Tiny West German Group Vows To Overthrow State

On May 14th, 1970 Andreas Baader, who had been arrested for arson in 1967, was successfully freed from a West German jail in an armed assault led by Ulrike Meinhof. Less than a month later, on June 5th an article appeared in the West German underground newspaper Agit 883 entitled “Build the Red Army!” This article marked the beginning of the Red Army Fraktion, one Germany’s most powerful and prolific terrorist organisations and a champion of left wing European terrorism in the late twentieth century, however the group was more commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. In the years that followed, the activities of the Baader-Meinhof Gang attracted much international press coverage, particularly in the United States. The aim of this research paper was to look at how the American press reported specifically on the activities of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and more generally on the rise of left wing terrorism in Europe.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang operated in response to what they perceived as the installation of a fascist American regime in West Germany. Their goal was to eliminate American fascism through bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. They were not alone in their actions as left-wing terrorist groups sprang up all across Europe in countries such as Italy, Belgium and France. This left-wing activity represented a significant threat to traditional American values. West Germany was particularly important to America as it was under Four Power control and also represented a bulwark from the communist Soviet Union. For these reasons, American newspapers such as the New York Times, Stars and Stripes and Associated Press were quick to report on the activities of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

Part of the American coverage of the gang included romanticising them to better relate the characters to the audience and make the information more easily consumable. This is how the gang earned the name “Baader-Meinhof Gang” even though they never referred to themselves this way. This name was given to them as Andreas Baader was their leader and Ulrike Meinhof had planned the rescue attempt that initially brought them to fame. The American press latched on to these two names, despite the fact that Baader was dating Gudrun Ensslin, and dubbed them “West Germany’s Bonnie and Clyde.” The members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang always referred to themselves as the RAF, which stood for Red Army Fraktion. Yet even when the American media referred to them this way they quite often misunderstood the “F” to stand for “Faction” rather than “Fraktion,” an important distinction to the RAF who wanted to appear as part of a larger entity rather than an isolated group.

The activities of the gang were often contextualised in regards to larger movements in America. This included the second wave feminist movement, which began in the 1960s and continued through the 1970s. This led to prominent female members such as Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin often being reported on by virtue of their sex, resulting in headlines such as “Women Deeply Involved in European Terrorism” and “Women Terrorist Groups Flourish in Germany” appearing in The New York Times and Associated Press by the end of 1977. These articles often reported on left wing terrorism as the dark side of women’s liberation, which was itself proving a challenge to established traditions. The Baader-Meinhof Gang often played this angle to further promote their actions. In a conversation with Margaret Schiller, Ulrike Meinhof is reported to have said:

“If women rise up and fight persistently, it subverts the system … Women may even take up arms: they’re not supposed to do that. That’s why people hate us.”

Poster for the movie "Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex" featuring Johanna Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin

Poster for the movie “Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex” featuring Johanna Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin

Along with second wave feminist movement, the Baader-Meinhof Gang was also contextualised in relation to the Cold War, another important theme of 1970s America. The actions of the Baader-Meinhof Gang were often referred to in nationalistic terms, thereby distancing America from European domestic terrorism. A 1977 article in The New York Times linked the Baader-Meinhof Gang with both France, who were still struggling to process their defeat in WWII, and Russia, the new communist threat. This article, along with others, sought to imply that domestic terrorism was a uniquely European affair, ignoring the Weather Underground movement that had started in Boston in 1970 and shared many similar ideologies to the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

In 1976, Ulrike Meinhof committed suicide and in 1977 Andreas Baader and several other prominent gang members died in suspicious circumstances. Their deaths marked the end of the first era of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, although the organisation continued as the Red Army Faction until 1998. Over 80 articles directly relating to the gang were published in American papers in 1977 alone, covering Baaders trial and death, illustrating the significance of the Baader-Meinhof Gang to the American audience.

Bibliography

Aust, Stefan. The Baader-Meinhof Gang Complex. Translated by A. Bell. London: The Bodley Head, 2008

“Baader-Meinhof Komplex, Der.” Internet Movie Posters Awards. http://www.impawards.com/intl/germany/2008/baader_meinhof_komplex.html

Further reading

“Baader-Meinhof.com: the baader-meinhof gang and the invention of modern terror.” Richard Huffman. www.baader-meinhof.com. This site contains a large collection of newspaper articles and further sources on the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

Becker, Jillian. Hitler’s Children: The Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang. London: Michael Joseph, 1977

Koenen, Gerd. “Armed Innocence.” In Baader-Meinhof Returns: History and Cultural Memory of German Left-Wing Terrorism, edited by edited by Gerrit-Jan Berendse and Ingo Cornils. New York: Rodopi, 2008, pp. 23-38

Vague, Tom. Televisionaries: The Red Army Faction Story 1963-1993. Edinburgh: AK Press, 1994

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2 comments on “Tiny West German Group Vows To Overthrow State

  1. dowie101 says:

    Thanks for this, I’ve always been fascinated with the RAF since I was young and the fact that what they accomplished, almost paralyzing West Germany in the 70s really can’t be imagined nowadays. I actually never realized the r in Fraktion part, so thank you for enlightening me. Again, thanks for the blog and the links are great!

  2. This is a really interesting blog post, and a great case study of how dominant the American media is when it comes to informing on events and issues overseas – a very relevant issue today. When I read articles online about Islamic State for example they’re usually always from American news sources. The internet is saturated with American content and we are lazily, consciously or not, more inclined to read and learn from news articles that appear on the first page of google news. My own, very limited, knowledge of the RAF is influenced by Western portrayals – your point about Baader and Meinhof being painted as Bonnie and Clyde for instance is how I’ve always thought of them, thanks to Western pop culture. I liked the way you challenged these portrayals and interpretations of the ‘gang’ by American media and provided a good context as to why they were treated in such a way. Overall, a great read!

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