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The Red Army Faction (in German: Rote Armee Fraktion; RAF), also known as Bader-Meinhof, was the most active German radical leftist terror organization. It operated from the 1970s to 1998, causing great uproar especially in the autumn of 1977, which led to a state 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.


The origins of the group can be traced back to the student protests in the late 1960s. In Germany, the protests turned into riots when on June 2, 1967, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, then Shah of Persia, visited the western part of Berlin, at the time a divided city. After violent protests of exiled Persians, supported by German students, already during the day, 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, and the perceived state brutality during other protests, and the wide-spread opposition against the Vietnam War, brought Thorwald Proll, Horst Söhnlein, Gudrun Ensslin, and Andreas Baader together, who decided to set fire in 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 Konkret magazine.

Meanwhile, on April 11, 1968, Rudi Dutschke, the intellectual leader of the student protests, was shot in the head (and though badly injured was able to return to political activism until his death in 1979) by a fanatic who carried a right-wing newspaper with him, with the headline "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 offense. 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 shooting, Baader was freed from prison by Meinhof and his lawyer, Horst Mahler – after which the group was commonly referred to as the Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe. Baader, Ensslin, Mahler, and Meinhof then went underground and received military training in Jordan. 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 company. 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 "isolation custody", without contact among themselves and visits from their relatives allowed only every two weeks. Still, Ensslin devised an "info system" with aliases for each member, and by circulating letters with the help of their defense counsels, they could communicate. To protest against their conditions, they thus could jointly go on several hunger strikes; eventually, they were forcibly fed. Meins died, however, on November 9, 1974. After public protests, the 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 running for the mayor of Berlin, was kidnapped to force the release of several other detained terrorists. Since none of these were on trial for murder, the state agreed, and those inmates (and therefore later Lorenz) were released. On April 25, 1975, the German embassy at 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 installed by the terrorists went off later that night.

On May 21, 1975, the Stammheim trial of Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof, and Raspe began, named after the suburb of Stuttgart where it took place. Possibly the most tense and controversial German criminal trial overall, the Bundestag had earlier changed the Criminal Procedures Code 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, the Federal Prosecutor, Siegfried Buback, and his car driver were shot by two RAF members while waiting at a red light.

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

Autumn 1977

Following the convictions, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, a former Nazi who was President of the German Employers' Association (and thus perceived as one of the most powerful industrialists in West Germany) was violently kidnapped. On September 5, 1977, his driver was forced to brake when a baby carriage suddenly appeared on the street. The police escort vehicle behind them was unable to stop in time, crashing into Schleyer's car. Five masked assailants immediately executed 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 giving in, concluded 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 imprisoned, who were only visited by government officials and the jail pastor.

The state crisis dragged on for more than a month, while the biggest manhunt to date was executed by an unprecedented coordinated effort of the German police. Things 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 proclaimed the same demands as the Schleyer kidnappers, plus the release of two Palestinians held in Turkey and 15 million dollars.

The Bonn crisis squad again decided not to give in. The plane flew on to the airport of Dubai, and then to Oman, where the pilot Jürgen Schumann was shot on October 16. The aircraft again took off, this time to head to 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, a German elite police squad. All four terrorists were shot; three of them died on the spot. Not one passenger was hurt and Wischnewski could phone Schmidt to tell the Bonn crisis squad that the operation was successful.

It was immediately clear, however, that the successful operation would have other 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, and Möller, though wounded, survived and was released from prison in 1994.

The official survey concluded that this had been collective suicide, but again conspiracy theories abounded. It is not clear, for example, how Baader could have managed to obtain the gun in that high-security prison wing specially constructed for the terrorists. Möller had suffered four stab wounds, self-infliction of which seemed impossible. However, independent investigations have contended that the inmates' lawyers were able to smuggle in weapons and equipment despite 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 showndown 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", allied 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 terrorists would commit more attacks under the name "RAF". Among these were the killing of Ernst Zimmermann, an industrialist, another bombing at a U.S. military airport in Frankfurt, which killed three; the execution of Siemens executive Karl-Heinz Beckurts with a car bomb, and the shooting of Gerold von Braunmühl, a leading official in the German Foreign Ministry.

There were several other attacks which government blamed upon the RAF, although its responsibility for them has 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. 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 the German reunification in 1990, it was discovered that the RAF was financially and logistically supported by 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. In a controversial GSG9 campaign at the train station of Bad Kleinen, on June 27, 1993, terrorists Birgit Hogefeld and Klaus Steinmetz were captured, but a third, Wolfgang Grams, was shot dead under disputed circumstances.

A bomb that destroyed a prison in Weiterstadt in 1993 might have been seen as the RAF's last gasp, had it not turned out that the secret service was responsible. But it was not until April 20, 1998 that a mysterious 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 city guerrilla in the shape of the RAF is now history."

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