Red Ghosts

7 minute read

In the age of Osama Bin Laden, it is easy to forget how a small group of young, middle-class Germans calling themselves the Red Army Faction (RAF) held postwar West Germany in its murderous thrall for more than two decades. In the late 1970s, at the zenith of the RAF’s influence, the captains of Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder traveled with armed bodyguards and avoided commercial airlines for fear of being blown out of the sky; police set aside civil liberties in a hunt for suspects that engendered something close to national hysteria. The RAF targeted and killed bankers, business titans, jurists, bureaucrats and policemen in a delusional campaign of “armed struggle” aimed at revealing a fascist core beneath the self-satisfied mien of West Germany’s democratic institutions. In those “years of lead,” West Germany seemed hopelessly at war with itself, its self-confidence shaken to the core.

An echo of that trauma is sounding a generation later, in a very different Germany. In coming weeks, the last two major RAF terrorists still in prison could go free. One will become eligible for parole, and the second is appealing to the German President for early release. The prospect has stirred calls from some that Germany give no quarter to those who “mercilessly killed wives, men and fathers with the aim of destroying our democracy,” as Volker Kauder, leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union faction in the Bundestag, said recently. Others insist on a cooler approach. “Terrorism is a challenge for all of us,” said Wolfgang Kraushaar, a political scientist at Hamburg’s Institute for Social Research and co-author and editor of a 2006 history of the RAF. “But this was 30 years ago. It is important to draw a line.”

The terrorists now being considered for release were key, hard-core figures of the “second generation” of the RAF, those who succeeded the founding cadre around Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader. Brigitte Mohnhaupt, 57, a former journalism student, was appointed leader of the group in 1977; Christian Klar, 54, once deemed a “moralist” by his high school teacher, was among the last to insist that the group remain operative before it formally disbanded in 1998. In July 1977 — 14 months after Meinhof hanged herself in prison and three months after Baader and two other confederates were convicted of murder in a controversial trial — Mohnhaupt and Klar accompanied a young RAF recruit named Susanne Albrecht as she brought a bouquet of flowers to the villa of her godfather, Dresdner Bank chairman Jürgen Ponto. When Ponto turned to pick up a vase, Klar and Mohnhaupt both opened fire, killing him. Two months later, in an attempt to spring their jailed comrades, the pair were part of a RAF team that kidnapped leading industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer; fellow terrorists engineered the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane. When German special forces killed three of the four hijackers and rescued the hostages in Mogadishu, Somalia, Baader and two others killed themselves in their cells; within two days of the attack at Mogadishu, investigators found Schleyer’s body stuffed in the trunk of a car in France.

Historians of the RAF say that by the time Klar and Mohnhaupt assumed their prominent roles in the group, the founders’ ideals had become secondary to all-out war on the state. “Once [Klar] started shooting,” recalled one acquaintance recently to the weekly Der Spiegel, “he couldn’t stop until the magazine was empty.” For a generation of Germans who survived World War II, the violence of those years awakened old traumas. “The RAF is history, thank God,” says Butz Peters, a Berlin lawyer who has written several books on the group. “But the emotions associated with it — the powerlessness and desperation — have never quite disappeared.”

Mohnhaupt and Klar were arrested in 1982 and convicted respectively on 18 and 20 counts of murder and attempted murder; both were sentenced to life in prison in 1985. While German lifers, on average, become eligible for parole after 17 years, the judge ordered Mohnhaupt and Klar to serve at least 24 and 26 years respectively, in light of their “particularly heavy guilt.” Mohnhaupt may be paroled next month, and her prison warden said her psychological assessment showed no risk of “backsliding.” Klar is not eligible for parole until 2009, but he has appealed for early release. “Of course, I have to acknowledge my guilt,” he wrote in that 2003 request. “I understand the feelings of the victims and I regret the suffering of these people.” German President Horst Köhler is expected to decide on the appeal next month.

Family members of the RAF’s 34 victims, including Schleyer’s widow, have joined conservative politicians in urging the President to reject Klar’s application. Some want Mohnhaupt kept in jail, too. Markus Söder, general secretary of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats, said that releasing the prisoners would be a “slap in the face” for the victims and their relatives. A recent poll conducted by the Bonn-based firm Omniquest found 65% of Germans against Klar being granted early parole; the proportion rose to 73% among Germans aged 29 or less. Omniquest chief Falk Böhmer attributed the law-and-order stance to young Germans “seeking support and comfort in family, friends and relationships — things that are threatened by terrorism.”

That generational shift is notable. Many Germans raised in the 1960s, caught up in the backlash against their parents’ involvement with National Socialism, tacitly sympathized with the RAF’s stated goals, though rarely with their tactics. Films such as Die Bleierne Zeit (1981) and Stammheim (1986) depicted the terrorists as victims of their times. In the 1990s, a Hamburg-based designer even created a T shirt with the slogan prada-meinhof. Since Sept. 11, such radical chic has lost its allure.

Indeed, terrorism has moved on since the RAF’s class-struggle attacks. For all its viciousness, the RAF was not out to indiscriminately kill large numbers of civilians. But neither were its members the high-minded revolutionaries their admirers wanted them to be. Bettina Röhl, who recently wrote an acclaimed biography of her mother, Ulrike Meinhof, argues that Germany “has a problem” with the RAF. “Our society needs to stop turning them into stars,” she told Time. Instead, she said, it needs to “treat the RAF rationally, as ‘normal’ criminals.” For Röhl, younger Germans’ inclination to be more interested in the “historical fact” of the RAF than in its ideology “is the new zeitgeist — and it’s healthy for us.”

It may even be a historic imperative. Germany has so far been spared a direct attack by the new generation of Islamic terrorists, but it cannot avoid the universal struggle to balance civil liberties with security. Allegations surfaced recently, for instance, that the former Social Democratic government of Gerhard Schröder deliberately left German-born Turkish national Murat Kurnaz in U.S. custody at Guantánamo Bay despite the absence of evidence against him. Current Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was Schröder’s chief of staff at the time, says he acted appropriately with the knowledge available to him then.

That dispute serves as a vivid and contemporary reminder to Germans of how morally complex preventing terrorism can be. In such an environment, there is little room for the emotionalism that has suffused the debate over the RAF. Political scientist Kraushaar says Germany cannot effectively face new risks in the age of fundamentalist Islamic terror without first taming old demons. The best antidote to the ideological poison of terrorism, in short, may not be to confer special punishments on its practitioners, but simply to let the law take its course on a pair of aging murderers.

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