Much has been written about the German leftist guerrilla group the Red Army Fraction (RAF). Naturally, most of what has been written is in German. Most of what has been written (or translated into) English has generally been of a sensationalist nature and composed mostly of information taken from the files of the German mainstream media and law enforcement bureaucracy. The reasons for this approach include, among others, the nature of the RAF’s politics. Leftist in the extreme, they lay beyond the realm of what can be expressed in media that exists to support the capitalist state. Add to this the criminal nature of their actions and the way lay clear for media coverage that ignored the intrinsically political reasons for the group and its acts. We see a similar type of anti-political coverage today when the capitalist media covers the actions undertaken by anarchists and others at international meetings of the capitalist governments and imperial defense pacts like NATO. By deemphasizing the politics of the protesters, the actions of the State seem to be a rational response to the average reader.
Although it is difficult to separate the RAF’s theory from their actions–actions which included murder–if one does so they find an application of left theory that perceived the anti-imperialist resistance in the advanced industrial nations (First World, if you will) as just another part of the worldwide anti-imperialist movement. It was this conclusion that the RAF used to rationalize their attacks on US military installations in 1972 during their anti-imperialist offensive.. They did not believe the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) to be in a revolutionary situation, but justified their attacks via the argument that the US and other imperial forces (German and British) should be attacked wherever they were, not just in Vietnam or another country where they were engaged in overt warfare. This approach echoed the slogan popularized by the Weatherman organization in the US-Bring the War Home.
I lived in Frankfurt am Main, Germany during this period. I attended protests against the Vietnam War, in support of the burgeoning squatters movement (and against property speculation) in Frankfurt, against the Shah of Iran, in support of gastarbeiters rights and against the repressive regimes in Turkey and Greece. I also attended concerts and street festivals where the German counterculture mingled flamboyantly with the US servicemen and adolescents that abounded in the country then. When the IG Farben building and Officer’s Club in Frankfurt am Main were attacked by the RAF, a serious security effort became part of our daily lives. School buses taking us to the American High School in Frankfurt were boarded by military police who checked out bags while other GIs used long-handled mirrors to check underneath the buses for explosive devices.
German police and military set up shop at airports and train stations, holding automatic weapons. Autobahn exits were the site of roadblocks. Wanted posters featuring the faces of the RAF members appeared everywhere. The Goethe University in Frankfurt came under increased police surveillance, especially after the playing of a tape-recorded message from RAF member Ulrike Meinhof at a national conference there. A protest held against the US mining of northern Vietnamese harbors and intensified bombing of the Vietnamese people was patrolled by police armed with automatic weapons. Nonetheless, many of the protesters chanted "Fur den Sieg des VietCong, Bomben auf das Pentagon!" (For the victory of the NLF, bomb the Pentagon). The following day, the Pentagon was bombed by the Weather Underground.
Recently, PM Press in California published the book The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History: Volume 1: Projectiles For The People. This voluminous work includes virtually all of the communiques and theoretical pamphlets published by the RAF from 1970 to 1977. This period is considered the first period of the RAF–an organization that saw its original leadership imprisoned after the aforementioned bombing offensive against US military installations in Germany. These members were followed by another set of individuals drawn to the RAF mostly through support organizations that developed to protest the conditions of the RAF’s imprisonment and their eventual deaths that many still believe were state-sanctioned murders. Over the next two decades , hundreds of others would join the organization to replace those imprisoned and killed. Besides the text written by the RAF, the editors have written an accompanying text that provides a take on the history of post World War Two West Germany that has been mostly unavailable to English readers.
The RAF was an intensely sectarian organization. They saw most of the rest of the German Left as revisionist or opportunist, unwilling to make the commitment armed struggle required. Besides invalidating the gains won by the autonomist squatters’ movement and other independent groupings, this analysis ignored the fact that other approaches might have been more effective in the long term. By positioning itself to the left of all other leftist groups in Germany, the RAF insured its limited effectiveness. Once the State was able to capture its primary membership and literally isolate them in prisons, the RAF’s purpose moved away from challenging the imperialists to one of staying alive inside a draconian and psychologically debilitating prison environment.
Indeed, as this book clearly demarcates, the bulk of the work of the RAF in the 1970s centered around the nature of their existence in prison. In what would become a harbinger of the future we live in, the German prison authority and its departmental ally the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) developed an architecture and series of mechanisms designed to destroy the minds of the RAF prisoners. Isolation cells painted completely in white where the neon light never went off. No contact with any human for months at a time. The use of informers and ultimately a trial held in a specially designed prison courthouse that took place without the defendants or their attorneys. In addition, laws were passed that criminalized not only the act taken by the attorneys to defend their clients but also the acts of any individuals who opposed the actions taken by the State against the RAF prisoners. Of course, this enabled the RAF to point out the unity of purpose between the right wing CDU-CSU West German government and the SPD (with obvious comparisons to the role played by the German Social Democrats after World War I when they used the rightwing militia known as the Freikorps to kill members of the revolutionary Spartacists). Indeed, the special laws enacted against the RAF and its supporters contained many elements of laws now in existence in the US, realized most fully in the Patriot Act.
While the RAF was certainly successful in exposing the fundamental authoritarianism of the modern capitalist state through their hunger strikes and other actions, they did nothing towards rebuilding the anti-imperialist movement that the 1972 actions were conceived in. This created a situation where their developing analysis of imperialism and the struggle against it became essentially moribund. In other words, the repression by the German government and its allies was successful.
The editors of this work, J. Smith and André Moncourt, have created an intelligently political work that honestly discusses the politics of the Red Army Fraktion during its early years. Their commentary explains the theoretical writings of the RAF from a left perspective and puts their politics and actions in the context of the situation present in Germany and the world at the time. It is an extended work that is worth the commitment required to read and digest it. Not only a historical document, the fact that it is history provides us with the ability to comprehend the phenomenon that was the RAF in ways not possible thirty years ago.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org