Red Army Faction

During the second half of the twentieth century, Germany was ideologically divided: east and west, communism and capitalism. What happened when left-wing extremists lived in the capitalist west? The Red Army Faction was a militant group that took matters into its own hands. But who were they, and what were they so angry about?

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Table of contents

    Red Army Faction Germany

    The Red Army Faction (RAF) was an extremist left-wing organisation with around 20 core members that set about disrupting the Federal Republic of Germany (usually known simply as West Germany) through terrorism.

    Extremist

    A person or group that holds extreme political views. They often resort to violent action to defend their beliefs.

    Left-wing

    A political philosophy that focuses on supporting social justice and equality where the state controls assets. Marxism and communism are examples of extreme left-wing politics.

    Terrorist

    A person who uses indiscriminate violence against specific targets or the general public to deliver their message.

    Their ultimate aim was for an ungoverned, classless society of equals. The West German police were not prepared for it, so the Federal Border Guard was given the thankless task of stopping them.

    Let's examine the RAF ideology and see how it gained prominence in the 1970s.

    Red Army Faction Ideology

    Despite the relative prosperity of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), there were pockets of anger about the young nation's direction since its inception after World War II. The mass media of the 1960s raised awareness of world events in an unprecedented manner. The United States' involvement in Vietnam caused particular fury as shocking images of the brutalities of war were more accessible than ever before.

    Imperialism

    The use of military force to gain more power and influence worldwide.

    West Germany was experiencing high levels of economic growth and educational opportunities. This allowed students to think critically, and some believed that the FRG was simply an extension of US capitalism and had inherited the Nazi thirst for imperialism. Their beliefs were so ardent that they mobilised violently to disrupt the state through bombing, kidnapping, and murder.

    Baader Meinhof

    The Red Army Faction (RAF) was also referred to as the 'Baader-Meinhof' gang as a tribute to some of the prominent first-generation leaders: Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. It is widely accepted that the catalyst for the birth of the RAF was the release of Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin from prison in May 1970 by Ulrike Meinhof and other terrorists. But why did they need to be released?

    Let's look at some significant events for the first generation of RAF and their members.

    DateEvent
    April 1968Andres Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and other accomplices bombed a department store in Frankfurt, West Germany, to protest Western capitalism in the face of an unjust war in Vietnam.
    October 1968They were caught and sentenced to three years in prison. After their appeal was rejected, they escaped to France and Italy before ending up in Jordan, where Fatah (a Palestinian guerilla organisation) trained them with terrorist tactics.Red Army Faction Palestinian terrorist organisation Fatah's logo StudySmarterFig. 1 - Logo of Palestinian terrorist organisation Fatah, who worked with the RAF in 1968
    February 1970Baader and his gang returned to Berlin with the knowledge and intent to create their terrorist organisation.
    April 1970Baader, Ensslin, and other members were arrested again. While in jail, they began a correspondence with left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof on the pretence that they were collaborating to write a book.
    May 1970During day release, Meinhof and her accomplices helped free Baader, Ensslin, and other RAF members. A month later, she published the 'urban guerrilla' strategy of the organisation in a left-wing magazine.
    1970 - 1972Bank robberies and shootouts with the police caused civilian casualties.
    May 1972During the May Offensive, US forces in West Germany, FRG police headquarters, and media targets were bombed.
    June 1972The leaders and important members of the Red Army Faction were once more caught and arrested after a lengthy shootout in Frankfurt. They were put in the maximum-security Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart.
    1973 - 1975Imprisoned, members of the RAF went on hunger strikes to oppose their torture and solitary confinement. In 1974, Holger Meins died as a result of this.
    May 1976Ulrike Meinhof committed suicide in her cell in Stuttgart.Red Army Faction Stuttgart StudySmarterFig. 2 - Stuttgart, the city where the founders of the RAF lost their lives
    April 1977Baader, Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe were sentenced to life imprisonment after a lengthy trial. They all committed suicide in October 1977.

    These suicides ended the first iteration of the Red Army Faction, but the movement was not over, and the anger was still there.

    Red Army Faction Members

    We will now dig deeper into the personalities that made large contributions to the organisation.

    Red Army Faction Andreas Baader

    A loose cannon, Andreas Baader was born in Munich in 1943. He was a perpetual underachiever at school, and his pursuit of criminal thrills led him to drop out. Baader never studied at university and thus broke the mould of the archetypal left-wing anarchist from the 1960s.

    For Baader, involvement in terrorism was more about carrying out his violent urges than having a political belief. He found a justification to do this in the form of his new girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, in 1967.

    Red Army Faction Gudrun Ensslin

    Baader's girlfriend was, in many ways, the brains behind the operation. Born in Baden in 1940, Gudrun Ensslin was a high-flyer who had excellent grades and studied in Berlin. In 1967, she became involved in the large-scale student protests in West Germany against the visit of the Shah of Iran due to their oppressive regime.

    Red Army Faction Baader Ensslin and Raspe grave stone in Stuttgart StudySmarterFig. 3 - Gravestone of Baader, Meinhof and Raspe

    Until she met Andreas Baader, she was an activist claiming West Germany was a fascist state. Their union led her evolution from activist to terrorist in the department store bombing of Frankfurt in 1968.

    Red Army Faction Holger Meins

    Another vital member of the Red Army Faction was Holger Meins. Meins was a filmmaker who claimed he did not want to work for TV, only for cinema. He was with Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe in the May 1972 attacks against the state of the Federal Republic of Germany.

    Upon his arrest, Meins was the member who had the most grievance at the treatment of the RAF members in prison. Such was his disdain for the authorities that he went on hunger strike and starved to death. Despite being over 6 feet, he died weighing 45kg without access to prison doctors.

    I read a blissful triumph in his face as if he had taken death upon himself.1

    - Harun Farocki, 'Working on the Sight-Lines', 2004

    Red Army Faction Ulrike Meinhof

    Ulrike Meinhof, born in 1934, began to gain recognition in left-wing circles for her contribution as editor of the magazine 'Konkret' in 1960. It was radically inclined and propped up by East German funding and gained popularity among students in West Germany. She had a great breadth of awareness and expertise after studying Philosophy, Sociology, Pedagogy, and German studies.

    Becoming more radicalised, she got in touch with Andreas Baader. In 1970, while Baader and Ensslin were on day release, she aided their escape, thus becoming integral in the formation of the Red Army Faction. This was the moment when Meinhof herself became a terrorist. She became fully embroiled in a war against the state with Baader and his accomplices. One quotation sums up the anger and alienation Meinhof felt in the FRG and her transition from the pen to action:

    Protest is when I say: this does not please me. Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more.2

    - Ulrike Meinhof, quoted by Celia Rees, 'This Is Not Forgiveness', 2012

    Second Generation

    The second generation of the Red Army Faction sprung out of the fury at the imprisonment and maltreatment of the first, particularly the hunger strike and resulting death of Holger Meins. The Socialist Patients' Collective, a team of psychiatrists, was a hotbed for new members as their philosophy centred around curing the ills of a capitalist society. In 1974, they kidnapped politician Peter Lorenz in exchange for the release of some members. The life imprisonment of other RAF members in 1977 led to the bloodiest period of the organisation's history, known as the German Autumn.

    The first casualty was Siegfried Buback and his entourage, but this was just the beginning. The RAF demanded the release of its founding members Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe in exchange for their hostage, Lorenz. The German Autumn reached its climax when the founding members committed suicide in prison. The following day, the RAF murdered the abducted former Nazi Hanns Martin Schleyer in response.

    The actions of the second generation were not confined to West Germany. As part of the German Autumn in October 1977, members of the RAF also collaborated with Palestinian terrorists once more.

    On an international Lufthansa flight from Mallorca to Frankfurt, the Palestinians took control of the plane and steered it to Mogadishu, Somalia. They demanded not only the release of RAF members, mirroring the requests of those who had abducted Schleyer, but also millions of dollars and the release of some Palestinians who had been detained in Turkey. With 86 hostages on board, it wasn't until an intervention from counterterrorist forces known as the GSG9 and Somali authorities intervened that the plane could be safely returned.

    Dissolution

    Between 1978 and 1982, there were assassination attempts and bank robberies from the RAF, including an unsuccessful one on the chief of NATO. However, as time progressed, some of the members began to go into hiding in left-wing East Germany. The Red Army Faction were responsible for ten murders between 1985 and 1993, including that of the manager of Siemens, Karl Heinz Beckurts in 1986. In total, they killed 34 people.

    After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany, it became clear that the RAF had accepted help from the notorious Stasi (East German secret police). Now that the Stasi was no more, RAF activities dwindled, and the organisation disbanded in 1998.

    Red Army Faction - Key takeaways

    • Born out of university campuses, the Red Army Faction (RAF) was a left-wing terrorist organisation that sought to attack the West German state and the United States' imperialism through violent means.
    • It is widely accepted that the RAF began when Andreas Baader and his accomplices were released from prison by Ulrike Meinhof.
    • During their second stint in jail, which began in 1972, Holger Meins died of a hunger strike, causing outrage from RAF members and stoking the popularity of their cause.
    • Ulrike Meinhof committed suicide in prison in 1976.
    • The "German Autumn" in 1977 was the height of RAF activity. They attempted to bargain with the state to get their comrades released. In the end, these negotiations failed, and prominent members Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe all ended their own lives, while Hanns Martin Schleyer was murdered by the RAF a day later.
    • Activity continued until 1998, with 34 confirmed fatalities resulting from the RAF. It was revealed that the Stasi had been involved in their activities.

    References

    1. Harun Farocki, "Staking One’s Life: Images of Holger Meins (chapter)", Working on the Sight-Lines: Amsterdam University Press (2004) pp. 83 - 91.
    2. Celia Rees, 'This Is Not Forgiveness', Bloomsbury (2012) pp. 139.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Red Army Faction

    What did the Red Army Faction believe in?

    The Red Army Faction were a left-wing terrorist organisation that believed those in control of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) were imperialist aggressors and comparable to the Nazis. 

    Why did the Red Army Faction form?

    The first action of the Red Army Faction was to set Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and others free in 1970. They had been arrested for setting fire to a department store in Frankfurt in 1968.

    Was the Red Army Faction successful?

    The Red Army Faction got noticed due to their terrorist tactics but remained an extremist organisation. They only appealed to left-wing militants but did gain popularity due to their maltreatment in jail and the death of Holger Meins from his hunger strike.

    When was the Red Army Faction active?

    The Red Army Faction was active in some capacity between 1968 and 1998 when it dissolved.

    Who did the Red Army Faction fight against?

    The Red Army Faction primarily fought against politicians in West Germany who they believed acted as an extension of United States imperialism. They also fought against United States generals in West Germany.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who was not a member of the RAF?

    Which event is accepted as the birth of the RAF?

    Which of these RAF members was originally a journalist?

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