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We were so terribly consistent... a conversation about the history of the RAF

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Saddle-stitched pamphlet
31 pages
Published by Kersplebedeb in 2009
ISBN 1-894946-08-1

We were so terribly consistent...
a conversation about the history of the RAF

This interview was conducted by Petra Groll and Jürgen Gottschlich of taz newspaper in 1997, and appears here for the first time in English, translated by André Moncourt and J. Smith.


1977 was the year of the confrontation between the RAF and the state. You were focusing all your forces on liberating the prisoners, who had already been in prison for several years…

Stefan Wisniewski: The RAF’s first armed action, more or less the moment of its birth, was in April 1970 with the liberation of Andreas Baader, who at that point had less time behind him than he would serve in the future. After four or five years leading up to 1977, we said, “This can’t continue for another year.” Ulrike Meinhof was dead. Holger Meins was dead. Katharina Hammerschmidt and Siegfried Hausner were also dead.[1]

You have been held here in maximum security for close to 20 years now, since receiving a life sentence.

In spite of that, I have not given up on the revolution… But from today’s point of view, our “impatient period” must be re-examined.

What’s your current situation?

Prison, of course, offers no perspective, besides the fact that I’m sitting here; it’s truly pointless.

Aside from your family, what’s your contact with the outside like? How do you keep informed?

Over the years, some relationships with visitors have developed, in spite of all our differences. Some have, over time, stopped coming, but others come, a broad range of people. Obviously, much of what they do, I can barely understand: having kids, watching them grow up and play, the eternal life and death struggle that plays itself out beyond the walls… I read a lot, mainly books. In the early years I was subject to a TV ban, but that didn’t matter much. With certain exceptions, my mail is still monitored by the Attorney General’s office—there’s still a decree allowing it to be blocked. I now experience and suffer prison like other prisoners. For two months now I’ve even been working, after having been subject to a work ban for all these years.

Did you always want to be placed in normal prison conditions?

I always rejected the very concept of normal prison conditions, because I don’t find it normal for other prisoners either. But I have always seen prison as a social terrain from which I did not want to be isolated.

Unlike you, the RAF always demanded association for political prisoners rather than integration into normal conditions.[2]

In the beginning the RAF always sought to be placed with the others. That was based on the dream of a revolutionary prisoners’ movement. But the fact of the matter is that right from the start these extraordinary isolation conditions were imposed on us. Then came the trials, and from our side an effort was made to conduct these trials politically. It was and is legitimate to demand association, which would allow for a common discussion and break through the isolation.

So we gathered from the first hunger strike statement, but the line quickly changed. Everything was based on prisoner of war status.

When that became the absolute political line, I said, “Fine. We can raise that politically, but I can also pursue another line.” If we can’t create unity with other prisoners in here, how can we create unity on the outside? Here, people are caged and experience the system for what it is. It’s not necessary to conduct academic research, although it would certainly be sensible to analyze the recent composition of prisoners in the new prisons. At least half of the prisoners are foreigners, many of them threatened with deportation to countries that torture.

Is this the issue that led to the break between you and the other RAF prisoners?

I, at least, would not describe it as a break. The shoe fell, in any event, with my trial. It was in 1981, and it was the first trial for the Schleyer kidnapping.

Just a moment. Did you spend the three years from your arrest in 78 until the beginning of the trial in pretrial detention?

Before this trial began, I had two other trials. After my arrest, I punched a federal judge in the face. That was just after my extradition from France, when he provocatively terminated a telephone conversation I was having with my lawyer, after I had already been prevented from speaking to a French lawyer following my arrest the day before at Paris-Orly Airport.

Your extradition was conducted with lightning speed, possibly because of the anti-German sentiment in France at that time, and the possibility that you would receive asylum…

Yes, everything moved very quickly, in effect, as the police wanted. Even the judge eventually had to admit that not everything had been done correctly. But by then it didn’t matter any more. The important thing at that point was that they had me. For hitting this federal court judge, I got seven months, which were added on to the 20 years of my life sentence, while my sentence of six months for an attempted escape was later included as a factor in determining my “especially heavy guilt.”[3] The political reasoning behind this was that they had very little that was concrete against me at the time, so they wanted to establish that I was dangerous before the Schleyer trial.

In any event, by the time the actual trial started, I had been hidden away for three years. The prisoners were planning a hunger strike. And because it was obvious the press would come to my trial, I was supposed to, more or less at the beginning, read out the hunger strike statement. At that point, I said, “Stop - if we go on hunger strike now, then during the entire trial, the political debate will be focused on the hunger strike.” I was interested in conducting the trial offensively. I wanted a debate about 1977.

In spite of that, the prisoners began the hunger strike.

They found another way to make the hunger strike public. Things unfolded as they were bound to. The political questions in the courtroom and amongst the public became more and more about whether the prisoners would survive, who wanted to be with who, etc. Fortunately, many social prisoners to whom I could relate supported some of the demands to a certain degree and joined the hunger strike, and I participated in the strike for six weeks—with demands that I had developed out of my own concrete experience.

Sigurd Debus died during this huger strike for association as a result of torture by force-feeding.[4] After that, I was rarely able to go beyond the customary ritual level of confrontation with the State Security Senate in the courtroom.

It is commonly said that you parted ways with the RAF in 1981.

Renunciation and capitulation were never my thing. I was looking for other options. Having posed the question of the prisoners—our weakest point—as politically central in 1977, there was no way I wanted to repeat this fatal error as a prisoner myself.

However, the RAF did continue after that point, resulting in numerous deaths.

That you’ll have to discuss with those who created and participated in the anti-imperialist front strategy.[5] I wasn’t one of them. I took a step “back to the roots,” to all of the questions that were primary in making us enraged and militant...

How did you end up in the RAF?

With regards to that, I must first explain how I ended up in the antiauthoritarian movement. I was born and grew up in the fifties in a small, idyllic Black Forest village, the son of a Polish forced laborer. Nothing shocking; in Poland, it was only one story amongst a hundred thousand others. But in this village, my mother drilled it into my head: “Don’t say anything about your father’s history, or you’ll only create problems.” In this place, there were many former SS and SA men and fellow travelers who were prestigious citizens. My father only survived for eight years after his liberation from “extermination through work” in a concentration camp foreign commando—I was a baby at the time and my sister was on the way. My mother wanted to raise me without hatred, but the strategy of “silence” proved not to be a good approach.

In any event, for a variety of reasons, I spent a short period in a Home for boys with behavioral problems. The majority of children there came from the lowest social layers—many non-whites, children of former GIs, as well as Sintis and even a few youth from Polish backgrounds. In the Home, we were to be taught a lesson with beatings and statements like, “In Hitler’s day, we would have made short work of you.” I ran away from there seven times in one year, and was sometimes only returned following exciting police pursuits.

When, with the help of my mother, I finally had that behind me, I went to Hamburg, and from there I went to sea. That was truly not romantic. As a result, I was introduced to the destitution of the Third World, when, in African harbors, old men came aboard and traded their wives for leftover food. Whoever wouldn’t debase themselves this way was thrown to the sharks.

After that, I stayed in Hamburg doing casual labor and going to night school.

How old were you at the time?

I was barely 20 years old. At any of these points, I could have gone in a completely different direction. The antiauthoritarian movement was decisive for me—the new lifestyles, collective houses, the Rolling Stones, long hair—I found it very attractive. Socialism and other revolutionary theories came along with this, particularly the sense of equality that came with revolt. I joined Red Aid[6] and was involved in the occupation of a house as a result, a Neue Heimat[7] house on Eckhoffstraßse.

We were militant, but we also engaged in social work with the homeless and children in care. The police and the Springer Press were united in attacking us—some people spent a year in prison, and it was really only by chance that I wasn’t one of them. At the time, we felt we could really change something, even if the retreat of the 68ers had been obvious for some time, and the repressive apparatus was striking harder and harder.

In this context, the RAF seemed to make a lot of sense to us. After all, the comrades put their lives on the line for their beliefs. There was such a fuss when the first RAF people were arrested, we thought there had to be something there. There were a lot of things pushing me to work with the RAF. The first thing I did was go to Berlin.

I was also in Berlin in 1974, and at the demonstration after Holger Meins died, I experienced what it was actually like to be clubbed for the first time. Many people had this experience, but only a very few joined the RAF.

We could have met each other there. I have never forgotten that I was at a Potsdamer Straße youth center at the time. Everything was about the hunger strike. We had mobilized everyone from Amnesty International to Father Albertz, everyone it seemed possible to mobilize. I was standing on a table in the youth center—there was no podium—and was giving a speech.

Suddenly someone came in and said, “Holger is dead.” Tears welled up in my eyes—and I was not the only one. Some people who had been critical of the RAF up to that point immediately began to assemble molotov cocktails and head to the Ku’damm.[8]

We felt that if they were starting to kill the prisoners or to let them die horrible deaths, then something else had to happen. It was clear that everything I had done for the prisoners up to that point had been completely ineffective. It couldn’t go on. Helping to organize Holger’s funeral was my last legal political action. For me, it was just too much.

You decided to join the RAF?

At the time I also knew how to reach people from the 2nd of June Movement.[9] Either somebody failed to empty a dead letter box or I was given incorrect information—I never made contact.

That might have been more suitable for you.

Some people have said that, but history unfolded differently.

It wasn’t really important?

The 2nd of June was not only made up of the children of workers and the RAF was not only made up of the children of the bourgeoisie. As a result I didn’t want to be absolutely attached to one or the other. When I was living in Berlin and still aboveground, I visited women prisoners from both the 2nd of June and the RAF. Of course, they had differences between themselves, but that wasn’t really important to me. At the time, whether I visited Ina Siepmann from the 2nd of June or Ingrid Schubert from the RAF, what was important was that it was someone from the movement who was locked up. We neither could nor would leave them hanging.

But obviously you were aware of their different strategies?

Obviously, I knew about both. But—at least from my point of view—they had not yet been adequately tested in practice. The Lorenz kidnapping[10] and the embassy occupation in Stockholm[11] hadn’t happened yet.

Today, it would certainly be interesting to examine what impact the different urban guerilla strategies had. Regarding 77, we’d have to look at the RAF’s isolation from the social movements and the havoc caused by the events. The 2nd of June Movement, which drew its strength and effectiveness from its relationship with its social milieu, certainly had, in this regard, the better cards. Nonetheless, as their social frame of reference and their base was increasingly lost or turned to new themes, some of them fell into errors similar to those we made. Similarly, while it can be said that the Revolutionary Cells and Rote Zora[12] examined our basic weaknesses and organized their illegal structure so as to “keep a finger on the pulse of the movement,” their international wing certainly failed to avoid ending in disaster.[13]

In the early 1970s, the RAF’s actions were connected to the war in Vietnam.

A consensus existed in what remained of the movement after 68, that for a revolution to succeed here, it would have to have an anti-imperialist character. In order to have any chance of success here, it would have to take the Third World movements into account. Without Vietnam, without the developments in the Third World, the RAF would not have become what it did. The Tupamaros and the Black Panthers inspired us.

Yet you quickly began to concentrate on how to get people out of prison.

We also considered what other possibilities existed and what was going on in other areas. But we recognized that as a relatively small group, we could only be effective in other areas if we resolved this issue first. Our sober assessment was that the state and capital dominated the situation to such an extent that nothing remained of the movement that had collapsed in 67/68. We wanted to use the question of the prisoners to expose something about this state. Its character. Its history.

For whom did you want to expose this?

Unlike the Marxist-Leninist groups, we were not oriented towards the industrial proletariat. With our analysis of the labor aristocracy in the metropole, we had already dispensed with that. For us, the revolutionary subject was not economically determined. We said, “Whoever struggles can be a revolutionary.” While, in this way, we made things broader, we lacked the necessary corrective of a social base. Such a social base existed at the time with the Italian Red Brigades, which were rooted in the factories.

Italy was different?

Yes, of course. Ireland was also different. Nonetheless, this was the context we saw ourselves in. Had we lived in Italy, of course we would have preferred the Red Brigades’ strategy. We had already said as much in early texts. In Italy, there was a strong resistance, which was connected to the history of the Christian Democrats. Here, however, fascism had destroyed everything that remained of the workers’ movement. That was another ongoing situation that had to be broken through to begin with.

Our international perspective was also built upon the idea that by the “encirclement of the cities by the countryside” the “Modell Deutschland” would develop splits in which we could find a permanent social base to anchor ourselves.

But how did you want to establish your legitimacy, through conditions here or on the basis of the worldwide movement?

In the best-case scenario, both. But the question still hasn’t been strategically resolved today. The fact is that we live in the metropole, with its monumental wealth and privileges. In other countries, at the same time, unbelievable poverty rules, and the revolutionary perspective is entirely different. Today, we have to add “islands of the Third World” in the metropole and impoverished regions in the East into the equation.

For both, solving social problems is a matter of survival, which more than ever must destroy the nation-state context and, at the same time, abandon all abstract internationalism. If you situate yourself in the international context, there is a great danger of losing social contact and critical feedback, and of responding to every criticism with a reference to international conditions.

That’s how discussions in the Red Aid groups unfolded in the mid-70s in the Kreuzberg[14] milieu I lived in.

We’ll have to ask the Berlin comrades about that sometime. I knew the Hamburg Red Aid at the time. They had other ideas. Even if they failed to achieve it, it was connected to social utopia. Today, my experience is that the only groups that still deal with prisoners come from right-wing organizations that hope to develop the racist potential in here. I have been confronted with them many times in different prisons. The movement has simply deserted the terrain. The taz as well, incidentally. They once had a prison page.

We don’t deny that. That was meaningful work and would be today. At the time, we always had the feeling that those who referred to themselves as the vanguard were not discussing the themes that interested us.

There were discussions, insofar as an exchange with our comrades aboveground was possible, though as is generally known these themes were not incorporated into our practice. I need to engage in more self-critical reflection about this: some of the prisoners and those of us in the Committees Against Torture[15] were incredibly moralistic about the prisoner question, and as a result we certainly discouraged many people on the left who were in solidarity, but were also critical of us. Peter Brückner[16] and others were snubbed. There was certainly a lot that was distasteful and needs to be rethought. Nonetheless, this was not so long after Schneider,[17] at which time—parallel to the decline of the 68ers—there was a massive withdrawal of solidarity. That took its toll later. Those who didn’t reject the conditions the prisoners were subjected to in the isolation wings or take any responsibility - by, for example, taking a personal, independent position—those people shouldn’t be surprised that the question of the prisoners later took on a military dimension during the autumn of 77.

Our situation at that point was a new one. We were influenced by the collapse of the 68 revolt. We wanted to continue with the revolt’s social revolutionary and anti-imperialist ideas, and for a long time we didn’t understand the potential of the new social movements. For a long time, we underestimated the importance of the antinuclear movement or else only recognized it for its militancy against the state. Even more damaging was the lack of dialogue with the women’s movement. About this I absolutely don’t want to beat around the bush.

Even when we entered the phase of sinking ourselves directly into these new social movements, which was not necessarily the most sensible thing to do, the question of the prisoners remained. They sat there as a result of the history of a unified movement, and they had been buried in the security wings for an unimaginable amount of time. We wanted the prisoners out, and we posed the question of power around this issue.

Was that not already the case when the RAF attempted to free the prisoners through the occupation of the German Embassy in Stockholm?

As a direct result of the setback in Stockholm, the idea developed that we had to carry out a more precise action.

Was the idea of the Schleyer kidnapping a direct result of Stockholm being seen as a failure?

It was the wrong approach. That was the conclusion drawn: four dead, two on each side, nobody got out. On the contrary, things became more intense.

And you concluded that an embassy occupation was not enough to force the release of the prisoners?

That an embassy wouldn’t do it, that we had to create a political situation in which it would be to their disadvantage to refuse.

Was Schleyer already concretely the person being discussed at this stage?

No, no, it didn’t develop that quickly. Don’t let yourselves imagine that one action simply follows another. Before I went underground, I also had a completely different idea of what the RAF was and what was possible. When I was still living aboveground, I knew a lot of people who always talked about how they intended to support the RAF. When I myself went underground, I had to admit that it wasn’t like that at all. After Stockholm, I found myself suddenly there with almost nothing. There were still a few marks and two pistols, but they didn’t really work properly.

Then how did you arrive at Schleyer?

Schleyer, as he presented himself in interviews and in all of his public appearances, was simply a magnet. An obvious conclusion. There were, however, other ideas. For example, we considered Filbinger, the President of Baden-Württemberg. Filbinger’s past as a Nazi navy judge was not yet widely known.[18] What was known was that after the Nazi period, with almost no interruption, he became a father of his country. In his case, we quickly realized that we would have to storm the entire Landtag.[19] Obviously, that ruled that out. Schleyer was still an option.

And then you started to plan the kidnapping?

No, at that point there was still no action planned. There were still considerations.

What were they?

That was immediately after Stockholm. The group still hadn’t reconstructed itself. Then two groups that had not previously defined themselves as RAF came together. There was still no concrete plan, but there was a direction, and unlike in Stockholm, we wanted to use this person to make it clear why this was happening, where we were coming from, what it was we were struggling for.

Did you think that, in Schleyer’s case, Schmidt would be unable to maintain the hard line and would have to make the exchange?

No, we didn’t think that far ahead. First, we saw that Schleyer embodied everything that we, the entire left, had rebelled against. I remember very well the story about Schleyer in Stern in 1974. Not only was his Nazi past a theme, but above all the grotesque way that he understood his entire later career, his rise as a BDI and BDA[20] man, a political leader for capital, as a completely uninterrupted rise to the top. He bragged about it openly. It was no particular stroke of genius to select him.

But at the time, you didn’t say that you had kidnapped Schleyer to draw attention to the continuity of fascism in the Federal Republic. In Italy, there were far clearer actions: the Red Brigades attempted to intervene in actual workers’ struggles. They kidnapped a manager and let him go outside the factory with his pants around his ankles during shift change. That spoke for itself.

We always said that the best actions were those that spoke for themselves. With Schleyer, in any event, a lengthy statement was not necessary to explain why it was him and not another representative of the ruling class. Similar to what happened in Italy, there was an action in Argentina in 1975 in which the Montoneros[21] kidnapped a representative of Daimler-Benz. They demanded the reinstatement of locked-out workers and higher wages. I believe that during the negotiations, it was the same with Schleyer. But such actions aren’t easily transferred from one situation to another. Just look at the difference in wages between a Daimler worker in Stuttgart and one in Buenos Aires.

In any case, it was simply not a consideration at the time. The narrow focus on the prisoner exchange was the result of the determined emphasis on the prisoner question that had guided us throughout 77.

Let’s go over your script for 1977—before the Schleyer kidnapping, there was the attack on Buback and the murder of Ponto.

Buback was the major “terrorist hunter” and was responsible for the prisoners’ treatment. As far as we were concerned, he was responsible for the death Siegfried Hausner, whom he allowed to be transported out of Stockholm, even though Hausner’s injuries were life-threatening.[22] And we saw him as responsible for the dead wing and Ulrike Meinhof’s prison conditions.[23] We wanted to establish some limits.

Is it true, as Peter-Jürgen Boock in any case claims, that you were under extreme pressure from the Stammheim prisoners?

I have no desire to comment on every new story from Boock. What Regis Debray says about guerilla movements in Latin America in his book A Critique of Arms applies to Boock: “The biggest militarists always make the best renegades.” While Boock has tap danced his way through the talkshows like a dancing bear, others, like Brigitte Mohnhaupt, who is hidden away in a Bavarian prison, have absolutely no chance of being released.[24]

This is your chance. Were you, at the time, under pressure?

The fact is that that can only be fully addressed if all the prisoners have their say. Boock always refers to alleged or real correspondence with the Stammheim prisoners that, aside from himself, only Brigitte Mohnhaupt is supposed to know about. What can I say about that? Certainly, the prisoners absolutely wanted out, and this feeling of wanting to be outside the walls is one every prisoner eventually experiences. The only question is what options for achieving this are morally and politically defensible.

First of all, the relationships create pressure. Add to this that at the time there was the theory of a new fascism, one that was based in the institutions and didn’t require a mass base. Both of these assertions were inaccurate. This distorted theory was not simply promoted and parroted by the RAF, it also meant that we were reduced to an exchange of fire with the state. Even while holding this theory, we underestimated, for example, the growth of racist ideas. Ideas were developed that filtered from the top to the bottom in a way that wasn’t particularly new. 1977 was also the year in which numerous traditional SS associations were able to meet unmolested, some protests against the VNN[25] notwithstanding. Why didn’t we attack them? Instead there were a few flippant parallels drawn between isolation and extermination imprisonment and Auschwitz, which only led to grotesquely incorrect appraisals and “operational constraints,” while being embarrassingly inadequate with regards to the victims of the extermination camps.

In any event, the conditions in the isolation wings were bad enough. No additional “pressure” was required to get us to act against them. We were also not a group that simply waited to hear what the Stammheim prisoners had to say. Some people attempt to shirk their responsibility with such claims.

That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a lot to criticize the Stammheim prisoners for. I’ve often asked myself what would have happened if we actually had gotten them out—whether I could have reached an understanding with them. At the time, I automatically assumed I would. Today, I’m really skeptical. But if they had gotten out, at least we could have criticized them. The pain, that it didn’t work, I still feel it today. At the time, we thought if we could free the prisoners, then we could return to the RAF’s original goals—the goals that originated with the revolt of the 68ers.

Earlier you gave your assessment of the dynamics in 76/77. This related to Attorney General Siegfried Buback. The attack on him was meant to protect other prisoners. Did you get what you wanted?

No, otherwise we would have been able to avoid further escalation. After the death of Holger Meins and the attack on the senior Berlin judge, Günther Drenkmann,[26] Spiegel conducted an interview with the Stammheim prisoners, in which they clearly said: if there are to be funerals—pain, suffering, and sorrow—then they will be on both sides.[27]

Couldn’t you have stepped back from this confrontation?

That would have meant abandoning the prisoners. We would have had to say, “A liberation action simply won’t work, other initiatives are now more pressing.” Today, I would say it is more a case that greater patience was necessary. Although, even today it is difficult to watch the way the state maintains the hard line about prisoners who are ill, such as Helmut Pohl and Adelheid Schulz.[28]

It did not take you much time to set up a structure to kidnap Schleyer. How did that work?

As I said, it was initially different groups that weren’t from the milieu to begin with.

Then was 1977 some kind of a successor formation or was it a new formation?

No, this concept of the second generation is not correct. It was partially people who remained from the old milieus, as well as people, who, on the basis of their experience, felt that they could keep their options open while collaborating with the RAF.

Were you inspired by the success of the 1975 Lorenz kidnapping? Or did you think that such an important man as Schleyer would guarantee the exchange?

We felt we could comfortably treat the sense of proportion exhibited by the 2nd of June Movement as an example. But the Lorenz kidnapping had also completely changed the balance of power. We originally acted with the idea that Schleyer alone wouldn’t be enough to exchange for the prisoners. So, as well as Schleyer, we intended to kidnap Jürgen Ponto, the head of the Dresdener Bank. We decided this on the basis of finance capital’s brown past,[29] which the Dresdener Bank represented, and Schleyer we chose for his role in the capitalist associations. As such, the roles both had as policymakers - a level of importance that couldn’t be ignored.

A comrade who was active at that time knew the Ponto family, so the kidnapping of the banker seemed to be, in military terms, the easier of the two actions. As you know, that fell apart. He was shot because one of us incorrectly appraised the situation. It was also wrong to use a personal acquaintance for something like that. That reduced our prospects for success right from the start.

The second difficulty was that Schleyer was not originally under SEK guard.[30] The highest level of security was only ordered for him after the Ponto action. In light of these difficulties, we ourselves viewed this action with skepticism at the time. In the end, there were the four dead, the driver and Schleyer’s guards. This intensified the escalation and made an exchange even less likely.

But you had obviously conducted thorough surveillance of Schleyer and must have known about his escort.

Yes, of course we knew. On the day in question, however, there were three SEK officers instead of the usual two. We hadn’t seen that coming. It was foreseeable that it could not be done politely, but rather that it would only work if the SEK officers were shot. Regarding the driver, we felt that it should be avoided. That was what we all decided. But the execution followed a military logic: every death on either side is to be deplored, but the police were shot in a combat situation in which they fired eleven rounds from a semi-automatic handgun and three rounds from a pistol. To be sure, the driver had security training for kidnapping situations, but he was unarmed. I am not the only one who finds his death more lamentable for that reason.

But given of all of the skepticism, didn’t you consider abandoning the plan?

This discussion had already occurred. The prison conditions were the other side of the equation. We were afraid if things continued, given the circumstances, there would be more deaths, and we’d still be standing there unable to do anything but mourn. At the time, we thought, “Now for once they will feel what it’s like to experience a situation like that of our prisoners.”

Did Schleyer understand that?

After his kidnapping, in the videos, he warned against militarily resolving the prisoner problem. Even at that point, he clearly sensed he was being deserted by his political friends.

Did you think so too?


Did it take long for you to sense that the federal government wasn’t going to accept your demands?

We knew that it would be clear within a few days whether the Crisis Management Team had decided to publish the communiqués or show the videos. If they showed them on television, it would make it very difficult for the government to oppose the exchange. So, very early, there were indications that things would not move very quickly.

However, the action was not structured with a long-term view. We wanted one life for another, a quick exchange of prisoners. If that didn’t happen, Schleyer was to be shot.

Did you discuss it with Schleyer in these terms?

Yes, that was clear from the outset. When it became clear that the Crisis Management Team was constantly seeking new ways to avoid making the decision, we knew they didn’t want an exchange for him. They hoped to find us and liquidate us. After all, that was already clear when they found the first house, which they stormed without first determining if there was even anyone in it. That indicated what approach they had chosen. And we had to decide how things would go from that point. Would we set ultimatums or not? Was it still possible to increase pressure by extending the ultimatums? We had to see if it was possible to find a new hiding place and so forth. That was the next important decision.

You still had hope?

We said that if there were cracks in the Crisis Management Team’s united front, we should give them time to have an effect. For example, room to maneuver for the powers from the industrial sector. At that point, Schleyer undertook his own initiatives. He wrote to his political friends.

That was his idea?

Yes, certainly. One can see that in what he wrote there were many formulations that we would never have used—for instance, he spoke of terrorists. He knew his friends and his political class better than we did and he knew how to present himself. He himself didn’t believe that he could really mobilize everything necessary for the exchange, but he proceeded on the assumption that his friends wouldn’t leave him hanging. That was one of the most shocking experiences for him, to realize that with all the power he had had, that suddenly his political class and his political friends were prepared to abandon him.

That’s how he felt?

Not right away, but this human tragedy made it clear to him, and we empathized with him.

In such a difficult situation, which required so much determination and inflexibility on your side, is such a feeling really possible?

Nobody is unaffected in such a situation. No matter how hard you try—in such a situation, nobody behaves completely rationally or completely according to his political perspective.

Did you actually have any real conversations with Schleyer?

I would say we only had conversations. We were completely unfit to be police interrogators, and no one even really tried.

But you did make a point of tape recording these conversations.

Certainly, we had specific political questions. But these debates, these discussions, were not an interrogation.

Boock says that there were cross-examinations and that you had planned for Schleyer to face a people’s court.

Neither concept has anything to do with what actually happened.

Why didn’t you make public use of Schleyer’s past at the time?

That was certainly a political error, but at the time we didn’t want to humiliate him or make a show of him, given that he understood that the action could end in his death. Schleyer was neither popular nor loved, so we were concerned that he would have less exchange value if we debased him even further.

Therefore, we quickly rejected the idea of exhibiting him with a sign that contained his SS number and read “a prisoner of his own history.” In hindsight, that led to an odd perversion: given what Schleyer wrote and said, he was seen simply as a father and a victim.

At the time, did you consider how to counter the federal government’s argument that an exchange would only lead to people from the underground committing more criminal acts? Did you ever consider publicly declaring an end to the armed struggle?

Andreas Baader made just such an offer to a federal government representative. He knew what it would mean.[31]

You never seriously considered joining with Andreas Baader in this?

We knew nothing about this offer. It was never stated that we would continue with the armed struggle, but we didn’t want to bring that into it.

Why not?

This is how we experienced it: we took Schleyer, and the other side didn’t simply react, they imposed the contact ban, they broke their own laws. Everywhere they went even further than that. They said there wouldn’t be a manhunt, but in reality it was the largest manhunt ever. They hounded everyone who had ever said anything critical about the state. They enacted a news blackout.

In such a situation, with a clear desire to increase the intensity, we felt that in the end this would not be realistic. It was not really our intention to live peacefully in some Palestinian camp helping refugee children. None of us accepted that.

The question was whether, in this situation, initiatives short of an exchange existed that might allow one to find a starting point from which to say, “This is the end. There have been enough deaths. Now we’ll look for another way.”

I can’t say how we would have reacted had we known about Andreas Baader’s offer. There was at least a chance we would have taken direction from that. For us, the prisoners had disappeared six weeks earlier.[32] We knew absolutely nothing about what was going on with them. In our imaginations, anything seemed possible. The voices calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty added to this.

Instead you increased the pressure. First Schleyer wrote to his political friends, and then there was the hijacking of the airliner. Was that an offer from the Palestinians, or did you reach out to the Palestinians?

It was an offer. I don’t know exactly how, because I wasn’t part of the group that was in Baghdad, but, naturally, the others asked us. Our comrades asked those of us who remained in West Europe if we agreed.

You had no problem with the hijacking of a plane full of tourists? Didn’t hijacking airplanes contradict the RAF’s strategy?

Up to that point, we too could only envisage hijacking airplanes as part of the Palestinian strategy, but not to advance our demands in Germany. There was a paper from the Stammheim prisoners that heavily criticized the airplane hijacking to Entebbe in 1976.[33] The critical issue was the participation of two German RZ members in an action against Israel, the country that was also the destination for refugees from the Holocaust. In this paper, it was also implied that it would be different if a German plane was hijacked. After a long debate, that was the most significant point for our decision, as the prisoners had left this question open, and, as a result, we did not feel we were acting against their wishes. Under no circumstances would we have acted against the will of the prisoners.

Was it really your initiative then? Did your people, Boock and the others, say to the Palestinians, “You must help us, we can’t go any further on our own”?

No, no, it certainly wasn’t like that. I have to be absolutely clear about how our cooperation with the Palestinians actually unfolded. The Palestinians had their own interest in such an action. Of course, getting the prisoners out, there was also the issue of two Palestinian prisoners who were sitting in a Turkish prison, but there was also something else altogether. They said to themselves, “When a country like the Federal Republic, the most important country in the European Community, is involved in a confrontation that the entire world is watching, then we have an opportunity to introduce our concerns.”

In the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut, the Syrians had come to the aid of the Falangists when the latter massacred 6,000 Palestinians. The faction within the Palestinian resistance that hijacked the airbus wanted to prevent a situation in which the Syrians or other Arab governments reached a compromise with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. We were pulled into this conflict as a result of Israel’s connection to German history.

Wasn’t it clear what it would mean if 80 tourists who had nothing to do with this were killed during a skyjacking?

It excuses nothing, but we were influenced by Leila Khaled’s successful skyjacking, the book about which had long circulated and enjoyed cult status on the left.[34] Putting Majorca tourists and Schleyer on the same level was a problem for us. In this extraordinary situation, in the context of the dynamics that had developed following the Schleyer kidnapping, the proposal offered a possible solution.

There was a grotesque contradiction in this analysis. On the one hand, we believed that the Federal Republic was on the road to fascism and, therefore, believed the political class capable of anything. But on exactly this point, we didn’t take our own analysis seriously; instead we said, “So, now they will have to make the trade. They can’t avoid it.” Why, in fact, not?

You believed the 80 people weren’t in any real danger?

We thought it very, very likely that they would be exchanged. In so thinking, however, we proceeded on false premises. The action unfolded differently than planned. The hijacking was to end in South Yemen. There the GSG-9[35] would never have had access to the airliner without having to deal with the whole country and the East Bloc. The federal government would have had to negotiate.

Why did things go wrong in Aden?

Given what I know about conditions in Aden, it’s clear to me that East Germany or the Soviet Union made sure the plane couldn’t stay there. This decision wasn’t Aden’s alone. They had a completely different relationship to the Palestinians and would never have sent them to Somalia.

Did you have any reliable guarantee that no one was considering the possibility of eighty dead tourists? Didn’t you ask yourselves, “What will we as a political group do if eighty tourists are killed as a result of the action?”

We knew that the Palestinians always acted responsibly during skyjackings. Had we thought the action through, we couldn’t have accepted it. But, in fact, we only considered the best-case scenario, the political resolution.

Was it a unanimous decision?

Yes, that was our shared view. We were also thinking about the almost simultaneous successful hijacking of a Japanese airliner carried out by the Japanese Red Army.[36] And at the same time, nothing was moving here. By this, I don’t mean only the Crisis Management Team or the federal government, but no initiative, moral authority, or left group had raised its voice. We only saw Germany from the perspective of The Wretched of the Earth.

Would you have been open to it at that point if a critical public had actually demanded that you let Schleyer go and spare the lives of the airbus hostages?

At that point, there was little but obsessive distancing. If it was the position of an independent left, sure. But we wouldn’t have treated it as an obligation.

At the time did you think there would be support for the demand to free the prisoners?

Actually, yes. Naturally, we hadn’t reckoned on the news blackout. That was a situation that forced us back upon ourselves. We no longer had a reference point.

Did you feel the need for one?

What do you mean by feel the need? We acted with the idea that after the kidnapping, we would be able to explain it to people. Our plans, however, were not dependent on that.

How many people had you actually discussed it with? Was the decision taken by two or three people, or did everyone who was involved in the kidnapping discuss it?

It was a situation in which not everyone was present. People with different backgrounds got together, but, as far as possible, everyone was involved in the decision. I don’t know of anyone who claims not to have been politically consulted.

Was there any feedback from the left?

That wasn’t the point. The action was supposed to be resolved in a couple of days. In such a situation, it isn’t possible to discuss it publicly. Afterwards, it was also difficult. If we had drafted a paper for the left, there is no way it would have been published. If somebody had had such a paper and not immediately delivered it to the police, he would have immediately ended up in prison.

There was the possibility of communicating through the French newspaper Libération.

Perhaps. I’m not sure whether a public debate with the left was possible in this situation. The fact is, there was no such effort on our part or on the part of the left. History is what it is, and, above all, we must accept it and take responsibility for it. I am ashamed to say that it was only much later, during my trial, that I began to see my own history differently, that I understood that we should have made it much clearer why we had decided to take Schleyer prisoner. We should have presented our demands in a totally different way. It’s clear that we should have demanded that Daimler-Benz open its archives about the use of slave labor, that the corporation should pay compensation for the use of slave labor. We could have said that the question of the prisoners was simply a matter of a deadly confrontation, while explaining that there was another terrain on which there were significant issues to be addressed. On the basis of such a position, it might also have been possible to arrive at a different outcome and a more humane resolution for Schleyer.

Did you discuss this within the group?

When we discussed the action at all within the group, we discussed the consequences of the action. In retrospect, I have to say, we did not attempt to break through the perceived inevitability. But at that point, no one was ready to make any concessions. To have done so we would have had to see things that in fact we only recognized later on. We would have had to admit that the armed struggle as we were conducting it couldn’t work.

For your part, was it clear from the outset that if the prisoners weren’t released, Schleyer would be shot?

Yes, and that’s what the communiqués said…

But, it is one thing what one says in communiqués and another what really happens.

Yes, and we also behaved differently. We were even criticized during the action by another group, because we didn’t simply end the action by shooting Schleyer. They said, in effect, that by accepting the Crisis Management Team’s stalling and delaying tactics, we also made it impossible for future prisoner liberation actions to be taken seriously.

There was also a breaking point, a point when the spiral of mutual threats came to an end. That was following October 18. The airplane was stormed, the hostages were freed, three Palestinians were shot, and the prisoners in Stammheim were dead. Why didn’t you just end it? Why didn’t you just send Schleyer home?

At the time we felt that that would have meant acknowledging the Crisis Management Team’s policies as legitimate. To release him without any political quid pro quo would not have been understood as a humane gesture, but as an admission of defeat, as a complete victory for the Crisis Management Team under the heading: “The hard line paid off.” Today, I also recognize our missed opportunity, the possibility of political interventions that could have smoothed the way for Schleyer to go home.

Did you consider a compromise position, something less than freeing the prisoners—for instance improved prison conditions, or the recognition that these were political prisoners?

If in the situation at that time, if Andreas Baader’s proposal of a retreat on the part of the prisoners had led to a reaction from the federal government, if any form of political approval had occurred, if for example an international commission to examine prison conditions had been proposed, then of course we would have reacted. For us, it would have been unthinkable to stridently insist upon the original demands and to have shot Schleyer. One can accuse us of many things, but not of having ignored the prisoners’ interests.

What role did it play that after six weeks you knew Schleyer as a person?

Naturally, that played a role. It was both moving and banal, as with anyone who fears for their life. But, for us, in the final analysis, Schleyer wasn’t just someone with a family. Had Schleyer ever considered the locked-out workers? Schleyer never seriously regretted his role in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He was the SS man responsible for the integration of Czech industry into the German war economy. His office was only 60 kilometers from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, from where the transports to Auschwitz departed.

Besides, the federal government prevented the broadcast of the videotapes in which Schleyer himself appealed to the human element. They didn’t allow the prisoners to speak, or perhaps Baader’s offer of retreat would have become known and the public would have seen the prisoners in a different light. Given the logic of the action, the bitter conclusion was consistent, but for our humane and political goals, it was a disaster.

We were so terribly consistent, when it came to exhibiting human strength and understanding, at the same time as we were barely politically radical, even harmless, when it came to altering social conditions and effecting real change.



[1] RAF prisoner Ulrike Meinhof was found dead in her prison cell on May 9, 1976. Although the state would claim she had committed suicide, many observers suspected that she had been murdered. RAF prisoner Holger Meins died on Novembe 9, 1976, while on hunger strike. RAF prisoner Katharina Hammerschmidt, who suffered from cancer, died of medical neglect on June 2, 1975. RAF member Siegfried Hausner died after the Attorney General ordered him removed from hospital and transferred to Stammheim prison on May 5, 1975.

[2] During the RAF prisoners’ first and second hunger strikes in 1973, they demanded an end to isolation and integration into the general prison population. However, by the time of the third hunger strike (September 1974-February 1975) the demand had been changed to association with other political prisoners. Then, in 1976, the prisoners asserted their status as prisoners of war, insisting that as such they were entitled to specific POW protections contained in the Geneva Convention. For more on this, see André Moncourt and J. Smith, The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History, Volume 1: Projectiles for the People (Montreal and Oakland: Kersplebedeb and PM Press, 2009), 253-55 and 455-56.

[3] As wikipedia tells us, Wisniewski managed to get a hold of a knife and scissors that he used to overpower a guard. Unfortunately, he was spotted as he was leaving the prison, and was recaptured. As he was being brought back to his cell he did however manage to smack the prison warden with a sock filled with batteries.

[4] On April 16, 1981, political prisoner Sigurd Debus died of a brain hemorrhage as a result of being force-fed. Debus was not himself a RAF member, but had been an independent Maoist in Hamburg who robbed banks in order to raise funds for guerilla activities. He, like many other political prisoners, nevertheless participated in RAF hunger strikes.

[5] A reference to the strategy outlined in the RAF’s 1982 May Paper, The Guerilla, the Resistance, and the Anti-Imperialist Front. This text will appear in The Red Army Faction, a Documentary History, Volume ii: Dancing with Imperialism: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. Online, see

[6] Red Aid was a prisoner support network that had initially come out of the antiauthoritarian wing of the extra-parliamenatry opposition. By the mid-70s the main Red Aid network had been taken over by the Maoist KPD/ML, while a separate “Red Aid registered association” had been established by the rival KPD/AO.

[7] Neue Heimat (New Homeland) was a real estate company in Hamburg, involved in a massive gentrification project that threatened to ruin the Hamburg neighborhood of Hohenfelde. The occupation of the Neue Heimat house on Eckhoffstraßse was the focal point of resistance to this plan, and initially was quite popular in the neighborhood. However, this support was eroded by a campaign of police harassment, which culminated on May 23, 1973, in a raid where 600 cops and an armed special operations commando armed with machine guns attacked the house, arresting more than 70 squatters, many of whom would be detained under Paragraph 129 (“membership in or supporting a criminal organization”). The events around the Eckhoffstraßse was a significant turning-point in the political activities of Hamburg’s radical left, and Wisniewski was not the only Eckhoffstraßse squatter would also go on to join the RAF. Geronimo, Feuer und Flamme: Zur Geschichte der Autonomen. (Berlin: id-Archiv, 1990). An English translation of this book is due to be published by pm Press in 2009.

[8] Kufürstendamm, (aka: Ku’damm), the main street in West Berlin.

[9] The West Berlin-based 2nd of June movement, with its roots in the communes of the counterculture, was formed by members of several pre-existing guerilla groups in January 1972. Where the RAF had presented a Marxist-Leninist and largely vanguardist rationale for its politics in a series of lengthy manifesto-style documents, the 2jm’s brief program, issued shortly after its formation, offered an approach that was more anarchist, antiauthoritarian, and populist in nature. The populism and humor that the 2jm brought to its politics, in comparison to the overbearing earnestness that often marked the RAF’s approach, was perhaps best expressed in a 1975 bank robbery, during which 2jm members distributed pastries to customers and employees being held while the bank’s registers were being emptied.

[10] On February 27, 1975, the 2nd of June Movement kidnapped West Berlin mayoral candidate Peter Lorenz, demanding that the state release six political prisoners from the 2jm and the RAF. After four days of negotiations the kidnappers’ demands were met. Five of the prisoners were flown to South Yemen, from whence they returned to the underground, while one of those demanded declined to participate, as he had since broken with the guerilla. Moncourt and Smith, 528-31.

[11] On April 25, 1975, the RAF’s Holger Meins Commando occupied the West German embassy in Stockholm, taking twelve people hostage. The commando executed the military attaché Andreas von Mirbach and the economic attaché Heinz Hillegaart. The occupation ended when the guerillas’ explosives detonated. RAF member Ulrich Wessel died on the spot, while RAF member Siegfried Hausner died of his injuries several days later after being transferred from the hospital to Stammheim prison. Moncourt and Smith, 532-35.

[12] The Revolutionary Cells (RZ) was perhaps the most prolific and complex of the major West German guerilla organizations. Made up of individuals who lived aboveground and were rooted in the popular movements of the day, the group gave armed expression to the broad campaigns of the left. It is virtually impossible to state exactly how many actions were carried out by these militants over the course of some twenty years, but something in the ballpark of one hundred seems a reasonable estimate. The group also spawned a controversial international wing, as well as an autonomous, but ideologically and structurally linked, women’s guerilla group, the Rote Zora.

[13] The Revolutionary Cells “international wing” was involved in a number of controversial, and largely unsuccessful, operations in collaboration with the PFLP(EO)—a small splinter group that had broken off from the PFLP—and the Venezuelan adventurer known as Carlos. For more on this, see Moncourt and Smith, 438-41.

[14] A popular left and youth movement neighborhood in Berlin then and now.

[15] Between 1973 and 1975 the main support groups for RAF prisoners were the Committees Against Torture. Some individuals from the Committees would themselves go on to join the RAF.

[16] Peter Brückner was a left-wing psychologist loosely connected to the Frankfurt School. In 1972, he was suspended from his position at the Technical University in Hannover for allegedly lending the RAF material support (most likely shelter). In 1978, he was once again suspended for taking a public stand against the repressive atmosphere the state was attempting to engender. He died in 1982 while still appealing the details of this suspension. Moncourt and Smith, 460.

[17] A reference to the April 2, 1968, firebombing of two department stores in Frankfurt, Schneider and Kaufhof, by a group including RAF founding members Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin.

[18] Several weeks after World War II, while he was sitting in an Allied internment camp, Filbinger had acted in his capacity as a judge to sentence a sailor to death for referring to an officer as a “Nazi pig.” When this was revealed in 1978, the CDU politician initially denied the charges, accusing those making them of being terrorist sympathizers, and then finally acknowledged they were true, but insisted that that “What was right in the Third Reich cannot be wrong today.” Moncourt and Smith, 532.

[19] The provincial parliament.

[20] Bundesverband der Deutschen Inustrie e. V. (BDI) (The Federal Association of German Industrialists), the powerful lobbying group representing the interests of West Germany’s major industrialists. Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitgeber (BDA) (The Federal German Employers Association), the powerful lobbying group representing West Germany’s major employers.

[21] The Montoneros was a left-wing Argentinean guerilla group within the Peronist movement. Active in the 1960s and 1970s, the group was purged in 1974 and decimated later in that decade.

[22] Siegfried Hausner, who had been severely injured during the embassy hostage-taking in Stockholm, was removed from hospital and flown to Stammheim prison over the objection of doctors in Sweden and West Germany. He died soon after. Moncourt and Smith, 334.

[23] Ulrike Meinhof had been held in strict isolation (the “dead wing”) and subjected to sensory deprivation torture during the year after her capture. Moncourt and Smith, 239-40 and 271-73.

[24] RAF prisoner Brigitte Mohnhaupt was in fact released in 2007, after twenty five years in prison. She was at the time the longest held woman in prison in Germany.

[25] The VNN is a Nazi organization primarily composed of former SS members. It continues to exist to this day.

[26] RAF prisoner Holger Meins died after six weeks of hunger strike, on November 9, 1974. In retaliation, two days later, the 2nd of June Movement attempted to kidnap judge Günther von Drenkmann—when he resisted he was shot dead. Moncourt and Smith, 262.

[27] The actual quote is, “If there are to be funerals—then they will be on both sides.” Moncourt and Smith, 314.

[28] RAF member Heidi Shulz was captured in 1982. In failing health, she was finally released from prison on October 19, 1998. On February 26, 2002, President Johannes Rau granted her a presidential pardon. RAF member Helmut Pohl was arrested for the first time on February 4, 1974. Following his September 25, 1979 release, he immediately went back underground. He was arrested again on July 2, 1984. It was only following a stroke in May 1998 that Pohl was finally released on June 1 of that year.

[29] A euphemistic reference to the bank’s role in financing Hitler and the Nazi Party.

[30] The Spezialeinsatzkommando , or SEK, is a special weapons police unit organized on the Land level.

[31]Baader made this offer to government representatives who met with him in Stammheim prison after Schleyer was abducted. Moncourt and Smith, 483.

[32]As soon as Schleyer was abducted the prisoners were placed in absolute isolation, not even having access to their lawyers. This was given a legal stamp of approval with the Contact Ban law. Moncourt and Smith, 479.

[33]This skyjacking was carried out by a joint RZ-PFLP(EO) commando. In a move that would eventually be viewed as politically bankrupt, once the plane was in Entebbe, the commando separated Jews from non-Jews, so that the former would be killed if the commando’s demands were not met. An Israeli raid saved all the hostages, while killing the commandos as well as 47 Ugandan soldiers. Moncourt and Smith, 439-41.

[34] In 1969 Leila Khaled of the PFLP participated in the successful skyjacking of a TWA flight from Rome to Athens, diverting it to Damascus where it was blown up after the passengers had disembarked. Then in 1970 she attempted to skyjack another plane, but was overpowered by sky marshals. Although Khaled was armed with hand grenades she did not use them as she was under strict instructions not to endanger the civilian passengers. She was held in prison in England for a few weeks until she was released as part of a prisoner exchange.

[35] West Germany’s crack “anti-terrorist” unit, which stormed the Lufthansa airliner in Mogadishu.

[36]In September 1977, the Japanese Red Army skyjacked a Japan Air Lines plane over India and forced it to land in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This successfully forced the Japanese state to release six JRA prisoners.

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