Just over 40 years ago, Germany was gripped with fear as terrorists carried out a series of assassinations and bombings. The culprits? German youth – students and dropouts. The responsible group, known as the Red Army Faction (RAF) or the Baader-Meinhof Group was founded in the late sixties and led by far-left journalist Ulrike Meinhof.
Believing that lessons had not be learned from the horrors of Nazism, Meinhof and her peers increasingly adopted a Marxist outlook, and became convinced that violence was the only way to ‘wake up’ their peers. Coming together with fellow radical Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin, Meinhof and her followers began a campaign of terror in the late sixties that was to last over a decade.
‘Soldiers and police targeted’
Much of the group’s actions, spread over a number of cells, involved bombing buildings linked to the press, that they considered as creator of dangerous propaganda. US soldiers and German police were also targeted for killings. Bank robberies took place, ostensibly to fund the group’s other activities.
Meinhof, Baader, Ensslin and a number of their fellow terrorists, were eventually captured and tried in 1975. During the course of the trial, Meinhof was found in her cell, hanged in May, 1976. Rather than quench the group’s burning anger, the imprisonment of the founding members, and Meinhof’s suicide kicked into gear a series of events known as the ‘German Autumn’.
On April 7th, as German Attorney-General Siegfried Buback was being driven to work at the Bundgerichtshof in Karlsruhe, Baden-Württemberg, a motorcycle with two riders pulled up beside his Mercedes and sprayed the car with bullets. Buback died almost instantaneously.
Later that year, on July 30th, the chairman of Dresdner Bank was shot in a failed kidnapping attempt at his home in Frankfurt. It was another attempt at kidnapping in October that was to prove a fatal misstep for the group.
On September 5th, 1977, wealthy businessman Hans Martin Schleyer was being driven through Cologne when a baby carriage rolled out into the street. Braking sharply, his car was ambushed by RAF members, who killed his protective team before spiriting Schleyer away.
Demanding the release of Baader and Ensslin, intermediaries entered into negotiations with the police. A resolution was almost met when Palestinian terrorists, sympathetic to the group, hijacked an airliner, filled with mostly German tourists on October 13th. Their demands were the release of 10 leading RAF figures who were in a jail in Stuttgart.
Following the storming of the plane and the killing of those terrorists on October 18th by West German special forces, the remaining members of the RAF committed suicide at Stammheim Prison. With their demands not met, Schleyer’s kidnappers murdered him on the same day, leaving him in the boot of a car near the French border.
In the wake of the suicide of the RAF founders, and Schleyer’s murder, the group would continue to periodically strike out at targets, although not as fiercely, and without the same impact as their earlier activities. In fact, the last recorded actions by the group occurred in 1993, with bombings of a bank that was being constructed in Weiterstadt, Hesse. In 1998, the group dissolved with a statement sent to media outlets. Not only had many groups members reached middle age, but the political landscape had begun to fundamentally change.
Terrorist activity can start at home
In an age when we increasingly look to ‘the other’ as the source of terror, it’s important to remember that for decades, much of the terrorist activity taking place across Germany – all across Europe, actually – came from within, motivated by extremist politics and motivated by the seismic power shifts taking place across Europe.
At a time when political rhetoric and extremist material is more available than ever via the internet, it’s vital that we consider how young people become radicalized by the extremes of both the far-left and right. Terror is terror, no matter where it arises. The tactics and motivations are remarkably similar. It is up to everyone to watch for the signs of radicalization, and make the appropriate warnings.