Where did the Baader Meinhof gang come from and how did the police catch them?

In 1972 Germany’s “Bonnie and Clyde” were declared Public Enemies Number One. In the two years since its formation, the Red Army Faction, popularly called the Baader-Meinhof gang, had stunned, divided, and terrified the country.

Over 100 police had been hospitalized and 1 killed, while judges’ chambers were gutted and American installations fire-bombed. A new generation of fanatic youth had declared open war on bourgeois society.

They robbed banks and stole cars (particularly BMWs); they raided a West German NATO munitions depot, amassing the most awesome private collection of ordnance in postwar Germany. As the years passed, their ambitions swelled and their victims increased. While much of the populace cried for law and order, liberals denounced that response; young people espoused the guerrillas’ idealism, and the eminent writer Heinrich Boll shocked the world by comparing the search for Meinhof with the maniacal Nazi hunt for Jews.

Who were Baader and Meinhof, and how did they and their disciples come to endorse a dated Marxian ideology and flagrant violence to achieve it? Both Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof were products of the system against which they fought, highly intelligent and well-educated middle-class citizens.

Born in 1935 to two art historians, Ulrike Meinhof became a journalist for a Communist-backed paper, Konkret, edited by her husband, Klaus Rainer Rohl, and funded from Moscow. Konkret’s audience of students, agitators, and terrorists included just about everyone on the left except the proletariat they wished to mobilize.

During these years, in the mid-’60s, Meinhof was also an affectionate mother of two, with a horror of guns. As Melvin J. Lasky pointed out in The New York Times Magazine, “Two souls, in Goethe’s phrase, dwelt within Ulrike’s breast. A struggle was taking place between Old Left earnestness and New Left liberation.”

In 1968 she made a radical and fateful move, slamming shut forever the doors to her past. She left her husband, devoted herself to the poor and oppressed with whom she had had no real contact, and took up the cry for revolution. But just before leaving, she published in Konkret an interview with Andreas Baader, who had been arrested for setting fire to two Frankfurt department stores, resulting in $700,000 in damages. Meinhof called his act “progressive,” largely because it had defied the law.

Andreas Baader was a historian’s son, art school dropout, and onetime member of “Red Rudi” Dutschke’s Socialist Students’ League. In 1970 Meinhof decided she needed him “to set up the urban guerrillas” and joined in a plot for his escape from jail.

At this time, Baader was permitted to travel under guard to various Berlin libraries for his “sociological research” (he was allegedly writing a book about youth problems). On May 14 he was working in the reading room of the Free University when five figures, disguised in wigs, broke in, hurled tear gas, and opened fire. Several guards were wounded; all the guerrillas escaped. Andreas and Ulrike leaped from a first-floor window and dashed away in a silver Alfa Romeo to freedom and the birth of the Red Army Faction.

United in their ardor to immolate German society, their passion for Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse, the two revolutionaries began forging passports, stealing cars, and robbing banks. With them was Gudrun Ensslin, Baader’s “revolutionary bride,” the zealous daughter of a Protestant pastor; and a hollow-eyed sociologist, Jan-Carl Raspe.

Others who joined their forces were leftovers from various Marxist movements of the ’60s, student and teacher activists, some of whom had been indicted in those years and could not make a living legally. By 1972 the group, numbering only about 25, had so jolted German society as to ignite massive retaliation. Police are carrying out the most extensive manhunt in West German history,” reported Time magazine on February 7, 1972. “In Hamburg recently, more than 2,000 cops, using helicopters and dogs, sealed off all roads leading out of the city and conducted a twelve-hour search.”

On May 19, 1972, two bombs wounding 17 people exploded in the Hamburg publishing house of Axel Springer, whose conservative papers had denounced the Baader-Meinhof gang. In the following two weeks the group was thought to be responsible for further bombings, including two at United States installations that left 4 dead and 41 wounded. Police maintained that the gang had connections with similar groups in Italy, Japan, and France. Meinhof had long overcome her distaste for guns, having received marksmanship training in a Palestinian guerrilla camp in 1970. Now, tens of thousands of police combed the countryside and posters of the leaders were seen everywhere.

At 5 A.M. on June 1, some 150 police surrounded a quiet house in north Frankfurt. An officer of the special squad of municipal, state, and federal police called through a bullhorn, “Come out, your means are limited but ours are unlimited.” The house remained silent. The police threw tear gas grenades and the suspects opened fire. When the police started to ram the garage door with an armored car, a skinny young man stripped to his undershorts strode out calmly. This was Holger Meins, 30, a core member, but the prize was still to come. Andreas Baader suddenly burst from the house, shooting wildly. A policeman shot him in the hip and he was carried away on a stretcher, still shouting, “Pigs, pigs.” The intellectual Jan-Carl Raspe was also seized. Six days later a Hamburg salesgirl tipped off the police that a customer in her fashionable boutique was browsing with a revolver sticking out of her purse. Police arrested Gudrun Ensslin, armed with two loaded pistols.

On June 15 a teacher in Hanover named Fritz Rodewald informed police of a series of mysterious guests who had come to stay with him, apparently “recommended by friends.” Rodewald was among Meinhof’s sympathizers who were providing safe houses for her supplies and followers. But he had come to the conclusion that her terrorism would ultimately hinder the New Left and so went out to a phone booth and notified the police. The ensuing raid turned up a cache of weapons, false identity papers, and a ten-pound bomb gift-wrapped and stashed in a red cosmetics case. The raiders also picked up Ulrike Meinhof.

The aftermath of the “Bonnie and Clyde” era was as disturbing and bizarre as its onset. Capture of the ringleaders by no means put an end to the Red Army Faction’s activities. Germany was plagued by unpredictable and brutal acts of terrorism in the years that followed. Throughout West Germany and West Berlin, roughly 20 gang members sat in jails awaiting trial, but they did not sit idle.

Meinhof wrote manifestos, while Baader devised intricate escape plots to be smuggled to the outside. Holger Meins died on a hunger strike in November 1974 after fasting for two months, emblematic of the group’s fanaticism and a foreshadowing of further self-destruction. The next day gunmen shot and killed Gunter von Drenkmann, President of the West Berlin Supreme Court, and eight fire bombings occurred in Gottingen, all apparently in retaliation for Meins’s death. On May 9, 1976, Ulrike Meinhof was found dead in her maximum security cell, hanged with a piece of prison towel. Prison authorities asserted suicide; Meinhof sympathizers naturally believed otherwise and said so with bombs in West Berlin, Paris, and Rome.

There remained at Stuttgart’s Stammheim prison Baader, Raspe, and Ensslin, now in the midst of a two-year-long trial, one of the longest and most heated terrorist trials in history. In April 1977 the three were sentenced to life imprisonment for the killings of four American soldiers, but they were still to deliver a grisly message of their struggle.

In September industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer was abducted and his chauffeur gunned down. Among the kidnappers’ demands was the release of 11 terrorists, including Baader, Raspe, and Ensslin. A month later, two Arabic-speaking men skyjacked a Lufthansa flight en route from Majorca to Frankfurt. The Boeing 737 was flown to Rome, Cyprus, Bahrain, Dubai, Aden, and finally Mogadishu in Somalia. Schleyer’s captors claimed affiliation with the skyjackers, whose demands also included the release of the Baader-Meinhof ringleaders.

Now the kidnappers, who were threatening to slay Schleyer, issued an ultimatum—”no more extensions.” Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, firmly resisting the threats, ordered a dangerous and delicate operation. Twenty-eight commandos from West Germany’s highly trained Grenzschutzgruppe Neun (Border Protection Group 9) skillfully reclaimed the Lufthansa flight, effecting the raid in a mere 11 minutes.

Within a few hours of the rescue, amid the country’s celebration and sighs of relief, Baader shot himself through the back of his head with a 7.65-millimeter pistol, Jan-Carl Raspe shot himself in the head with a 9-millimeter pistol, and Gudrun Ensslin hanged herself with an electrical wire. Told of the events, Schmidt retorted, “But that’s impossible.” All were in solitary confinement in a maximum wing at Stammheim. How could they have had such weapons? How could they have learned so quickly about the failure of the skyjackers? The director of the prison was fired and investigations began.

Two secret holes were discovered in the cells of Baader and Raspe. One could have held a pistol; the other contained batteries, wires, and sockets, the components of an elementary but astounding communications system. Authorities reasoned that Raspe had connected his telegraph system to the cell’s thermostat and was able to tap out messages to the other terrorists, messages picked up from the outside on a tiny radio. Thus he would have followed the rescue mission in Mogadishu, learned with dread and anger of its success, and issued word to Ensslin and Baader to execute their suicide pact. Bewildered investigators speculated that prison guards must have known about the weapons (which also included knives and explosives), but had not dared to report them, for fear of reprisals against themselves or their families.

During the week of November 7, two very different groups mourned in the streets of Stuttgart. First came Schmidt and 700 official mourners at the funeral of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, whose body had been retrieved from the trunk of a car in Mulhouse. Two days later, 1,000 anguished radicals stood at the graveside of the terrorists. Both inside and outside Germany, demonstrators kept alive the fires of terrrorism with political slogans, bombings, and banners: GUDRUN, ANDREAS, AND JAN-TORTURED AND MURDERED AT STAMMHEIM.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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