Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The Bonnie and Clyde of Terror: Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof
This article of mine appears in the Daily Express. It's quite a long one, so I'm posting it in two parts. Part Two to follow shortly.
He was the handsome school drop out- a car thief who loved violence and causing mayhem. She was the pretty middle-class girl, the university-educated daughter of an renowned art historian, who gave up a career in journalism- and her belief in pacifism- to join what she called the ‘resistance’ against international capitalism. Together, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof (pictured above)- of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang, waged a war of terror which included bombings, kidnappings, and politically-motivated assassinations.
Thirty years on from their deaths, a new German film, The Baader-Meinhof Complex is reigniting the controversies surrounding the couple- known as the Bonnie and Clyde of Seventies terrorism- and dividing the country as much as the gang‘s activities did in the 1970s. The film has been accused of glamorising the violence of the Baader-Meinhof gang and portraying the pair as heroes. “The Baader Meinhof Complex is the worst-case scenario - it would not be possible to top its hero worship." is the opinion of Meinhof’s daughter Bettina Röhl. The film has also angered relatives of victims of Baader-Meinhof’s terrorist acts. "It is cruel that little consideration has been shown towards the family members. We feel we're playing the victim all over again” says Michael Buback, whose father was murdered by the gang in 1977. Meanwhile the widow of one of the gang's victims, banker Jürgen Ponto -whose murder is graphically portrayed in the film, has handed back her Federal Cross of Merit, Germany's highest civilian honour, to the German government in protest.
But while the film will shock many- there are Germans for whom Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, despite their acts of violence, are regarded in a more favourable light: as two young idealists taking on power and privilege in an attempt to build a better society.
The genesis of the Baader-Meinhof campaign of terror begins in the student disturbances at German universities in the late 1960s. The fatal shooting, by the German police of student Benno Ohnesorg who was protesting against the visit of the Shah of Iran to Berlin and the attempted assassination of the student activist Rudy Dutschke in April 1968 had a radicalising effect on both Baader and Meinhof, who was then working as a journalist for a left-wing magazine. Shocked by the attack, Meinhof wrote: “Protest is when I say this does not please me. Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more”. From now on, both Baader and Meinhof were to pursue more violent means to achieve their political goals. "If one sets a car on fire, that is a criminal offence. If one sets hundreds of cars on fire, that is political action” Meinhof wrote.
In the spring of 1968, Baader, together with his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin had set fire to two department stores in Frankfurt as a protest against the Vietnam War. They were both arrested and sent to jail and it was in covering the story that Ulrike Meinhof first met the man with whom she was to forge her infamous alliance.
The gang was launched in dramatic fashion in May 1970. The imprisoned Baader was allowed to study at the library of a research institute outside the prison, without handcuffs. Meinhof (still working as a journalist) and two other “garishly dressed” girls were allowed to join him, and aided in his escape by opening a door to admit a masked man who fired shots that wounded the 64-year-old librarian. Baader, the three women and the masked man fled through a window. The Baader-Meinhof gang was born.
Both Baader and Meinhof were now outlaws- Baader and the three women involved were accused of attempted murder and a 10,000DM reward was offered for Meinhof's capture. For the next two years, Meinhof enthusiastically threw herself into the gang’s ‘resistance’ campaign.
Baader and Meinhof certainly made an odd couple. With his penchant for dark sunglasses, skin-tight velvet trousers and black leather jackets, the dandyish Baader modelled himself on the Hollywood actor Marlon Brando. Having failed at a succession of jobs, he had worked as a male model, supplementing his income by stealing cars, before deciding to devote himself to revolutionary politics. Meinhof, a shy, attractive woman with long brown hair had studied sociology and philosophy at university. She was a deep-thinking intellectual who smoked incessantly and was prone to depression. So committed was she to what she called the ‘anti-imperialist’ struggle that she even arranged for her two young daughters to be sent to Jordan to be raised as Palestinian fighters.
In September 1970, the Baader Meinhof gang (officially styling itself the ‘Red Army'- and later ‘Red Army Faction’), carried out three bank robberies simultaneously, netting over 200,000 DM in the process.
Bader-Meinhof’s most audacious bank robbery came in February 1972, when the gang, dressed in full carnival-mask regalia, raided the Bavarian Mortgage and Exchange Bank, netting DM 285,000. Meanwhile, their campaign of violence was stepped up. The gang placed three bombs in the US Army headquarters at Frankfurt, destroying the officers mess and killing a Vietnam war veteran. In May 1972, they bombed the Augsburg police headquarters and blew up the car lot of the Munich Criminal Investigation Unit. That same month, a car bomb was placed in the car of the judge who had signed most of the Baader-Meinhof arrest warrants- the judge‘s wife, who was in the car when it exploded was severely injured. Also in May 1972, the gang parked two cars containing bombs in the barracks of the US Army Supreme European Command in Heidelberg. When the bombs exploded they killed three American soldiers: a communique from the gang said the attack were a "response to the American bombings in Vietnam"