Reviewed by David A. Meier (Dickinson State University)
Published on H-German (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Hooligans or Heroes?
First released in 1985, Stefan Aust's well-written work on the RAF (or Red Army Faction--a name given the group by Ulrike Meinhof) appeared on German cinema screens as Der Baader Meinhof Komplex beginning on September 25, 2008. This second release of the book has produced some controversy. In December 2008, historian Michael Burleigh accused Aust of failing to acknowledge the group's extreme narcissism and disregard for the consequences of almost two decades of bank robberies and bombings. In a radical break within West Germany's leftist extra-parliamentary opposition, the RAF justified its increasingly violent actions with reference to Germany's National Socialist past, Israeli policy towards Palestinians, and American involvement in Vietnam. Drawing upon sympathy from West Germany's largely left-leaning protest movement, the RAF sharply criticized anyone unwilling to apply violence in response to growing state authority--including those who provided the group with an occasional safe haven. Although Burleigh's remarks did not address the evolution in the group's tactics (from robbing banks to planting bombs) or the role of the East German Ministry for State Security in abetting them, he reminded readers of the largely unrepentant attitude of former RAF leaders and the support among some of them for contemporary Holocaust denial. Aust's work has clearly touched a nerve this time around.
Aust's credentials for writing this work include three years in the 1960s with the journal Konkret, where he rubbed elbows with Ulrike Meinhof and many other representatives of the radical Left of the day. Although unwilling to call them friends, Aust claims to have known them quite well. His journalistic career eventually led to a position as editor-in-chief of the German magazine Der Spiegel, which is known for its critical tone and left-leaning politics. From the perspective of his work, Aust's journalistic interest in the RAF spanned the two decades of it existence.
Within the work, he mentions as sources numerous individuals who were either members of or close to the group. In his telling, the RAF's initial leading cadre--Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler, and Ulrike Meinhof--emerge as complex and highly volatile personalities who employed the rhetoric of the Maoist Left, while idealizing the Uruguayan Tupamaros and Carlos Marighella's vision of guerilla warfare. Overall, the group disdained theory and intellectualizing and emphasized action instead. In the RAF's early years, the idea of "going underground" as a statement of protest and a call to action fit well into the youth protest culture. Living underground, however, proved increasingly complicated. Lodging consisted of vacant buildings of all sorts; group dynamics determined who got the easier access to the bathroom. Meanwhile, bank robberies served as virtually the sole source of funds for daily expenses--theirs was a life on the edge.
Despite their rejection of bourgeois manners, these revolutionaries also relied heavily on people within the system, as safe houses seemed to be available in every city. Aust gives the impression that numerous sympathizers willingly assisted the group whenever asked. Unfortunately, he says little about who they were and absolves them of any responsibility for aiding and abetting known fugitives. It would also have been useful had Aust considered the psychology of the entire network, given that the experience of hiding from the German state clearly helped to mold and train the group.
The next step in the group's evolution toward violence was training by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan, although Aust downplays its significance. The members of the group were openly critical of the accommodations and food--and the training they received appears to have been limited. Here, Aust injects himself into the story by noting his central role in preventing Meinhof's twin daughters from being permanently placed in Palestinian hands. With this anecdote, Aust cements his position as journalist-insider, although it raises the question of to what extent his experience with the group clouds his judgment as a reporter. We are entitled to ask this question, since Aust sidesteps the implications of the group's link with the PLO. As it is, Aust clearly links the RAF with this recognized terrorist organization and with an even more dangerous faction within it, Black September. He does not, however, take a critical stance toward this problematic relationship. At least with reference to this point, Burleigh appears to be right about Aust's blind spot.
Aust does make clear, however, that the group's turn to violence caused public opinion to turn sharply against it, as bombings and bank robberies in the early 1970s generated a clear public demand for the group's apprehension. Thanks to a collaborative effort between the Bundeskriminalamt and the Bundesamrt für Verfassungsschutz (the latter is described by Aust as "counter-intelligence"), the Helmut Schmidt government successfully captured or killed the core of the first generation of the RAF within a short period. Aust's explanation leaves open a series of key questions, however, including the extent of the role of East Germany's Ministry for State Security in supporting the group. Aust also leaves aside the victims and their stories. While the original German text could be read as a sympathetic yet critical look at the RAF, the abridged text leans more toward sympathy, as it humanizes the RAF rank-and-file via short biographical sketches. In most cases, a problematic childhood and family life are implicitly to blame. As portrayed in this edition, Baader and Meinhof may well evoke American memories of Bonnie and Clyde, who also made similar claims of helping the oppressed while killing the rest.
These ambiguities aside, the capture of Baader and Meinhof signals the beginning of another story within the text, the public trial of the members. The excessive length of the trials conducted at the Stammheim prison from 1972 to 1977 became a platform for the group to air its grievances against society and a call to arms for a second generation of terrorists that aspired to free their jailed brethren. After the failed hijacking and subsequent GSG-9 actions in Mogadishu, Baader and Ensslin shot themselves in their cells. Aust implicitly blames the West German government and its associated agencies for their deaths. Indeed, Aust's politics are often on display throughout the text as he points an accusatory finger at the "system" and the West German government for allegedly providing some weapons and bombing materials used by the RAF. References to secret files and secret government agents pop up in the text from time to time, but nothing is proven conclusively.
Historians are confronted with several challenges in assessing the value of Aust's book. As an insider, Aust appears to have had special access to a history without documents. His interviews, however, are undated and largely anonymous and his documents lack proper citations. Those familiar with Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, and Hamburg will recognize street names and restaurants, so the story does offer hints of authenticity. In this context, one might better define this work as popular history inspired by real historical events. Aust claims to have written a true history, but without more formal documentation, history will have to wait for a final assessment of Aust and the object of his study.
. Michael Burleigh, "The Baader-Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust--review," December 8, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/3702548/The-Baader-Meinhof-Complex-by-Stefan-Aust---review.html (accessed August 5, 2009).
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