The third in a series of
installments about the Red Army Faction, specifically their 1977
campaign which ended so tragically thirty years ago...
German Autumn, Bitter Defeat
As we saw in our previous installments, by late summer 1977 the Red
Army Faction was poised to carry out its most ambitious gambit to free
its members being held captive in West German prisons. Dozens of
guerillas had spent years in isolation, at times subjected to sensory
deprivation torture, and yet they continued to fight for their
political identity, and indeed their own sanity, through hunger strikes
which mobilized support on the outside.
During the previous three years, three members of the guerilla – Ulrike
Meinhof, Siegfried Hausner and Holger Meins – had died while in
captivity. The radical left considered each of these deaths to be a
case of murder.
As the month of August came to an end the guerilla had already carried
out several attacks in 1977, killing members of the ruling class, their
bodyguards and police. One of these, Jürgen Ponto, had died when
he resisted being kidnapped by a RAF commando which included his own
god-daughter. This had been intended to be the first of a two-pronged
action to put pressure on the West German bourgeoisie to force the
state to free the prisoners.
Despite their failure to take Ponto alive, the RAF decided to follow
through on the second part of this plan, and so, on September 5, the
“Siegfried Hausner Commando” of the RAF kidnapped Hanns-Martin
Schleyer. His car and police escort were forced to stop by a baby
stroller that was left out in the middle of the road, at which point
they were ambushed by guerillas who killed his driver and three police
officers before making their getaway.
Scene of devastation after Hans Martin Schleyer was seized,
his driver and police escort killed
Schleyer was the most powerful businessman in West Germany at the time.
He was the president of both the Federal Association of German
Industrialists and the Federal Association of German Employers. As a
former Nazi SS officer, he was also a symbol of the continuity between
the Third Reich and the post-war power structure.
As the guerilla would later explain:
“We hoped to confront the SPD (1) with the decision of whether to
exchange these two individuals who embody the global power of FRG (2)
capital in a way that few others do.
“Ponto for his international financial policy (revealing how all the
German banks, especially his own Dresdner Bank, work to support
reactionary regimes in developing countries and also the role of FRG
financial policy as a tool to control European integration) and
Schleyer for the national economic policy (the big trusts, corporatism,
the FRG as an international model of social peace).
“They embodied the power within the state which the SPD must respect if
it wishes to stay in power.”(3)
Despite the failure of the Ponto action, it had been felt that the plan
could not be called off, that lives were at stake: “the prisoners had
reached a point where we could no longer put off an action to liberate
them. The prisoners were on a thirst strike and Gudrun was dying.”(4)
Within a day of Schleyer’s kidnapping, the commando demanded the
release of eleven prisoners – including the RAF founders Gudrun
Ensslin, Jan-Carle Raspe and Andreas Baader – and their transportation
to a country of their choice.
Despite the fact that the prisoners offered assurances that they would
not return to West Germany or participate in future armed actions if
exiled, on September 6 the state released a statement indicating that
they would not release the prisoners under any circumstances.
On the same day, a total communication ban was instituted against all
political prisoners. The so-called Kontaktsperre
law, which had been rushed through parliament in a matter of days
specifically to deal with this situation, deprived the prisoners of all
contact with each other as well as with the outside world. All visits,
including those of lawyers and family members, were forbidden. The
prisoners were also denied all access to mail, newspapers, magazines,
television and radio.
In short, those subjected to this law were placed in 100% individual
On September 9, Agence France Presse’s Bonn office received the first
ultimatum from the commando holding Schleyer, setting a 1:00pm deadline
for the release of the prisoners. The state countered with a proposal
that Denis Payot, a well-known human rights lawyer based in Geneva, act
as a negotiator. Secret negotiations began the same day.
On September 22, RAF member Knut Folkerts was arrested in Utrecht after
a shoot-out which left one Dutch policeman dead and two more injured.
He would eventually be convicted of Buback’s murder (5) . A woman,
identified as RAF member Brigitte Mohnhapt, managed to get away. The
search for Schleyer was extended to Holland, but to no avail.
On September 30, defense attorney Ardnt Müller was arrested.
Accused of having worked with his colleagues Armin Newerla and Klaus
Croissant to recruit for the RAF, he was imprisoned under Kontaktsperre conditions. The
arrest was buttressed by the claim that on September 2 Müller had
used Newerla’s car, in which an incriminating map had allegedly been
found. The next day Croissant, who had fled to France earlier that
year, would be arrested in Paris.
On October 7, the thirty-second day of the kidnapping, newspapers in
France and Germany received a letter from Schleyer, accompanied by a
photo, decrying the “indecisiveness” of the authorities.
Hans Martin Schleyer in captivity
On October 13, with negotiations deadlocked, a Palestinian commando
intervened in solidarity with the RAF, putting the already intense
confrontation on an entirely different level.
The four-person Commando Martyr Halimeh, led by Zohair Youssef Akache
of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, hijacked a
Lufthansa airliner traveling from Majorca, Spain to Frankfurt in West
Germany – ninety people on board were taken hostage.
The airliner was first diverted to Rome to refuel and to issue the
commando’s demands. These were the release of the eleven RAF prisoners
and two Palestinians being held in Turkey, Mahdi Muhammed and Hussein
Muhammed al Rashid, who were serving life terms for a shootout at
Istanbul airport in 1976 in which four people were killed.
The plane flew to Cyprus and from there to the Gulf where it landed
first in Bahrain and then in Dubai.
It was now the morning of October 14. Denis Payot announced receipt of
a communiqué setting a deadline of 8:00am on October 16 for all
the demands to be met “if a bloodbath was to be avoided.” The
communiqué, signed by both the Commando Martyr Halimeh and the
Siegfried Hausner Commando, was accompanied by a videotape of Schleyer.
Later that day the West German government released a statement
specifying that they intended to do everything possible to find “a
reasonable and humanitarian solution” so as to save the lives of the
hostages. That evening the Minister in Charge of Special Affairs, Hans
Jürgen Wischnewski, left Bonn for Dubai.
On October 15, Payot announced that he had an “extremely important and
urgent” message for the Siegfried Hausner Commando from the federal
government in Bonn. Wischnewski, on the site in Dubai, promised that
there would be no military intervention. That evening the West German
media broke its self-imposed silence (which had been requested by the
state) for the first time since the kidnapping, showing a thirty-second
clip from the Schleyer video received the day before.
As another day drew to an end, the West German government announced
that Somalia, South Yemen and Vietnam had all refused to accept the RAF
prisoners or the two Palestinians held in Turkey.
At eight o’clock in the morning on October 16, the forty-first day
since the kidnapping of Schleyer, the deadline established in the
October 14 ultimatum passed. In Geneva, Payot once again announced that
he had received an “extremely important and urgent” message from Bonn.
At 10:43am, the Turkish Minister of Finance and Defense declared that
the Turkish government was prepared to release the two Palestinians
should the West German government request it.
At 11:21am, the hijacked airliner left Dubai.
At noon, a second ultimatum passed.
At 3:20am on October 17, the hijacked airliner landed in Mogadishu,
Somalia. The dead body of Flight Captain Jürgen Schumann, who had
apparently sent out coded messages about the situation on board, was
pushed out the door.
As the sun was rising the hijackers extended their deadline once again,
At 2:00pm yet another deadline past. Minutes earlier a plane carrying
Wischnewski and the GSG-9, a West German anti-terrorist commando, had
landed in Mogidishu.
At the same time in Germany Schleyer’s family released a statement
announcing their willingness to negotiate with the kidnappers.
That night, as the double-standoff continued, the government issued a
statement that the “terrorists” had no option but to surrender. Less
than an hour later, the West German government requested an
international news blackout of developments at the airport in
Andrawes gives the victory sign as she is taken away
on a stretcher:
the three other members of her commando had been killed
At 11:00pm on October 17, sixty members of the GSG-9 attacked the
airliner; guerilla fighters Zohair Youssef Akache, Hind Alameh and
Nabil Harb were killed, and Souhaila Andrawes was gravely wounded. All
hostages were rescued unharmed, with the exception of one man who
suffered a heart attack.
The next morning, at 7am on October 18, a government spokesperson
publicly announced the resolution of the hijacking.
An hour later, another spokesperson announced the “suicides” of Gudrun
Ensslin and Andreas Baader and the “attempted suicides” of Jan-Carl
Raspe and Irmgard Möller. Raspe subsequently died of his wounds.
(As we will see tomorrow, there is an abundance of evidence indicating
that the prisoners were murdered.)
Andreas Baader shot through the head and
hanging in her cell:
the State claimed they committed suicide...
On October 19, police discovered Schleyer’s body in the trunk of a car
in the French border town of Mulhouse.
After forty-three days, the most intense clash between the
anti-imperialist guerillas and the West German state had come to its
bloody conclusion, sending shock waves through every sector of West
The German Autumn effected the entire West German left, as the State
responded to the 77 offensive with a wave of repression against the
entire revolutionary movement.
On April 25, just a few weeks after the RAF had killed Siegfried
Buback, a student newspaper had published an essay entitled Buback
Obituary, in which the anonymous author admitted his “secret joy” at
the Federal Prosecutor’s assassination. While the Buback Obituary was
obviously hostile to the RAF’s politics, the State seized upon the
opportunity to clamp down on the radical left and sympathetic
At the same time, the plethora of Maoist parties and pre-party
formations (the so-called “K-Groups”) had also entered the State’s
sights. After Schleyer was seized, the State moved to ban the three
largest Maoist parties, the KBW, the KPD and the KPD/ML, with ludicrous
claims that they had some connection to “terrorism”. All three
organizations called for a joint demonstration in Bonn on October 8,
1977, under the slogan “Marxism-Leninism Cannot Be Outlawed!” Twenty
thousand people marched under red flags in what would be the only joint
activity these sectarian organizations would mount during the decade.
While most of these Maoist K-groups would implode within a few years,
losing many members to the new Green Party, some other militants
managed break through the impasse of 77 in their own way, by organizing
a radical left countercultural happening, Tunix (6) , held in January
1978 in West Berlin. As the organizers (“Quinn the Eskimo”, “Frankie
Lee” and “Judas Priest”) explained in their call out, “When our
identity is under attack, like during the situation in the fall of ‘77,
then we need to take the initiative and state openly what it is we
want. Political taboos and appeals to the constitution won't save us.”
The Tunix conference represented a breakthrough for the
anti-authoritarian “sponti” scene, with as many as twenty thousand
people attending. Participants took to the streets, and the first
violent demonstration in a long time was held in Berlin as people threw
bricks and paint filled eggs at the courthouse, the America House and
the women’s prison. Banners read “Free the prisoners!”, “Out With the
Filth” and “Stammheim is Everywhere.”
Nevertheless, this was a time of defeat and demoralization. As a later
writer would note:
“While some people sought to criticize the state's violence (for
example, 177 professors issued a statement), most people were simply
left speechless by the events… whole streets were lined with cops with
machineguns, known left-wing radicals were stopped and searched, and
radical left meeting places were raided.
“The ‘German Autumn’ forced the undogmatic radical left scene to
re-orient itself away from factory struggles and squatting efforts and
towards the growing anti-nuclear actions... In the context of the
anti-imperialist attacks and hijackings by the RAF (and some barely
identifiable Arab forces) during the ‘77-Offensive, the process of the
splitting off of the radical left scene, which began in 1972, was
complete. Increased state repression, coupled with denunciations and
distancing by left-liberals and academics from the '68-generation, made
the whole affair a traumatic experience for the radical left.
“During this phase of isolation and disorientation, many comrades
lapsed into resignation or joined up with the alternative movement.
Another wing ‘hibernated’ in the anti-nuclear movement for a while.”(7)
As the RAF would later acknowledge: “We committed errors in 77 and the
offensive was turned into our most serious setback.”(8)
It would take some time for the guerrilla to formulate the lessons to
be drawn from this unprecedented setback, to regroup and to plan its
Thousands gather at the funeral of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and
You can read the RAF's communiques
regarding this actions here:
(1) The Social Democratic Party of Germany, then the ruling party.
(2) Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany’s official name
Resistance, The Guerilla and the Anti-Imperialist Front, May 1982
(5) Earlier this year former RAF members Peter-Jürgen Boock and
Silke Maier-Witt stepped forward to claim that Folkerts could not
possibly have been the shooter as he had been in Amsterdam that day.
The two went on to point the finger at another RAF member, Stefan
Wisniewski, as the shooter, naming Günter Sonnenberg as the driver
of the motorcycle from which the fatal shots were fired. Furthermore,
Maier-Witt claims to have informed the police in 1990 that Folkerts was
in Amsterdam on the day of the shooting. It is also alleged that former
RAF member Verena Becker informed the police that Wisniewski was the
shooter as early as 1982. These developments have forced to German
police to reopen the Buback case, and it is not outside of the realm of
reason that former RAF members already released might find themselves
facing a new trial when the renewed investigation is completed.
(6) A play on words which means “do nothing.”
(7) Fire and Flames: A History of
the German Autonomist Movement by Geronimo, unpublished
translation by Arm The Spirit. (available
in German for free download here)
Guerilla, the Resistance and the Anti-Imperialist Front op cit.
Thirty years ago an escalating conflict
between the Red Army Faction and the West German state reached its
turning point. As events reached their climax in a bloody series of
events known as “The German Autumn” every sector of West German society
was shaken to the core.
Kersplebedeb will be co-publishing a two volume complete works
and history of the Red Army Faction in early 2008. This week, to mark
the events of thirty years ago, we will be posting a series of pieces
drawn from these books.
More information about the Red Army Faction is available at http://www.germanguerilla.com
For more information about the upcoming two volume history and complete
works of the RAF, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Tomorrow's installment: The Stammheim "Suicides"