Lack of proportion is barbarism

For anyone alive in the 1970s and 80s the phrase "Baader-Meinhof Gang" has a certain ring to it. The particular melody might be terrorism for some, activism for others. At the time I was too young to understand what Baader-Meinhof stood for or purported to stand for and the press, at the time and later, never succeeded in putting their actions in context. Possibly because the press was too busy either demonizing or glamorizing them as the whim struck. Over the years I've read a number of books on the radical groups of the Sixties and Seventies and most aren't much more illuminating.

Stefan Aust's newly update Baader-Meinhof (The Baader-Meinhof Complex), however, is that rare effort that brings the immediacy of journalism and the unbiased examination of academia to the subject. Aust tells the story of the group and its leaders in a step-by-step fashion that focuses on events rather than analysis. Its a tricky technique, especially when a lot of the events involve people hiding out in apartments for weeks on end, but in this case it was the right choice. Aust lets the reader see the events play out in all their claustrophobic inevitability; he also lets the reader judge the events and the actors on their own.

Successful journalist Ulrike Meinhof, minister's daughter Gudrun Ensslin, and all-around-jerk Andreas Baader formed the leadership of the self-christened Red Army Faction . It's noted early in the book that "You either loved or loathed" Andreas Baader. The loathing part I understand but then I've never had a soft spot for misogynist drug-addicted petty thieves. Either Andreas had loads of personal charisma or the rest of the "Gang" had serious masochism issues because it sure wasn't the clarity of Baader's political believes that drew people in. The most one can say for Baader is that he was willing to break the law for his beliefs - that must have seemed impressive to nice middle-class German youths looking for a way to change the world. What Baader wasn't willing to do was do any prison time for breaking the law. Nearly all of the violence and other crimes committed by the RAF revolve around either breaking Baader out of jail, keeping him out of jail, or otherwise getting him out of jail.

And that's the main problem for me. I've long been fascinated by extremist groups - from the ancient to modern times - by what motivates them to step outside of society to achieve their aims. The Baader-Meinhof aims are barely comprehensible. Yes, they wanted to end the war in Vietnam, eliminate poverty and do something for Palestine. I can't tell you much more about their believes because a lot of what they said and wrote was very much like this mind-bending sentence:

"It also means, that is, it is the premise of the decisions - that whatever the Government may decide no longer has the same meaning for us as that from which they proceed."

This is what prolonged isolation in a prison will do, it will make you write sentences that no one can decipher. The German prison system was a revelation to me. Apparently prisoners could self-prescribe any legal pharmaceutical of their choice - uppers, downers, cough medicine. Actual medical care, on the other hand, was a bit more ad hoc. And security can only be described as something special.

During their trial Meinhof, Ensslin and Baader all claim that the prison conditions were driving them crazy. Not likely, since these three were seriously crazy all on their own. When Gudrun wasn't coming up with code names for the group from Moby Dick and Ulrike wasn't penning RAF manifestos they were playing mind games with one another. Sometimes Andreas would join in the fun by declaring the two "grotesque madwomen." All the while Gudrun and Ulrike look up to Andreas as somehow the most politically pure of the group even as he declares hunger strikes that he himself will secretly break while costing the life of another group member. The sanest comment made is by a government agent who asks Baader "Don't you think these ideas of yours are out of touch with reality?"

Gudrun seems to have been hell on wheels but Ulrike Meinhof comes across as a sadder story. The most disturbing aspect of her story was her relationship with her twin daughters. After her plan to have them spirited away to an orphanage in Jordan to be trained as Palestinian freedom fighters is thwarted, Meinhof writes them motherly chatty letters from prison. She seems to take real joy in their visits to her until one day she abruptly ceases all communication with them. Her motives aren't explained and I was left with the image of her 10 year old daughters suffering yet another abandonment. Early in the book there's a vignette of Meinof jumping up and screaming "I won't let them do this to me" after seeing news footage of the war in Vietnam. On the one hand I was impressed by Meinhof's strong feelings for the suffering caused by war, on the other hand, "to me"? No one was dropping napalm on Ulrike's house. But Meinhof clearly felt that she was being put in a position of tacitly or passively supporting a war she was against. That feeling of being party to an atrocity not by action but by inaction had a deeper meaning for a German in 1965 than an American in 2009 can probably ever understand.

But that reaction, so out of proportion as to be downright bizarre, is emblematic of the entire group. As one former RAF member puts it, "The lack of proportion is barbarism. for years, everything revolved around the release of the prisoners." Twenty-eight people in one year (1977) lost their lives not to create a more just world or end poverty (and the Vietnam War was already over) but just trying to get Andreas Baader and his gang out of jail. That's one pathetic dialectic.

This is a very readable book that goes a long way to explaining what Aust calls the Baader-Meinhof complex. As Aust says in the preface, this is neither an indictment nor a plea for the defence. It is a record that requires readers to decide for themselves what the lessons are. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the specific subject or the times.

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