Andreas Baader (1943-1977) and Ulrike Meinhof (1934-1976) were the best known founders and leading members of the West German "Red Army Faction" (RAF). Acting as Communist urban guerrillas, their names were joined by the media to make the popular designation of the "Baader-Meinhof Group," which West German police classified as a terrorist organization of violent anarchists.
Bernd Andreas Baader was born in Munich, Bavaria, on May 6, 1943. He attended several secondary schools but finally ended his formal education without graduating. In 1963 he moved to Berlin. In 1967 his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, an active member of the leading organization of the extraparliamentary movement, the German Socialist Student Organization (SDS), brought him to the Berlin student protest scene, and Baader began to participate in its political activities.
On the night of April 2, 1968, Baader, together with Ensslin and two other persons, set two Frankfurt department stores on fire with fire bombs "to light a torch for Vietnam," as they put it. Baader and the others were found guilty of arson. Baader partly served his sentence and was released while his appeal was pending, but, together with Ensslin, fled the country when the appeal was rejected. On returning to Berlin he was rearrested in April 1970 and freed with guns by Ulrike Meinhof and others on May 14, 1970.
Meinhof was born in Oldenburg, Lower Saxony, on October 7, 1934. She passed her final high school examinations in 1955 and began to study education and psychology until 1960. She was strongly influenced by the political attitudes of her foster mother, Professor Renate Riemeck, a well known historian, Christian-pacifist, socialist, and protagonist of the West German extraparliamentary opposition throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Ulrike Meinhof took part in the 1958 anti-atom death campaign and joined the SDS. In 1960 she moved to Hamburg to work for the left-wing student monthly "Konkret" as chief editress. Her columns for "Konkret" helped her gain a reputation for being a serious and critically minded journalist and gave her a certain prominence within the extraparliamentary movement of the mid and late 1960s, the "Ausserparlamentarische Opposition" (APO).
Within the APO Meinhof, from an antiauthoritarian, radically socialist position, criticized the inflexible social and political structures of the West German "consumer society," calling for a fundamental change. When APO activities calmed down in the end of 1969, Meinhof belonged to those intellectuals who transformed the splitting of the APO into its most radical alternative—the "armed struggle"—thus confusing the antiauthoritarian rebellion of the students with socialist revolution. As Meinhof explained it, "to save the level of conscience of the 67/68 movement historically, to prevent the struggle from ceasing."
With Baader—who defined politics essentially as longing for action—she shared the view that, after endless theoretical debates and verbal protests without real success, only violent political action could succeed in changing the political structures. In a "Konkret" article Meinhof had expressed sympathy for the Frankfurt arson, and she later revived her contacts with Baader and Ensslin. When both returned to Berlin from abroad, wanted by the police, it was Meinhof who hid and supported them, tired of seeing herself as a powerless intellectual "desk-activist."
After freeing Baader she evolved to be the theoretical head of the group, whereas Baader put his charisma to use in personal activism and organizing efforts. The first manifesto of the group was written mostly by Meinhof. It presented the concept "urban guerrilla" and constituted an uncritical adoption of South American theories of urban guerrilla warfare. Its strategic message was to provoke the state to activate its hidden repressive potential, its "latent fascism," in order to dismantle its democratic legitimacy and to revolutionize the "working masses." The RAF claimed to exert "counter-violence" in the tradition of anti-fascist resistance. Its practice was dominated by the primacy of military action and by the absoluteness of an all or nothing principle Baader verbalized as "victory or death."
Throughout 1970 and 1971 the group made headlines through numerous bank raids and street gun battles with police that took the first lives on both sides. In May of 1972 the RAF escalated the "people's war" by launching a massive wave of time bomb attacks against such spectacular targets as the headquarters of the Fifth U.S. Army Corps in Frankfurt and the U.S. Army Headquarters Europe (USAREUR) in Heidelberg. More than 20 people were wounded and four U.S. servicemen were killed. The RAF saw the bombing as a direct military support for the "liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people," defining itself as the ally of the liberation movements in the Third World.
The biggest police search in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany resulted in the arrests of Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, and other hard-core members of the group during June 1972. Baader, Meinhof, and the others were accused of murder, robbery, and the founding of a "criminal association." The Baader-Meinhof trial in a high security courthouse at Stuttgart-Stammheim began on May 21, 1975 and lasted until April 28, 1977, when all were sentenced to lifelong imprisonment.
Meinhof did not witness the outcome. Since 1972 she had been increasingly isolated within the group of RAF prisoners and, like most of them, had been held in nearly total isolation from the world outside the prison. Her relationship to Baader and Ensslin had become a rather strained one. Also, the RAF was in total political isolation within the German left. Meinhof hanged herself in her Stammheim cell the night of May 8, 1976.
The armed escalation between terrorism and the state reached its climax in the autumn of 1977, when the second generation of the RAF started another attempt to free Baader and the other prisoners by kidnapping a main representative of West German industry, Hans Martin Schleyer. As the West German government refused to exchange the RAF prisoners, the RAF, in cooperation with Palestinian terrorists, hijacked a Lufthansa jet in Mogadishu, Somalia, and took its crew and passengers hostages. A special unit of the Western German police intervened successfully, and the venture failed.
In that night of October 18, 1977, Baader shot himself with a pistol he had probably hidden in his cell. Ensslin and another leading member, Jan C. Raspe, also committed suicide in their cells at Stammheim.
The most detailed and biographical work on Baader and Meinhof is Jillian Becker, Hitler's Children: The Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang (1977). Careful reading is advised due to essential inaccuracies and subjective, dubious interpretations. Two solid studies of the various aspects of the theme, containing authentic documents of the RAF and an analytic precis of the group's activities are: Walter Laqueur, "Terrorism: A Study of National and International Political Violence (1977) and, by the same author, "The Terrorism Reader: A Historical Anthology" (1977). An introductory survey of the relevant literature on national and international terrorism is given by Yonah Alexander et al. (editors), "Terrorism: Theory and Practice" (1979).
Becker, Jillian, Hitler's children, London; New York: Panther, 1978.
Horchem, Hans Josef, West Germany's Red Army anarchists, London: Institute for the Study of Conflict, 1974.