Sunday, February 14, 2016

Baader-Meinhof. The Inside Story of the RAF by Stefan Aust.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the majority of college students in West Germany opposed their government’s complicity with the US war in Vietnam and support of totalitarian regimes in developing nations. This resulted in protests against German foreign policy, which were accompanied by police violence against protesters. On June 2, 1967, during a particularly brutal police riot, Detective Karl-Heinz Kurras shot a pacifist protester named Benno Ohnesorg who had been beaten into unconsciousness. This was a lynchpin event for the formation of the Baader-Meinhof Complex, later known as the Red Army Faction (RAF). While most students subsequently chose to continue non-violent activism against West German/NATO international activity, a small cadre of activists began organizing an urban terrorist campaign.

Stefan Aust’s Baader-Meinhof. The Inside Story of the RAF is a thoroughly engrossing read. It is difficult to remain impassive when faced with terrorist and state violence, stories of life underground, and the zeitgeist of a tumultuous era.  In addition to the dramatic history it portrays, this book elucidates the ideas and values that produced this organization, as told by a professional reporter. Reporters who write histories tend to employ some of the traits they would use in their news-writing: attempting to grab the reader right away with action and verbs. While Aust occasionally falls victim to this habit at the outset, he does settle-down to write a more sober chronology as the book progresses.

Baader-Meinhof follows the evolution of this organization from its 1967 inception to the announcement of its disbanding in 1998. It presents both events of that time and biographies of individuals within and without the RAF. The prodigious number of individuals presented can be confusing. There is an extensive, useful index, to which the reader may refer when a previously introduced but forgotten person reappears in the record. A quick reference glossary of individuals involved, would have been helpful.

Throughout the book, Aust struggles to remain intellectually balanced about the time and the RAF. But he was a student activist and writer on college newspapers during this period. He had met many of the members of the Baader-Meinhof group prior to their going underground. Additionally, two RAF members planned to shoot Aust after he helped liberate Ulrike Meinhoff’s twin daughters from a Palestinian camp and return them to their father (Aust, pp 75-78). The reader will promptly see how his perspective is colored by events and politics about which he still has strong opinions. Aust favored the goals of non-violent protesters of his generation. He abhors the activities of the Baader-Meinhof group, whom he characterizes as “terrorists” and compares to Islamist terrorists in our generation (Aust, p. xii). As a result, it is up to the reader to play the part of dispassionate, quasi-scientific historian, where the writer cannot.

As a written work, Baader-Meinhoff resides in a nether region between primary and secondary historical source. Some of the information is the product of research about the past. Enmeshed among the details is the attempt of an informed participant to come to terms with his own development. One may obtain knowledge concerning the era discussed if one is capable of parsing these elements. It is valuable to examine both the flow of events and how a writer of a given time sees those events. Stefan Aust provides one with this challenge and opportunity.

Aust, Stefan. Baader-Meinhof. The Inside Story of the RAF. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009.