Baader-Meinhoff: The Inside Story of the R.A.F., Stefan Aust’s book about the Red Army Faction a terrorist group active in West Germany during the 1970’s, offers an interesting counterpoint to John Berger’s From A to X. While Mr. Berger’s novel asks readers to sympathize with a romantic vision of his characters, Mr. Aust’s non-fiction account of an actual terrorist organization makes sympathy for those involved nearly impossible.Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff, the two ‘leaders’ of the Red Army Faction, were not romantically linked but they did form the nexus of a group of young radicals determined to undermine the political/social system of West Germany in the late 1960’s. As was the case with the movements that became Al-Qaeda, the Red Army Faction was radicalized by government corruption and violence– Al-Qaeda by the torture their early leaders experienced in Egyptian prisons as covered in The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, the Red Army Faction by the violent attack on a peaceful anti-Shah demonstration that ended with one demonstrator shot to death by the police and by the attempted assassination of fellow radical Rudi Dutschke. However, soon the means became the end as far as the RAF was concerned. They did not seem to have a coherent political philosophy they were trying to advance; blowing up buildings and robbing banks appears to be the RAF’s sole purpose. Whatever deeper goal they may have had is not discussed in Mr. Aust’s book.
That is the only fault I can find with it and it may be a fault with the RAF rather than with Mr. Aust’s account. Mr. Aust covers the history of the Red Army Faction from its early inception to its heyday and its eventual collapse. The story is as hard to put down as it is to believe. Today terrorism is thought of exclusively in terms of radical Islam, but in the 1970’s it was embraced by western radical groups as well. The RAF was responsible for multiple bank robberies, several bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and eventually the hi-jacking of a Lufthansa airline. They worked with the PLO and with the East German Stasi over the course of two decades going through three generations of members. That the RAF became celebrated as radical icons does not speak well for the left.
After arresting the first generation of R.A.F. members, the West German government built a special courthouse just to hold the trials of the leadership including Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader. As the U.S. approaches moving terrorist suspects to U.S. prisons in order to put them on trial, we would all do well to consider what happened with the RAF leadership. Things did not go well during the three-year-long trial.
In the end, Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F. does not provide the answers I wanted, namely why did they all do it. In the final analysis, those involved were nothing more than common criminals, spoiled rich kids who used the war in Vietnam as an excuse to wreak havoc on their country. They would steal a car saying their actions protest a corrupt system, but the car they’d steal could easily be yours or mine and the act of stealing it did nothing to better the lives of anyone in Vietnam. In retrospect, the RAF members seem to be little more than dupes, easily manipulated into lives of crime by each other, by Palestinian terrorists, by the East German Stasi. How anyone could conclude the capitalist system is corrupt and then embrace the government of East Germany as liberating is beyond me.
But it makes for very interesting reading.
As part of the Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge I watched the recent German language movie based on Stefan Aust’s book. Like the book, it is fast paced, full of action and suspense and it covers all the main events in the RAF’s history which the book covered.
It’s my belief that movies glamorize everything; they can’t help it. Project anything on a giant screen and it becomes glamorous–there’s no way around it. But the filmmakers stay true enough to the source material so this problem is largely avoided. I cannot say the same for the trailer. The trailer makes the RAF look like some sort of Robin Hood-like folk heroes, which the movie itself does not do. If you have to choose one or the other, I’d say read the book. But if you’re curious about the RAF the movie will suffice in a pinch.
I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2010. I’m rerunning it here to close out both Non-fiction November and German Literature Month. I enjoyed both and wish I had read more for each. I think I’m going to continue pushing both categories to the front of my TBR line for the next month or so. I’ve several titles that I didn’t get a chance to read yet.