Politics or Pathology? Review of the Baader-Meinhof Complex - Raphael Schlembach

The recent film "The Baader-Meinhoff Komplex" is an attempt at rewriting Germany's painful history argues Raphael Schlembach. Originally published in May 2009.

On the day of the premiere for the German blockbuster Baader-Meinhof Complex, a group of left-wing Autonome threw rocks and paint-filled bottles at the villa of bestselling author Stefan Aust and started a fire at the front door. Stefan Aust’s non-fiction book Baader-Meinhof Complex, with 500,000 copies sold, provided the background study for the film of the same name. Aust was also a close collaborator to Bernd Eichinger’s script and Uli Edel’s direction. The trio hail their work as a historical intervention into the contemporary debates on terrorism. Aust is more than just the extremely lucky – and now extremely rich – author of the Baader-Meinhof Complex. He has led, in the past decades, the academic, journalistic and cinematographic vision of the Red Army Faction – as author, in a number of TV productions and as editor-in-chief for the major politics magazine Der Spiegel.

The blockbuster film version tells the story of the Baader-Meinhof gang from the late 1960s to the ‘German Autumn’ in 1977. A radicalised generation of students fights against the failed denazification of West Germany, against their parents’ authoritarianism, and against what they perceive as the new face of fascism: US imperialism. When pacifist student Benno Ohnesorg is shot dead during a demonstration on 2 June 1967 and a right-wing fanatic nearly kills popular student leader Rudi Dutschke less than a year later, parts of the movement begin to adopt more militant tactics.

The attack on Aust’s villa in the noble-district of Hamburg-Blankenese is a sign that a small part of the German Autonome movement continues to agitate along the lines of the RAF’s anti-imperialism and still justifies its methods. The Baader-Meinhof Complex is not only an attempt to come to terms with episodes of left-wing terrorism in Germany’s past but also helps to condemn those tactics in the present. However, rather than making a political argument against them it attempts to depoliticize – and pathologize.

The book’s and film’s title should be enough indication of the political direction that Aust, Eichinger and Edel take. The militant and armed struggles of the 1970s – of the RAF and the 2 June movement in Germany, the Brigade Rosse in Italy, or November 17 in Greece – are seen as the result of a psychological complex of a young, naïve, but frustrated element of the hippie generation. The extreme violence portrayed in the film is explained as a mere pathology – not based on ideological thinking but on psychology alone. The idea that you’d have to be ‘mad’ to advocate or even practice violence and terror as political tools characterises the Baader-Meinhof Complex.

Take the depiction of Ulrike Meinhof. With her articles in the magazine Konkret she was the voice of a whole generation of students and leftists. In the film she at best provides the ‘theoretical’ voice-over for Andreas Baader’s adventurist and macho escapades. At worst her appearance strikes the viewer as naïve, timid and intimidated by the ‘deeds-not-words’ actionism of the Baader clique. Her decision to join the gang into illegality is shown as impulsive, rather than the result of the ideological escalation of her own beliefs. Even when she leaves behind her children, against all her previous principles, it is other members of the group that speak for her. Her suicide in Stammheim prison is finally no longer a protest against the prison complex and the conditions of her imprisonment. In the end it comes across as no more than apologetic self-justice or as the only possible frustrated attempt to leave the RAF and its violent campaign.

Already Meinhof’s first – and, in the view of Aust and Eichinger, fatal – decision to leave behind the bourgeois idyll of nude beaches and garden parties for the revolutionary milieu is not one she takes out of political motivation: she is simply driven away by her cheating husband. But here, here credentials as a radical journalist do her no favour. She is repeatedly challenged by über-activist Gudrun Ensslin for her intellectualism. For the film makers, the Baader-Meinhof group still had to abandon its political and theoretical baggage before it could begin its campaign of terror.

In stark contrast to Meinhof is the character of Andreas Baader. Baader’s first appearance is with a bottle of beer in his hand, making petrol bombs with the other, and telling his friends that they should burn down a department store. Macho, womanizer, drinker – Baader comes across more like a Wild West villain than as the political leader of a revolutionary group. With his liking for fast cars, drugs and guns, he is action hero – not terrorist, bandit – not revolutionary. Armed struggle was certainly a major tenet for the RAF, with the Heckler & Koch machine gun as its logo. But Baader’s continuous racist and misogynist outbursts reinforce the image that he’s in it for the thrill, not political change.

A third character plays the role of the measured and rational antagonist to the raging Baader. Bruno Ganz, who previously played the figure of Adolf Hitler in Eichinger’s Downfall, is persuasive in his role of Horst Herold, the president of West Germany’s national police force (BKA) and the RAF’s enemy number one. Only that Herold, who in the 1970s vowed “we’ll get them all”, is portrayed more as an understanding and intelligent chief-of-police who sees the root of the problem not in terrorism, but in the “objective” wars and social conditions that have radicalized a generation. What is needed according to the film character is not a police operation but political change. Meanwhile the real Herold was ousted from his job in 1981. His controversial methods of treating as suspect everyone with radical left-wing views had led to accusations of a police and surveillance state.

The RAF’s anti-imperialism

More important than the characters that the film presents, is what it only alludes to – the RAF’s political motivation. Other than describing it as a group made up of drop-outs, hippies and macho activists, this is where the film really fails to make any significant commentary on the political situation in West Germany at the time. The first attempt at showing the social conditions, the repression and brutality of police forces, comes right at the beginning. Other than the rest of the film it is highly dramatised and exaggerated, ending in the killing of student Benno Ohnesorg, underlined with dramatic music like a theatrical piece.

The RAF’s anti-imperialism is portrayed vividly in an early scene when Gudrun Ensslin storms out of her conservative-religious home dominated by her priest-father. The first step towards rebellion against the state is rebellion against one’s parents, it seems. Next up, Rudi Dutschke and his student audience at the Berlin Vietnam congress, consumed by a quasi-religious revolutionary fever, react to the only pro-war protester with passionate chants of “Ho- Ho- Ho-Chi-Minh”. Ensslin adds a few derogatory comments about consumerism in America.

But a seemingly significant, almost apocalyptic camera shot, goes almost unnoticed. In front of the flames of a burning Springer Press building (the symbol of mass media collusion with war and capital) stands the lonesome figure of a bare-chested hippie. Directed at the night sky, he repeatedly shouts his political message: “Dresden! Hiroshima! Vietnaaaam!”. All three refer to large-scale bombing campaigns against US American enemies. Taken together, however, their political meaning is equated, or forgotten altogether. While ‘Vietnam’ was the disastrous US war that mobilized the RAF’s generation, ‘Hiroshima (and Nagasaki)’ were nuclear attacks on the Empire of Japan towards the end of World War II. The air raids on the East German city of Dresden, however, were much smaller in scale and were carried out by British and American air forces in February 1945 during the allied war against Hitler’s Third Reich.

The comparison of the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima is a central demand of neo-Nazis today, who refer to the allied air raids as a holocaust, also equating it with the Nazi Holocaust against Europe’s Jews. Already in 1965, Meinhof too reiterated the message of revisionist and Holocaust denier David Irving that Dresden turned the anti-Hitler war into fascistic barbarism. The film scene is an indication of the political turn that would come for some of the Baader-Meinhof group.

Most striking of course is the direction taken by Horst Mahler, prominent lawyer and RAF founding-member, who in the Baader-Meinhof Complex organized the group’s trip to the Jordanian PLO training camp and appears complete with Castro-style cap. Mahler spent years in prison for left-wing terrorism where he made his complete conversion to neo-Nazism. Later, he became a member of Germany’s far right party, the NPD, successfully defending it in lawsuits brought by the German government. He has been back in court and prison several times since, for Holocaust denial and showing the Hitler salute, providing him with a welcome platform for anti-Semitic and xenophobic remarks.

The film’s failure to look at that side of the RAF’s politics is also picked up on by Hans Kundnani in the review for Prospect magazine. Kundnani spots Abu Hassan, the leader of the early Arab terrorist group Black September, appearing in the film as the commandant of a PLO training camp in Jordan. Black September was later responsible for the killing of 11 Israeli athletes and a police man at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane. They demanded the release of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof alongside 230 Palestinian prisoners.

Kundnani writes:

“What the movie omits, however, is the bizarre communiqué Meinhof—the designated ‘voice’ of the RAF—wrote from jail celebrating the killing of the Israeli athletes as a model for the West German left. Meinhof’s weird logic illustrates the arc of anti-Semitism on the German New Left that began well before the RAF, with the bombing of a Jewish Community Centre in West Berlin on November 9th 1969, the anniversary of Kristallnacht [the first Nazi anti-Jewish pogrom]. This left-wing anti-Semitism culminated in the Entebbe hijacking in 1976, in which two German members of the Revolutionary Cells—another terrorist group to emerge out of the West German student movement—and two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France jet, flew it to Entebbe and separated the Jewish passengers and the non-Jewish passengers before Israeli commandos stormed the aircraft. And all of this from a student movement that began as a rebellion against the ‘Auschwitz generation’.”

Kundnani is right to highlight the mixture of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic ideology that became part of German anti-imperialism at least after the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria, at the end of which Israel had gained control of Gaza and the West Bank. Few in the ‘Free Gaza/Palestine’ movement today make reference to the RAF, the Revolutionary Cells or Black September though the connection between Arab liberation movements and Marxist-Leninist armed struggle groups is interesting, if only insofar as it shows its political limitations.

German nationalism

While one might spot a critique of left-wing anti-Semitism in the Baader-Meinhof Complex, the political career trajectories of some other RAF protagonists – those who don’t even feature in the film – are left completely unaccounted for. Most importantly there is Otto Schily. Friends with both Rudi Dutschke and Horst Mahler, he was also the defence lawyer first for Mahler and then for Gudrun Ensslin. He was also a key figure contesting the suicide of Baader and Ensslin, accusing the German state of murder. In 1980, he was co-founder of the German Green Party and then quickly succeeded in a career as Member of Parliament, for the Greens and then the Social Democrats. From 1998-2005 he was Minister of State for Home Affairs. Here Schily became synonymous with new draconian anti-terror legislation, surveillance measures against political opponents of the Federal Republic, and the scrapping of data protection laws. Other government ministers, including ex-foreign minister Joschka Fischer and ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, began their political careers in the revolutionary scene of the RAF years – Schröder even as lawyer of RAF member, turned neo-Nazi, Horst Mahler. When two police men were left injured after Molotov attacks at a demonstration commemorating Ulrike Meinhof’s death, Fischer was arrested in connection with the attack – though never charged.

It is significant that today’s political leaders – Schily, Fischer, Schröder – do not feature in the film, as their departure from left-wing radicalism marked the stabilization of German society in the 1980s and 1990s, and also allowed for a new-found confidence of the re-unified state. The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a contribution to this new Germany and, despite its refusal to deal with the RAF’s motivations, this makes it deeply political.

The importance that the cinematic version of Baader-Meinhof Complex has in the German national understanding should be made clear. The production was not only expensive; it is also an assemblage of the best-known faces of German cinema and TV screens. Eichinger’s other blockbuster production, Downfall, had a similarly star-studded cast and was a portrayal of German suffering and resistance against the ‘invasion’ of the Red Army of Berlin. It was a “German project, with German actors and a German director”, as Eichinger makes clear. Allegedly, even a few modern neo-Nazis were in the cast, exited by the chance to wear SS uniforms. Hitler’s last days are also depicted as pathology – a mad dictator who should have listened to his saner Nazi inferiors. Once Eichinger had the German nation defeat the Red Army (sacrificing Hitler) on the cinema screens, it was a logical conclusion to have them take on the Red Army Faction next.

Moreover, the film finally allows German schools to put the history of the RAF and the ‘German Autumn’ onto the curriculum. Until now, the story of RAF terrorism was also the story of political policing, illegal surveillance and state cover-ups, which could open up some uncomfortable questions in class. Documents that could give an indication whether Baader’s and Ensslin’s deaths were suicide or murder are still withheld from public view. The Baader-Meinhof Complex turns these questions into non-topics: the RAF; they were slightly mad, slightly cool – but certainly not political. Another ‘difficult’ chapter of German history has been dealt with – the lessons learnt can only strengthen the Federal Republic.

Raphael Schlembach is an editor of Shift Magazine.