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Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F.
Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F.
Anthea Bell; Stefan Aust
Oxford University Press, 2024
480 pp., 37.99

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Reviewed by John Wilson

"A Really Holy Self-Realization"

The Baader-Meinhof Group and the quasi-religious character of terrorism.

I like the first definition of "event" in the big Random House dictionary on our hallway: "something that happens or is regarded as happening, an occurrence, esp. one of some importance." A nice distinction there at the outset. Since things keep happening, simultaneously, exceeding even in a single day our capacity to respond, only a few events register, only a few stories (for one reason or another) grab and hold our attention, and your list will be quite different from mine, with some overlap (whether you are a wise Latina or a white male—like Friedrich Nietzsche? Henri Nouwen? John Kass?—a Cubs fan or a Sox fan).

But one reason we read is to transcend the limits of our own experience. So even if the mere mention of the Baader-Meinhof Group doesn't cast a spell of memory on you, I hope you will consider adding Stefan Aust's Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F. to the stack of books you will be taking on vacation sometime soon.

The crucial events of Aust's narrative played out between the summer of 1967, when the police killing of Benno Ohnesorg, a 26-year-old West German student, during a demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Iran, helped to galvanize leftist resistance, and 1977, when the remaining founding leaders of the Baader-Meinhof Group (who had styled themselves early on as the Red Army Faction) committed suicide. The story sheds considerable light on the evolution of postwar Germany. It is fascinating as a character study—particularly of the three leaders of these urban guerrillas, Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, and Gudrun Ensslin, but also of many supporting figures. And at a time when bookshelves are groaning with books on terrorism, variously construed, it stands out as an exceptionally lucid and insightful account, not least for the way in which it illuminates the difficulty of a liberal state in responding to terrorism without beginning to violate the very commitments that make it worth defending.

Aust, a prominent German journalist and editor, was himself involved in some of the events he describes. His first book on the subject was published in 1985, with an expanded and revised edition following in 1997. When this further revised and expanded third version—published in Germany last year and issued in English translation this spring by Oxford University Press—appears in paperback, Aust will take account of the recent and quite startling revelation that the West German policeman who shot and killed Benno Ohnesorg was a Stasi agent (with the implication that the killing was an East German move intended to provoke unrest and weaken the West German state). It's hard to imagine that anyone is better qualified than Aust to tell this story.

One theme that runs through the book is the quasi-religious character of terrorism. Gudrun Ensslin was the daughter of a Protestant pastor. It is striking to read his response after his daughter and Andreas Baader were arrested for arson in two department stores. No one was injured in the fires—the group had not yet killed anyone, though that was soon to come. Both Pastor Ensslin and his wife, while saying that of course they did not condone arson, spoke of their daughter's action and her motivation in exalted terms. "It has astonished me," Pastor Ensslin said, "to find that Gudrun, who has always thought in a very rational, intelligent way, has experienced what is almost a condition of euphoric self-realization, a really holy self-realization such as we find mentioned in connection with saints." Gudrun Ensslin's mother, observing that her daughter had always wanted to do away with conventions and constraints, said that she had been freed by Gudrun's actions from the "constraint and fear that—rightly or wrongly—dominated my life."

Truth is stranger than fiction yet again.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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