc groups, and innumerable demonstrations where organized violence blurred the line between protest and resistance, no description of the movement in the Federal Republic of Germany can afford to ignore the four clandestine organizations which held aloft the banner of armed struggle during this period.

The Red Army Faction
The RAF is certainly the best known and was the most enduring of the left-wing guerilla organizations to grow out of the 60s revolutionary movement in West Germany. The group’s formation can be traced to the iconic moment on May 14, 1970, when several armed revolutionaries, including the well-known left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof, broke Andreas Baader, who was serving a sentence for a politically motivated arson, out of prison.

After receiving training in an Al Fatah camp in Jordan, the core of what would come to be known as the First Generation of the Red Army Faction returned to West Germany to begin the painstaking work of building a guerilla infrastructure – robbing banks, acquiring arms, explosives and phony IDs, establishing safehouses and shaping the largely Marxist-Leninist ideology they would eventually present to the world in April 1971 in a document entitled The Urban Guerilla Concept.

The RAF lost several members in armed clashes with the police before their first offensive, a wave of bombings in May of 1972 primarily targeting US military installations in West Germany. Within a month of this first foray, the majority of the individuals seen as the RAF’s leadership were behind bars, and the organization was presumed dead.

Against the odds, there followed an impressive dynamic, whereby RAF prisoners’ struggle for survival behind bars – resisting isolation torture, sensory deprivation, and legal attacks on their lawyers – would repeatedly succeed in rallying support on the outside, even inspiring new waves of activists to cross into the underground, and renew the organization.

In 1975, a group made up primarily of members of the radical therapy group the Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv (Socialist Patients Collective – SPK) would take up the RAF flag and fail in their efforts to gain their imprisoned comrades’ freedom through an audacious and ultimately bloody hostage-taking at the West German Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden.

Against all odds, the RAF would rise yet again, when in the autumn of 1977, they launched yet another campaign for the freedom of the prisoners – assassinating a prominent banker and the Attorney General, before kidnapping Germany’s most powerful capitalist, Hanns Martin Schleyer, demanding the release of the prisoners in exchange for his release. 43 tense days later, a supportive PFLP(EO) skyjacking had ended in disaster, leading RAF prisoners were dead, allegedly having committed suicide in despair (although most evidence makes this seem improbable) and Schleyer’s body was found in the trunk of a car in the French border town of Mullhausen.

The RAF would struggle on for 20 more increasingly violent years, through a series of ups and downs, until April 1998, with several waves of militants picking up the flag, and with varying degrees of support, but never again would it capture the imagination of the left as it had in its early days.

2nd of June Movement
The West Berlin-based 2nd of June movement, with its roots in the communes of the counterculture, was formed by members of several pre-existing groups in January 1972. Where the RAF had presented a Marxist-Leninist and largely vanguardist rationale for its politics in a series of lengthy manifesto-style documents, the 2JM’s brief program, issued shortly after its formation, offered an approach that was more anarchist, anti-authoritarian, and populist in nature. The populism and humor that the 2JM brought to its politics, in comparison to the overbearing earnestness that often marked the RAF’s approach, was perhaps best expressed in a 1975 bank robbery, during which 2JM members distributed pastries to customers and employees being held while the bank’s registers were being emptied.

While there was certainly an awareness of the 2JM and its antecedent organizations in West Berlin, and while the police killing of Georg von Rauch, a key activist from this scene, on December 4, 1971, had drawn an angry response from people throughout West Germany, it was the assassination of Supreme Court Judge GĂĽnter von Drenkmann during a kidnapping gone wrong on November 10, 1974, an action carried out in response to the death of RAF prisoner Holger Meins on hunger strike, that drew the attention of people throughout West Germany and around the world.

Von Drenkmann would be one of only three people to be killed by the 2JM, the others being a boat builder killed in a bomb attack on the British Yacht Club in West Berlin, an action carried out in response to Bloody Sunday in 1972, and a guerilla member executed in 1974 for cooperating with the police.

Where the RAF had met only with disaster in its efforts to carry out kidnappings and hostage-takings, the 2JM was to have remarkable success. On February 27, 1975, the 2JM kidnapped the conservative CDU candidate for mayor of West Berlin, Peter Lorenz, releasing him on March 4 in exchange for five imprisoned comrades, three members of their own organization, a RAF member and an activist with ties to several armed organizations, including their own. These five were flown to South Yemen, from whence they returned to the underground.

Perhaps even more remarkably, in November 1977, with Germany under effective martial law while Hanns Martin Schleyer was being held by the RAF, a 2JM cell kidnapped the Viennese businessman Walter Palmers, exchanging him for 31 million Austrian shillings five days later; money that was allegedly divvied between the 2JM, the RAF and an unnamed Palestinian organization.

A series of arrests in 1975 removed a goodly part of the 2JM from the streets, with more arrests following in 1976 and 1977.

On the highly symbolic date of June 2, 1980, a majority of 2JM members, including some of those in prison, released a communiqué announcing their fusion with the RAF. Three key imprisoned members, Klaus Viehmann, Ralf Reinders, and Ronald Fritzsch, issued an eloquent criticism, rejecting this decision, but the reality is that the 2JM was never to carry out another action.

Revolutionary Cells
In 1973, a new guerilla group announced its existence with two bombings in response to Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile, which had occurred on September 11 of that year (the original 9/11). The Revolutionary Cells (RZ), a group best described as autonomist, would go on to become the most prolific and complex of the major West German guerilla organizations, spawning a controversial international wing, an extremely popular and successful domestic wing and an autonomous, but ideologically and structurally linked, women’s guerilla group, the Rote Zora. Each deserves its own treatment.

The international wing, made up of relatively few members, but counting in its ranks most of the RZ’s founding members, would have a troubling history. Closely tied to the quasi-mythical Carlos and Waddi Haddad’s PFLP (EO), the international wing would be linked to the December 1975 OPEC raid in Vienna. An Austrian police officer, an Iraqi bodyguard, and a Libyan Oil Ministry representative were killed, and RZ member Hans Joachim Klein was seriously injured before the guerillas received their ransom of five million dollars and safe passage to Algeria. (Klein would later leave the guerilla, publicly denouncing the international wing and the entire armed experience; he survived underground for decades before being arrested in France in 2000.)

The RZ’s international wing would soon be in the headlines again, when two members, Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, together with fighters from the PFLP (EO), skyjacked an Airbus plane en route from Tel Aviv to Athens, on June 27, 1976. The guerillas diverted the plane to the airport at Entebbe, Uganda, where Jewish passengers were segregated from the rest, who were then released. On July 3, an Israeli military commando stormed the airport, killing all of the guerillas as well as forty-seven Ugandan soldiers who were guarding the area. Given Germany’s Nazi past, the segregation of Jewish passengers and the bloody outcome, the word disaster may be too weak.

The international wing of the RZ would nonetheless continue its ill-fated relationship with Carlos and marginal elements in the Palestinian resistance until 1987. In that year, RZ founding member Gerd Albartus visited Carlos and RZ co-founder Johannes Weinrich in Syria. From Syria, the three travelled with other associates to Lebanon, where Carlos accused Albartus of cooperating with the East German Stasi before torturing and executing him and then burning his body. Four years later, on December 1991, the RZ would issue a document announcing Albartus’ death and presenting some of the details. The document would mark the beginning a debate that would fracture the RZ and, over the next several years, lead to its dissolution.

While the international wing seemed to move from one tragic debacle to another, its domestic wing seemed to redeem the organization, arguably making the RZ the most successful guerilla group active in West Germany. Made up of individuals who lived aboveground and who were rooted in the popular movements of the day, the domestic wing functioned to give armed expression to the broad campaigns of the left. It is virtually impossible to state exactly how many actions were carried out by these militants over the course of some twenty years, but something in the ballpark of one hundred seems a reasonable estimate.

Because of the number of actions claimed, and the fact that these were integrated within broader movements, the RZ’s domestic wing very much defined the organization in the eyes of the left. It is important to note that even amongst those who carried out actions under the RZ’s banner, it is unclear whether or not there was any real connection or understanding of the questionable activities being engaged in at the same time by the organization’s international wing.

The domestic wing’s actions addressed various issues: refugee rights, South African apartheid, West German militarism, unpopular transit fare hikes, the rights of the homeless, Latin America, in short, anything being addressed by the left. And miraculously, all of this occurred with almost no arrests and only one victim who died, Hessen Finance Minister Heinz Herbert Karry, who bled out after being shot in the legs.

However, over the years several members of the RZ’s domestic wing were injured or killed planting bombs that detonated prematurely.

Rote Zora
Like the RZ’s domestic wing, Rote Zora was both extremely successful and very popular.

The group, which took its name from the heroine of a popular children’s book, grew directly out of the RZ. In fact, to all intents and purposes, its first three actions, all of which were directed at West Germany’s then retrograde abortion law, were carried out in March and April 1975 under the rubric of the Women of the Revolutionary Cells. The Revolutionary Cells and Rote Zora would carry out the occasional action together and would issue common theoretical documents, but for the most part Rote Zora would act autonomously, addressing issues important to the women’s movement: abortion rights, trafficking women for sexual purposes, pornography, the exploitation of women in Third World sweatshops, etc.

However, it would be in its campaign against gene and biotechnology that Rote Zora would really establish itself as leading force in West German politics. From the mid-80s onward, the group carried out a series of bombings of companies, research centers and institutions active in these two areas, which Rote Zora felt was laying the basis for a modern form of eugenics. It was a campaign that would develop a deep resonance in the women’s movement at large.

In 1987, Ingrid Strobl, an editor at the influential feminist magazine Emma, and Ulla Pensellin were arrested and charged with membership in both the Revolutionary Cells and Rote Zora, and with planning and preparation of a bomb attack against the Cologne office of Germany’s Lufthansa airlines, in response to its role in the extradition of refugees. Pensellin was released in 1988, while Strobl was sentence to five years in 1989, a sentence that was overturned in 1990, leading to her release.

Like the rest of the RZ structure, Rote Zora would fall into inactivity as a result of the divisive debates that tore through the scene in the early 90s following the revelations about the murder of Albartus.

With the dissolution of the RAF in April 1998, the last of the major armed groups that grew out the student and youth upheaval of the late 60s faded into history. Nonetheless, all of these organizations leave behind a rich legacy from which valuable lessons, both positive and negative, can be drawn.


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