The legacy of the 1977 German Autumn of left-wing terror


The harsh reality on the big screen

Whether it was the murder of business executive and industry representative Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the early RAF court trials or the hijacking of a Lufthansa airplane, the far-left militant group Red Army Faction (RAF) brought a wave of terror onto West Germany in the 1970s. Their actions have since inspired a number of filmmakers.


Collateral damage

In "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum," a young woman played by Angela Winkler has an affair with an alleged terrorist, drawing the attention of the police, the judiciary system and the press. The 1975 film by Volker Schlöndorrf, based on a book by Heinrich Böll, is a fictional story based on the left-wing terrorism that took place in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s.


11-part reflection of the times

"'Germany in Autumn' is not a 'good' film, but an important one," wrote Die Zeit. The 1978 film, comprised of 11 episodes, brought together top German directors including Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff. Reflecting the socio-political climate of West Germany in the 1970s, this film was also based on a work by Nobel Prize-winning author Heinrich Böll.


A question of violence

"Knife in the Head," starring Bruno Ganz as Dr. Hoffmann, was a 1978 blockbuster in West Germany. During a police raid, he is shot in the head but survives. But is he a victim of police brutality or terrorism? No one seems to know - not even Hoffmann, who loses his memory in the shooting.


Sisters on the front lines

Margarethe von Trotta's 1981 film "Marianne and Juliane" is a fictionalized account based on the biographies of two real-life sisters and pastor's daughters, Christiane and Gudrun Ensslin. Both are active in politics. While one is a quiet pragmatist, the other joins the RAF and is later found dead in her prison cell. The film helped von Trotta make her international breakthrough.


A 192-day trial

About 10 years after the Stammheim trial of RAF co-founders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, filmmaker Reinhard Hauff devoted a new film to the subject of RAF terrorism. Based on authentic protocols, "Stammheim" (1986) reconstructs the 192-day trial in 1975. The narrative is limited to the protocol reproduction and does not include any commentary.


Life after RAF?

"The State I Am In" is a 2000 film by Christian Petzold about life after being part of the RAF. A couple who defied the German state in the 1970s lives underground with their daughter for years out of fear of being caught. While the parents are plagued by paranoia, the daughter decides to break out of hiding.


Crossing borders

Another story of life in hiding, this time in the former East Germany, is Volker Schlöndorff's "The Legend of Rita." In the film from 2000, left-wing terrorists go underground in East Germany in the 1970s with the help of the Stasi. After German reunification, their cover is blown and they are shot and killed while trying to escape. Several RAF members really did attempt to hide in East Germany.


A true story of two deaths

The documentary film released in 2001 by director Andres Veiel, "Black Box BRD" offers a counter-narrative in which surprising parallels open up. On the one side there is Alfred Herrhausen, spokesperson for Deutsche Bank's board of directors, who was murdered by the RAF. On the other side is RAF member Wolfgang Grams, whose violent death also raises questions.


The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Perhaps the best-known film about the RAF, "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" (2008) provides the terrorist group's back story and their actions based on a book of the same name written by Stefan Aust. The film received mixed reviews, with some critics claiming it mystified the RAF - in part due to a star cast including Moritz Bleibtreu as Andreas Baader and Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinhof.


The lawyers behind the far-left

In "Die Anwälte - Eine deutsche Geschichte" (The Lawyers - A German Story) from 2009, the careers of Otto Schily, Hans-Christian Ströbele and Horst Mahler are traced from their days as attorneys for the left-wing political opposition in the 1970s to the present. Schily (right) became interior minister; Ströbele (left) joined the Greens party; Mahler is a right-wing extremist and Holocaust denier.


A complex love triangle

Andres Veiel made his feature film debut in 2011, in "If Not Us, Who?" The story of an emotional and sexual love triangle follows RAF co-founder Gudrun Ensslin and Bernward Vesper, son of a Nazi poet, as they fall in love, get married and have a child. But then Ensslin leaves the family and follows Andreas Baader into the RAF underground.

On September 5, 1977, the Red Army Faction abducted industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, unleashing the German Autumn of terror. Filmmaker Andres Veiel talks to DW about the RAF and how the events shaped his childhood.

In the autumn of 1977, the guerrilla movement by the German left-wing terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF) came to a head with the so-called German Autumn.

On September 5, with the founding members of the RAF already in prison, some of the younger generation abducted West German industrialist and former member of the Nazi SS Hanns Martin Schleyer in an attempt to force their cohorts' release.

Read more: Terror casualty Hanns Martin Schleyer - a victim of the national interest?

On October 13, Palestinian terrorists sympathetic to the RAF causehijacked a Lufthansa flight from Mallorca to Frankfurt, also calling for their release. Their attempt failed, and RAF members Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe commit suicide in prison. Shortly after, on October 18, Schleyer was killed.

Andres Veiel, director of the award-winning films on the subject, "Black Box BRD" (2001) and "If Not Us, Who?" (2011), spoke with DW about his work and the history of the RAF.

DW: Young people today are growing up with the terror threat posed by the so-called "Islamic State" (IS). You grew up with the specter of the Red Army Faction. What was your experience?

Regisseur Andres Veiel

'In some respects, both sides were ready for violence': Veiel

Andres Veiel: When I was 12 years old, there was a bomb threat in Stuttgart. I was curious, and ventured into the city to find the streets empty and the shops partly closed. It's still unclear whether the threat came from the RAF or simply from a copycat who wanted to create a tense situation.

That bomb threat, and the fact that it was able to create such anxiety, was one of my first experiences. And when the trials of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof began in 1975 and 1976, I quickly noticed that I had to decide which side I was on. That is, I increasingly noticed this fascination with the RAF, that people who were ready to fight for a better world were able to reach me with their message, despite the violence. And this fascination tore me apart.

As a filmmaker, you've always come back to the topics of the RAF and 1970s Germany. Why?

After the political change in East Germany and reunification, I noticed that it was time to deal with these topics. Even after the dissolution of the RAF [in 1998 - Editor's note], the real questions had not been answered: What drove these people to these extreme acts of violence? Why was the state's reaction so ferocious, so polarized? And these questions have continued to occupy my thoughts and led to my documentary "Black Box BRD" in 2001.

Your work was never just about the surface, the victims and perpetrators, guilt or innocence - you wanted to know what was under the surface. What did you find?

The more I looked into it, the more I realized that the [philosophy behind the RAF] was very, very empty and strongly focused on negation. Their goal was to destroy, to provoke, to show what they saw as the state's fascist fervor to legitimize themselves. But there was no idea about how this country could be developed differently or made better.

In a key exchange, Gudrun Ensslin once said, "We don't want to be accused of having seen something and not having done anything." And her father replied, "Yes, but what does that mean? You long for fascism! What if it never materializes?" I believe the core problem of the RAF is summed up in this exchange.

Was scholar and activist Jan Philipp Reemtsma right when he claimed that RAF terrorism was simply based on delusions of grandeur, a lust for violence?

It can't be reduced to megalomania. This phenomenon of violence was a repetition of fascist structures of the past - an esprit de corps, with a very clear paramilitary structure. And, probably without actually wanting it, history was repeated as a farce. But I found it frightening that the internal structure of the RAF did not reflect the spirit of a utopia, of liberation, but instead a very strong command structure, with obedience, intimidation and fear. Basically, the same structures implemented in every paramilitary organization or military structure.

At the time, and especially in the autumn of 1977, Germany was incredibly well prepared to face this violence. Did a similar spirit prevail in the government? The crisis management team at the time seemed quite willing to potentially sacrifice RAF hostage Hanns Martin Schleyer and the passengers on the hijacked Lufthansa plane.

In some respects, both sides were ready for violence. Those in charge were mainly former military officers, and this spirit of command, of taking drastic measures, was also present. We can look at it as a conflict between the few RAF and the remains of the Third Reich's Wehrmacht, who had clashed with a similar ideology and irreconcilability. And neither side was willing to give in.

Why did so many women participate in this fight?

I believe this has to do with empathy, particularly in the case of Ulrike Meinhof. In 1957, she interviewed Marcel Reich-Ranicki about his time in the Lodz ghetto during the war. This touched her deeply; she cried, and at some point, I believe, she was unable to continue the interview. This guilt, this realization of the absolute failure of the previous generation, had a profound influence on women like Ensslin and Meinhof.


'The Baader Meinhof Complex,' starring Martina Gedeck and Moritz Bleibtreu, was a critical success in 2008

The end of the events of the German Autumn - the death of Schleyer, the liberation of the Lufthansa hostages, the death of the RAF members in the Stammheim prison - marked a break. It wasn't the end of the RAF, but much had changed within society. What's left of this revolutionary spirit?

This militant impulse from the days of the RAF no longer exists. In the meantime, we've come to realize that the world is infinitely complicated, and that we can't simply divide the world into revolutionaries and oppressors. The concept of power has become much more subtle, almost like a liquid or a gas, penetrating into every niche and crack. Power can no longer be personified.

The idea that someone like Schleyer or some other functionary is now solely responsible, and that by controlling him, threatening him or even killing him, the world will become a better place - this idea has long been disproven. The battle for change no longer has a clear goal.

Do you have the impression that society has now thoroughly processed the history of the RAF?

Absolutely not. There hasn't been a single perpetrator who has confessed to a victim, or explained their reason for doing what they did. That is difficult for the victims to bear, and it doesn't get any better as the years go by. They don't know why someone decided to kill their husband, their friend, their beloved. All these questions remain stuck in the minds of the victims, and will probably stay there for life. They have no one to ask these questions.

Filmstill Wer wenn nicht wir von Andres Veiel

Veiel's film on the RAF movement, 'If Not Us, Who?', was released in 2011

What have you personally learned from your long, intense preoccupation with this period of German history?

For me, it has become clear that history is not self-contained. We can't simply wipe the slate clean and say that once the RAF disintegrates, or - to go even further back - once the war ends, everything is over and done with. History influences events in the next generation, and the generation after that, and probably still in the third or fourth generation. Violence evolves: it remains hidden at first, and there's an impression that society can go back to normal life. And then it appears suddenly, bursting out at times when it's least expected.

How did the events of autumn 1977 shape Germany's development?

Germany had to go through these events to come into its own. It became more democratic, and made room for a new party, the Greens, and a new newspaper, the TAZ. Suddenly, a sort of democratization movement arrived for the left side of the political spectrum, which has been good for the country as a whole. The political landscape changed - the possibility of having an influence on the political system, even from a left perspective, didn't exist before.

The interview was conducted by Silke Bartlick. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.