Friday, 9 April 2010

A footnote to the Baader-Meinhof Complex

On Friday an interesting piece of news was reported, largely under the radar: Verena Becker, an ex-member of the Red Army Faction, was charged in Germany for her part in the murder Attorney General Siegfried Buback 33 years ago.

It's no great revelation - Becker has already served time in jail for other RAF murders and she was arrested at the time of Buback's assination; there was just never enough evidence to prove she was definitely involved. But it's an interesting footnote to the saga of a bizarre and murderous terrorist group - the likes of which Europe has never seen since.

You see, the thing that interests me the most about the RAF is that well over a decade since the group fell apart (it formally dissolved in 1998 but its last attack was in 1993 and its influence had waned long before then) there is still a degree of uncertainty about what the young men and women involved were actually fighting for.

Stefan Aust's excellent book - the Baader Meinhoff Complex and the film adaptation (both of which I'd highly recommend) tell the story of the group's emergence from Germany's left-wing protest movement; a society of intellectuals and students angry at their state's perceived shift towards authoritarianism, failure to move away from its Nazi past and complicity in the Vietnam War by accommodating American troops. Indeed, there's no doubt that the RAF was just one part of a Europe-wide militant left-wing phenomenon including the much more active Revolutionary Cells (also in Germany) and the Red Brigades (in Italy).

But there was another side to the RAF - one of drugs, sex and often apparently mindless violence. Aust flags this up, and it is hammered home by historians such as Burleigh who suggest that - by and large- the RAF carried out attacks first then justified their actions with rambling references to Marx and Mao later on. There's a lot of weight to that argument; the RAF's early days consisted of stealing cars and robbing banks. Members were often high on drugs during attacks and their ideology was tenuous at best. After the 'first generation' of members was imprisoned the organisation's sole aim was to free them- nothing more.

Some still maintain that Baader, Meinhoff, Ensslin and their followers were principled revolutionaries. Others claim they were simply LSD-ridden nihilists who were looking for conflict.

So why does it matter today? Because it's only from the past that we can understand the present. People often say that we can't apply the lessons learnt from Northern Ireland and Northern Spain to Islamic terrorism. The IRA, UDA, ETA and similar European terrorist groups, though harbouring some ideological viewpoints, were fighting for specific territorial claims not for abstract political philosophies; the two are completely different.

But the RAF, and the other left-wing terrorist groups throughout Germany and Italy were -at least officially- fighting for an ideology and for wider changes to society. It would be simplistic to compare them to Al Qaeda but if the RAF was about more than drugs and mindless violence- if its members were fighting for a political philosophy which, however flawed, they passionately believed it, then Europe has had some experience of combating ideological terrorism before - and maybe, just maybe we can learn from this.

Even if that's not the case – it’s still worth looking back on the actions of Verena Becker and her contemporaries - and asking just what they were trying to achieve.

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