There’s always shopping to be done

R.W. Johnson

  • The Age of Terrorism by Walter Laqueur
    Weidenfeld, 385 pp, £17.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 297 79115 X
  • The Baader-Meinhof Group: The Inside Story of a Phenomenon by Stefan Aust, translated by Anthea Bell
    Bodley Head, 552 pp, £12.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 370 31031 4

In the first few pages of Walter Laqueur’s The Age of Terrorism (largely a reworking and updating of his 1977 work, Terrorism), the author attempts to confront the old adage that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ Laqueur will have none of it:

Of all the observations on terrorism this is surely one of the tritest. There is no unanimity on any subject under the sun, and it is perfectly true that terrorists have well-wishers. But such support does not tell us anything about the justice of their cause; in 1941 Hitler and Mussolini had many fanatical followers. Does it follow that they fought for a just cause?

A moment’s reflection suggests that this is a most unsatisfactory dismissal: as anyone with even high-school debating experience knows, the sudden, irrelevant jump within a few sentences from ‘freedom fighters’ to ‘Hitler and Mussolini’ is simply an attempt to foreclose an argument before it gets started. After all, even the supporters of the Axis leaders did not regard them as ‘freedom fighters’, and few regimes have been louder in their condemnation of terrorism – i.e. the Resistance movements – than the Nazis and other Fascists. The fact is that neither Hitler nor Mussolini belongs in the argument at all.

There are two points about this. One is that Laqueur’s work, for all its thoroughness and the largely justified praise that has been heaped on it, is undeniably biased. He suggests, for example, that the USSR is somehow responsible for Abu Nidal, Carlos, the Red Brigades and the RAF – although evidence for such a proposition is lacking, even in his own work. The ANC is several times mentioned as a terrorist organisation, but there is no mention of the numerous terrorist incidents and assassinations to which ANC exiles have been subjected over the years. The murder of several members of the South Korean Government in Burma in 1983 is flatly attributed to North Korea, but there is, as far as I know, no evidence for this. Of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II Laqueur can only comment that ‘the extent of Bulgarian involvement cannot be proven in a court of law,’ as if only an excess of legal fastidiousness – rather than a complete lack of evidence – stands in the way of our believing this story. Similarly, Laqueur has far more to say about left-wing terrorists in the US than about the historically far more important right-wing variety; we hear about the Vietcong as terrorists but nothing about the parallel US programmes for the assassination of ‘hostiles’ in the Vietnamese countryside; we are told that the Cubans now sponsor terrorism but not that the CIA repeatedly attempted to assassinate Castro. All of which is a pity, for terrorism is a murky subject, on which it is difficult to get an adequate moral or intellectual purchase. If, in addition to that, one begins to distrust what an author writes about it, the murkiness can become impenetrable. This is regrettable, for Laqueur writes well and intelligently and knows a good deal about his subject.

The second, more important point is that we do all carry around with us some version of the freedom fighter/terrorism dichotomy: that is precisely why it is difficult to get a proper moral purchase on the subject; why so many morally sensitive people have been thrown into varying states of confusion about whether they should support the FLN/ NLF/ Tupamaros/Afghan guerrillas/ Unita/ ANC/ PLO etc; and it is the very difficulty of that dichotomy that terrorists trade on, not only in their attempt to enlist external support but in the way they rationalise their own activity to themselves.

The reason for this dichotomy is also quite simple: historically, we can see movements which undeniably used terrorist means; which seemed to have little option but to do so; which succeeded in the end; and the reversal of whose success now seems unimaginable and, perhaps, undesirable. With only minor variations such a case could be made for Irgun, the Stern Gang, the Vietnamese NLF, the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe, the FLN in Algeria, and so on.

Let us take the last two cases. It was, surely, both historically inevitable and morally just in some fundamental sense that Algeria should be ruled by the Algerians and that Rhodesia should be ruled by its black majority. To imagine, let alone to wish, to return to the status quo ante requires a moral as well as a historical Canute-ism. But neither in Rhodesia nor in Algeria was there the slightest sign that the minority white regimes would give way to anything less than overwhelming violence: indeed, all means short of that were tried – and failed. But neither the FLN nor ZANLA could hope to take on the conventional military force of their opponents on anything like equal terms. And while they began by attacking arguably strategic targets such as civilian policemen, it wasn’t long before they were placing bombs in supermarkets, massacring the families of outlying farmers, shooting down civilian planes, mowing down crowds of shoppers or holiday-makers. In addition, they had no scruples about turning their guns on their own side when ‘necessary’. Again, they may have begun with rough-and-ready courts-martial of informers and traitors, but fairly soon it was a matter of large-scale murder and intimidation to ensure that peasant communities gave them the supportive welcome that all the textbooks on guerrilla warfare suggested they ought to. (Since the opponents’ army will be deploying a similar terror to persuade the peasants not to give the guerrillas this kind of support, a cycle of terror and counter-terror may be inevitable.) These struggles, of course, have no shortage of sympathisers willing to accept, even to project, a more heroic, romantic and hagiographical picture: but the fact is that what took place both in Algeria and in Zimbabwe were successful terrorist revolutions – or, if one prefers, successful national revolutions carried through by terrorist means.

Typically, while such struggles are in full gory flood, a revulsion against all such means is the dominant reaction among ‘men of good will’. But it takes only a few years for this to be forgotten; the means that were used to bring about the change are quickly ratified by success and by history and nobody has any qualms about embracing erstwhile terrorist leaders as valuable political partners. The present British Government may condemn ANC terorism now, but if such means bring the ANC to power in South Africa who can doubt that its leaders will speedily be greeted as honoured guests in Downing Street and Buckingham Palace? And would it not be ludicrous to act otherwise?

What this seems to imply is that we do, in effect, recognise terrorism as a legitimate political tactic on certain conditions: first, that our recognition should not be contemporary and explicit, but retrospective and implicit; second, that the movement which uses terrorist means lacked any real alternative; and third – and most important – that the movement has succeeded. Stripping this of simple hypocrisy, what one is left with is that we are willing to accept terrorism as legitimate provided it is harnessed to realisable political ends. Our lasting condemnation is thus reserved for those movements whose terrorism is futile because their political ends are impossible of achievement: nobody loves a loser. Many will feel unhappy at the thought of a merely conditional condemnation of terrorism – especially since what is realisable or not is inevitably a somewhat subjective judgment and there are bound to be borderline cases – but the above would seem to be the logic of what we believe.

Most of us can see why the FLN or Irgun took the road they did – and probably can’t find it in ourselves to wish that the French had continued to rule Algeria or the British Palestine. The true puzzle lies with those numerous terrorist groups whose ends are not remotely realisable. Stefan Aust has provided a remarkable picture of one such, the Baader-Meinhof – he does not explain why he calls his account an ‘inside story’, though clearly he was close to many of the principal actors – but at the end the puzzle remains.

Andreas Baader, the undisputed leader of the group, was, from his earliest years, a self-willed, highly-talented nonconformist. Insolent, humorous and rebellious, he seems never to have obeyed any rules and had to change schools repeatedly. His last headmaster spoke of him as ‘a particularly gifted young man’, but noted that he got into so many fights that ‘a second Baader would be more than my school could stand.’ While at school he conceived a lasting passion for motor-bikes, and thereafter his record was liberally sprinkled with every possible offence connected with them – driving without a licence, speeding, endless thefts of bikes. The decision to call the gang the Red Army Faction was a typical Baader joke: a deliberate reference to the RAF whose bombs had hit German cities so hard a generation before.

Ulrike Meinhof was an altogether more attractive personality, an intelligent girl with a passionate Christian commitment and once one of the white hopes of the SPD. A talented journalist with what seemed to be a fulfilling life in front of her, her motives for joining the RAF by springing Baader from jail in 1970 remain obscure. It is unclear why her name was given equal prominence with Baader’s, for the real number two was always the ferocious Gudrun Ensslin, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, who brought to the group a zeal and cruelty of almost witch-like intensity. What Meinhof and Ensslin did have in common, both with one another and with most of the several score young people who drifted in and around the group in the Seventies, was an involvement in the world of the SDS, the anti-Vietnam War movement, of anti-nuclear protest and of Third World good causes. The watershed was the great demonstration against the Shah’s visit to Berlin in June 1967. The Berlin Police, assisted by an irregular corps of pro-Shah Iranians organised by Savak, ran amok, brutally beating up hundreds of demonstrators and shooting one of them dead. (The Shah was unbothered, telling the Mayor of Berlin that he mustn’t think too much about it – ‘these things happen every day in Iran.’) Gudrun Ensslin’s verdict on these events was both typical of what many young radicals felt and a manifesto for what was to come:

This fascist state means to kill us all. We must organise resistance. Violence is the only way to answer violence. This is the Auschwitz generation and there’s no arguing with them.

Andreas Baader had, till then, shown no interest in politics. He had gravitated into the lively bohemian society of West Berlin (where his acquaintance included the young Werner Fassbinder). He was quickly sacked from the newspaper he worked on after he had, while drunk, kicked the senior editor in the face and swung Tarzan-fashion from the office chandeliers. He moved in with a painter couple – the two men shared the woman and Baader fathered at least one of the children – and amused himself by dressing up in drag, replete with false eyelashes and perfume, in order to hang around gay bars and make fun of gays who tried to pick him up. He was deeply enthused by every form of sexual excess and deviation, sado-masochism, Black Masses and whatever other sorts of mystic nonsense were on offer. Most of his time was spent boozing and brawling. Typically, he had missed the anti-Shah demo because he was doing time for yet further motor-bike theft and driving offences, but he was immediately attracted to the vengeful mood of the battered demonstrators and by dint of making the most ‘revolutionary’ suggestions soon became their leader. When they thought of flying a protest banner from the tower of the Berlin Memorial Church, Baader suggested blowing the church up. He was, in effect, an anarchistic young thug who slipped into extreme political action because it was violent, exciting, and best expressed his mood of antibourgeois revolt. Ironically, it was the fact that he had never shared the strong humanitarian feelings which originally motivated Ensslin, Meinhof and the others which freed him from the constraints they felt and made him their natural leader.

The group’s career began with an amateurish attempt at arson in a department store by Baader and Gudrun Ensslin (the bombs came from an undercover agent in West German Counter-intelligence, a prodigious supplier of Molotov cocktails to student revolutionaries). After 14 months in jail the two skipped bail and went underground, staying in Régis Debray’s flat in Paris while Debray was detained at the pleasure of the Bolivian authorities. After a good deal of stealing and smashing up of cars in Italy and Austria, Baader ended up in jail again before being sprung by Ulrike Meinhof (one policeman was shot in the process). The group then set off for training in Jordan, dispensed by the Al Fatah leader, Abu Hassan.

The period in the Al Fatah camp was pure black comedy. Baader’s request that his group be trained for bank robberies was easily met, but real trouble arose over their insistence that men and women should be allowed to sleep together. Baader won this round, but the tendency of the women members of the group to sunbathe naked in full view of the young fedayeen guerrillas training nearby, none of whom had seen a naked women in their lives, created a showdown he could not win despite heated attempts to prove to the Palestinians that ‘the anti-imperialist struggle and sexual emancipation go hand in hand’ or, as Baader put it, that ‘fucking and shooting are the same thing.’ Baader demanded equal status with Abu Hassan, as one partisan leader to another, and when he didn’t get this, led his group on strike. But Abu Hassan was more than a match for him and the group’s training was summarily called off. The Germans had become a severe embarrassment to Al Fatah, which shipped them back to Germany as fast as it could. This probably saved their lives, for the camp was wiped out almost to the last man by the Israelis only a few weeks later. Abu Hassan himself survived to organise the Black September atrocity at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and for the next seven years, until Mossad finally blew him up with a car-bomb in 1979, was probably the most wanted terrorist in the world.

Back in Germany, the group remained decidedly ineffectual for a good while as they learnt on the job. After a time, however, their expertise was signalled by a series of successful bank robberies which had the effect of making them the nation’s most wanted criminals. Their avowedly political stance against ‘the West German fascist state’ gave them a certain romantic appeal and they began to attract sympathisers among the remnants of the radical student movement and actual adherents among a radical psychology group, the Socialist Patients Collective. (Their slogan, ‘Madmen to Arms!’, had the merit of literal truth.) The Police became increasingly jumpy and began to arrest all manner of false suspects, though they did manage to shoot dead one of the gang, Petra Schelm. This tragedy, together with the group’s early Robin Hood image, gave them a certain counter-culture chic. Their penchant for stealing BMWs led to the car being dubbed the Baader-Meinhof-Waggon and a poll in mid-1971 found one in ten North Germans saying they would be willing to shelter wanted underground fighters overnight, while one in four of all West Germans under thirty professed ‘a certain sympathy’ with the gang. Some of those who joined became disgruntled when they found that the group’s increasing professionalism meant that the reality was now less romantic than the image. One recruit, Klaus Jünschke, complained that ‘you join the urban guerrillas and then you find yourself spending a month fixing up an apartment, and there’s always shopping to be done, things that are needed. That’s 99 per cent of what goes on.’ But a network of secure (and often ingeniously disguised) apartments was the key to the group’s ability to stay on the loose, and the hysteria of the German public mounted as the group began to kill the odd policeman and still evade capture.

Inevitably, the group’s activities began to call into existence many of the things they claimed to be fighting against. The Police became more willing to cut corners – to shoot first and ask questions afterwards, for example. During one hostage crisis Franz-Josef Strauss argued that the best counter would be to respond by shooting captured terrorists one by one. Most striking of all was the way the traditional boundaries between the various Federal Police Forces were broken down, welding the Criminal Investigation Office (BKA) into a vast computerised machine with the almost exclusive aim of hunting the group down. The remarkable Horst Herold head of the BKA, devoted his entire energies to studying the group, developed a love-hate relationship with it wrote papers on it which became required reading inside the group, and above all, worked endless hours building an electronic storehouse of Orwellian proportions. The BKA’s staff was doubled to 3536, its budget quintupled, and it assembled computer files on 4.7 million people and 3100 organisations. Its fingerprint section had 2.1 million people on file.

After a series of particularly bloody raids on US bases in Germany, the group were finally rounded up in 1972. There followed a long and ludicrous trial in which Baader and Ensslin defiantly foul-mouthed the judges, lawyers and everyone else in sight. Placed in jail under maximum security conditions, the group managed to smuggle in all manner of devices, to set up an intercom system linking their cells, and finally to acquire a number of firearms with which they committed collective suicide in 1977. There were still enough misguided sympathisers for demonstrations to take place against the ‘murder’ of Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin and the rest.

Once the group’s members were caught up in the maelstrom created by their own activities, there was no looking back. Politically, they were from start to finish ridiculous. The notion that they could seriously undermine the West German state was as far-fetched as their analysis of it as fascist. One is used to a certain sort of Far Left rhetoric which angrily proclaims that ‘nothing could be worse’ than this or that blandly democratic leader, party or government, but their sort of intellectual crudity is seldom accompanied by a willingness to kill and be killed in its name.

When one looks at the childhood of several of the group’s leaders, one is struck by certain similarities. Baader’s father had been an anti-Nazi whose wife dissuaded him from joining the Resistance. He disappeared on the Eastern Front in 1945 and the young Andreas was brought up exclusively by women – his mother, aunt and grandmother, who all spoilt him totally. Many of his antics in prison – refusing to wash, for example – were things he had first got away with in the nursery. Ulrike Meinhof also came from an anti-Nazi family and her father died when she was six. She, too, was then brought up by three women, to one of whom she was fiercely and lastingly attached. The young Ulrike seems to have compensated for this exclusively feminine environment by the adoption of a deliberate mannishness: she spoke out against unpopular teachers with unexampled boldness, was often the only woman in gatherings dominated by men, smoked a pipe, and so on. Gudrun Ensslin came from another anti-Nazi family, immersed herself in the all-feminine environment of the Protestant Girls’ Club, went to a single-sex girls’ school and, as one of seven children, had an inevitably limited relationship with her father even before she quarrelled fiercely with him over her choice of boyfriend. Jan-Carl Raspe, who committed suicide along with the rest in 1977, lost his father before he was born and was brought up by a mother, two sisters and two aunts. The Baader-Meinhof group itself was, of course, a fairly feminine affair – at one time or another a good half of its members were women. One can see what a psychiatrist might make of this, but it’s not enough. Many Germans were anti-Nazi and, given the huge losses of German men in the war, many were brought up in all-female environments: very few became terrorists.

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about many of the group’s leaders was the way they abandoned their children to take part in the ‘struggle’. Only Ulrike Meinhof seems to have been seriously concerned about this and at one point kidnapped her children and deposited them with some Italian comrades. (Stefan Aust, the author of this book, then teamed up with a wanted terrorist, Peter Homann, to snatch them back and hand them over to their father.) In general, the longing to see one’s children was condemned as so much bourgeois nonsense: when one woman, Edelgard G., decided she had to quit the group to go back to her child, she had a bucket of tar poured over her head and was denounced as an informer. In prison at the end, Ulrike Meinhof rediscovered her wish to see her daughters and had a considerable correspondence with them as well as several visits from them – before suddenly deciding that she didn’t want to see them any more.

One has the feeling reading this book that Ulrike Meinhof was the truly tragic figure of the group, that she might have led a useful, decent, possibly even happy life had she not fallen under the bullying spell of Baader and Ensslin. Early on, before Ulrike Meinhof joined the group, she put up Baader and Ensslin in her flat. Her little girls felt that Baader did not like children – when they fell over and hurt themselves he would not pick them up, but merely laughed at their tears. In one of their books there was a man so unscrupulous and cowardly that the Red Indians in sheer contempt decide not to execute him but simply throw him in the river: this, the little girls decided, was a picture of Andreas Baader.