Stefan Aust Discusses the History Behind His 'Baader Meinhof Complex'
Stefan Aust wrote "The Baader Meinhof Complex," the nonfiction account of the German urban terrorist organization that inspired the movie of the same name, opening Friday. Aust, a former editor of Der Spiegel, spoke this week from his office in Berlin about Germany in the 1960s, terrorism then and now.
-- Ann Hornaday
The film opens in Washington on Sept. 11, a date with obvious symbolic and historical meaning in this country. Do you see connections between the activities of the Baader Meinhof group and the terrorist attacks in 2001?
I think there are a lot. First, both events have to do with the Middle East. The Palestinian conflict was always like a red thread that has run through terrorism for last 30 or 40 years. The Red Army Faction had connections to the Palestinian Liberation Organization [in the film, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof train at a PLO camp in Jordan]. If you compare what [al-Qaeda's Osama] bin Laden or [Ayman] Zawahiri say, if you take out all the religious phrases, you have a manifesto which is very similar to what the RAF wrote. It's a social revolutionary movement.
Also, the RAF was almost perfect in using the means of communication. Because in a certain way, terrorism is always communicating with violence. If you look at 9/11, from a strategic point of view, it's perfect to fly your first plane into the first tower, then wait until all the TV stations in world have put their cameras on the smoking building, and then fly the second plane into the second building. If you compare the suicidal side of both, [they're] very similar.
Although the RAF didn't advocate suicide bombings.
Terrorism always has a suicidal side. The RAF didn't use belts of explosives or blow themselves up, but they always used their bodies as weapons. And at the same time, both [the RAF and al-Qaeda] regarded themselves as martyrs for a big thing.
One of the things "The Baader Meinhof Complex" does particularly well is situate the group's actions within a specific, and uniquely German, context.
This was the first postwar generation in Germany. There were people in important positions in the German government who had been in important positions in fascist Germany. In schools, in universities, in the police and judicial systems, we had people who had been part of the Nazi system. So the protest of this young generation wasn't like other countries -- it wasn't just about Vietnam or sympathizing with liberation movements around the world. It was always a protest against their parents' generation and old Nazis being in powerful positions.
"The Baader Meinhof Complex" was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year. How was it received in Germany?
We had almost the same discussions [when the movie was released] that we had when it really happened, just not so violently. But still, some people said, "You're portraying them as heroes," which in fact is not true. Other people from the other side said, "You're portraying them as murderers," which is true. But we were trying to explain why they did it and what background they came from. We were trying to show that this was an episode in history, not only something a few crazy people did, and that they were embedded in a certain time.