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At Least They Weren't Nazis

Review by Marc Fisher
Sunday, April 12, 2009

BAADER-MEINHOF

The Inside Story of the R.A.F.

By Stefan Aust

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Oxford Univ. 457 pp. $29.95

Before 9/11, before terrorism took on a foreign face, there was terror chic: the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, the Baader-Meinhof Gang. This was intellectualized, secular terror of the sort that college radicals could embrace as others of their generation found thrills in rock music or fast cars.

In West Germany in the 1960s and '70s, memories of the Nazi years were fresh enough that the rebellious children of academics, clerics and artists could win considerable sympathy by accusing their elders of being too authoritarian, too (gulp) Nazi-like. The Baader-Meinhof gang, also known as the Red Army Faction, was a bunch of young people enraptured with violence, eager to upset a society that longed for quiet stability, and profiting from a system in which politicians were afraid of taking forceful actions that might recall the Nazi past.

German journalist Stefan Aust reflects that uneasy relationship with his country's traumatic past in his new history of the terrorist movement launched by Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin. Aust, for many years the editor of Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly, has a long history with the RAF. He even played a bit part in one of the gang's exploits, helping to retrieve Meinhof's young twins from a Palestinian orphans' camp after she had abandoned the girls there. But the writer, who calls himself a "participating observer" in the leftist movement, never details his relationship with the gang members and gives only a few clues to his own take on the RAF's years of bank robberies, kidnappings, murders and bombings.

The RAF killed 28 people during seven years of intense activity in the '70s; even after the suicides of its founding members in prison in 1977, remnants of the group kept up the bombings sporadically until 1991. In 1998, the gang's last communique declared its era "history," adding that "the end of this project shows that we cannot succeed." But the RAF's early actions -- as well as a 44-day ordeal in the autumn of 1977 that included the kidnapping of a prominent industrialist and the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet full of German tourists -- still loom larger in Germany today than the Weather Underground bombings of the early 1970s do in the United States.

This is essentially the third time in three decades that Aust has written this book; each time, he updates with new reporting, focusing to a startling degree on whether and how German authorities bugged the gang's prison cells. Somehow, Aust and a still-ambivalent German populace continue to struggle with questions of purity: He seems shocked that his own government might have listened in on confidential conversations between the convicted terrorists and their lawyers, even though those lawyers were smuggling weapons, other contraband and information in and out of the prison.

As appalled as many Germans were by the gang's violence, they found the terrorists fascinating, a weakness the terrorists exploited. After a dramatic escape from state custody in 1970, Baader and his comrades contacted a French journalist and put on a show for her over tea and strawberries before fleeing to a Palestinian terror training camp. The West German government coddled the gang for years; early on, a court found two members not guilty of arson, ruling that their leaflets calling for the burning of department stores were merely "satire."

"If you throw a stone, it's a crime," Meinhof wrote in 1968. "If a thousand stones are thrown, that's political." She knew her audience. The gang's incoherent blend of liberation, rebellion, nihilism and suicide had some appeal in a country desperate to break with its past. In prison, the gang members gave each other code names taken from "Moby-Dick," fancying themselves as part of Ahab's pursuit of the Leviathan, in this case, the evil state.

Aust seems to buy into that sense of romance, especially in a riveting, hour-by-hour account of the RAF's most dramatic crimes that takes up most of the book's second half. He acknowledges only briefly that what the gang really achieved was exactly what it claimed to oppose: a huge expansion of state power in the form of surveillance tactics, computerized policing, fortified courtrooms, high-security prisons and much tougher anti-terror laws.

The truth is not at the heart of this telling of the gang's story, but it emerges nonetheless: Strip away the soap opera and the high school intellectualism, and what remains is a simple tale of thugs in love with violence.

Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist and the paper's bureau chief in Germany from 1989 to 1993, is the author of "After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History."

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