Germans Reliving Red Army Faction's Season of Terror

Deutsche Bank chairman Alfred Herrhausen was killed in November 1989 when his car was bombed by the Red Army Faction in Bad Homburg.
Deutsche Bank chairman Alfred Herrhausen was killed in November 1989 when his car was bombed by the Red Army Faction in Bad Homburg. (Kurt Strumpf - AP)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 4, 2007

OBERURSEL, Germany -- Bearing a bouquet of red roses, the terrorists rang the bell at the German banker's mansion and asked politely if he was available for tea.

Shortly after entering the foyer and handing the flowers to their unwitting host -- Juergen Ponto, chief executive of Dresdner Bank and confidant to West Germany's chancellor -- the three visitors drew handguns and opened fire. Then they vanished into the twilight of this wealthy suburb outside Frankfurt, leaving a prominent German capitalist dead.

Ponto's killing, on July 30, 1977, began a wave of terrorist attacks that traumatized German society like no other events since World War II. The perpetrators, a leftist guerrilla group known as the Red Army Faction, went on to hijack a Lufthansa flight, assassinate other German business executives and nearly kill two U.S. generals in Europe.

Thirty years later, Germany is suddenly reliving the events of 1977 and finding residents still bitterly divided over their meaning, thanks to a court decision to parole one of the terrorist masterminds, Brigitte Mohnhaupt, now 57, later this month. Another Red Army Faction leader, Christian Klar, 54, is also seeking an early release from prison that could occur in the next two years.

Both were convicted of murder in the Ponto slaying and have been accused of a long list of other bombings and crimes in the 1970s and 1980s. After serving more than two decades in prison, however, neither has apologized or shown any remorse for their ideological fanaticism.

The prospect of their release has stirred a passionate public debate over whether they should be forgiven after all these years. It has also prompted many Germans to question whether they have failed to resolve a painful chapter of their past that some had assumed was buried.

"With this new debate, many wounds have been reopened," said Butz Peters, a lawyer and author of three books on the Red Army Faction. "The question is, how do we deal with 1977? 1977 has not been forgotten, and it is still a deep wound in the German soul."

The Red Army Faction was founded in 1970, an offshoot of a vigorous leftist student movement that had taken root across West Germany. Initially known for low-casualty bombings of police and military facilities, the group became progressively more violent in the late 1970s, targeting for assassination industrialists, prosecutors and other agents of what it termed "the capitalist state."

While few Germans embraced the bloodshed, sympathy for the group's ideological goals was widespread within the rebellious generation born after World War II, which was seeking to make a sharper break with the country's Nazi past and its postwar alliance with the United States. The social revolution divided many families, especially in the West German financial capital of Frankfurt and its wealthy suburbs.

"In Oberursel, you had very, very rich families very high in the business world, and yet all of their three children were communists," said Hans-Georg Brum, a former student activist who now is mayor of this town of 43,000 people. "It was a very strange time back then. We were all very critical of society. The question was, how far can you go? Can you turn to violence?"

Brum was a 21-year-old student at the time of the Ponto murder. He recalled driving by the Ponto estate that evening on his way to a concert and seeing police cars outside. News quickly spread that the banker had been shot. The impact of the crime on German society, Brum said, was immediate -- even committed leftists realized that the Red Army Faction had crossed a line.

"Any kind of support or understanding for the RAF immediately vanished," he said. "It was incomprehensible that people would commit murder like this."

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