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Red Army Faction
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Red Army Faction

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The Red Army Faction (in German: Rote Armee Fraktion; RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, was postwar Germany's most active radical leftist terror organization. It operated from the 1970s to 1998, causing great unrest (especially in the autumn of 1977, which led to a national crisis) and killing dozens of high-profile Germans in its more than 20 years of existence.

The name was inspired by that of the Japanese Red Army, a Japanese leftist terrorist group; "faction" was thrown in to illustrate the connection leftist organisations felt with a large, international Marxist struggle.

Prelude

The origins of the group can be traced back to the student protests of the late 1960s. In Germany, the protests turned into riots when on June 2, 1967, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi the Shah of Iran, visited the western part of Berlin, at the time a divided city. After a day of violent protests by exiled Iranians, supported by German students, the Shah visited the Deutsche Oper; in the course of events after the show, the German student Benno Ohnesorg was shot by the police (whose tactics are today mostly viewed as overly aggressive).

This, together with perceptions of state brutality during other protests and the widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, brought Thorwald Proll, Horst Söhnlein;, Gudrun Ensslin, and Andreas Baader together, after which they decided to set fire to several German department stores. They were arrested in Frankfurt on April 2, 1968; while they were on trial, the journalist Ulrike Meinhof published several sympathetic articles in the political magazine konkret.

Meanwhile, on April 11, 1968, Rudi Dutschke, the intellectual leader of the student protests, was shot in the head (though badly injured, he was able to return to political activism until his death in 1979). The attacker was a fanatic who was carrying a right-wing newspaper's headlines "Stop Dutschke now!" This caused the conservative press, led by Axel Springer's Bild-Zeitung, to become a new target of the leftist protesters. Meinhof commented, "If one sets a car on fire, that is a criminal offence. If one sets hundreds of cars on fire, that is political action."

Formation of the RAF

Baader and Ensslin managed to hide after their trial, but Baader was caught again in April 1970. On May 14, 1970, in a violent shootout, Baader was freed from custody by Meinhof and his lawyer, Horst Mahler; after this incident, the group was commonly referred to as the Baader-Meinhof-Bande. Baader, Ensslin, Mahler, and Meinhof then went underground to the Middle East for training. They were thrown out of the Palestinian guerrilla camp because they would not accept the rules and discipline. When they returned to West Germany, they began their "anti-imperialistic fight", with bank robberies to raise money and explosives and arson attacks against U.S. military facilities, German police stations, and buildings of the Axel Springer press imperium. A manifesto authored by Meinhof used the name "RAF" and the red-star logo with a machine gun for the first time. After an intense manhunt, Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof, Holger Meins, and Jan-Carl Raspe were caught in June 1972.

Custody and the Stammheim trial

The RAF members were jailed individually in solitary confinement, with no contact among themselves and allowed visits from their relatives only every two weeks. Still, Ensslin devised an "info system" with aliases for each member, and by circulating letters with the help of their defence counsels, they were able to communicate. To protest against their conditions, they went on several coordinated hunger strikes; eventually, they were force-fed. Meins died, however, on November 9, 1974. After public protests, their conditions were somewhat improved by the authorities.

The so-called second generation of the RAF emerged at the time, consisting of sympathizers independent of the inmates. This became clear when, on February 27, 1975, Peter Lorenz, the CDU candidate for mayor of Berlin, was kidnapped to force the release of several other detained terrorists. Since none were on trial for murder, the state agreed, and those inmates (and therefore later Lorenz) were released. On April 25, 1975, the German embassy in Stockholm was occupied by another German terrorist group; two of the hostages were murdered as the German government under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt refused to give in to their demands. More people died when the explosives deployed by the terrorists were triggered later that night.

On May 21, 1975, the Stammheim trial of Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof, and Raspe began, named after a city district of Stuttgart where it took place. Possibly the most tense and controversial German criminal trial ever, the Bundestag had earlier changed the Code of Criminal Procedure so that several of the attorneys who were accused of sympathizing with the group could be excluded.

On May 9, 1976, Ulrike Meinhof was found dead in her cell, hanging from a rope made from jail towels. An investigation concluded that she had hanged herself, a result hotly contested at the time, spurring a plethora of conspiracy theories.

During the trial, more terrorist attacks took place; among them, on April 7, 1977, Federal Prosecutor Siegfried Buback and his driver were shot by two RAF members while waiting at a red light.

Eventually, on April 28, 1977, the trial's 192nd day, the three remaining defendants were convicted of several murders, more attempted murders, and of forming a terrorist organization; they were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Autumn 1977 (German Autumn)

On July 30, 1977, Jürgen Ponto;, then head of Dresdner Bank, was shot and killed in a kidnapping that went wrong before his house in Oberursel. The terrorists were, Brigitte Mohnhaupt, Christian Klar, and Susanne Albrecht, who was Ponto's goddaughter

Following the convictions, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, a former minor Nazi who was then President of the German Employers' Association (and thus perceived as one of the most powerful industrialists in West Germany) was abducted in a violent kidnapping. On September 5, 1977, his driver was forced to brake when a baby carriage suddenly appeared in the street in front of them. The police escort vehicle behind them was unable to stop in time, and crashed into Schleyer's car. Five masked assailants immediately killed the three policemen and the driver and took Schleyer hostage.

A letter then arrived at the Federal Government, demanding the release of eleven terrorists from prison, including those from Stammheim. A crisis squad was formed in Bonn under the lead of Chancellor Schmidt, which, instead of acceding, resolved to employ delaying tactics to give the police time to figure out Schleyer's location. At the same time, a total communication ban was imposed on the prison inmates, who were only allowed visits from government officials and the prison chaplain.

The state crisis dragged on for more than a month, while the German police carried out its biggest manhunt to date. Matters escalated when, on October 13, 1977, Lufthansa flight LH 181 from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt was hijacked. A group of four Arabs took control of the plane (named Landshut). The leader introduced himself to the passengers as "Captain Martyr Mahmud". When the plane landed in Rome for refuelling, he issued the same demands as the Schleyer kidnappers, plus the release of two Palestinians held in Turkey and payment of USD $15 million.

The Bonn crisis squad again decided not to give in. The plane flew on via Larnaca to Dubai, and then to Oman, where Cptn Jürgen Schumann;, whom the hijackers deemed not fully cooperative, was shot on October 16. The aircraft again took off, flown by the remaining second pilot Jürgen Vietor;, this time headed for Mogadishu, Somalia.

A high-risk rescue operation was led by Schmidt's former minister and now special officer Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski;, who had secretly been flown in from Bonn. At five past midnight CET on October 18, the plane was stormed in a seven-minute assault by the GSG-9, an elite unit in the German federal border guard. All four terrorists were shot; three of them died on the spot. Not one passenger was hurt and Wischnewski was able to phone Schmidt and tell the Bonn crisis squad that the operation had been a success.

It was immediately clear, however, that the successful operation would have dramatic consequences. Half an hour later, German radio broadcast the news of the rescue, to which the Stammheim inmates listened. In the course of the night, Baader was found dead with a gunshot wound in his head and Ensslin hanged in her cell; Raspe died in hospital the next day. Irmgard Möller;, who was wounded, survived and was released from prison in 1994.

The official inquiry concluded that this was a collective suicide, but again conspiracy theories abounded. It is not clear, for example, how Baader managed to obtain a gun in the high-security prison wing specially constructed for the terrorists. Also, it would have been difficult if not impossible for Möller to have herself inflicted the four stab wounds found near her heart. However, independent investigations have showed that the inmates' lawyers were able to smuggle in weapons and equipment in spite of the high security.

The next day, on October 19, 1977, Schleyer's kidnappers announced that he had been "executed".

The events in the autumn of 1977, possibly the biggest criminal and political showdown that Germany has experienced since the end of World War II, are frequently referred to as Der Deutsche Herbst ("German Autumn"). A two-part 1997 television mini-series by Heinrich Breloer called Todesspiel ("Death Game") gives a good account of the events, as far as they can be reconstructed today.

The RAF in the 1980s and 1990s

In the early 1980s, new members of the RAF, sometimes referred to as the "third generation", established an alliance with the French group Action Directe. The collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union was a serious blow to left-wing terrorist groups and by 1990 only the RAF remained.

Well into the 1990s terrorist attacks were still being committed under the name "RAF". Among these were the killing of industrialist Ernst Zimmermann; another bombing at the U.S. military airbase near Frankfurt, which killed three; the death in a car-bombing of Siemens executive Karl-Heinz Beckurts; and the shooting of Gerold von Braunmühl;, a leading official at Germany's foreign ministry.

There were several other attacks which the government blamed on the RAF; its responsibility for these has, however, never been proved. On November 30, 1989, Deutsche Bank chief Alfred Herrhausen was killed with a highly complex bomb when his car triggered a photo sensor, in Bad Homburg. On April 1, 1991, Detlev Karsten Rohwedder, leader of the government Treuhand organization responsible for the privatization of the East German state economy, was shot dead.

After German reunification in 1990, it was discovered that the RAF had received financial and logistic support from the Stasi, the security and intelligence organization of East Germany, which had given several terrorists shelter and new identities. These could now be hunted down.

The last big action against the RAF took place on June 27, 1993. "Verfassungsschutz" (internal secret service) agent named Klaus Steinmetz had infiltrated the RAF. As a result the terrorists Birgit Hogefeld and Wolfgang Grams were to be arrested in Bad Kleinen. Policeman Rüdiger Newrzella and Grams died during the mission. The official investigation concluded that Grams committed suicide, others claim his death was in revenge for Newrzella's.

In 1992 the RAF announced to "take back the escalation" and stopped their attacks on people. The last action took place in 1993 with a bombing of just newly built prison in Weiterstadt, an act which may have been the RAF's swan song.

On April 20, 1998 an eight-page letter arrived at the Reuters news agency, signed "RAF" with the machine-gun red star, declaring the group dissolved:

"Almost 28 years ago, on May 14, 1970, the RAF arose in a campaign of liberation. Today we end this project. The urban guerrilla in the shape of the RAF is now history."

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