Baader Meinhof: contrasts and similarities

After Hunger, faint echoes are evident in the Baader –Meinhof Complex, the movie about the spate of terrorism in Germany in the late 60s and 70s. Is the movie truth or terrorist chic? Produced by the producer of “Downfall”, the brilliant film on the last days of Hitler, it’s a bit of both but the chic, as chic often does, turns sour and evaporates. The film (too long at three hours) traces how fanaticism breeds an increasingly nihilist violence its founders can no longer control and so they commit suicide.

The terror cycle begins with a now notorious police baton charge of students demonstrating peacefully against the Shah of Iran’s visit to Berlin. One policeman shoots a demonstrator and runs away shocked by what he has done. He’s spotted by a future gang member in a scene that is both the excuse for a violent response and also prefigures the kind of semi-accident that leads to their own violence running out of control .

A fire bomb is planted in a store in protest but the whole place burns down…. Arrests are made and in springing them an old man is shot dead…. The escalation is well under way. Interestingly in prison a hunger striker is forcibly fed. On the other hand the sexually mixed group is allowed free association in a common compound, are able to stay in some contact with group members outside and are allowed TV in individual cells. When these privileges are withdrawn because of outside attacks, they are still allowed radios – and the means to kill themselves.

The Baader –Meinhof Complex comes no nearer to finding the elusive tipping point when political militants become ever harder terrorists, beyond the starting point of protest. Absurdly, they believed that the handling of protests against German’s alliance with the US during the Vietnam war recreated the conditions for the rise of Nazism. “Imperialism “ was the common thread. There is a security chief character who insists that Germany has to understand the underlying cause of the terrorism, not only for its own sake but to get inside the minds of the perpetrators. He cleverly but riskily mobilises the entire German state system in a single day of planned searches and questioning throughout the country. This gamble pays off; German mass opinion realising how serious the violence has become, switches decisively against the group. Baader Meinhof a.ka. the Red Army Faction were bourgeois enrages, Baader himself was incredibly vain and selfish , Ulrike Meinhof so introverted she eventually became fatally depressed. They compensated for poor planning by becoming angrier and more violent. They proclaimed a sexual and social liberation (two of them abandoned their kids) that eventually left them isolated with nothing left but their failing cause and surrender to despair.

In our own recent history there are only glimpses of similar social pathology and psychosis, but little of the radical chic (Bobby Sands as martyr? Hunger striker and armed stalker Francis Hughes as martyr and gunman? Mairéad Farrell of Death on the Rock?) Our culture of political violence is too socially rooted and sentimental for that, though Republican dissidents probably come close. While initially the student left had some sympathy with them, Baader-Meinhoff were never fish swimming in the people’s sea.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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