German director Uli Edel’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008) is a riveting portrayal of the career of the Red Army Fraction (Rote Armee Fraktion), a left-wing terrorist group better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang after Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, two of the group’s founders. The other founders were Gudrun Ensslin and Horst Mahler (now a comrade on the Right and a prisoner of conscience in Occupied Germany).
The movie begins in 1967 with student protests of a visit by the Shah of Iran. On June 2, 1967, Benno Ohnesorg, one of the protestors was shot in the head and killed by a police officer, Karl-Heinz Kurras. After the fall of East Germany, it was revealed that Kurras was an agent of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Apparently, he killed Ohnesorg to manufacture a martyr and further radicalize West German students. He succeeded wildly and must be reckoned the godfather of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. (The Stasi later gave direct aid to the RAF.)
Another polarizing event came on April 11, 1968, when student leader Rudi Dutschke was shot three times in the head by a Right-wing assassin Josef Bachmann. (Amazingly, Dutschke survived until 1979, before drowning in a bathtub from a seizure brought on by his wounds.)
Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin began their career as terrorists on April 2, 1968 by setting fire to a department store in protest of the Vietnam War. They were arrested and convicted but fled before sentencing to Rome. Returning to Germany with forged papers, Baader was arrested for reckless driving in a stolen car. Ulrike Meinhof helped him escape custody, during which the group spilled its first blood.
They fled to Jordan to receive training from the PLO but were expelled because of Baader’s bad attitude and rejection of military discipline.
Returning to Germany, they pulled off a series of bank robberies, bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations until Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin, plus Holger Meins and Jan-Carl Raspe, were hunted down and arrested in 1972. (Mahler had been arrested in 1970.)
After the arrest of the leaders, the remaining members launched a new series of bombings, killings, and abductions, plus the seizure of the West German Embassy in Stockholm and the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane. While the first phase of the RAF’s violence was directed against American military personnel and Germans who supported NATO and the Vietnam War, the later phase of activity focused entirely on extorting the release of the RAF leaders. (A “third generation” of the RAF operated in the 1980s and ’90s until the group announced that it had disbanded in 1998.)
All told, the RAF was responsible for 34 murders, plus robberies, arsons, and bombings that caused countless injuries. In the end, they accomplished absolutely nothing but destruction.
While in prison, the RAF leaders staged several hunger strikes, and Holger Meins died as a result of one on November 9, 1974. On May 21, 1975, Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, and Raspe went on trial. On May 9, 1976, Ulrike Meinhof was found dead in her cell, hanged with a rope made of strips of towel. Naturally, the surviving members of the group claimed she had been murdered. On April 8, 1977, Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe were convicted of terrorism and multiple murders and attempted murders. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.
After their conviction, the remaining members of the RAF stepped up their campaign of murders and kidnappings, culminating in the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane in Spain by four Arab collaborators on October 13, 1977. They demanded the release of Baader, Ensslin, Raspe, and others. On October 16, they murdered the pilot. On October 18, the plane was assaulted in Mogadishu by an elite German federal police unit. All four hijackers were shot, three of them dying on the spot, and no passengers were seriously injured.
The RAF prisoners heard the announcement of the end of the hijacking on their radios. The next morning, Baader and Raspe were found in their cells, both shot in the head. Baader was dead, and Raspe died in hospital. Ensslin was found hanged. A fourth RAF member, Irmgard Möller, had four stab wounds in her chest but survived. The deaths were ruled a suicide pact, but Möller claimed they had been murdered. (Of course she would.) The movie ends there.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex is an excellent movie, and I recommend it highly. I liked the script, cast, acting, consummate craftsmanship, and captivating storytelling. It has an air of objectivity, and it is hard to say what the director’s agenda is. I found the Baader-Meinhof Gang repulsive, but that was probably more a matter of my outlook than the director’s. (Actually, I went into this movie wanting to like them.) Still, if the director wanted to make pro-Baader-Meinhof propaganda, he would have made a very different movie.
I did not find the Baader-Meinhof Gang repulsive because they were terrorists. After all, they killed and maimed fewer people in 28 years of terrorism than the putative “good guys” killed in 28 seconds at Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Baghdad, and the list will only get longer. And although they killed the occasional bystander and other innocents, they were far less ruthless and indiscriminate than the people who use firebombs, nukes, and napalm. How anyone can think that terrorism is worse than war is utterly beyond me.
No, what made the Baader-Meinhof Gang repulsive were their aims and the sick psychology that meshed with them. (From what I have been able to gather online, the movie’s portrayal of the personalities, actions, and motivations of the gang members is accurate.)
1. The Baader-Meinhof Gang were paradigmatic deracinated white ethnomasochists and xenophiles. They fought for the Vietnamese and the Palestinians against people of their own blood. If some of them were Jews, one could at least impute a healthy if dissimulated ethnocentrism. But they were all apparently Germans who sincerely hated their own kind. The most shocking expression of this psychology is the fact is that Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin both abandoned their own children in order to devote themselves to revolution.
2. Unsurprisingly, given their hatred of their own kind, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin are portrayed as spoiled children. The personalities of the rest of the group are less clearly limned, but we can at least say that they were compatible with Baader and Ensslin for however long they associated with them.
Baader had all the marks of a narcissistic borderline personality: vain, mercurial, manipulative, posturing, chameleon-like, irritable, needy, irrational, arrogant, and, in the end, destructive of all who followed him. The majority of the group consisted of the sort of women—most of them quite attractive—who apparently found such infantile narcissism irresistible. (Perhaps Meinhof and Ensslin abandoned their children because they knew that Baader could suffer the presence of no other infant than himself.)
3. The Baader-Meinhof Gang was less a disciplined revolutionary army than a bunch of hooligans. Getting drunk, stealing sports cars, and firing pistols on midnight joy rides did not advance the group’s putative agenda but imperiled it.
The scene at the PLO training camp is priceless: Baader throws a tantrum because he does not like military training and discipline. In a Muslim country, he insists on sharing quarters with his harem who sunbathe with him in the nude. (Yet Ulrike Meinhof was willing to abandon her two daughters to be raised in the Muslim world. Fortunately, their father kidnapped them before this could happen.)
After the leaders were arrested, the remaining gang members focused all their attention on getting them out of jail, not on advancing their larger revolutionary objectives. If Baader et al. had been disinterested idealists, they would have directed their followers to abandon them and focus instead on the cause.
4. In the end, Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, and Raspe were weaklings who preferred suicide to imprisonment. After first confining them in veritable dungeons, the indulgent older generation gave in to the whining of their spoiled children and created a special prison for them, a virtual palace with spacious cells, bookcases, televisions, and radios. (No bean bag chairs or lava lamps were visible in these revolutionary rec rooms.) They were isolated from the tiresome and dangerous company of common criminals and allowed to socialize and collaborate with one another.
Although it seems hard to believe the Baader and Raspe could have shot themselves in prison, once you see the leniency of the system towards them, one wonders why they even had to smuggle guns in. (It is harder to explain how Baader was shot in the back of the head, NKVD style, but maybe he was just being a good Communist.)
They had five years (Meinhof dropped out after four) to type out their manifestos and communiqués, grandstand before judges and journalists, direct their followers on the outside with coded messages, etc. They could have carried on the revolution for the rest of their lives, but in the end, emotional self-indulgence meant more to them than their cause, and when they finally gave up on regaining their freedom, they killed themselves.
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The only truthful utterance by any of the terrorists in the whole film comes after the killing of a banker Jürgen Ponto on July 30, 1977 in a botched kidnapping. One of the terrorists wonders why the warmongers of the world are so surprised when they are confronted by blowback in their own homes. It is even more remarkable that more blowback does not occur.
My favorite character in The Baader-Meinhof Complex is an unnamed bureaucrat of the state security apparatus played by Bruno Ganz (Hitler in Downfall). He is a model of disinterested idealism, methodical rationality, and Aryan dutifulness. His remarks on terrorism bring to mind Carl Schmitt. I do not know if he is based on an actual person or if he is just an invention of the filmmakers. Either way, he is the perfect foil to Baader and company. The West German government was lucky to have people like him on its side. If the virtues of this character were wedded to the methods of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the system’s days would be numbered.