The Red Army Faction

Book by J. Smith and André Moncourt; Kersplebedeb Press & PM Press, Montreal & Oakland, 2009, 736 pp.

It’s easy to forget that armed struggle within the "first world" was once the concern of organizations ostensibly dedicated to a social or even socialist liberation project. The Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army in the U.S., 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 are just a few such organizations. And there were many more who thought that it was enough for small groups of dedicated individuals, rather than the working class itself, to oppose and overthrow capitalism. But it is the West German Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion-RAF), 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’s rightist one and Tom Vague’s situationist telling, along with documentaries and feature films like Margarethe Von Trotta’s Marianne and Juliane based on Gudrun Ensslin’s story. The latest addition is J. Smith and André Moncourt’s sprawling The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History. The first volume is more than 700 pages covering the group’s origins to 1977. A projected second volume will continue the account to its dissolution in 1998.

Whether or not you accept the politics and strategy of the RAF, if you want to read their definitive history, this is the book. Available in English for the first time, it is 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 social milieu from which the RAF emerged, as well as telling the group’s story in a critical essay, while analyzing 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.

West Germany after WWII was a country of contradictions. Although it had been defeated and divided, it was of strategic importance to the U.S. 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 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 (recently revealed as an undercover Stasi agent, though the killing was apparently unrelated to his spying).

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 forward a confused defense of "solidarity with the Vietnamese," which was never fully explained. Nevertheless, within the activist community, 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 police custody. In the course of the escape, a librarian was seriously injured and the group went underground.

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. 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, though 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, 19-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 U.S. army barracks and the Springer Press, and the assassination of a federal judge was attempted.

In June 1972, 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.

The RAF leadership was kept in Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart, a newly constructed high-security federal prison where the state was able to test various psychological and physical tortures, including isolation cells where prisoners were cut off from all human contact, cells where lights were never turned off, and 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 92 pounds at the time of his death.

Hans Joachim Klein, later one of the Revolutionary Cell’s members who participated in an attack at an OPEC meeting in Vienna a month after Meins’s death, famously wrote, "I have kept this picture [of Meins’s emaciated corpse] in my wallet to keep my hatred sharp." A few months later, in April 1975, the Holger Meins Commando group 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 1976, Meinhoff was found hanging in her cell. The official verdict was suicide, but independent investigations reached other conclusions. In an almost comic afterword, one doctor who examined Meinhoff concluded that her actions may have been the result of brain surgery she received a decade earlier for a tumor—rebellion against the state as mental illness was a "medical" diagnosis often pursued in Germany.

In April 1977, the RAF leadership was convicted of the charges against it and the four prisoners were sentenced to life imprisonment. 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 group. (Hausner was 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 18th 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 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 Operations, 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 refueled and moved several times as negotiations were conducted. 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. Irmgard Möller was stabbed in the chest four times. According to the authorities, the deaths were the result of a suicide pact.

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

Despite their origins within an anti-authoritarian or anarchist milieu, the RAF saw themselves as Marxists. 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. The RAF’s anti-imperialism was support for the nationalism of the "oppressed peoples," particularly the Palestinians and the Vietnamese. The RAF also identified repressive state-capitalist regimes like China, North Korea, and even Soviet states like East Germany, as some form of socialism. The words of Mao and even Kim Il Sung litter RAF 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.

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." Instead of serving the people, the guerrilla viewpoint is in fact an extreme vanguardist notion of leading the people. After all, aren’t 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 be 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. 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 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.

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 Fraction.