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 When these privileges are withdrawn because of outside attacks, they are still allowed radios – and the means to kill themselves.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

  • “The terror cycle begins with a now notorious police baton charge of students demonstrating peacefully against the Shah of Iran’s visit to Berlin.”


    I’m not sure if you are talking about the movie here or your saying this was the catalyst which set off Baader/Mienhof on the road they freely chose.

    If it is the latter you are making the same mistake as the Blair and Bush administration ‘pretended’ to over islamic terrorists. I have not seen the film but have kept up to date with the German press comments about it; and I find it amusing that Mienhof is being portrayed in the sympathetic manner you have mentioned, whilst Mr Baader is basically portrayed as the evil one.

    The reasons for this is sheer class prejudice, the media is basically saying, even having acted as she did, Mienhof can be forgiven as she was after all a nice middle class girl. Whereas Baader was nothing more than a working class oik.

    Never mind it was Mienhof who recruited Baader to their cause/ struggle/whatever. I also feel it was because the movies director was a friend of Mienhof and admits to having disliked Baader intensly.

    From this distance it is easy to scoff at the fears of fascism that a section of middle class German youth had back then. But we should remember that the west German state was mainly staffed by former middle ranking nazis, many the parents of left wing students. It could not have been otherwise because they were the only people to have the necessary skills.

    We now know the for all its faults, the German state is the democratic success it is partially due to these peoples contribution, but people like Mienhof could not be expected to understand that. Indeed it was the USA’s refusal to employ former Baathists that created many of the problems of modern Iraq.

    I am not excusing the Mienhof crowds behavior, it was pointless violence which in many ways mirrored the nazis they hated. It was only the good sense of the working class and a section of the middle class generation who experienced the nazi state first hand without being contaminated by it, which kept the West German state from descending into fascism and in truth I still feel we have never got to the bottom of what exactly happened in Stammheim. Suicide my arse.

  • Greagoir O’ Frainclin

    Just a note, but prior to the rise of the Nazi’s, there was substantial support for the Communists in Germany!

  • Mark McGregor

    A spectre is haunting Europe – Die Linke (current home of commies) are currently polling at near 15% and are on course to become the 3rd largest party in Germany.

  • George

    I don’t know if you can compare it with Northern Ireland. The RAF were as Heinrich Boell put it, but “6 against 60 million”.

    They looked to bomb their way into the consciousness of the masses. The revolution could be fought anywhere, it mattered not that they were in a place where revolutionary fervour was at its weakest or the State’s reaction was at its strongest.

    Their goal (let’s not have a moral discussion about methods) was to show that the state was not impregnable, that the state could be injured and that the power could be overthrown.

    Did they go out of control or was it a natural progression? I think they were fully aware of the road they were going down.

    To become an urban guerilla you had to go through the political thought processes necessary.

    As for radical shic: This is a quote from “Das Konzept Stadtguerilla”:

    “Wo der Anschluß an die revolutionäre Linke auch noch einem modischen Bedürfnis entspricht, schließt man sich besser nur da an, von wo man wieder zurück kann.”

    Roughly translates:

    “Where the linking up with the revolutionary left also corresponds with being in vogue, then a person better only join at a point where he can return from where he came.”