BERLIN -- On a side street in Berlin lined with galleries, alternative bookstores and Turkish fast-food joints, hip young people stroll past the Molotov-Cocktail bar wearing T-shirts with red stars and drab military parkas.
Most are too young to remember the 1970s, when a group known as the Baader-Meinhof gang terrorized West Germany. Their outfits, however, pay homage to what fashion critics here call "terrorist chic," with some designers even printing "Prada Meinhof" on trendy clothes.
Felix Ensslin discusses a photo montage of his mother and father, a member of the Red Army Faction.
(Shannon Smiley For The Washington Post)
Memories of the days when Germany was the target of homegrown terrorism have been reawakened by an exhibition of artwork about the Baader-Meinhof gang, also known as the Red Army Faction. The exhibit, which opened last month at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, has sparked an emotional debate over the meaning of those times, as well as of the radicals.
"Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition" is the first comprehensive exhibit on art inspired by the group, which terrorized Germany for almost 30 years. Critics have slammed it for glorifying terrorists and making them icons, in the same vein as the modern-day "terrorist-chic" fashion styles.
"The RAF's terrorism is downplayed, if not even glorified," said Friedbert Pflueger, a member of the German Parliament. "And there is no distinction between culprits and victims." He said he was concerned that the exhibit presented members of the group as "misguided, sensitive young people," and not "murderers -- killers . . . who held no regard for democracy."
Supporters of the exhibit counter that it is not their responsibility to explain the politics or history of the group. "This is an exhibition on the perception of the RAF, not on the RAF itself," said Felix Ensslin, an organizer of the display whose father was a member of the group.
"This is an art exhibit," added Gerhart Baum, a former German interior minister who is in favor of the exhibit. "It has a political character, yes, but it does not intend to give political answers or interpretations."
The show's opening was delayed by two years because public outrage pressured the government to withdraw financial support.
The RAF was one of West Germany's first organized leftist terrorist groups. It formed in 1970 in response to two issues: Germany's compliance with the Vietnam War and its struggle to break with its Nazi past. At a time when thousands of young people were demonstrating around the country, a small minority, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, turned to armed resistance.
Experts are uncertain how many members the group had, with estimates ranging from several dozen to a few hundred. Members robbed banks, killed hostages and hijacked a plane. Police officers and U.S. soldiers based in Germany were among the dozens of people killed. As attorneys in the 1970s, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Interior Minister Otto Schily both defended RAF members in court.
Works from more than 50 international artists were selected for the exhibit. A knockoff of the Mona Lisa, "Mona Meinhof," features the face of one of the gang leaders. Hans-Peter Feldmann's "The Dead" displays photos of group members who died during the era and of those they killed.
Many Germans say the debate is so intense because the public has not come to grips with what the group was about. "The digestion process takes a long time," said Klaus Biesenbach, the exhibit's curator.
Christoph Daase, a political scientist at Munich University, said in a way, the exhibit is evidence that the RAF -- by becoming a symbol of pop culture -- has finally been stripped of any lingering power. "People wear the RAF insignia, but only because it looks chic," he said. "One could argue that this is the real, true end of the RAF."