Guilty White Kids: The Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction


On the afternoon of Friday 12 December 1969 an unremarkable man entered the circular hall of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura on Milan’s Piazza Fontana. He slid two briefcases under a table where farmers and merchants from the rural hinterland were completing bank slips. A few minutes after the man left, eighteen pounds of explosives tore the hall apart, in a hail of glass, marble and metal office equipment. A twenty-seven-year-old clerk, Michelle Carlotto, said: ‘In the smoke I saw a body fly from the public section above the counter and fall one yard away from me. I was shocked, I couldn’t move.’ Other survivors noted stray shoes with severed feet still in them. Sixteen people were killed and another ninety wounded by the bomb, which was accompanied by simultaneous attacks on two banks in Rome.

Within hours the police had unearthed two anarchists, one a ballet dancer, the other Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker. Pinelli died after a mysterious midnight fall from a fourth-floor window in Milan’s police headquarters, three days after the bombing, which was considerably longer than the police were legally entitled to detain him. Some maintain that he was killed by the police, although an official inquest cleared the investigating officer and held that Pinelli had brought about his own end by accidentally falling after he had suffered a mysterious funny turn (malore attivo).The ballet dancer was held on remand for three years, and then jailed for a further fifteen years, for a crime he probably did not commit. Attempts to prosecute members of the neo-Fascist Ordine Nuovo for the bombing routinely floundered, as have repeated efforts to reveal the role of Sifar, or Italian military intelligence, and maybe the CIA, in an atrocity which when blamed on ‘anarchists’ was intended to refashion Italian democracy in a more authoritarian direction.

The hardline ordonovisti regarded themselves as keepers of the Fascist flame and the revolutionary conscience of the extreme right at a time when Arturo Michelini and his successor Giorgio Almirante, leaders of the neo-Fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), were taking the party into mainstream Italian politics so as better to realise their antidemocratic objectives. This strategy, which had its analogue on the extreme left, resulted in the creation of several neo-Fascist splinter groups, committed to the destabilisation of Italy through the kind of political violence practised and theorised by the revolutionary left around the world. They pursued a ‘strategy of tension’, mainly through indiscriminate terrorist bombings, such as the attack on the Milanese bank, which they hoped would provoke a response from the extreme left, thereby necessitating the formation of an authoritarian state. Insofar as these groups, which sailed under a bewildering and shifting range of flags of convenience, had any intellectually coherent objectives, these were derived from the ideologue Julius Evola, until his death in 1974 a living link with Mussolini’s tawdry Salo Republic and Hitler’s Third Reich, and author of The Cult of Blood and Revolt against the Modern World.

These mutations in the neo-Fascist camp had their counterparts on the anti-democratic far left, their historical memory haunted by the collapse of their political forebears under the assault of Fascism earlier in the twentieth century. The occasional bombing aside, the threat of ‘neo-Fascism’ was a serviceable left-wing moral panic analogous to how the right had historically sought to exploit middle-class fears of Bolshevism. The putative revival of Fascism was the necessary lifeblood of an ‘anti-Fascism’ whose most heroic memory was the belated spasm of armed resistance after 1943 when Allied armies coursed northwards through the peninsula. Since the wartime resistance was dominated by the left, its admirers could further claim that a far-reaching social revolution had allegedly been betrayed by the forces of Catholic conservatism that the Allies helped impose on the post-war democratic Italian Republic. Covert CIA funding and the vast parish network combined to keep the Christian Democrats in power for over forty years.

Neo-Fascist violence became a pretext for the first rather eccentric left-wing terrorist assault on Italian democracy. On 26 March 1972 Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the multi-millionaire friend of Fidel Castro and publisher of Boris Pasternak, blew himself up while planting a bomb beneath a high-voltage electric pylon, having earlier gone underground with his Partisan Action Groups, the name echoing the wartime movement and so reflecting the elderly composition of its membership.1 Feltrinelli’s idiosyncratic trajectory, from ownership of the publishing house Mondadori to terrorist bomber, signified much wider disenchantment on the undemocratic left with the reformist course pursued by Enrico Berlinguer, the Sardinian aristocrat who led the Partito Comunista Italiano or PCI. This resulted in the 1973 ‘historic compromise’, an attempt to reconcile Communist collectivism with the left Christian Democrats’ Catholic ‘solidarism’, a course pursued by Berlinguer in order to avert a CIA-backed Chilean-style military coup, which was no idle fantasy in the Italy of the early 1970s. In a further notable departure from Communist subservience to the Chosen Nation, the Italian Communists definitively abandoned their already attenuated admiration for a Soviet Union that had invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia, while hoping to find a common moral cause with the nation’s Catholic majority in rejecting US-influenced individualism and materialism.2

The historic compromise was a betrayal too far for many of those who in the late 1960s had sought to convert widespread, but far from universal, discontent into an Italian Marxist revolution. The failure of that endeavour was the principal cause of left-wing terrorism, which failed in its turn in its attempt to destroy Italian democracy. The terrorist vanguard would be the midwives of the revolution that had so far refused to be born. While Italy did not undergo anything comparable to the effervescent moment of May 1968 in France, it experienced more than a decade of social ferment in its schools, factories and universities that directly and indirectly contributed to waves of left - and right-wing terrorism. Between 1969 and 1987 there were some 14,591 terrorist attacks; 1,182 people were wounded and 419 killed, the worst year being 1979 when there were 125 fatalities. One hundred and ninety-three of these deaths were caused by neo-Fascist terrorists, mostly in a few major bomb attacks; 143 were attributable to the extreme left, and 63 to Middle Eastern terrorist groups operating in Italy.3

The universities were one well-pool of a fanaticism that would fuel almost two decades of Red terrorism. This was a new development, since from the end of the war down to the late 1950s Italian students were more likely to be fervent supporters of the right, demonstrating against the transfer of Istria to Yugoslavia and the proclamation of the free status of Trieste in 1949. The mindless and supposedly economically driven over-expansion of higher education (no one thought to consider prosperous Switzerland, where the number of students was and remains small at 12 per cent of the relevant age cohorts) was largely responsible for unrest among the nation’s swarms of students. In 1965 entrance to university by competitive examination was abolished. By 1968 there were 450,000 students as opposed to 268,000 three years earlier, with respectively sixty thousand, fifty thousand and thirty thousand students enrolled at Rome, Naples and Bari universities, institutions that had been designed for optimum numbers of around five thousand. By the 1970s there were one million students, or three times the number then studying at universities in Britain. Academics refused to adjust from elite to mass institutions, while liberal-minded administrators cowered in fear of faculty or student radicals. Facilities such as canteens, classrooms and lecture halls were stretched to breaking point.

The life of an Italian tenured professor was a good one, with formal commitments of fifty-two hours lecturing a year, no local residence requirement, and many opportunities to earn real money in architecture, law, medicine or politics. There were no seminars, tutorials or written examinations, a student’s progress being measured by oral examinations in the mastery of basic textbooks reflecting an outmoded curriculum. Jaded academics, many of them not much older than their students, discovered an antidote for accidie and boredom through laicised left-wing messianisms and the espousal of violence for other people, an especially despicable trait among left-wing intellectuals. Especially in social sciences, notably at the first Italian sociology faculty at Trento, and the humanities in general, they indoctrinated their students in Marxist theories almost guaranteed to disable these students in the job market. This was not an immediate handicap, for students could simply hang around after failing exams, in these glorified ‘social parking lots’, until the attrition of penury forced them on to a job market in which their talents rarely matched their pretensions and where clientelism, corruption and nepotism were rife.

Beginning in the autumn of 1967, at the Catholic universities of Trento and Milan, students held occupations in protest against attempts to increase fees or to restrict access, protests that mushroomed into discussions about what universities were for and what should be taught by whom. There was much conformist experimentation, whether involving sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, or collectivised housing and squatting. Remote conflicts, in Latin America and South-east Asia, or in the race-torn cities of the USA, added visceral moralising passions while inclining young people to admire guerrilla-type violence. They were especially impressed by the Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella, whose Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla was published by Feltrinelli. Marighella pioneered political kidnapping when he abducted the US ambassador to Brazil, releasing him only after fifteen of his own comrades were freed by way of exchange. Since most of these youthful radicals no longer subscribed to the simple-minded Communist myth of the Soviet Union, their hatred of the existing liberal capitalist democracy was devoid of any reference to an existing ideal society. As in other European countries and the US, the transmission of knowledge and culture for their own sake was despised, while the high culture of the West was repudiated in favour of popular music and the cults of the bandit and outlaw as celebrated by such figures as the British Marxist Eric Hobsbawm. Worryingly, at Turin University a student ‘scientific’ commission cut books into five pieces to overcome the problem of ‘book fetishism’. As the mother of a student radical who became a terrorist only to be shot dead in 1976 put it, the university her son attended ‘had become a shambles, not a school’.4

While not every rock-throwing student became a terrorist, this was the general leftish milieu from which Red terrorists often came. It was part of a wider counter-cultural scene. As a German terrorist described it: ‘the new ways of life, communes, Stones music, long hair -that exerted an enormous pull on me. In addition to that, socialism and other revolutionary theories, and the sense of justice born during the revolt.’5 A low level of militarisation was evident in the increasingly ugly confrontations between Italian students and a police force not known for its gentle approach. After the police had used considerable force to eject students occupying Rome’s La Sapienza university, future demonstrators came wearing crash helmets and prepared to fight back. Some manufactured and threw Molotov cocktails or fired ball-bearings with catapults and slings, the first stage in getting used to handling weapons.

The ‘autonomous’ left-wing groups which sprang up everywhere developed strong-arm security squads, which would eventually detach themselves from political control, becoming terrorist groups in their own right. For a minority, this often involved first storing guns, then getting used to handling, stripping down, reassembling and loading them, and on to the life-changing decision, for the terrorist and for his or her victim, to fire weapons at a living, breathing person. This was the point of no return, where the fact of having killed someone would cast an eternal shadow. Guns also had aesthetic and sexual appeal: ‘arms have a fascination of their own, it is a fascination that makes you feel in some way more… more virile… this sensation of feeling stronger, more manly… I found myself… showing them to women to try to impress them … and then it seemed somehow more noble to use arms instead of, I don’t know, fighting with one’s fists let’s say,’ recalled a former terrorist of the Italian Red Brigades.6

The denigration of what universities traditionally represented did not mean an absence of ideas. The most modish thought emanated from dissidents within the two dominant religions of Italy, that is Roman Catholicism and Marxism, with left-wing priests preaching social justice and Latin American-style liberation theology and various charismatic academic charlatans espousing heterodox forms of Marxism. The latter were a clerisy in disguise, albeit preaching the autonomous organisation of workers (and students) so as to supplant the leading role of the vanguard Party hitherto occupied by grey-suited Communist bureaucrats. The radical messianic type became ubiquitous throughout the universities and colleges of the Western world, a megaphone or microphone never far from their mouths, Danny ‘the Red’ Cohn-Bendit in France, Rudi Dutschke in West Germany, Tariq Ali in Britain and, in Italy, Antonio Negri. All of these men became celebrities of a sort in cultures of stunning credulity.

Negri initially exchanged his youthful Catholic fervency for the International Socialist Party, an allegiance that helped him become a full professor in politics at Padua University at the age of thirty-four, as some suspect, through the intercession of such patrons as Norberto Bobbio and Raniero Panzieri. Negri was an energetic blur of long black hair, horn-rimmed glasses, trite slogans and clenched fists. Learned investigations into the writings of the young Marx went together with crackbrained belief that the Italian government was merely the local branch of SIM - the Italian acronym for ‘the imperialist state of the multinationals’. Negri joined the editorial board of Quaderni Rossi before founding his own paper Potere Operaio, both key vehicles for the non-Communist revolutionary Marxist left. These journals became manifestos for the autonomous grouplets formed by students as they went adrift from their traditional party political moorings, for the journey from left Catholicism to Red was paralleled by disillusionment with the leadership of the major political parties and their established youth movements.

Negri was contemptuous of the immobilised paralysis of the Communist Party, which he called a red bourgeoisie with its ‘Marxist Disneyland’ in the municipal administration of Red Bologna. The Communists were the most insidious element in a gigantic system of repression, canalising and controlling the ‘violent insubordination’ that was inherent in the working class and those cunningly marginalised as criminals. In a revealing analogy, Negri claimed that the difference between PCI chief Enrico Berlinguer and a real revolutionary was like that between ‘a water pistol and a P.38’. There was no difference, Negri and his admirers argued, between liberal democracy and authoritarian or Fascist states, although he, and the terrorists he inspired, would be assiduous in claiming the rights that liberal democracy afforded, just as they made extensive use of the existing media to publicise their cause while simultaneously deriding it as a capitalistic opiate. Apart from using the term Fascism in an irresponsibly inflationary way, Negri and his like legitimised political violence. In order to legitimise it, Negri spouted a lot of claptrap, worthy of his French friends Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, about the structural or systemic violence inherent in capitalism, while warning such people as judges, executives, managers and policemen that they performed their duties at their own risk. The Viet Cong showed ‘how it was not at all adventurism to shoot high-level state functionaries, that it was not adventurism to assault police stations in order to procure arms and … to execute those high state authorities hated by the urban and rural proletariat’. While approving of ‘proletarian justice’, that is kangaroo courts in which self-appointed judges sentenced industrialists and politicians to death, Negri and his kind availed themselves of every stunt that his defence lawyers could dream of. But that is to anticipate. By his mid-forties Negri had become an international intellectual celebrity, invited to the Ecole Normale Supérieure by Louis Althusser, married to a successful architect, and with beautiful homes in both Milan and Padua, no disqualification of course for the resentful views he held.7 Radical students were merely one constituent element of the Red Brigades and, arguably, not the most important. While they paralysed the universities, the vast motor-vehicle factories of the northern industrial quadrangle were convulsed by strikes. If an average of 100 million man hours were lost through strikes each year between 1959 and 1969, the figure for that last year leaped to 294 million man hours alone.8

Several factors contributed to these years of industrial militancy. The flood of eight million migrants from the backward south was imperfectly assimilated into insalubrious northern slums, doing mindless unskilled tasks for low pay in factories where skilled workers received much higher rewards. They were also not assimilated into trades unions which were dominated by pragmatic-minded skilled workers and attached to the major political parties. The consumer boom that screamed from every advertising hoarding made a mockery of life in overcrowded, sub-standard housing within sprawling working-class suburbs. While the Italians can make almost anything look beautiful, they failed with their slums. Then came the radical students, turning up at the factory gates in political sects such as Workers’ Power, Workers’ Vanguard and Unceasing Struggle and encouraging workers to organise themselves on an autonomous basis outside existing trades unions which were disparaged as ‘firemen’ putting out industrial conflagrations on behalf of the bosses, a slur that served to drag the socialist unions further leftwards. Independently of the students, radical workers had begun to organise cell-like structures within the factories. One of the future leaders of the Red Brigades, a telecommunications engineer called Mario Moretti, worked in a large Siemens factory in Milan. Born into a Communist-supporting family in a seaside town in Marche, Moretti hated the cold, grey anonymity of Milan, and rapidly grasped the realities of class struggle in the factories, especially since his technological education had only made him a better class of factory hand in an era of automation. From the student movement he and his comrades copied the confusion of grassroots democracy with interminable mass meetings. He was fascinated by the students’ command of language, their slogans and their ‘fantasy’. So much so that he and other workers began to dabble in communal housing, partly to save money, but also to share childcare - he and his wife had a boy called Marcello - in order to devote more time to activism.9

What commenced with demands for the equalisation of wage differentials between skilled and unskilled or between men and women escalated into calls to decouple wages from productivity, profitability and the well-being of the economy as a whole. The lexicon of industrial conflict expanded to include the ‘hiccup’ strike, or the abrupt alternation of work and stoppages, or the ‘chessboard’ strike in which an individual workshop would down tools so as to paralyse an entire factory. Strikers marched around occupied factories wearing red scarves and balaclavas, singing the golden oldies of the wartime partisan movement. A further escalation came with sabotage, including cutting off power to machinery or blocking access roads and railways. The responses of employers invariably made things worse rather than better. They transferred militants to work in the noxious paint shops, hired scabs, summoned the riot police or, finally, closed entire factories to relocate production abroad. The habit of occupying a factory rather than leaving it, so as to discuss and vote interminably, revealed the influence of students. Their counter-cultural influence was also evident in the expansion of worker demands to include housing, rents and pensions.

As with the student left’s domination of the universities, bullying and coercion were evident, even though former Red Brigadists do not like to recall this climate of oppression. While few cared if the occasional local drug dealer was beaten up, righteous violence was also used to intimidate foremen and managers, and at a major Fiat plant to force female office workers to join a strike, these women being jeered at and kicked or spat upon by four thousand blue-collar colleagues. Strikes spread from large industrial plants to public and tertiary sector workers in the 1969 ‘hot autumn’, while autonomous radical organisation leached from prisoners to their judges: only the Italians could dream up ‘the assault group of stipendiary magistrates’. Even lunatics were not spared the experimentations of a leftist anti-psychiatry that regarded mental illness as a construct of repressive social structures and Enlightened ideas rather than a chemical disorder. This carnival of militancy, still evocative with nostalgic memories for many of the academics writing about it forty years later, took place without regard to the inflationary pressure of higher wages and shorter working hours or the marked tendency of capital to leave the country or to relocate production to cheap labour sources such as Spain.

The Red Brigades were the most notorious terrorists on the antidemocratic left, the most dedicated and enduring of a wide range of armed sectarian grouplets. They were ruthlessly effective, with the worker members bringing a certain craftsmanly pride in performance to their new job. They emerged from the Metropolitan Political Collective founded in Milan on 8 September 1969, gradually establishing a presence in such Milanese factories as Fiat and Pirelli, and in the surrounding working-class districts of Lambrate, Quarto Oggiaro and Giambellino.

The leading lights were the husband-and-wife team Renato Curcio and Margherita Cagol, who as recently as 1965 had exchanged the left-tinged Catholicism of Jacques Maritain for admiration of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards and the Viet Cong. Once a devout Catholic and a talented classical guitar player, Cagol fell under Curcio’s spell after meeting him in Trento’s new sociology department. They participated in various occupations before marrying, in a church wedding, in August 1969. Moving to Milan Cagol hated the ‘barbarity’ of the big city, ‘the true face of the society we live in’. Instead of finding a less stressful domicile - which would be the reaction of most people - Cagol said, ‘we must do anything possible to change this system, because this is the profound meaning of our existence’. This was written in a series of letters to her mother, in which there was incongruous stuff about buying new curtains, which Cagol signed off, ‘bye mum, lots of kisses from your revolutionary’.10 The third founder was Alberto Franceschini, from a Communist clan in Reggio Emilia, whose grandfather was a former partisan and whose resistor father had been an inmate of Auschwitz. After attempting to study at a technical institute in Milan, Franceschini fell in with Curzio and Cagol. In a symbolic link with the wartime past, an elderly former partisan instructed them in using two Second World War-vintage machine guns. The wartime historical dimension also cleared up many moral dilemmas. As Mario Moretti has put it, ‘If a partisan pumped half a kilo of lead into the belly of a German soldier, do you think you could ask him: “Didn’t you think that perhaps Fritz has a wife and five children, raises cows, and doesn’t want anything else?” “Yes, but I am defending my country” he would have replied.’ This conveniently overlooked the fact that the partisan had no lawful way of expressing dissent, while the Red Brigades terrorists chose to ignore a mature democratic system.11

At a key meeting of seventy activists in Chiavari in November 1969, Curcio, Cagol and Franceschini argued that the hour of the Italian revolution was at hand and that it was time for a violent vanguard to bring it into being. On the cover of their review, Sinistra Proletaria, a rifle joined the ubiquitous hammer and sickle. In October 1970 the review announced the formation of the Red Brigades, ‘the first moments of the proletariat’s self-organisation in order to fight the bosses and their henchmen’. In other words, the initial strategy was to pose as the armed defenders of striking workers. There was something else, which an older and wiser Franceschini would concede: ‘All of us in the Red Brigades were drug addicts of a particular type, of ideology. A murderous drug, worse than heroin.’12

Rhetorical violence in the group’s review, notably ‘for every eye, two eyes; for every tooth, an entire face’, was initially accompanied by planting red flags on factory roofs and expelling the management and foremen, followed by burning cars belonging to managers and industrialists. There was something goliardic about these activities. Kidnapping came next. On 3 March 1972 they abducted for all of twenty minutes Idalgo Macchiarini of Sit-Siemens, caricatured as ‘a neo-Fascist in a white shirt’, releasing him with a sign around his neck which read ‘Strike one to educate a hundred’. At that point, the ranks of the Red Brigades were augmented by the leaderless remnants of Feltrinelli’s Partisan Action Groups. They carried out a few robberies, while burning the cars of nine Fiat executives at a time when they were negotiating with striking metal workers. In February 1972 they kidnapped Bruno Labiate, the provincial secretary of a right-wing union, leaving him four hours later shaven-headed and bound to the gates of Fiat Montefiori. In the spring Cagol and her husband unexpectedly joined her parents who were on vacation in an almost deserted Rimini. Curcio and her father discussed the irrevocable choice the couple had made to engage in armed activities. That summer a separate Red Brigades column was established in Turin. In December they abducted and detained Fiat executive Ettore Amerio for eight days.

If these actions could be interpreted as strategic interventions on behalf of militant workers, the kidnapping of a Genoese judge, Mario Sossi, who was held captive for over a month in the spring of 1974, was a direct challenge to the state at a time when passions were already high over a referendum on divorce. Inadvertently giving the lie to the notion that the Italian Establishment was capable of a coherent conspiracy to do anything, the Red Brigades immediately and successfully opened a rift between the police, four thousand of whom searched for Sossi, and the magistracy who wanted to call off the hunt so as to do a discreet deal regarding the prisoners whose release the Red Brigades had demanded.

Not for the last time, the Red Brigades exploited the psychological distress of the victim to sow dissension in government. Between bouts of blubbering like a baby, Sossi issued angry denunciations of a state that had failed to protect him, warning that he would take the attorney-general Coco down with him as co-responsible for the crimes the Red Brigades accused him of. The attorney-general then flouted agreed government policy by offering to exchange eight prisoners for Sossi, and broke his own word when he then failed to keep his side of the bargain after Sossi had been released. Sossi himself was put out by the attorney-general’s insinuation that he had gone insane during his captivity. There was some truth in the Red Brigades’ limpid observation that ‘during these thirty-five days the contradictions of the various state organs have been manifested’. Italy being what it is, many leftists either sympathised with what the Red Brigades were doing or imagined that they were some artful mirage acting on behalf of more sinister right-wing forces.

While the Red Brigades were keen to claim credit for their actions, terrorists of the extreme right preferred to envelop their carnage in an air of mystery since they acknowledged responsibility for only a few of the terrorist attacks attributed to them. Unlike the left, they preferred indiscriminate bombing, eschewing kidnapping entirely, in their bid to create maximum public insecurity. It is very likely that they received assistance from elements in the Italian security services; moreover, the judiciary did not hasten to investigate their crimes. On 28 May 1974 a powerful bomb exploded in a refuse bin amid a crowd of 2,500 people attending an anti-Fascist rally in Brescia. Eight people were killed, including two who were decapitated, and 102 injured. Two months later, on 4 August, a bomb exploded on the Rome-Brenner express as it entered a tunnel near Bologna. Twelve people were killed and forty-eight injured, the majority holidaymakers.

In September 1974, police succeeded in arresting Curcio and Franceschini, who had been too trusting of an ex-priest called Silvano Girotto, a former Bolivian revolutionary they had enthusiastically admitted to their ranks. Nicknamed ‘Father Machine Gun’, Girotto was in fact the police spy who identified the whereabouts of Curcio and others. Curcio was imprisoned in a low-security establishment at Casale Monferato, where he ‘resembled a terrorist on sabbatical’, allowed to use the telephone at will and without supervision and to receive as many visitors as he cared to in cells that were not locked. Cagol continued the struggle alone, writing to her mother: ‘I am doing the right thing and History will show that I am right as it did for the Resistance in 1945 … there are no other means. This police state is based on the use of force and it can only be fought on the same level … I can manage in any situation and nothing scares me.’ In February 1975 Cagol arrived at the prison pretending to be an engineer from SIP, the state telephone company. Three male comrades with machine guns under their coats rushed in behind her. Another member of the team used a ladder to cut the telephone wire running along the perimeter wall. They called out, ‘Renato, where are you?’ and made off with the Red Brigades leader.

Lying low until May in flats bought with hard cash, the Brigades introduced a new tactical method when they burst into the offices of a prominent Christian Democrat lawyer, tied him up and then shot him in the leg, the first of many gambizzazioni or kneecappings. In June, after they had kidnapped Vallarino Gancia, a drinks-industry magnate, the police cornered the band on a remote farm near Acqui Terme. Cagol had bought it in March 1972 claiming she was a maths teacher from Padua married to an academic. They had recently lost a baby and she needed peace and quiet to recuperate. She had indeed suffered a miscarriage, but the rest of the cover story seems like the life she had left. Neighbours did not realise that when she asked them to cut the tall grass surrounding the farm, she was clearing a field of vision. Gunshots and a grenade flew around the farm as the Brigadists tried to flee, with a policeman losing an eye and an arm, and Mara Cagol her life when she was shot twice at close range. Curcio escaped. He was recaptured in Milan after a gun battle with the police in January 1976, although this proved a mixed blessing for the Italian authorities since his release became the object of future terrorist outrages. Cagol received a Church funeral, returning to the ways of the family she had not left.


These undoubted triumphs for the forces of law and order encouraged many premature obituaries of the Red Brigades. In fact, they had set in place organisational structures that enabled them to wage a sustained terror campaign against the imminent threat, in their febrile imaginations, of gollista (an authoritarian reconstruction of the constitution as had occurred in France under de Gaulle) and golpista (a full-blown military coup). There was a central Direzione Strategica, consisting of ten to fifteen people, which met biannually or whenever requested by one of the five major regional columns in Rome, Genoa, Milan, the Veneto and Turin. These were co-ordinated by a Comitato Esecutivo. Each column consisted of several brigades which could co-operate laterally as fronts such as the ‘prison front’ or the ‘counter-revolutionary front’. Each single brigade consisted of a cellular nucleus of regulars, who lived underground and drew a modest salary of about two hundred thousand lire a month, surrounded by a larger penumbra of irregulars who operated above in the sunlight pursuing conventional careers. For example, in Turin, there were ten underground guerrillas and about thirty people who operated in the open. New recruits, mostly from the wider left-wing subculture, underwent a training programme - it is striking that there were far more applicants than the Red Brigades either wanted or had places for. Training involved finding a remote clearing or quarry and having a go with a revolver or machine gun. The weapons were usually of Second World War vintage, or guns purchased from regular gun shops. While there may have only been three hundred or so dedicated Red Brigades terrorists, there were far larger numbers of active sympathisers, and hundreds of thousands who were sentimentally enamoured of the cause. A group of eager students tried to donate hunting rifles to the Red Brigades, blissfully ignorant that a weapon a metre and a half long is not best suited to fighting in narrow urban streets. The terrorists’ favourite weapon was the short - and totally unreliable - British Sten-gun, for which it was easier to get ammunition than it was for the more exotic Soviet AK-47. Mario Moretti has pointed out that he and his colleagues were not great shots; most of what they did was achieved by surprise. Funds were raised through armed robberies, the techniques being learned from watching cops-and-robbers films.

In April 1976 the Brigades firebombed the Fiat Montefiori factory, causing a billion lire’s worth of damage, and two billion more when they returned to the Fiat factory at Turin ten days later. They were no longer the only game in town. A new group, called Potere Proletario Armato, kneecapped a Milan businessman, while an oil executive, Giovanni Theodoli, was shot eight times by terrorists from Nuclei Armati Proletari on a Rome street. This southern terrorist band had been founded in 1970 by middle-class students from Naples; the father of one member was an oil executive, another member was the son of the owner of a brick-making firm, the rest the offspring of lawyers and teachers. This founding group then recruited convicted criminals in the highly politicised jails of Lecce and Perugia where imprisoned student radicals simultaneously glorified and politicised fellow inmates.

Fear of terrorism began to work its way into the judicial system. When the trial of captured Red Brigadists commenced in Turin in May 1976, the defendants warned the judges and prosecutors that they themselves would be liable to attack. It proved so difficult to find willing jurors that the trial had to be postponed. Then the Red Brigades reckoned with the duplicitous attorney-general Francesco Coco. On a sunny June afternoon his new driver, Antioco Dejana, took the judge to his home for lunch, with a bodyguard called Giovanni Saponara sitting in the front seat. On reaching their destination, Coco and Saponara walked up to the house while Dejana parked the car. Five terrorists appeared, killing Saponara before his hand had even reached his shoulder holster, and blowing most of the attorney-general’s head away. Dejana was shot dead while still in the car. In the Turin courtroom, Curcio announced: ‘Yesterday we put to death Coco, enemy of the proletariat.’ He had probably dialled up the murder squad from a prison telephone. Before the end of July, neo-Fascist terrorists machine-gunned Judge Vittorio Occorsio in Rome.

Most Italian left-wing terrorists joined these underground armed groups after graduating from student demonstrations, or from the security sections spawned by the various autonomous political organisations. Judging from smaller groups like Prima Linea, they tended to join as small groups of close friends, where bonds of personal trust reinforced political solidarities. About 10 per cent of left-wing terrorists were women, with violence against others acting as a liberating impulse in a society where until 1975 husbands were legally entitled to beat their wives. Other girls were roped in at the insistence of, or to hold on to, their boyfriends. By contrast, Moretti’s wife left him once he embarked on a career as a terrorist; he never saw her or his son again until they visited him in prison. He has described life on the run rather well. He was a temporary guest of other people, a sort of phantom, watching their everyday lives without really being a part of them. He had to judge people and situations in a split second, because the slightest mistake could have catastrophic consequences.13 Acclimatisation to violence was incremental. It began with hurling cobblestones or Molotov cocktails at the police. Next came some proof of higher reliability, such as hiding a fugitive or storing guns and explosives, perhaps followed by reconnaissance of a potential target. This was followed by using guns in robberies and then firing them at someone, always for reasons of political necessity. They internalised Mao’s dictum: ‘All men must die, but death can vary in its significance.’ There were weighty deaths, on behalf of the revolution, and deaths of ‘Fascists’ which were ‘light as a feather’. As Adriana Faranda conceded, extreme violence was inherent in the social revolutionary project: ‘You convince yourself that to reach this utopia of idealized relationships it is necessary to pass through the destruction of the society which prevents your ideas from being realized. Violence is a necessary component of this destruction. The concept of the purifying bloodbath is axiomatic to the model of the socialist revolution.’14 Sam Peckinpah’s existential splatter movie The Wild Bunch was also a firm favourite in these circles; one Red Brigades terrorist had seen it twenty times.15

Kneecappings and murder represented a higher order of violence than burning cars and kidnappings. This was premeditated violence, where someone was identified as a symbol of larger political processes, and meticulous plans were laid to harm or kill them. As one former terrorist said, ‘you make a person correspond to a political need’, while concealing the brute facts of bloodshed within an obfuscatory, leaden language derived from sociology seminars. Having identified the target, the terrorist decides he is guilty and determines the penalty: ‘so in actual fact he is not a person any more, he has been emptied and you load him up with other crimes, other responsibilities … At this point you can’t afford to be totally involved … you are someone who is meting out justice, who is stating values, and so there is no place for … strong emotions even if you have them inside, even if the situation is charged with feelings… but not in that role, not at that time.’ In fact, most terrorists were constantly anxious to distinguish their actions from those of mere criminals, even when they were robbing banks in order to pay for foreign holidays, for those went with the job too.

These terrorist attacks in Italy in the late 1970s took place against a backdrop of crisis, natural disaster and political scandal. Droughts were succeeded by torrential rain, and an earthquake devastated Friuli. Aid for the victims was systematically misappropriated. An accident at a Hoffmann-La Roche subsidiary manufacturing herbicides near Seveso released large quantities of dioxin gas similar to Agent Orange, which threatened an epidemiological disaster that the government badly mismanaged even as it handed out over a hundred billion lire to deal with it. At the same time it emerged that both the CIA and Exxon Corporation had been feeding tens of millions of dollars into corrupting the Italian political process, while Christian Democrat and Social Democrat politicians had taken bribes from Lockheed to rig a major aircraft contract. There were rumours that Mossad was trying to destabilise Italy to make Israel the US’s sole strategic ally in the Mediterranean. Fatally dependent on the inflated prices OPEC demanded for oil, the government of Giulio Andreotti had to go cap in hand to the IMF, the EEC, the US and West Germany. The lire was devalued by 30 per cent, while unemployment rose by 8 per cent, the same figure for the drop in industrial production.

Meanwhile, Rome’s La Sapienza university was the scene of days of rioting, which turned murderous. After a police officer had been shot dead, one of his colleagues opened fire and killed two student demonstrators. Urban radicals stormed and set fire to offices of the Christian Democrats and the MSI headquarters. When a Communist trades union leader attempted to speak to students at the university, he had to flee from a mob armed with clubs, crowbars, tyre irons and wrenches. On 5 March 1977 ten thousand students fought a four-hour pitched battle with police, two of whom were shot by gunmen operating within the crowd. Later that month, fifty thousand students battled the police into the night after a demonstration to commemorate Pier Francesco Lorusso, a Lotta Continua activist killed by police in Bologna. There, only reinforcements from across the whole of Italy enabled the police to keep a grip on the model Communist city that students almost took control of after days of rioting.

The trial of Curcio and others led to the adoption of a dual strategy. The defendants would refuse to recognise the court, while outside their comrades would strike at the judiciary. They assassinated the seventy-six-year-old president of the Turin bar association responsible for selecting Curcio’s defence team, together with two policemen. The trial judge had to report that, out of a pool of three hundred potential jurors, only four were willing to serve. Simultaneously, the Red Brigades extended their campaign to their foes in the mass media. Three prominent newspaper and television figures were kneecapped, including TGI news director Emilio Rossi who was shot twenty-two times in the legs, crippling him for life. When Curcio’s trial was moved from Turin to Milan, the Brigades attempted to kill the president of the Court of Appeals, but managed only to wound two of his police bodyguards. The authorities scored a minor triumph when on 1 July 1977 carabinieri ambushed Antonio Lo Muscio, the former convict who by then led the Nuclei Armata Proletaria, on the steps of Rome’s San Petro in Vinculi where he and his colleagues were waiting to gun down the rector of La Sapienza. Lo Muscio was shot dead as he tried to flee.

That autumn saw interminable riots and gun battles. In November, Red Brigades terrorists shot the vice-director of La Stampa four times in the face, somehow construing this former resistance fighter as ‘an active agent of the counter-guerrilla campaign’. During the fortnight that it took for him to die, Red Brigades terrorists shot the reform Communist Carlo Castellano a total of nine times, eight shots in his legs and one in the stomach. While recovering from the fourteen bouts of surgery, Castellano recalled his attackers: ‘Eyes filled with so much hatred as if I were a wild animal to be killed, not deserving the slightest pity.’ After killing the head of security at Fiat, the Red Brigades machine-gunned the elderly judge in charge of reforming Italy’s parlous prisons. In Turin, where Curcio and fifteen other defendants went on trial in a court guarded by eight thousand policemen, the defendants howled abuse at the judges, lay and professional, warning: ‘To the lay judges we say, with great clarity, that in this voluntary capacity as special tribunal we consider them responsible for their actions, and consequently we will hold them accountable.’ Turin’s head of urban security was shot dead; a Red Brigades communique announced, ‘the trial must not go ahead’. It did, despite the antics of the accused. Curcio received a seven-year jail sentence.

As the quicker-minded policemen worked out, bank robberies or kidnappings were invariably the prelude to some major terrorist incident. A kidnapping was duly undertaken in connection with the abduction of Aldo Moro. In 1977, the Red Brigades replenished their war chest by seizing Pietro Costa, a younger son of a Genoese shipping tycoon. There were rare light moments. A man of six foot six, Costa quipped as he was compressed into a tight box that they might have gone for one of his shorter siblings. His kidnappers liked the fact that he was wearing shoes with holes in them, which he had worn all day inspecting the damp decks of ships. When they asked about his dietary requirements, he replied, ‘I eat everything, the main thing is a lot of it.’ After the kidnappers had told him they wanted a ransom of ten billion lire, he pleaded his father’s business difficulties. They settled for one and a half billion and he was freed. When they handed back his wallet, he found one bus ticket missing which he insisted on having returned to him. That’s how tycoons are made.16

* * *


In the eyes of the terrorists, whose analysis of complex modern government was simple, there was a single entity called ‘the state’, which like a crouched beast of prey had a single ‘heart’. As early as 1974 the Red Brigades had considered inducing a total governmental crisis by kidnapping Giulio Andreotti, the leader of the Atlanticist right wing of the Christian Democrats. Perhaps sensing that this fixer and friend of the Mafia might not be missed, Mario Moretti and others resolved to kidnap Aldo Moro, as the embodiment of the Christian Democrats - or the ‘demiurge of bourgeois power’ as Moretti put it. It is difficult to convey what a body-blow this action was, the worst crisis in postwar Italy.

Moro had been prime minister between 1964 and 1968 and again between 1974 and 1976 of various Christian Democrat and Socialist coalitions, with a controversial spell as foreign minister in between. He was the progressive Catholic responsible for the historic opening to the reformed Communists. With their 34 per cent of the vote, the Communists could not simply be ignored. Moro seems to have envisaged a ‘solidarity government’ after which the Communists would alternate in power with his own Christian Democrats, who might also have benefited indirectly - morally speaking - from a break in their forty-year spell in office. Although Christian Democrats had made the single greatest contribution to the stabilisation of post-war democracy in Italy, they were also heavily engaged in corruption, including that of the Mafia, as subsequent revelations about Andreotti made plain. A British prime minister has been interviewed about the alleged sale of honours; in Italy a former premier was accused of consorting with murderers.

Increasingly warming to the role of wise elder statesman, Moro was the purely ceremonial president of the Christian Democrats, combining this with a university professorship in law. He was an impressively subtle figure, a native southerner but with the austere phlegmatic formality of Italian northerners. Rather endearingly, he was also a hopeless bumbler and hypochondriac, dragging around endless pill boxes in his briefcase. He also seems to have had presentiments of doom. Moro’s widow Eleanore remembered him punctuating their conversations with testamentary remarks along the lines of ‘If you have need of counsel … of someone to whom you can open your heart, you can turn to this person, who is a friend’ or ‘I would like my books to remain together as a collection.’

The Red Brigades spent five months planning their attack, which devolved on the Rome column which Moretti had established. Its key players were Adriana Faranda, a divorcee with a small daughter whom she handed over to her own mother, so as to engage fully in politics with her lover Valerio Morucci, an addict of American gangster films. These two were the commanders. Moretti also recruited Anna Laura Braghetti and Barbara Balzerani, both prominent in autonomist groups, as well as Prospero Gallinari, an escapee from Treviso prison. Using the proceeds from the Costa kidnapping, they purchased three apartments in Rome and a house at neighbouring Velletri where the Direzione Strategica could meet. They lived as three couples, keeping a polite distance from their neighbours and using assumed names. They closely monitored the movements of three potential victims. Andreotti had ten guards and moved about the city with armed escorts and motorbike outriders. Since Senate president Amintore Fanfani’s movements were too erratic to be predicted, that left only Moro as a target. Months were spent watching his movements, whether at home or at Rome university’s Political Science faculty where he had his professorship.

On 16 March 1978 Moro set off for parliament to celebrate the installation of Andreotti’s new government, a coalition positively supported, rather than merely tolerated, by the PCI. Fortunately, his two-year-old grandson Luca had opted for a rival firemen’s display rather than his usual morning outing with his grandfather. Moro sat in the rear of a dark-blue Fiat 130, driven by his long-time driver, Domenico Ricci, with Oreste ‘Judo’ Leonardi, his fifty-two-year-old chief bodyguard, alongside. Three further guards, all southerners aged between twenty-five and thirty, followed in a cream Alfa Romeo. There was a regrettably predictable stop en route, the church of Santa Chiara, where Moro stopped to pray for half an hour before the start of each working day. The Red Brigades first planned to attack on this square, but the prospect of shooting the two bodyguards who accompanied Moro into the church, and the likelihood that a crocodile of schoolchildren might get in the way, induced them to find another spot more suited to their task.

The point of any terrorist attack is to concentrate firepower so as temporarily to get the edge over the much vaster forces of law and order, represented in Rome that day by about ten thousand policemen. At a bend in the Via Fani the Red Brigades team found a section of road where the vacant Bar Olivetti was separated from the road by shrubs, with a blank wall beneath a block of flats on the opposite side. This was perfect for a broadside attack. The only snag was a street flower-vendor called Antonio Spiriticchio, who set up his stall just there; the night before the attack the Red Brigades sent someone to slash the tyres of his truck. He wouldn’t be selling flowers the next day. Mario Moretti drove a stolen blue Fiat 126 in front of Moro’s convoy, keeping it in his rear mirror. He braked suddenly in the Via Fani, causing a three-way collision with the Fiat 130 and the Alfa Romeo. His companion, Barbara Balzerani, got out and ran up the road to halt oncoming traffic, with a lightweight submachine gun. Alvaro Loiacono and Alession Casimirri used a white Fiat 128 to block in the car containing Moro’s bodyguards from the rear. Valerio Morucci, Raffaele Fiore, Franco Bonsoli and Prospero Gallinari emerged from the bushes that shielded the bar. They were wearing Alitalia uniforms and caps, which had made it seem as if they were waiting for the airline minibus with their light luggage ready for a flight. They wore bullet-proof vests. Although two of the guns jammed for a moment or two, they poured automatic fire into the front of the Fiat 130, killing Moro’s driver and bodyguard, and the Alfa Romeo, where they killed two of the bodyguards instantaneously. The third guard managed to crawl out but was executed with a shot in the head. Only one of the five guards managed to get his service pistol out of its shoulder holster. Moretti dragged Moro, who was unhurt apart from scratches from flying glass, out of the Fiat, driving him a short distance before the attackers switched to a waiting van. He was put in a wooden box and removed, after another change of vehicle, to an apartment at Via Montalcini 8. Any attempts to summon help to the scene of this bloodbath were frustrated since the terrorists had disabled the local telephone junctions. For over fifty days, Moro was held in a cell created by an architect who had built a concealed partition in a bedroom. A mirror was used to recreate the illusion of lost space. Moro lay on a narrow camp bed, and was denied sanitary facilities except for a metal bowl and a cloth. Elsewhere, throughout progressive Italy, Prosecco corks popped in many apartments in celebration of this coup. In parliament there was a cross-party statement rejecting terrorism. Knee-jerk demands for the introduction of the death penalty for terrorists were refused.

The Red Brigades claimed responsibility for Moro’s abduction in a series of telephone calls, one of which directed the authorities to a subway tunnel where they found a recent picture of the politician awkwardly posed before the group’s five-star banner. A communique explained that he was being held in ‘a people’s prison’ pending trial as the leading theorist of the Christian Democrat regime and the key agent of the nefarious multinationals, although some of his captors would subsequently report that the former prime minister had genially confounded the rubbish they spouted regarding how power in Italy ‘really’ functioned. From his cage in the Turin courtroom, Curcio announced that Moro was ‘in the hands of the proletariat’ and on trial. Using the tactic they had pioneered with the kidnapped judge Sossi, Moro’s captors encouraged him to communicate with his family and political colleagues thereby using the former to put psychological pressure on the latter. Eventually, in despair the family would pursue an independent strategy to release their paterfamilias. The kidnappers engaged him in prolonged discussions, in order to influence what he wrote, assuming, of course, that they didn’t simply hold a gun to his head. Moro complied, and wrote several letters, no doubt partly in the hope that the police would eventually trail one of the couriers. His letters were then edited by the kidnappers. His letters to interior minister, and future president, Francesco Cossiga warned that he was not solely responsible for decisions that had been collective, and urged the Party to involve the Vatican in negotiations to free thirteen Red Brigades prisoners.

Egged on by the US, and going against the wishes of pope Paul VI, Andreotti’s government refused to negotiate with the kidnapper-murderers, while the police engaged in a massive hunt for the victim’s whereabouts. The physical evidence was mishandled, while the police invited ridicule by bringing in mediums and spiritualists, although ironically a raid on a remote village called Gradoli near Lake Bolsena, recommended during a seance, might have turned up trumps at Rome’s Via Gradoli, where indeed there was a Red Brigades hideout. Christian Democrat politicians put out feelers to their Mafia friends, who contacted imprisoned Red Brigades terrorists to spare Moro’s life. Moro’s wife and daughter, encouraged by Moro himself, endeavoured to make the government change its inflexible line. This was made infinitely harder by the fact that the Red Brigades stepped up their campaign of shootings of industrialists and prison guards, in addition to the five bodyguards they had already cold-bloodedly murdered in the Via Fani, whose own relatives were implacably opposed to negotiations. They released a communique giving the government forty-eight hours to commence negotiating prisoner releases. A list of thirteen names, including Curcio’s, followed. These people had been convicted of eight murders, and included men serving three life sentences, and others doing a total of 172 years.17 Meanwhile, Moro wrote his increasingly desperate letters, twenty-nine in all, claiming that he was being offered up as a sacrificial figure, and insisting that he did not want any politicians at what he imagined would soon be his funeral. While the pope and UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim made impassioned interventions to secure Moro’s release, the government divided into hawks and doves, just as the Red Brigades hoped it would, and just as they themselves were also divided between the militarist Moretti and Faranda who wanted Moro released alive. In reality, these positions were always susceptible to agonies and doubt, no matter how resolved anyone may have been in advance.

The government hawks claimed that Moro was either drugged or had gone out of his mind, and that there should be no negotiations. To give in would invite further abductions. This line was picked up by many newspapers, which proclaimed that ‘Moro isn’t Moro.’ Newspaper editors also pondered whether they would publish any shocking revelations Moro might have made about Italian politics. Half said they would. The victim found himself in the grotesque position of having to prove that he was compos mentis when he wrote his subsequent prison letters. The opposition Communists, and Berlinguer in particular, took the hardest line against negotiations. Doves, led by Socialist Bettino Craxi, urged covert talks, a view urgently endorsed by the extra-parliamentary left who belatedly realised where their rhetorical flirtations with the Red Brigades had led them. The sinister professor Negri held seminars where he and his comrades pontificated about whether the distinguished statesman should be released or killed. Craxi opened up a back channel to the Red Brigades through Giannino Guiso, a Socialist acting as defence lawyer to Curcio and other Red Brigades defendants. From him Craxi learned that, unlike the case of Sossi, Moro would be killed if the government failed to release terrorist prisoners. The Social Democrat president of the Italian Republic, Giuseppe Saragat, weighed in by reminding his colleagues that ‘no democratic form of power could exist outside the sense of humanity and pity’.

That hawks and doves were not neatly distributed along party lines only increased the pressure on the government. The former resistance fighter and leading socialist Sandro Pertini was a hardliner, as was the widow of one of Moro’s bodyguards, who threatened to incinerate herself if Andreotti negotiated with terrorists. Even as it kneecapped an industrialist and a union leader, the Red Brigades issued communiques claiming that ‘The state of the multinationals has revealed its true face, without the grotesque mask of formal democracy; it is that of the armed imperialist counter-revolution, of the terrorism of mercenaries in uniform, of the political genocide of communist forces.’ That sentence alone indicates how much they inhabited a world of dangerous delusions. Acting under the suasion of higher historic logic, the Red Brigades were now ‘compelled’ to conclude this chapter in their ‘valiant struggle’ by putting an end to their hostage’s life.

Moro, who had stopped shaving and was refusing solid foods, was allowed to write a final letter, and was then repeatedly shot by Moretti and Gallinari on the morning of 9 May after being told to ready himself for a journey in the trunk of the car. In a bold gesture, the Red Brigades left his corpse in the car symbolically parked midway between the Christian Democrat and Communist headquarters. At noon the following day a telephone call revealed his whereabouts; Christian Democrat notables arrived to ponder the last fifty-four days and the body awkwardly slumped in the car. Renato Curcio triumphantly shouted from the dock: ‘the act of revolutionary justice administered to Aldo Moro was the highest act of humanity possible in this class society’ before he was led away. In line with her late husband’s wishes, Eleanore Moro insisted that he be buried in a small parish church at Torrita Tiburina, with no music and little fuss, and no politicians present. No family members attended the memorial service conducted by the ailing pope, who himself died that August.

While the government contemplated its next steps, the Red Brigades sent a team to shoot Antonio Esposito, a thirty-six-year-old anti-terrorist officer, as he journeyed on a bus to work. In October, they killed Italy’s director of penal affairs, followed by the country’s leading expert on academic penal anthropology. In January 1979 they killed Guido Rossa, a charismatic Communist union official, for allegedly denouncing a workmate who had handed out Red Brigades literature in his plant. Shortly afterwards, sixteen thousand workers at the Italsider steel works demonstrated against ‘Fascist/Brigadists’, and half a million people attended Rossa’s funeral in Genoa. Oblivious to such scenes, Prima Linea gunmen murdered a leading left-wing lawyer who had investigated Right - as well as left-wing terrorism. When a heroic jeweller shot two Brigadists as they held up a pizza restaurant he was patronising, gunmen from the Proletari Armati per il Comunismo turned up at his shop a few days later and shot him dead.

Meanwhile, at Padua, leftists had achieved the university of their wildest dreams. ‘Anti-proletarian professors’, many of them Communists or Socialists, were physically attacked, including three who were beaten up for refusing to issue automatic examination passes. Even professors of impeccably working-class origins were accused of ‘bourgeois tendencies’, and received telephone death threats or had to walk along university corridors with ‘To shoot at professors is our duty’ sprayed on the walls. A bomb destroyed the entrance to the Political Science Faculty, while the homes of two ‘reactionary’ professors were set ablaze. Two academic psychologists were almost beaten to death by a mob of twenty students. In September 1979 Angelo Ventura, a middle-aged professor of history and director of a regional centre for the study of the wartime resistance, who had repeatedly clashed with Negri, had a narrow escape when two terrorists on a Vespa scooter attempted to shoot him. It was revealing of the depths Italian universities had reached that Ventura drove them off with five shots from his licensed handgun. In early December a team of Prima Linea terrorists took over Turin university’s business school, kneecapping five professors and five students, and shooting a student who, politely in the circumstances, inquired whether he should address the lead female terrorist using the formal pronoun.

In view of these continued atrocities, the government massively augmented the resources at the disposal of the new counter-terrorism chief, general Alberto Dalla Chiesa, giving him command of twenty-five thousand carabineri in the north, while making another paramilitary police general prefect of Genoa, the first time a non-civilian had held such a post. Powers of preventative detention were extended to forty-eight hours, and the interrogation of suspects without lawyers present was introduced, a necessary step since some radical lawyers were aiding and abetting their clients by passing messages back and forth with the underground organisations.

Further measures were designed to disaggregate the terrorists, notably the penitence law of May 1982 and the dissociation law of March 1987. While anyone who killed a public official was to receive an automatic life sentence, those terrorists who actively co-operated with the police by confessing their crimes and identifying other terrorists would have their sentences reduced. This unfairly tended to favour the big players, who had more to confess than the small fry in the Red Brigades’ highly atomised cells. Those who dissociated themselves from terrorism had to confess fully, abjure violence and demonstrate their reformed characters in prison, in return for which they would receive reduced sentences. Social psychologists were brought in to profile terrorist suspects so as to identify who would or would not co-operate, a procedure which isolated the implacable hard core, who were then kept in the worst circumstances in a generally poor penal system.

This procedure opened the way to the phenomenon of the pentiti - that is, terrorists who cut deals, rather than repented as the Italian name wrongly suggests. The first of these was Carlo Fiorino - il professorino - who incriminated Toni Negri, already indicted in April 1979 for his involvement, actual and by way of incitement, with left-wing terrorism. The most damaging charge was that in 1975 Negri had used criminals of his acquaintance in a faked kidnapping of fellow radical Carlo Saronio to extort 470 million lire from Saronio’s wealthy parents. The kidnappers contrived to hold a chloroform-saturated cloth over Saronio’s face for so long that it killed him.

The number of terrorist incidents in 1979 would reach 2,513, worse even than the 2,379 of the previous year. In January the Red Brigades shot dead Piersanti Mattarella, the Sicilian Christian Democrat leader who had most strongly taken up Moro’s desire to achieve reconciliation with the Communists. They machine-gunned three Milanese policemen and injured eighteen carabinieri when they bombed a barracks in Rome. In Genoa, Prima Linea shot dead a carabiniere colonel and his driver, while blinding an army colonel. In February they struck at professor Vittorio Bachelet, a prominent liberal Catholic and vice-president of the magistracy, as he left a classroom at La Sapienza. A woman walked up to him in the crowded corridor and shot him four times in the stomach. Her male companion shot Bachelet a further three times before reaching down to put a fourth bullet in his head. In March they killed three prominent judges, shooting one of them in the back as he walked into a hall where he was due to give a lecture.

Although many Italians were thoroughly demoralised by these killings, crucial arrests and the incentives available to terrorists who turned state’s evidence began to grind the Red Brigades down, while increasing the paranoia of people already living in a permanent state of alert watchfulness. The 1980 arrest of Patrizio Peci was especially significant as he had led the Turin Red Brigades column and belonged to its Direzione Strategica. According to his autobiography, dramatically entitled I, the Vile One, Peci was born in 1953, the son of a builder in Ripatransone, a small town in the Marche that claims the narrowest street in the world. They moved to the larger town of San Benedetto del Tronto when Peci was nine. He had an uneventful childhood, although he preferred playing cards on the beach to going to school. As a young adult, he worked as a waiter in seaside hotels, although he had joined Lotta Continua while still at school, prompted by a dispute between fishermen and the owners of their boats. Soon he was beating up his teachers, the action which attracted the Red Brigades’ notice. In 1974 they recruited him and sent him to work in a factory in Milan. Whereas he had received 180,000 lire per month as a waiter, he now got 200,000 monthly expenses as a Red Brigades logistician, on top of free accommodation, utility bills, clothing and equipment. There was also an annual holiday in a property owned by the organisation. No wonder his girlfriend, María Rosaria Roppolo, threatened to kill herself if she could not join too.18

Peci reflected a lot on a job in which ‘like any job’ people acquired proficiency. His first task, as part of the Turin column, was to wash and dry two thousand million-lire banknotes, the proceeds of the Costa kidnapping. After the column leader, Fiore, was captured, Peci took his place. He killed his first victim on 22 April 1977, a foreman at Fiat in Turin. He thought of this in terms of doling out justice to exploiters of the proletariat: ‘In technical terms, to kill someone is a lot easier than wounding them - but from the human point of view it is the exact opposite.’ Actually, things were more complicated than that. Peci liked guns, reaching out for his .38 Special on the bedside table first thing each morning: ‘It gave me a feeling of power and security. It was my good friend. I was more jealous towards it than towards a woman.’19 But there was also the vomiting of his caffelatte and rolls on the morning of his first kill, with adrenaline contributing to a night of intermittent sleep. It was like the night before an exam. Deep sleep came after the job was done. This was how he regarded Antonio Munari, his first victim:

This is a man who’s doing well, he goes home for lunch while the workers remain at the canteen. He has a nice car given to him by Fiat, lives in a beautiful place, in a residential suburb, possibly also given to him by Fiat, while the workers, on the other hand… What struck me most of all was the fact that he would go home to eat, while the workers probably ate disgusting food in the canteen, then he’d come back, happy and well fed, and make them work like dogs … I was there for an act of justice. Hit one to educate one hundred. I had no hesitation.20

In 1978 Peci tried to wound a man, who promptly died of a heart attack. Violence became more difficult when he and his victim exchanged words, breaking down the ‘target’s’ anonymity. After killing someone, Peci felt tense with an internal unease, which he later thought was ‘sorrow for the end of a life’. By 1979 he was exhausted and disillusioned with an organisation that had failed to increase its support in the factories. He collapsed almost immediately after he fell into the hands of the state; the police did not treat him as the big shot he imagined himself to be, a strategy which may have led him to confess so as to reassert his own importance. Kept in isolation he was free to contemplate the prospect of a lifetime behind bars, where the main obsessions, apart from cooking - Italian prisons had no communal mess - were acquiring cosmetics and hair dye to disguise the ageing process and trying to avoid getting knifed in a Mafia gang fight. The future consisted of watching oneself grow pallid, thin, bald, grey-haired, sick and old. He trusted general Dalla Chiesa, and began to like the policemen and judges he dealt with more than his erstwhile comrades. Pressure to turn was intense. The sentence for illegal possession of a firearm alone was three years and four months in jail; he had committed eight murders. Then he heard that Alberto Franceschini had rejoiced at Peci’s arrest as it would spur others to release him. He was already a derisory ‘object’ to the police; now apparently he was just a functional object for a senior comrade.

Having deromanticised himself, Peci took a long hard look at the organisation he belonged to. The Red Brigades had no popular support. Their actions were diminishing the space available to legitimate protest by filling the public sphere with paranoia. And finally what they called the armed struggle was harming working-class interests: ‘All in all, we were beaten, militarily and politically.’ Further rationalisations followed. Like the medieval crusaders who regarded killing in this light, he claimed that his betrayals were acts of love, for former comrades whose errant ways he had prematurely halted. Betrayal was also a form of recompense towards his own victims and a form of personal redemption.21 One of Peci’s first revelations was the location of a hideout in Genoa. When the carabinieri stormed this in force, five Red Brigades terrorists decided to make a stand; all five were killed by withering police fire. Two policemen were indicted (and acquitted) for summarily shooting two of them. In his two hundred hours of taped confessions, Peci - quickly dubbed ‘the infamous one’ or ‘that bastard’ by his former comrades - revealed the whereabouts of major arms dumps and who was who in the Red Brigades operation. In total, he was responsible for the arrest of over seventy ‘ferocious beasts’ as he called his former colleagues. Another pentito, Antonio Savasta, was more eloquent on why he had betrayed his comrades:

The necessity and the inevitability of armed struggle represented our bet with history. Well, we lost that bet, and our isolation and defeat are the price we paid for having defined reality by abstract theories which oversimplified it, for having concentrated the social reasons for change in an instrument unable to express it, for having diminished our own force and capacity for change and isolated them in an absurd and futile project.22

The arrest of Sergio Zedda and Roberto Sandalo gave the police similar insights into the workings of the piellini - that is, the terrorist group Primea Linea - thirteen of whom were immediately arrested. Quite independently of the pentiti the Moro affair had triggered ructions within the Red Brigades between those who wished to embed the organisation in the wider revolutionary movement and those of a hardline militaristic frame of mind for whom killing people had become a career. When the Red Brigades sought help from Prima Linea it caused a fatal split between those prepared to go along and those who thought the armed struggle had had its day. Virtually all of Prima Linea’s leaders were arrested, including Marco Donat Cattin, the son of one of the Christian Democrats’ most anti-Communist politicians. Clearly buckling under the hostility of the ‘prostitutes’ of the ‘Establishment’ press, terrorists from a new XXVIII March Brigade murdered Walter Tobagi, an energetic Corriera della Sera correspondent and historian at Milan university who had repeatedly attacked the intellectual godfathers of terrorism ensconced at leading universities.

While immense reserves of manpower, and the lire equivalent of £13,000 per day, were put into combating Red Brigades terrorism, the extreme-right species were not idle. They killed a thirty-seven-year-old detective famous for arresting drug dealers as he sat in his car monitoring pushers operating outside a school. On 23 June 1980 they killed judge Mario Amato, who had specialised in investigating neo-Fascist violence. Then on 2 August 1980, at the start of the Italian summer holiday season, a huge bomb tore through Bologna railway station, collapsing an entire wing and its roof. Eighty-five people were killed in the blast, and a further two hundred injured. The mortuary was lined with small corpses wearing shorts, T-shirts and sandals for the beach.

Patient police work, facilitated by the mounting number of terrorist turncoats, led to the arrest of the leadership of Prima Linea and the liquidation of the group XXVIII March. Although the Red Brigades were capable of further assassinations, the police mounted simultaneous raids on several cities that saw the arrest of twenty-six key figures. They also found a haul of weapons and incriminating documents, the most significant to date. The Red Brigades struck back by kidnapping judge Giovanni D’Urso, the head of Italy’s prison system. They demanded the closure of a maximum-security facility at Asinara, an island off Sardinia, which the government had already decided to shut down. That conjuncture enabled the government to deny that it made concessions when the Red Brigades released the judge, who after thirty-three days was found in a car left outside the Ministry of Justice. On New Year’s Eve two loitering youths shot dead Dalla Chiesa’s chief associate, general Enrico Galviagi, as he and his wife returned from mass. In the new year, the police captured Maurice Bignami, the final founder of Prima Linea still at liberty, who was useful in incriminating Negri, dismissed contemptuously by Dalla Chiesa as the only instigator of terrorist attacks to be in receipt of grants from the National Research Council. This was not entirely accurate since among further arrests there was professor Enrico Fenzi, a distinguished scholar of Dante, who had become a Red Brigadist.

The Red Brigades carried out a number of kidnappings, lifting a Montedison petrochemical director while he was having lunch with his wife at home. After three weeks his corpse was found in a car parked outside his plant. Contrary to the illusion that such actions would trigger a proletarian revolution, sixty thousand workers marched through Mestre to denounce the ‘Nazi Red Brigadists’. The Brigades also hoped to make the pentiti think again when they abducted Roberto Peci, the electrician brother of Patrizio, the state’s star supergrass. After fifty-five days Roberto’s body was found on a rubbish tip; his face had been badly battered and he had been shot eleven times. The Red Brigades filmed his execution. In a novel departure on 17 December 1980 four Brigadists masquerading as plumbers kidnapped US general James Lee Dozier from his home in Verona, where he was in charge of logistics for NATO’s Southern European Command. They had to purchase a box of lead US toy soldiers in order to work out the ranks in the US army from the painting instructions that came with them. In this case an informer led the police to an apartment in Padua. They stormed the place and found Dozier tied up inside a small tent erected in the middle of the floor. Five terrorists, including the daughter of a prominent doctor, were detained without a fight. This in itself was a blow to the morale of the wider left-wing subculture that sustained the Red Brigades. By this time the police had also arrested forty-two-year-old Giovanni Senzani, a professor of criminology at Florence university until he went underground in 1981 as the leader of the Red Brigades. Among his past sins, Senzani had used his ability to attend international academic conferences to ‘finger’ three prominent opponents of the extreme left who had then been killed by the Red Brigades. In his hideout police found a weapons store which included four ground-to-air missiles which were to be used in an onslaught against the upcoming national conference of the Christian Democrats. There were also plans for attacks on the Trani maximum-security prison and the Rome police headquarters, as well as detailed profiles of six trades union leaders who were slated to be shot. Planning was also at an advanced stage for the kidnapping of the number two at Fiat, as a mini-prison to store him had already been built.

This coup was followed by the moral squalor displayed at the first trial of sixty-three people indicted in connection with the abduction and murder of Aldo Moro. Fifteen hundred policemen guarded a special court in Rome’s Foro Italico with helicopters patrolling overhead. The light was icy like that of a mortuary. Journalists engaged in their usual indifferent frenzy. The relatives of victims and the relatives of terrorists tried to comprehend events none of them had sought. Lawyers scrambled for truth and money. The defendants were in cages, the informers heavily guarded. The testimony of the pentiti impressed the judges more than the comedic antics of the implacable defendants, thirty-two of whom were jailed for life. Curcio himself declared that he and the other leaders had misread the runes regarding the imminence of Marxist revolution, an admission of theoretical incompetence he could no longer share with the people the Red Brigades had killed or injured. Bereft of centralised leadership, the isolated Red Brigades cells could still mount sporadic shootings, of US diplomats, policemen and professors, between 1983 and 1987, but these were the dying spasms of a defunct episode in modern Italian life. Slowly the judicial system tried to comprehend the events of the past fifteen years, a process complicated by sensational revelations allegedly implicating the Propaganda Due (P2) masonic lodge and the security services of Italy and beyond in the kidnapping of Moro and subsequent events. These stories, eagerly consumed by the international left, said more about the degenerated state of the left-wing imagination than about the Red Brigades, who scoffed at the idea that they could have been anyone’s unwitting tools. Painstaking judicial inquiries have established that neither the Italian secret services nor the CIA, P2, the Mafia or anyone else other than the Red Brigades were responsible for Moro’s death.

There was also a reckoning, of sorts, with one intellectual godfather of terrorism, although not with the wider problem of how the self-repudiating left had insinuated itself into influential positions in the universities, one of the major systemic defects of modern Western civilisation as a whole. Although at his trial Negri disclaimed his own evil influence, while hiding behind the rhetoric of freedom of expression, only his election as a Radical deputy of parliament temporarily enabled him to evade justice. Disgusted deputies held a special vote, which they won by a majority of seven, to have him rearrested. He fled to France before the police arrived, but was sentenced to thirty years in absentia. This was reduced on appeal. In 1997 he returned to Italy and spent six more years in jail. A ‘liberal’ faculty at a major US university saw no ironies when Negri had to decline their job offer because he was in prison. Nowadays in his seventies, Negri has resumed his prophetic role, as a celebrity guru to the anti-globalisation movement, dividing his time, as the book flaps say, between university posts in Paris, Rome and Venice. Most surviving Red Brigades members were not so lucky, emerging broken from decades in jail, searching the mirrors for signs of their younger selves, the fortunate becoming professional experts about terrorism on television.23

* * *


On 10 June 1967 eight young people discovered a new way of circumventing a recent ban on demonstrations imposed by West Berlin’s mayor Heinrich Albertz. They stood in the middle of the Kurfürstendamm shopping canyon, near the semi-ruined Kaiser Gedächtniskirche, donning white T-shirts each daubed with a single letter. When the eight alphabet protesters formed a line, including a willowy blonde pastor’s daughter called Gudrun Ensslin who wore the exclamation mark, they spelled ‘ALBERTZ!’ Turning round, the group had ‘ABTRETEN’ on their backs, the eight German letters for ‘resign’.

Berlin had a uniquely febrile atmosphere, for it was a barometer of the totalitarian past and present across the Wall; eruptions of international tension rendered the city palpably close and oppressive as I recall when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The louring architectural detritus of Hitler’s Reich stood amid the remnants of the Prussian-German capital; a forbidding concrete wall demarcated garish Western consumerism from ‘real existing socialism’ where, along with freedom, the advertisements and neon lights vanished. Although it was completely untrue that the Third Reich was a closed book until the liberal 1960s dawned, what books there were dealt with morals and spirit and did not directly confront the generous representation of former Nazis in industry, medicine, the law, the police and politics. Many people openly applauded when the Paris-based left-wing activist Beate Klarsfeld smuggled herself into a Christian Democrat conference and slapped the former Nazi propagandist and current federal chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger in the face. The writer Heinrich Boll, once a greedy Wehrmacht soldier in occupied France, sent her flowers. The 1960s brought deep inter-generational problems to young people with Nazi-era first names like Gudrun, Sieglinde and Thorwald, who sought deliverance from themselves by hopelessly romanticising the Third World. Older people prided themselves on having raised Germany from dust and rubble, achieving a conspicuously high standard of living through their focused industriousness. The consumer society was their reward, although large numbers combined shopping with going to church. For younger people, ashamed of being German, and taking high living standards for granted, this economic vocation no longer sufficed. They were encouraged in their radical snobbery towards cars, fridges and garden gnomes (but not towards jeans, records and stereos) by the, often Jewish, gurus of the New Left, notably Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and the younger Jürgen Habermas, although only Marcuse wholeheartedly endorsed the attempt to convert theory into action from Berlin to Berkeley.

New Left ideology was a fusion of Freud and Marx, leavened with a bit of Gramsci. It was, and remains, so stunningly tedious, except for a generation of academics, that we do not need to deal with it in any detail. As a former German terrorist quipped: ‘theory was something that we half read but fully understood’. In many universities of the time this arcane secularised theology was served up as degree courses in subjects like economics, history or political science which almost disabled graduates in the marketplace. Consumerism created, but never satisfied, bogus needs - hence the phrase ‘consumption terror’ - with ‘repressive tolerance’ masking the ‘structural violence’ of an imperfectly dismantled Fascist regime. At any time the ‘Brown’ crowd could return. Especially when in 1967-8 the government attempted to amend the Basic Law by assuming some of the emergency powers hitherto exclusively vested in the Allied occupation authorities. In addition to times of invasion or civil war, the Christian Democrats sought to include periods of civil disturbance in the list of circumstances when the government could pass laws, draft citizens, override the federal states, and deploy the police without parliamentary approval. The Social Democrats successfully resisted this extension of what constituted an emergency, but the amendments passed through the Bundestag with a hefty majority.24 On the left there was dark talk of new Enabling Laws with the term Notstandsgesetze (Emergency Laws) sinisterly abbreviated to ‘NS’. Like their French contemporaries, with their crass identification of the riot police with the Nazi Schutzstaffel in the slogan ‘CRS = SS’, morally self-righteous middle-class young Germans indiscriminately threw around charges of ‘Fascism’ - or ‘Auschwitz’, ‘Gestapo’ and ‘Nazis’ - thereby damaging democratic discourse and ensuring that only their increasingly totalitarian voice was heard. Their colossal intolerance reminded many of their professors of scenes they had witnessed in 1933-4 when most students had been fervent Nazis.25

German student radicalism was centred upon Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, Munich and West Berlin. Berlin magnetised young leftist radicals from the German provinces because those who studied there were exempt from military service, while bars and pubs with no official licensing hours encouraged a heavy Teutonic sociability. Many wealthy people had fled the city, leaving an abundance of cheap and spacious apartments, laboratories for alternative lifestyles. Communal apartments and squats had the usual atmosphere of overflowing ashtrays - even hub caps were never big enough - soiled sheets, blankets used as curtains, and the lingering odours of dope and unwashed clothes. The Cold War ensured that the place was subsidised up to the hilt as a beacon of Western democracy in the surrounding Red sea. Free of the constraints of parental homes and small towns and villages, young people bobbed about in the city’s anomic hugeness, for, unlike New York, Berlin had been built on an extensive basis, the reason why Allied bombers found it hard to obliterate. A giant overhead railway network, called the S-Bahn, connected the city through its infamous Wall.

Books on German left-wing terrorism never include chapters on the working class, a revealing omission that distinguishes Germany from Italy. There was no significant working-class radicalism in West Germany, unless you count young neo-Nazis, chiefly because workers were generally represented, as of right, on the managing boards of most companies. Among German workers, Communism was associated with the Stalinist dictatorship of the German Democratic Republic, although they sometimes also idealised its alleged egalitarianism, just as they had done with Hitler’s fictive ‘economic miracle’ in the 1930s. Hence, for many student leftists it was essential to demythologise Western workers - with talk of the metropolitan ‘labour aristocracy’ - while projecting heroic characteristics on to the real downtrodden helots of the Third World, who were above any form of criticism, and about whose reality the students knew as little as the Christ cum Che they had on the wall.

As in Italy, the West German higher-education system had been massified, with the number of students climbing from 384,000 in 1965 to 510,000 five years later. The transition from elite to mass higher education made reform urgent, with the complication that education policy was in the hands of federal governments of different political complexions. In some places, the absolutist regime of senior professors gave way to three-way power-sharing arrangements, between professors, untenured faculty and the so-called representatives of the students, arrangements that would not be tolerated among cobblers or watch makers who pass on skills. The most revolutionary students were organised in the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, founded in 1949 as the student wing of the Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands. Future chancellor Helmut Schmidt was its first chairman. However, by 1961 the SPD had disowned the SDS because of its campaigns against rearmament and conscription. In turn, the SDS was part of a broader ‘Extra-parliamentary opposition’ (APO), which was partly a response to the formation of a Christian Democrat and Social Democrat ‘Grand Coalition’ cabinet that, in their eyes, seemed to negate a pluralist democracy. Its leading light was Rudi Dutschke, whose fascination with violence, a common trait among intellectuals, was not merely rhetorical. He would advocate and experience it.

The left were anti-imperialist too, hysterically claiming that the US was exterminating the Vietnamese. The lawyer Horst Mahler collected money for the Viet Cong which he schlepped into East Berlin’s North Vietnamese embassy. In a further twist, many leftists construed Israel as a Fascist power, camouflaging their anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism so that the erstwhile victims of their parents and grandparents could be viewed as oppressors. SDS students prevented the Israeli ambassador, and visiting Israeli academics, from speaking when they visited universities to make Israel’s case. On 9 November 1969 a bomb placed by a grouplet calling themselves the West Berlin Tupamaros went off in the Berlin Jewish community building, a singularly inappropriate date to warn the Jewish ‘Fascists’ off ‘their’ colonialist oppression of the Palestinians, it being revealing that Berlin’s tiny Jewish community was unreflectively conflated with Israel.26

Violent confrontations with the Berlin police had begun in February 1966 when SDS-supporting students blocked traffic and then stormed the Amerika-Haus cultural centre, where they lowered the Stars ‘n’ Stripes. Shouts of ‘Amis raus aus Vietnam’ (Yanks out of Vietnam) were their response to the terrible news footage and magazine photographs they had seen of orange petrochemical explosions in lush green jungle, and teenage girls with black, brown and red napalm scorches on their flesh. Shortly afterwards demonstrations were banned both on campus and in the city centre as a whole. Mayor Albertz publicly boasted that he had ordered the police to make heavy use of their rubber batons should any further protests occur. After a student tract mocked professors at the Free university as ‘skilled idiots’ cloning mini ‘skilled idiots’ the police raided the SDS headquarters and confiscated the membership records.

Vice-president Hubert Humphrey’s visit to Berlin in April 1967 resulted in eggs, flour, flans and stones raining down on the cars of his entourage as they arrived at the Axel-Springer building near the Wall. Several students were heavily beaten by the police. Although Humphrey had been assaulted with little more than the ingredients for a pudding, eleven members of a squat called Commune 1 were arrested, according to the Springer press, for plotting against the life of the US vice-president. The evening of 2 June 1967 would pass into terrorist legend, becoming both the name of a German terrorist group and of particular actions. The Iranian emperor Reza Pahlavi and his consort were in Germany on a state visit. That afternoon the imperial couple visited the town hall where both the German police and the shah’s contingent of Savak agents shouting ‘Long live the shah’ kept Iranian and German demonstrators away. Some of the Savak men evidently lost their cool amid the rival cries of ‘Shah, shah, charlatan!’, crashing through the barriers to beat the demonstrators up with wooden clubs and blackjacks that could fell a person unconscious with one blow. These scenes repeated themselves that evening when the shah and his wife attended a gala performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute. While the shah enjoyed the opera, police charged into the demonstrators, slicing the mass up like salami, and dispersing them down side streets. A tactic called ‘fox hunting’ ensued to detain suspected ringleaders, usually by dint of their beard or long hair in those unsophisticated times.

Three policemen chased a young man, Benno Ohnesorg, into a dark courtyard off a side street where they pummelled him with truncheons as he curled into a ball on the ground. A member of the Political Police arrived, brandishing a Walther PPK 7.65 in his hand. The officer’s gun went off, fatally shooting Ohnesorg in the head. Ohnesorg was a twenty-six-year-old student of Romance languages, an otherwise pious Protestant attending the first and last demonstration of his life. Albertz blamed the demonstrators for the death, while an investigation treated the shooting as an accident rather than negligent homicide. As he bade the shah farewell the following day, Albertz asked whether his imperial majesty had heard of Ohnesorg’s demise. ‘Yes,’ the emperor replied, ‘it doesn’t perturb me. That happens in Iran every day.’ One of those who carried Ohnesorg’s coffin was Michael ‘Bommi’ Baumann, who would later join the 2 June Movement.27 Horst Mahler, whose ex-Wehrmacht soldier father had gone out into the garden and shot himself in 1949 after the family had relocated to Dessau from Silesia, represented Ohnesorg’s widow. This marked a change from his commercial practice, although he had already become the first German lawyer to avail himself of the European Convention on Human Rights, on behalf of a former SS guard at Mauthausen remanded for an inhuman five years. The SDS was flooded with membership applications as Germany’s students passed from shock to rage. Much of the reaction to Ohnesorg’s death was hysterical and paranoid:

I remember exactly, when I began to study, that the SDS was rampant with fantasies of fear. One man [Franz Josef Strauss] was intent on making himself into the dictator of West Germany, possibly even with the help of the Bundeswehr! Not least because of that, we had to fight desperately hard against passage of the emergency laws: he wanted to have a legal basis for his seizure of power, we were dealing with his ‘Enabling Acts’ and nothing less! And now, exactly as was true then [in 1933] most people had no idea, or closed their eyes willingly to the catastrophe.

At a packed SDS meeting in Berlin a young woman shouted: ‘This Fascist state intends to kill all of us. We must organise resistance. Violence can only be answered with violence. This is the generation of Auschwitz - with them one can’t argue! They have weapons and we haven’t any. We must arm ourselves too.’ The speaker was Gudrun Ensslin.

Born in 1940, Ensslin was the fourth of seven children of a Swabian village Lutheran parson and his wife. They were vaguely left-wing, in a damp clerical sort of way, being especially exercised by the question of West German rearmament. Since 68 per cent of German terrorists came from Protestant backgrounds, some have wondered whether their intense enthusiasm for Marxism or Maoism was some form of surrogate faith. Ensslin was a model pupil at her local Gymnasium, and a leading member of the Protestant organisation for girls. In 1958-9 she spent an exchange year with Methodists in Pennsylvania, before going up to Tubingen to study English, German and pedagogy. There she fell in love with Bernward Vesper, the son of a prominent Nazi poet who had turned against his father. The two became engaged and established a small publishing house producing tracts against atomic weapons. Moving to Berlin, the two campaigned for the Social Democrats, only to be appalled when its leaders went into coalition with the conservatives in 1965. That was the beginning of Ensslin’s slide into radical left politics. Meanwhile, having used her fiance to sire a son called Felix - Rudi Dutschke was godfather - Ensslin promptly left Vesper, who eventually put the child out for adoption. In common with many of her future associates, Ensslin’s concern for orphans did not include those they created themselves.


Ensslin spent the night following the 1967 alphabet protest with a small crowd smoking dope and talking politics in a Berlin apartment. One of those present was Andreas Baader. Born in 1943 in Munich, Baader was the son of a gifted young historian and archivist who as a reluctant soldier had gone missing in 1945 on the disintegrating Eastern Front. Idle but aggressively strong willed, Baader grew up in an atmosphere dominated by struggling women, which probably encouraged his narcissistic traits, a mise en scene he would recreate with Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof. He admired his uncle, Michael Kroecher, a gay ballet dancer who went on to have a modest career in art films. After being expelled from successive schools, Baader essayed various careers in advertising and journalism, none of which came to anything. His real vocation was stealing cars (he perfected the break-in time to ten seconds) and driving them recklessly fast, albeit never having acquired a (legal) licence to drive. Being good-looking in a brooding sub-Marlon Brando or Alain Delon sort of way, in the trousers he himself sewed especially tight, he was like fresh meat for the barflies in Munich’s gay pubs, even though he was strenuously heterosexual. Poncing off older gay men gave him a few minor breaks; the fashion photographer who discovered Christa Paeffgen (subsequently the gaunt Nico with the nicotine-tarred voice in The Velvet Underground) photographed Baader for a gay porn magazine. Baader was never averse to violence, deliberately starting fights in pubs in order to trigger mass brawls, or mugging other customers in the men’s lavatories.

Avoiding the ever closer attentions of the Munich police, in 1963 Baader moved to West Berlin, and lodged with Elly-Leonore ‘Ello’ Henkel-Michel and her husband Manfred Henkel, two painters of indifferent talent, with a young son called Robert. What started as a sexless ménage á trois graduated to Andreas Baader and Ello having a daughter, Suse, successfully conceived despite the mother’s prodigious ingestion of whisky, Captogen and LSD. Manfred and Ello divorced, but Manfred continued to share an apartment with Ello, Baader and the two young children. Eventually, Manfred gained custody of both children from his drink - and drug-saturated former wife. Apart from the time spent brawling in pubs or taking drugs while pretending to write a book, Baader moved into the orbit of Commune 1, the radical squat that took the 1871 Paris Commune as its model. Sexual liberation was a major preoccupation. ‘The Vietnam War is not what interests me, but difficulties with my orgasm do,’ as one communard put it. In the summer of 1967 Baader joined members of Commune 1 in a mock funeral intended to offend mourners at the burial of former Reichstag president Paul Lobe. Holding up a fake coffin along with Baader was Peter Urbach, a former worker on the city’s S-Bahn, known as ‘S-Bahn Peter’, who had become the Commune’s handyman, and eager supplier of drugs and weapons. He was also an agent for the West German secret service, the Bundes Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution), insinuated into the city’s left-wing underground to provoke mayhem.

Baader missed the 2 June 1967 demonstrations as he was serving a brief sentence in young-adult detention for motoring offences. Returned to Berlin as an authenticated item of rough trade, he exercised inordinate suasion over left-wing middle-class students who laboured under the false consciousness that their own druggy discussions had anything to do with revolution. He had a credibility they lacked as the spoilt offspring of the bourgeoisie. Men were intimidated by his ready resort to violence and by a temper that brought foam to his lips. Women, whom feminism had taught only how to intimidate men, seem to have especially appreciated Baader calling them ‘Fotzen’ (cunts). He deftly transferred his attentions from Ello to Gudrun Ensslin, with whom he shared a common desire for deeds rather than talk. Dope cemented their affections and they became lovers. In the meantime, Ensslin had fully sloughed off being the vicar’s daughter, having starred in a short Dadaist sex movie, involving her slowly stripping off and writhing around with a man beneath some sheets while letters and papers dropped unread through the front door. Their first deed was to unfurl an ‘Expropriate Springer’ banner from the steeple of the Kaiser Gedächtnis Kirche while letting off smoke bombs that they had made. Next they took composer Pierre Boulez at his word, when in an interview he said he’d like to see Maoist Red Guards make short work of an opera performance. Baader, Ensslin and Thorwald Proll, the son of an architect whose mother had run off to San Francisco, stormed the stage of the Deutsches Oper before being dragged out by stewards. Maestro Boulez smiled indulgently.

A catastrophic fire in a Brussels department store, which had killed over 250 shoppers, provided the inspiration for their next attacks. For the first time revealing his capacity for leadership, Baader dominated the lengthy discussions in Commune 1. In Munich he, Ensslin and Proll were joined by a radical actor called Horst Söhnlein, who had also just parted from his wife, with whom he ran an alternative theatre with the future film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Before the attacks, Baader tried to borrow a 16 mm camera from a Munich acquaintance, suggesting that he was partly directing his own film. For the cinematic qualities of what he was orchestrating are its most striking features. Since we know exactly what movies he saw, it is possible to recreate his own highly cinematic fantasy world. Baader was the star, a Brando, Belmondo or Delon figure from any contemporary gangster movie. The endless, mindless speeding up and down Germany’s extensive Autobahn network - an abiding impression of their activities - was an attempt to replicate the rebel motorbike odyssey in Easy Rider, with the odd lapse into drugged surreality as Ensslin and the others had physically to stop Baader from drowning a feral cat on the Starnberger See. Finally, Baader seems to have taken what terror tactics he knew from Pontecorvo’s La battaglia di Algeri - notably the use of simultaneous attacks - while identifying himself with the boxer, pimp, and FLN terrorist Ali La Pointe. The problem was, this was comfortable West Germany rather than the crowded slums of colonial Algiers.28

On the evening of 2 April 1968, shortly before closing, Baader and Ensslin took the elevator to the first floor of the Kaufhaus Schneider, where they left a firebomb in women’s coats, and another in a wardrobe in household furnishings. Others deposited similar bombs in the Kaufhof store near by. At midnight an alert taxi driver noticed that both buildings were ablaze, even as a woman telephoned a news agency with the intelligence that this was ‘an act of political revenge’. Both fires caused about 800,000 DM worth of damage before they were brought under control. It took the police less than two days to arrest the perpetrators. A reward of 50,000 DM was sufficient to induce the boyfriend of the person whose flat they had stayed in the night before to identify the culprits. Ensslin claimed to be visiting a cousin; Baader to be talent scouting actors for a film. The Frankfurt police discovered a screw in Ensslin’s handbag that matched one used in one of the firebombs, while a search of the car used by the foursome revealed watch parts, a battery-operated detonator, rolls of tape like those employed in binding the materials together, and miniature film rolls showing the entrances to department stores around the country. Meanwhile the Berlin police discovered combustible materials identical with those used in the Frankfurt stores when they searched Ensslin’s flat.

The firebombings were temporarily overshadowed in the radical imagination when on 11 April a young right-wing house painter, Josef Bachmann, walked up to Rudi Dutschke as he set off from his Berlin apartment and shot him three times, once in the head. Bachmann later killed himself in jail; in 1979 the brain-damaged victim drowned after having an epileptic fit in his bath. Dutschke was not simply a theorist of violence. That February 1968 he and Bahman Nirumand had taken a plane from Berlin to Frankfurt. They had a bomb in their luggage intended for the American Forces Radio mast in Saarbrücken. Stopped by police at Frankfurt airport, Dutschke had the nerve to put the case in a left-luggage locker before the officers took him away. He explained it was too heavy to carry, and they concurred. His widow also recalled that in the same month Giangiacomo Feltrinelli appeared at their flat, with a car trunk full of dynamite. She and Dutschke used their baby Hosea-Che’s pushchair to spirit the explosives away to a left-wing lawyer who hid them.29

This assassination attempt against Dutschke triggered massive demonstrations against the Axel Springer Press headquarters, for radicals held conservative newspapers such as Bild Zeitung responsible for inciting the attack. These demonstrations took a violent turn, partly because secret agent Peter Urbach appeared with a basket of Molotov cocktails, which were used to destroy Springer delivery vans. During parallel disturbances in Munich, a student and a press photographer were inadvertently killed in a hail of stones. One of the Berlin demonstrators, who received a ten-month suspended sentence for taking part in public disorder, was Horst Mahler, the radical SDS-supporting lawyer currently acting on Baader’s behalf. While the brother of the publisher of Der Spiegel- the left-wing glossy weekly originally founded by the British - endeavoured to defend Mahler, outside the streets were rocked by the most violent demonstrations Berlin had seen. One hundred and thirty policemen and twenty-two demonstrators were seriously injured. One of the reasons for this disparity in casualty rates was that the demonstrators included the West Berlin Tupamaros who were fully prepared to use physical violence. For men like Michael ‘Bommi’ Baumann or Dieter Kunzelmann, the communard bothered about his orgasms, this was their route towards terrorism. They did not need fancy ideological justifications. Baumann himself could never understand Dutschke’s learnedly abstract talks about revolution. Men like him enjoyed fighting, whether at a Rolling Stones concert or a political demonstration. It was a matter of power, seeing the police scuttle away, and getting the coppery scent of blood. He was surprisingly eloquent about how carrying a gun physically altered the central point of one’s being to where hand and gun joined, creating an almost foolhardy sense of security through the element of surprise. A third of the members of the 2 June Movement, to which Baumann belonged, had criminal convictions for violent behaviour at demonstrations. As he put it: ‘For me violence is a perfectly satisfactory means. I have never had inhibitions about it.’30 Reverting to her severe Protestant roots, Ensslin once reminded Baumann: ‘What are you doing, running around apartments, fucking little girls, smoking dope. Having fun. That mustn’t be. This job that we’re doing is serious. There must be no fun.’31

The trial of the Frankfurt arsonists commenced on 14 October 1968; immediately the accused tried to theatricalise the proceedings, when Proll claimed to be Baader, giving 1789 as his date of birth. Matters turned to farce when Ello, invited by Baader as a character witness to ‘paint a picture’ of him, turned up with a selection of her naive canvases spilling from her arms. The judges felt they could dispense with her testimony. Despite the efforts of their radical defence lawyers, including Otto Schily and Horst Mahler (the latter had formed his own Collective of Socialist Lawyers), the four accused each received three years’ imprisonment. After fourteen months, they were released in June 1969, pending the outcome of their lawyers’ appeals to have the initial sentences reduced.

Baader and Ensslin moved into a large flat provided rent free by the Frankfurt university branch of the SDS. To celebrate their freedom, the two injected themselves with liquefied opium, managing to contract hepatitis. At the time their SDS admirers were animated by a campaign they had been running to politicise and radicalise the problem juveniles these students encountered during visits to children’s homes as the practical part of their studies. There were about half a million such young people in the Federal Republic, and the conditions they lived in were miserable, exploited as cheap labour and sometimes abused.

Baader and Ensslin took part in SDS efforts to liberate these children, disrupting the homes and providing inmates with casual refuges when they managed to escape. The pair drove between juvenile homes in a Mercedes, stoned out of their minds, occasionally exchanging the driver and passenger seats while speeding along. Baader sometimes drove while patting his face with powder in the mirror. Incredibly, for Baader and Ensslin were only free pending appeal, the regional Hesse authorities allocated them housing for thirty-three youths, while granting them funds to disburse each day. Among those who came into their orbit in this fashion was Peter Jürgen Boock, an impressionable seventeen-year-old from a disturbed background whom Ensslin invited to share a bath on his first night at their place. He and his fellows were formally educated by Baader, standing on a stool reading the thoughts of Chairman Mao, and Baader also catered for their recreational needs by taking his charges on nightly escapades to smash up discotheques and pubs. Among the juveniles Baader and Ensslin collected there was much experimental sex and drugs; useful training since many of them (excepting the few who, like Boock, became leading terrorists or those who got back on the straight and narrow) became heroin addicts and rent boys when the revolutionaries moved on.

In November 1969 the Federal Court of Appeal rejected the four arsonists’ appeals. They were going back inside. Baader and Ensslin decided to flee over the French border; there a contact gave them money and the keys to the vacant Latin Quarter apartment of Regis Debray, who having fought alongside Che Guevara was into the second year of a thirty-year sentence in a Bolivian prison, from which his powerful politician father would get him released the following year. They were joined by Thorwald Proll and his sister Astrid. Despite their disguises, cutting their hair shorter or dyeing blonde Ensslin brunette, the group evidently felt sufficiently at ease in Paris to photograph themselves larking around in a cafe. From Amsterdam they acquired fresh identity papers; their photos were inserted into the reportedly lost passports of sympathetic comrades. The two main protagonists became ‘Hans’ and ‘Gretel’. Baader and Ensslin drove south, dropping off Thorwald Proll in Strasbourg. Considering himself unfit for life in the underground, Proll surrendered to the German authorities, one of several people who resisted Baader’s siren calls to terrorism.

From Zurich the two fugitives went to Milan, visiting Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who received them at his office dressed in camouflage gear, with guns and grenades laid out for inspection on the desk. At a glance they ascertained his seriousness. In Rome they were feted by the left-wing writer Louise Rinser, author of a book about Hitler’s prisons, and the composer Hans Werner Henze. They tried, and failed, to recruit the lawyer and novelist Peter Chotjewitz for the armed struggle. Slipping into Denglish, Baader kept asking ‘Are you ready zu fighten?’ They had intensive discussions with Ulrich Enzensberger, the brother of the writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, with whom Baader had taken part in the mock funeral in Berlin. Baader talked incessantly (he had acquired a liking for amphetamine) about the Russian nihilist terrorist Nechaev, Lenin and the Brazilian urban guerrilla theorist Carlos Marighella. On the basis of his experiences with the juvenile delinquents he had abandoned, Baader thought that such marginal elements could bring about a German revolution if they were incentivised by an armed vanguard minority. There was vague talk of military training with Fatah in the Middle East. Hans and Gretel also found time for vacations, visiting Positano where they lounged on a beach, chatting amiably with Tennessee Williams. Their Mercedes was broken into in Palermo, causing a furious outburst from the expert car thief Baader. Back in Rome they were visited by Horst Mahler bearing money from rich sympathisers and suggesting they convert themselves into an armed radical group. The group had no name. On 12 February 1970 they returned to Berlin, looking up a celebrity journalist acquaintance with a view to hiding in her flat. This was Ulrike Meinhof.32

Meinhof had interviewed Ensslin fourteen months previously for the magazine konkret of which she was the star columnist; she was also the ex-wife of its editor and owner Klaus Rainer Röhl. Born in 1934, Meinhof was the daughter of an art historian and museum director in Jena who died of cancer when Ulrike was four. Her widowed mother struggled through the war while training to be a teacher. The young Ulrike was an exceptionally pious Protestant as a little girl. In 1946 the mother moved to Oldenburg to flee the Russians, with her children and a younger colleague and friend called Renate Riemeck. Riemeck became Ulrike’s guardian when her mother died of cancer at the age of forty. A committed pacifist and socialist she also became her role model. At her Gymnasium Ulrike stood up to the more authoritarian teachers.33

At the university of Münster she became engaged in protests against atomic weapons and German rearmament; a relationship with a student of nuclear physics did not work out. On a demonstration in May 1958 she met the six years older Röhl, editor of a left-wing monthly covertly subsidised by the underground Communist Party to which he belonged. She joined too. Known to friends as ‘K2R’ Röhl wore smart suits and drove a Porsche to work. Soon Meinhof was working as a columnist for her lover, who called her ‘Riki-baby’, moving up to editor in chief when he accorded himself the grander title of publisher. She was not an easy person to work for. They married and in 1962 had twin girls, Regina and Bettina. Following discovery of a suspected brain tumour, which turned out to be a benign cyst, surgeons inserted silver clamps into her head, causing her to suffer migraine for the rest of her life.

As a prominent radical media couple, Meinhof and Röhl were regular social fixtures among the so-called Schickeria living in spacious urban villas dotted along the banks of the Elbe. They could be found at every party, she wearing the white gloves still obligatory at the time, chatting amiably with Rudolf Augstein of Spiegel and Gert Bucerius of Die Zeit, or dancing frenetically to ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’ and the like. But there were worms in paradise. Röhl had other women, while his plans to fill konkret with tits and scandal to boost circulation did not amuse the puritanical Meinhof. She did not regard her membership of Hamburg’s left Establishment as her life’s destiny, and nor did she care to have her increasingly politically engaged journalism ringed with naked breasts.

In March 1968 the couple divorced and the thirty-four-year-old Meinhof moved to Berlin with the twins. They were enrolled at an anti-authoritarian kindergarten where they learned why police were called ‘Bullen’ (‘Pigs’) and about Chairman Mao and the Vietnam War. Meinhof worked remorselessly at her typewriter, clattering away sustained by coffee and incessant cigarettes. Earning a substantial 3,000 DM a month from her column in konkret, she diversified into radio, where her direct, socially critical tones were a novelty. Ever more radical, she claimed that Germany was undergoing the beginnings of a police state, proof of her increasing substitution of agitprop for objective journalism. She wrote her first television script for a docudrama about conditions in Germany’s homes for problem children - in other words, the area in which Baader and Ensslin were simultaneously operating as saviours of the oppressed. Unsurprisingly her days as a columnist on her former husband’s paper were numbered. She resigned, in a blaze of self-generated publicity, although she also threatened to occupy the magazine’s offices with her radical friends. In anticipation, her ex-husband - who knew his Mao too - took the magazine underground to frustrate his ex-wife. She and thirty of her radical friends descended on the former family home. They trashed the place, the finale being to defecate and urinate on the former marital bed.

Living in Berlin proved a lonely experience for Meinhof, as it probably was too for her twins since their mother was frequently on assignment elsewhere. To solve these problems in one fell swoop, she moved into a shared apartment, with the student Jan-Carl Raspe and the radio reporter Marianne Herzog. When she conceived of the idea of moving to a bigger house so that her co-occupants could take over her childcare, there was a small mutiny and the idea was dropped. Exhausted, and perpetually on the verge of tears, she moved with the twins into an apartment on Kufsteinerstrasse. That was where Baader and Ensslin turned up. Mutual admiration was instant, because in an unpublished column Meinhof had already declared that firebombing department stores was ‘a progressive moment’, a leap of logic typical of those times. The drifting delinquent Baader and his eternal student comrade Ensslin were in awe of a big-time professional journalist, with her spacious apartment and flights to this or that crucial assignment. She and Ensslin, the two formerly pious little schoolgirls, were tantalised in turn by the crude, leather-jacketed thug in their midst. LSD trips cemented the relationships, accelerating the wild revolutionary scenarios bruited each night in the flat. While under the influence of this ‘Sunshine’ pill, Ensslin rewrote the Ten Commandments, including ‘Thou must kill’.34

One night they invited between ten and fourteen guests, including Baader’s lawyer Horst Mahler. Baader spoke of ‘the project’. There was to be no more ‘playacting as guerrillas’, but rather, for this was still Germany, ‘perfect organisation’, bank robberies and blowing up the Springer headquarters. They had to move fast as already the incipient Baader-Meinhof group had competition. During the winter of 1969 a series of arson and bomb attacks had occurred in Berlin, mainly against lawyers, judges and prison officials. Mahler had taken part in one such attack, although the Molotov cocktail he threw inevitably missed. A journalist had written a rather sensational article about these attacks, which were largely carried out by the Blues Movement, a sort of organisational way-station, roughly between a crowd of pot-smokers and the terrorist 2 June Movement, led by Michael ‘Bommi’ Baumann. Four of these men burst into the journalist’s apartment, trashed it, beat the fellow unconscious and hung a placard reading ‘I am a journalist and I write shit’ around his neck. The police arrived to the sounds of the Rolling Stones ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ booming from the wrecked flat.

On 2 April 1970, Horst Mahler used his offices for a meeting between Baader and ‘S-Bahn Peter’, the purpose being to acquire guns, the collusive involvement of left-liberal lawyers with terrorists being an important part of this story. Back at Meinhof’s apartment - Baader was suspicious about electronic bugs - Peter Urbach volunteered that wartime guns were buried in a cemetery. Baader, Mahler and he set off for their moonlit dig. To their disappointment there were no weapons. Urbach claimed he had got the cemetery wrong, giving him leeway for the secret service to plant deactivated pistols in the right place. The following night at a quarter to three the group set off in two cars, with Mahler wearing a large hat and sunglasses as a disguise. The Mercedes with Baader at the wheel was stopped by uniformed policemen, as an unmarked car pulled up behind. Mahler and Urbach drove off in the second car. The police asked Baader for his papers. He produced an identity card which said he was Peter Chotjewitz, born on 16 April 1934. Baader got that right. Problems began when the policeman asked for the names and dates of birth of his two children which were also recorded on the card. He was arrested. Ulrike Meinhof displayed her talent for the conspiratorial life when she shortly appeared at the police station, claiming that the Mercedes belonged to her friend Astrid Proll who had lent it to her, this being her attempt to limit the incident to a motoring violation. She could not explain how she knew that the men had been arrested. Growing angry at police questions she blurted out that neither Astrid Proll nor ‘the lawyer Horst Mahler’ could be reached by telephone to clear things up. Had they known it, the police would have identified the key membership of the band before it had commenced operations. They did not know they had Andreas Baader either until the following morning when Horst Mahler called a friend in the Political Police, asking to speak with Baader. The leftist lawyer was not much of a conspirator either.

Baader was sent to complete the remaining twenty-two months of his sentence for arson. Meanwhile, Ensslin and Meinhof laid plans for his escape. The publisher Klaus Wagenbach was prevailed upon to write to the authorities, claiming that Baader and Meinhof had a contract to write a book on juvenile delinquents. She needed to consult regularly with him about their co-production. The authorities decided that it would be a pity to spoil Baader’s future career as a writer by refusing. Mahler provided Ensslin, who was also on the run, with false identity papers so that she could inform the imprisoned Baader of what she and Meinhof were hatching. Meinhof visited Baader in prison too, insisting to the authorities that she needed him to be escorted to the Institute for Social Questions to examine key sources for their book, for which contracts were hastily drawn up as proof. Mahler insisted that Baader was not a flight risk.

Meanwhile, Astrid Proll and Irene Goergens made their way into the unaccustomed setting of a pub frequented by neo-Nazis called the Wolfschanze after Hitler’s bunker, where in return for 1,000 DM a man known as Teddy sold them a 6.35 mm Beretta with accompanying silencer. An Alfa Romeo was stolen from a car-showroom forecourt and equipped with false plates. Ulkrike Meinhof despatched the twins, by now aged eight, to a writer friend in Bremen, the last time they would see their mother at home or free in Berlin.

Shortly before 10 a.m. on Thursday 14 May 1970, Baader appeared in handcuffs escorted by two prison officers. They removed the cuffs and sat down while the two authors got down to business. The atmosphere gradually relaxed, as the room filled with cigarette smoke, and Meinhof chatted to the two guards about their wives and children. Elsewhere in the building, the bewigged Goergens and Proll appeared, insisting on seeing books they needed as students of forensic medicine, which they had selected the day before as they scouted the crime scene. After being reluctantly admitted to the reading room, just before eleven o’clock they rushed to the entrance, flinging open the doors to admit two masked figures, one of whom brandished a gun. They were most likely Gudrun Ensslin and a professional criminal brought in for this job because as yet the women were unused to shooting people. There was a brief struggle with an elderly doorman who was shot through the arm and liver from close range. The two masked gunmen were joined by Goergens and Proll, by now flourishing a Reck P8 and a machine pistol. The two prison guards were overpowered after a brief struggle. Their assailants, followed closely by Baader and Meinhof, leaped from a window and raced to the stolen Alfa Romeo. By the evening, Meinhof’s surly pudding face was on twenty thousand wanted posters pasted up across Berlin, with a 10,000 DM reward offered for her capture.

* * *


In June 1970 two groups of Germans, totalling twenty people, arrived in Beirut from East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport, en route to a Fatah training camp outside Amman in Jordan. They included Baader, Ensslin, Mahler and Meinhof. Originally their PLO hosts envisaged nothing more than showing the guests the revolutionary sights, including refugee camps, field hospitals, and schools. The Germans insisted on receiving military training. All were kitted out in green uniforms and caps. Horst Mahler grew a beard and wore a Fidel Castro-style forage cap to show he was in earnest. There was a minor moment of feminist assertion when, to the incredulity of the Algerian camp commander, Baader and Ensslin insisted on men and women sharing sleeping quarters. Rations were primitive: tinned meat, rice and flat bread. One of the German women asked whether a Coca-Cola machine could be made available, a request met with more disbelief by the Arab hosts.

Each day began at 6 a.m., with a long run and then practice with rifles, submachine guns and Kalashnikov AK-47s. A fatal accident was narrowly averted as Ulrike Meinhof tried a Russian hand grenade; she unscrewed the cap and then pulled the ring, without grasping the point that she was supposed to throw the already fizzing object. Catastrophe was narrowly averted. There was also tactical training in bank robbery, of which the Algerian had considerable past experience. Inevitably there was trouble between the German amateur terrorists and the Fatah professionals. The Germans fired ammunition so profligately that they had to be restricted to ten rounds a day. The Germans went on a protest strike. Fatah fighters were shocked to see that this involved young German women sunbathing naked on the roof of their quarters, an uncommon sight in their milieu. When the Germans persistently interrupted a lecture by the visiting PLO commander Abu Hassan - in reality Ali Hassan Salameh - he had them disarmed and put under armed guard. There were also ructions between Baader and Peter Homann, who was being mistakenly sought for his alleged role in freeing Baader, especially after Homann overheard Baader and the others sitting as a kangaroo court, discussing the possibility of his having a shooting accident. Ensslin subsequently tried to convince Ali Hassan Salameh that Homann was an Israeli agent and that he should shoot him. She also inquired whether the PLO had an orphanage where Meinhof could deposit her twins, who were currently staying with German hippies in Sicily so as to keep them from the custody of their father. The current editor of Der Spiegel eventually rescued them. Aided by the East German Stasi, the group slipped back into Germany. Having fled on a false pretext, Homann promptly surrendered himself to the West German police.

In Berlin, the group made preparations for their forthcoming terror campaign. They contacted a motor-repair mechanic who helped them change the identities of a number of vehicles. These were used in the ‘three blows’ bank robberies which the group carried out in September 1970. In three simultaneous raids, they stole over 200,000 DM. Lawyer Mahler (code-name ‘James’ as in 007) accompanied Baader in a raid on a branch of the Dresdner Bank, shouting ‘Robbery! Hands up and stay calm. Nothing will happen to you. It’s not your money.’ Typically, Meinhof came up short on her excursion, having scooped up 8,115 DM, while missing a box containing 97,000 DM. The group made jokes at her expense, saying that she could have earned the eight thousand with a couple of articles in konkret.

By lunchtime, the police had received an anonymous tip that Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof were at a particular Berlin address. The police put the apartment under observation, eventually searching it when no one appeared. Inside, they discovered Ingrid Schubert, as well as guns, chemicals, instructions for making bombs, and several car licence plates. The police decided to stake out the apartment. In the evening, a bewigged Horst Mahler rang at the door. He was pulled inside and arrested. They found a Llama pistol in his pocket and two magazines loaded with a total of thirty-six bullets. In the flat they also found instructions in his handwriting on how to make bombs. Later in the evening, the police dragged in a young woman who had been loitering outside the door, and who had a Reck pistol in her handbag. Two further women were detained when they rang the flat’s bell. In the flat, the police also found the entire group’s itemised expenses, totalling nearly 60,000 DM, much of it spent on clothing. In February 1973 Mahler was jailed for fourteen years. Thanks to the efforts of his own lawyer, future chancellor Gerhard Schroder, he was released on parole in 1978.

Meanwhile, Meinhof criss-crossed West Germany, cloning cars - so that, if stopped, the group could give the details of an entirely legitimate double of the car they were driving. The group’s preference was for powerful BMWs, so much so that colloquially these were known as Baader-Meinhof Wagen. They also burgled a provincial town hall to steal blank identity documents and the seals and stamps needed to authenticate them, necessary in a country where ‘if it isn’t stamped it isn’t Prussian’. This burglary had to be executed twice because Meinhof managed to get the postcode wrong when she posted a packet of such documents to Baader and Ensslin. She had more success in purchasing twenty-three Firebird 9 mm pistols on the black market in Frankfurt. These were intended for the new recruits to the group, who included Holger Meins, a film student with pronounced depressive tendencies, his nineteen-year-old girlfriend Beate Sturm, and Ulrich Scholze, a twenty-three-year-old physics student. It did not take Baader long to recruit them. In addition to being of a similar political frame of mind, some of the new recruits were attracted by the romantic-rebel, criminal aspect of the terrorist enterprise. The youngest recruit was a sixteen-year-old girl, whom they nicknamed ‘Teeny’, the human mascot of the group. Scholze had more sophisticated reasons for becoming a terrorist, speaking of a ‘particular psychological disposition’. One had to be emotionally convinced that reforms merely stabilised the existing system. Reason and emotion thereby became one. ‘Persecution’ by the authorities confirmed one’s new worldview, while sensational press reports about ‘Public Enemy Number 1’ and the like could be construed as marks of success. Induction was gradual, beginning with arranging secure apartments, followed by stealing cars and robbing banks.35

While a hugely expanded federal criminal police service - whose manpower grew from 934 in 1970 to 1,779 in 1972 with corresponding budget increases - slowly picked off individual members of the group as they drove around the country, the leadership held gloomy discussions about names and strategy. Ulrike Meinhof coined the name Red Army Faction in a pamphlet she was invited to write called The Urban Guerrilla Concept. A graphic artist in the group devised the logo of a Kalashnikov AK-47, with ‘RAF’ emblazoned beneath. The name was unfortunate since it reminded people of the depredations of the Red Army, while the acronym conjured up Lancasters destroying German cities. Adoption of the grandiose name of ‘army’ also reflected the rapid militarisation of life in the group. Although opposition to the supposed militarisation of West German society was one of their key platforms, they did not seem to be aware that the armed struggle had ceased to liberate the new man, along the lines imagined by Frantz Fanon, but rather was reducing his humanity in the way that a boot camp or barracks does to recruits. They began to use deprecatory phrases like ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’ that would have been worthy of the Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS.

With their numbers by now reduced to about a dozen people, the group was desperate for new recruits. Salvation came from an unlikely quarter. The mad. A radical psychiatrist at Heidelberg university, influenced by the anti-psychiatry of R. D. Laing and the anti-institutionalisation theories of Franco Basaglia, had formed a socialist collective among the mainly student clientele he was treating for various mental disturbances common to that age cohort, including depression, paranoia and mild schizophrenia. In early 1971 Baader and Ensslin visited Heidelberg where they met some of the radicalised patients. In the following years about twelve of the latter, including Gerhard Müller, Siegfried Hausner, Sieglinde Hofmann, Lutz Taufer and others became the second generation of RAF terrorists, initially under the slogan ‘Crazies to Arms’.

The first death came in July 1971 when police chased a car that had gone through a random checkpoint in Hamburg. After the BMW was forced to stop, a couple alighted, firing Belgian handguns at their pursuers. The police returned fire, killing twenty-year-old Petra Schelm, a former hairdresser who had followed her boyfriend, Manfred Hoppe, arrested that day, into terrorism. In October, the police sustained their first fatality when a thirty-two-year-old officer called Norbert Schmid was shot while chasing RAF members in Hamburg. The federal criminal police acquired a new chief called Horst Herold, who introduced an information revolution while creating anti-terrorist departments in each of the federal Lander. The number of employees at his Wiesbaden headquarters rose from 1,113 when he took up his post in 1971 to 3,536 when he left it ten years later. The scale of the information the criminal police collected was so prodigious that people began to fear that Orwell’s imaginings had been realised. There were thirty-seven different databases, containing information on nearly five million people and over three thousand organisations. Specialist databanks registered the names of, for example, everyone who had visited a terrorist suspect in prison. Another system identified homes in a given town where the occupants had not registered themselves or their vehicle with the authorities, who paid for utilities in cash, and who were not in receipt of child support. With considerable reason the police began to take a close interest in the left-liberal lawyers who routinely defended terrorist suspects, notably Klaus Croissant and Otto Schily, some of whom were already on public record talking about how they would hide such a suspect if invited to do so. These lawyers’ phones began to be tapped.

In these desperate encounters neither the terrorists nor their pursuers were slow to squeeze the trigger. Both sides developed a form of psychosis, believing that it was necessary to shoot first to survive. Georg von Rauch, the son of a professor at Kiel, was shot dead as he tried to pull a gun after being arrested. The son of another Kiel professor, Thomas Weisbecker, was shot dead by police in Augsburg. In the course of a police surveillance operation on a flat used as an RAF forgery centre, a detective was fatally shot and terrorist Manfred Grasshof was hit in the head and the chest. In this atmosphere, accidents were bound to happen, as a seventeen-year-old boy racer discovered when a police chase finished with an officer emptying the magazine of a machine gun into him and the car. A Spiegel journalist who happened to resemble Baader twice found himself staring down police gun barrels, while a Hamburg journalist who looked like Meinhof had to equip herself with an official document declaring that she was not the wanted terrorist.

Meanwhile, the nine members of the group still at large had commissioned a metal worker to manufacture several steel tubes measuring 80 cm by 20 cm, with a view to turning them into bombs. They were to be packed with ball-bearings or nails to maximise their destructive effect. The extreme amateurishness of this operation was evident when Baader wore out the motors of the coffee grinders he used to reduce lumps of ammonium nitrate and charcoal into serviceable quantities. Attempts to mix explosives with kitchen mixers were not a success, as the motors packed up, although attaching snow brushes to a drill eventually did the trick. In May 1972 the RAF bombed the US officers’ club in Frankfurt am Main. Three bombs caused carnage. A thirty-nine-year-old lieutenant-colonel died when a glass shard went through his neck. Thirteen others were injured. According to a communique from the commemoratively named Commando Petra Schelm this was payback for the strategy of ‘extermination’ pursued by the US in Vietnam. On 12 May five policemen were injured when two pipe bombs went off in Augsburg’s police headquarters. Two hours later a car blew up in the car park of the criminal police in Frankfurt. On 15 May the wife of a federal judge was badly injured when the car she was using to collect her husband exploded as she turned the ignition key. On 19 May three bombs went off among proofreaders in the Springer building in Hamburg, injuring seventeen of them. Three further bombs were successfully defused. On 28 May two car bombs were detonated outside barracks 28 and the mess at the US army’s European headquarters in Heidelberg. Three American soldiers were killed and five injured.

These serial atrocities prompted the criminal police to launch Operation Punch in the Water, a nationwide series of raids designed to set the terrorist fish in motion. Every helicopter in government service was used to land teams of policemen suddenly next to motorways so as to erect temporary control points. The entire motoring public signalled their sympathy for the police. Independently of this operation, the police had received a tip about a garage in Frankfurt being used to store explosives. They substituted harmless materials and staked out the area. On the evening of 1 June 1972 an aubergine-coloured Porsche appeared, into which three men were crammed. It patrolled the street before two of the men went into the garage. The third man, Jan-Carl Raspe, opened fire as officers approached him. He was captured as he tried to flee. Inside the garage, the shots alerted Andreas Baader and Holger Meins that they were trapped. One hundred and fifty police reinforcements arrived together with an armoured car. The police fired tear-gas canisters into the garage, which Baader successfully hurled back, until the armoured car was used to close the garage doors. Eventually a detective took a lucky shot through a windowpane with a rifle equipped with a telescopic sight and hit Baader in the thigh. Meins was prevailed upon to come out, where he stripped off at gunpoint. The police apparently got a little carried away when they pulled him inside a van since he had to be hospitalised shortly afterwards.

A week later, the owner of a Hamburg clothes store watched as a nervous and tired-seeming young woman tried on various sweaters. As she went to tidy up the dozens of other pairs of trousers another customer had strewn around, she picked up the first customer’s jacket. It felt heavy, as if there was a gun inside. She called the police. A passing patrol car was called in, and two officers quickly arrested Gudrun Ensslin. She had a silver revolver in her jacket, and a large-calibre automatic with a reserve magazine in her handbag. Taking a key from her bag, the police raided a hideout in Stuttgart, only to discover Baader’s favourite reading materials - twenty Mickey Mouse comics. Two days after Ensslin’s arrest, police arrested Brigitte Mohnhaupt in Berlin. After serving a prison sentence she would become the leader of the second generation of RAF terrorists.

On 16 June a teacher with a conscience informed the police in Hanover that a young woman he claimed not to know had asked him to house two strangers the following night. Three policemen were despatched to watch the building. A couple suddenly appeared asking the janitor where the teacher’s apartment was. The police called in reinforcements. When the young man reappeared to use a telephone kiosk, the police disarmed him and locked him inside. Four officers then went up to the flat and rang the doorbell. As the woman answered the door the police seized her. Inside the flat guns, grenades and ammunition were strewn around. The thin, sickly-looking woman with short dark hair was Ulrike Meinhof. In her bag she had a copy of Stern magazine, whose cover consisted of the x-ray photograph of her skull showing the silver clamps over her cyst. In her jacket they found a note from Gudrun Ensslin, which her defence lawyer Otto Schily had smuggled to Meinhof. In early July, the arrest of Hans-Peter Konieczny enabled the police to set a trap on the streets of Offenbach. Thirty undercover officers watched as Konieczny met Klaus Jünschke as he got off a bus and promptly felt a gun pressed against his neck; later that afternoon a similar trap caught Irmgard Möller, who was kicked to the ground as she attempted to flee.


Initially these terrorist suspects were kept isolated in separate prisons, with the exception of Astrid Proll and Ulrike Meinhof who were housed in different wings of the same Cologne jail. Meinhof spent eight months in an empty hospital wing which she characterised as the ‘dead tract’ because of the unnatural silence. An organisation called Red Aid endeavoured to dramatise the prisoners’ plight, co-opting such celebrity useful idiots as the Nobel laureate Heinrich Boll into the campaign to have their conditions alleviated. Several members of Red Aid became terrorists, as the alleged plight of the prisoners became the main recruiting mechanism for the second generation of RAF members.

Leftist lawyers ensured that their terrorist defendants were able to communicate with each other, using code-names taken from Melville’s Moby Dick. Naturally, Baader was ‘Ahab’. The lawyers photocopied the group’s letters and smuggled them in amid their legal documents. The detainees claimed they were being held in conditions resembling Auschwitz, with Meinhof writing that ‘the political concept behind the “dead tract” - silent corridors - in Cologne’s prison is: gas. My inner fantasies that this was Auschwitz were realistic.’ In fact, she received regular visits from her ex-husband and ten-year-old twins, who in Auschwitz would have been handed over to Josef Mengele. Gudrun Ensslin was allowed to have a violin. The remand prisoners were permitted radios and record players, so that Baader was soon rocking to the sounds of Santana and Ten Years After. They received any reading matter they wished, which enabled Baader to study the theories he had spouted as slogans for years. In this fashion they built up extensive libraries (Baader some 974 books, Raspe a further 550) with materials on bomb making, alarm systems and police investigation techniques, as well as works entitled German Weapons Journal, Amateur Radio, What We Can Learn from the Tupamaros, Urban Guerrilla Warfare, The Special Forces Handbook, The Master Bomber: Contemporary Explosives Technology and the like. Insofar as the RAF prisoners had a strategy, it was to dramatise and publicise their predicament, making it seem as if the democratic German state had finally let slip its mask to reveal its Fascist inner heart. There were attempts to co-ordinate hunger strikes among the forty or so terrorist detainees. Two were called off after a short time, without achieving any improvement in the conditions of their custody. Visiting lawyers enabled Baader to gobble the occasional sandwich covertly.

In April 1974 Ensslin and Meinhof were moved to a new high-security wing at Stuttgart’s Stammheim prison. They were allowed considerable periods of association with one another, but were kept apart from other inmates. Meinhof was then taken to Berlin as one of the defendants in the trial of those who in 1970 had freed Andreas Baader. She would receive an eight-year jail sentence in this trial. Her fellow accused, Horst Mahler, indicated that he had unilaterally left the RAF, part of his long journey to becoming a neo-Nazi.

In October 1974 Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof, Meins and Raspe were indicted on five counts of murder, with the trial scheduled to take place in Stammheim the following year. Baader and Raspe were also moved to Stammheim prison. They enjoyed single occupation of cells in which six prisoners were usually held. Almost immediately, Baader complained that his cell was too small. The wall to the next cell was knocked through to create a suite. When this did not suffice, the next wall into Raspe’s cell was given a connecting door. After three weeks of being treated as a manservant by Baader, Raspe had the door bricked up again. All were already on hunger strike, with Holger Meins too ill to be moved. Forced feeding of the prisoners commenced. This did not avail Holger Meins, who by the time he died weighed little over six stone despite being six feet tall. Long before he had even embarked on the hunger strike, Meins wrote: ‘In the event that I die in prison, it will have been murder. Regardless of what the swine maintain… don’t believe the lies of these murderers.’ That would eventually become the group strategy. In reality, the only people being murdered were victims of the RAF chosen as symbolic targets. On 10 November 1974 a delivery man rang the bell of a Berlin house holding a bouquet of flowers. Thinking the blooms were a belated gift for his sixty-fourth birthday, the city’s most senior judge, Günther von Drenkmann, cautiously slipped off the security chain and opened the door. Three young men burst through the door and shot him twice. He died later in hospital. The judge had no connection with terrorist cases. He was a liberal lawyer specialising in civil cases and a member of the SPD. A football crowd cried, ‘Meins-Drenkmann. One all’.

Two thousand demonstrators bayed for ‘revenge’ at Meins’s funeral. Rudi Dutschke put in a celebrity appearance to bid farewell to his comrade and friend, raising his fist and shouting ‘Holger, the struggle continues!’ He also took his son to visit Jan-Carl Raspe in prison. These actions, together with his involvement with bombs, were apparently compatible with his refusal to join the RAF, not on grounds of morality, but because the revolutionary constellations were inopportune.

In political terms, the imprisoned RAF terrorists managed to acquire more sympathisers than they had had while on the loose. Inflated rhetoric about the tortures they were supposed to be undergoing led to the formation of protest groups called torture committees, many of whose members - including Ralf Baptist Friedrich and Stefan Wisniewski, and the three ‘Hamburg aunts’, Susanne Albrecht, Silke Maier-Witt and Sigrid Sternebeck - became second-generation RAF terrorists after basking on the moral high ground as human rights activists. The police estimated that the three hundred people they were currently hunting enjoyed the active protective support of ten thousand sympathisers. Jean-Paul Sartre, the veteran armchair revolutionary, hastened from afar, with one of the later OPEC hostage-takers, Hansjoachim Klein, at the wheel and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a fellow traveller. He spent half an hour with Baader, who gave his visitor a lecture on his cod philosophy. Afterwards Sartre’s only private comment was ‘What an arsehole, this Baader.’

At a televised press conference attended by a hundred reporters later that evening, he struck other tones: ‘Baader had the face of a tortured man. It is not like the torture of the Nazis. It is another kind of torture. A torture designed to induce psychiatric disturbance. Baader and the others are living in white cells. In these cells they hear nothing except the steps of guards three times a day as they bring food. The lights burn for twenty-four hours a day.’ The lies of this aged useful idiot were broadcast on prime-time German television. He had met Baader in the visitors’ room, whose minimalist furnishings bore no relation to the cells in which the prisoners lived. The cell lights actually always went out at 10 p.m. when the power was shut off. Baader complained to the prison doctor that he had a bad back. So did his comrades. The doctor insisted they needed electric blankets, even in summer; the power stayed on through the night, enabling them to read in bed. Nor was Baader isolated; he received five or six visitors a day.

Left-liberal defence lawyers, whose cynical occupation of the moral high ground spared them from press scrutiny, played a major role in facilitating communications between their imprisoned clients and the next generation of RAF terrorists. Volker Speitel, for example, graduated from working in Klaus Croissant’s law firm to a terrorist group. Croissant himself would serve a two-year jail sentence. The usual relationship between lawyers and their clients was reversed, as Baader graded them for their radicality. He received some fifty-eight visits from eight different lawyers in a single month, and over five hundred in the course of three years. He even wrote down the rules of the game, beginning by insisting that the prisoners themselves would collectively establish the overall defence strategy. Terrorists struck on 27 February 1975 when fifty-two-year-old Peter Lorenz, the Christian Democratic Union’s candidate for mayor of Berlin, was abducted as he drove to work. He had been kidnapped by the 2 June Movement. A communique demanded the release of six prisoners, including Horst Mahler, the only (former) member of the RAF mentioned because there was not much love lost between the rival groups. Since none of the prisoners had been charged with murder, the government’s crisis team capitulated to these demands, especially as Mahler declined to be freed. Five prisoners were flown to Aden, with former mayor Heinrich Albertz bravely accompanying them as a guarantee. Peter Lorenz was found the same night wandering confused in a Berlin park.

On the eve of the Baader-Meinhof trial in Stammheim, six terrorists calling themselves Commando Holger Meins took over the German embassy in Stockholm, armed with guns and bombs. They included three former members of the Heidelberg psychiatric collective, and Ulrich Wessel, the son of a prominent Hamburg millionaire. They took eleven hostages, including ambassador Dietrich Stoecker, Heinz Hillegaart, responsible for economic affairs, and baron von Mirbach, the military attache, and locked themselves into offices on the third floor, wiring the room with explosives. They demanded the release of twenty-six prisoners, including Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof and Raspe. After urgent meetings, chancellor Helmut Schmidt informed the Swedish minister of justice that his government rejected these demands. When this message was conveyed to the terrorists, they took Hillegaart to a window and shot him three times. Shortly before midnight, the embassy was rocked by a series of explosions. Both Mirbach and the terrorist Wessel died. A second terrorist was gravely injured, which did not prevent him being flown to Germany where he died in intensive care at Stammheim a few days later. Three terrorists were arrested as they escaped the burning embassy. Two weeks later defence lawyer Siegfried Haag went underground after police searched his offices for proof that he had supplied the Stockholm embassy attackers with their weapons.

The trial of Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof and Raspe commenced in a purpose-built courtroom at Stuttgart-Stammheim on 21 May 1975. Security was intense, but, as it transpired, not tight enough. From the start, the four defendants resolved to disrupt the proceedings, beginning by rejecting the defence lawyers appointed by the court after three of their previous team were disbarred under new legislation designed to frustrate the collusive machinations of radical lawyers, the least of whose sins were calling their clients ‘comrade’. In their concerted efforts to convert a criminal trial into a political spectacle, the defendants subjected the judge and prosecutor to prolonged verbal abuse, calling the former a ‘Fascist arsehole’ and the latter a ‘terrorist’, while their defence lawyer, Otto Schily, pleaded that they were unfit to stand trial. He and the other defence lawyers then walked out. Other farcical tricks included wishing to call Richard Nixon, Melvin Laird, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt as witnesses. On another occasion they called five former US servicemen in order to defame the NATO alliance. When the hearings resumed, Baader claimed that his conditions of detention were worse than those in the Third Reich. In fact, the four defendants, by now joined in Stammheim by Brigitte Mohnhaupt and Ingrid Schubert, enjoyed daily baths, extensive periods of communal association, radios and record players, and various exercise machines. Baader kept hashish in a tea tin to supplement the prodigious quantities of aspirins and anti-depressants the guards handed out each night. They also intimidated their guards, with Baader warning: ‘I’ll send a couple of people over. For a couple of thousand Marks I can find a killer to bump off your wife as well.’ Eventually the courtroom disruptions reached such levels that Prinzing the judge availed himself of new legislation enabling hearings to proceed without the defendants. In a concession to the accused, the judge subsequently allowed them to participate in their own trial at will, so that they seemed constantly to be going in and out when they were not declaiming hundreds of pages of propaganda from prepared screeds.

As the court sessions dragged on into the new year of 1976, relations between the accused deteriorated. Baader and Ensslin sharply criticised Meinhof’s maundering revolutionary writings in her capacity as ‘Voice of the RAF’. There was something sado-masochistic about the delight they (and she) took in ripping her writings to shreds. They suspected that her resolve was weakening. It was, largely under the pressure of their incessant bullying, and her depressive tendencies. Early on Sunday morning, 8 May, guards opened the door of Cell 719 and found Meinhof hanging from a rope made of torn hand towels tied round the bars of the window. Extensive investigations found no sign of foul play. On the 109th day of the trial, her name was neatly crossed off the list of defendants. Four thousand people, some masked, hooded or wearing white face paint, attended her Berlin funeral. In Frankfurt a policeman was badly burned when someone threw a Molotov cocktail into his van; decades later, Meinhof’s journalist daughter, whose hatred of the entire ‘68 generation had become strenuous, accused a minister in Schroder’s government of having thrown that bomb.

Meanwhile, the former lawyer Siegfried Haag and the former psychiatric collective member Elizabeth van Dyck were in the Middle East seeking external partners for the second-generation RAF terrorists. Yasser Arafat turned them down, on the ground that the PLO currently favoured negotiation. Haag was referred to George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Rebuffed there too he made contact with Wadi Haddad, leader of a PFLP breakaway faction called PFLP-Special Commando. Two German terrorists later participated in PFLP-SC’s January 1976 hijacking of the Air France jet, during which, Nazi style, they ‘selected’ out the Jewish passengers, an episode that ended in the famous Israeli special forces raid on Entebbe in which ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu’s brother was killed. Haddad also ran a secret training camp for foreign terrorists at Yaal, a village in southern Yemen. Haag, by now disguised with a toupee and a pirate beard, was on hand when several RAF terrorists, including Peter Jürgen Boock, Verena Becker, Rolf Clemens Wagner, Sieglinde Hofmann and Stefan Wisniewski, flew to Aden for advanced training. They were welcomed like VIPs by the Yemeni authorities, behind whom were men with Saxon accents from the East German Stasi which trained the Yemeni secret service. After a hard day’s close-quarter combat, running and shooting, the group settled down to ponder strategy, in particular two operations called Big Money and Big Breakout.

In Stuttgart the defendants’ lawyers had in the interim taken collusion with terrorists to an unprecedented level. They all came from practices increasingly specialising in human rights; not only did they sympathise with the terrorists, in some cases they actively assisted or joined them. Security at Stammheim was so stringent that even lawyers had to open their trousers for closer inspection, although guards refrained from poking around in their underpants. Gudrun Ensslin’s lawyer, Arndt Müller, was the first to be prevailed on to smuggle things into his client, using the simple technique of hollowing out one of the many files of legal documents. These were searched too, but provided the lawyer gripped the edge of the file tight with one hand while flicking the outer pages with the other, the guards did not bother to open the file fully. Beginning with a Minox camera, thanks to which we have photos of the group in prison, the lawyer graduated to smuggling in earphones, cables, an electric iron and a cooking ring, followed by three pistols - a chrome-plated .38, a Heckler & Koch 9 mm and a Hungarian FEK 7.65 mm - and five strips of plastic explosive which probably arrived in his underpants. The weapons were incorporated into the structure of empty cells when the high-security block at Stammheim underwent modification. The prisoners chose the wall colours.

A few other things were modified too. The prisoners used their considerable electrical expertise to change a loud-speaker system (which they insisted be switched off) into a radio-communication network within the cell block. Amplifiers and stereo speakers enabled them to communicate, especially after they demanded that the electricity should remain on at night to power their electric blankets. Meanwhile in the courtroom, Otto Schily, a future German interior minister, who clearly favoured the long march through the institutions, revealed the shocking news that some of his conversations with his clients had been bugged by the secret service. In a further effort to convert the radical lawyers into victims, the new RAF commander Brigitte Mohnhaupt, by now released after Baader had spent eight months training her for her commanding role while in prison, organised a bomb attack on Klaus Croissant’s offices, which was deliberately attributed to neo-Nazis so as to stir up the ‘anti-Fascist’ cause. In March 1977 the defendants made their last appearance in court, refusing to participate any further until the question of whether or not their cells were bugged was cleared up.

On 7 April 1977 the federal prosecutor-general, Siegfried Buback, set off for work in his chauffeur-driven blue Mercedes. He was next to the driver while a thirty-three-year-old bodyguard sat in a rear seat. As the car waited at traffic lights, a Suzuki motorbike appeared alongside. The pillion passenger produced a submachine gun and riddled Buback’s car with bullets. All three occupants died. The attack was the handiwork of the Commando Ulrike Meinhof. The organisers of the attack, Boock and Mohnhaupt, were at the time ensconced with Wadi Haddad in Baghdad, finalising plans to spring the Stammheim inmates whose trial was coming to an end. The intelligence behind the attack was Baader; Siegfried Buback had signed off his indictment.

After more than 190 days in and out of court, on 28 April Baader, Ensslin and Raspe were found guilty on several counts of murder or attempted murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were not in court to hear the verdict. They were confined in what was supposed to be one of the most secure facilities in the Western world, so secure that a further five terrorist prisoners were moved to Stammheim’s seventh-floor maximum-security set. Outside their comrades continued their killing spree. In July 1977, Susanne Albrecht, the daughter of a Hamburg lawyer, repeatedly visited the Oberursel home of Jürgen Ponto, who was godfather to one of Albrecht’s sisters. Although the Pontos did not suspect it, Albrecht was scouting the security arrangements. They invited her to tea on the afternoon of 30 July. Strangely she arrived accompanied by two men and two women, well dressed and carrying a bunch of flowers. When Ponto went to fetch a vase, one man followed him into the dining room and pulled out a gun. There was a brief struggle until a woman, Brigitte Mohnhaupt, appeared and killed Ponto with five shots. They had been attempting to kidnap him and it had gone murderously wrong. After the failure of a plot to fire multiple homemade rockets into the federal prosecutor’s offices, in the late summer of 1977 Boock and Mohnhaupt finalised their next project at a meeting which they dubbed ‘our Wannsee conference’. Their target was the prominent industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, president of the West German employers association and a board member of Daimler-Benz. He looked the part of plutocrat, well upholstered and richly besuited in that German way. The group knew much about him after an intern at Klaus Croissant’s law practice pretended to be researching a PhD on business leaders at the Hamburg Institute for Global Economy and supplied a wealth of personal details.

On Monday 5 September 1977, Schleyer spent the afternoon in meetings in Cologne. After 5 p.m. he set off home in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes with three bodyguards following behind. As his car neared home, it was forced to brake hard when a woman pushed a blue pram into the road. The car with the bodyguards crashed into the back of Schleyer’s car. Both vehicles were raked by submachine-gun fire. Peter Jürgen Boock recalled how his Heckler & Koch seemed to zip through the thirty shells in its magazine in a couple of seconds. Willy Peter Stoll jumped on the bonnet of the second car and emptied his gun into the men inside. All of them died. One of the killers, Stefan Wisniewski, the juvenile-delinquent son of a wartime forced labourer, who had developed a social conscience as a merchant seaman on voyages around the Third World, explained why the chauffeur had been shot too. Although not armed, this son of the proletariat had once done an evasive-driving course, which cost him his life.36

Schleyer, who miraculously survived this ferocious assault, was dragged out and rushed away in a VW camper van. Using an underground garage for cover, the terrorists moved him to the modified trunk of a big Mercedes and took him to the underground car park of an apartment block. Apartment number 104 at Zum Renngraben 8 had been rented, by a woman paying in cash, a few months before. Schleyer was kept in one of the bedrooms, although the 108 strands of his hair subsequently found in a wardrobe suggest that he may have been subjected to conditions far worse than anything the Stammheim prisoners could imagine. Tape machines recorded his interrogation. The former wartime SS officer and economic adviser in occupied Bohemia-Moravia turned out to be bravely jovial under the circumstances, shaking his head in a bemused fashion at the incredible ignorance his captors demonstrated about the higher workings of the German economy. Although the RAF knew about his wartime past, they never used this as a justification for his abduction.

As the police concentrated on identifying high-rise buildings with underground parking, and anyone who rented them, or purchased furniture, for cash, the kidnappers made their demands known through letters sent to clergymen and calls from random telephone booths. They wanted the release of all the major RAF prisoners, who were to be flown to destinations they selected, with 100,000 DM allocated to each prisoner, and two independent guarantors that there would be no attempts to recapture them. In Bonn, chancellor Helmut Schmidt, opposition leader Helmut Kohl and other members of Schmidt’s crisis-management team resolved to free Schleyer, while not giving in to the kidnappers’ demands. Tragically for Schleyer this was never going to be the case, despite the fact that the day after his kidnapping an alert policeman had visited Zum Renngraben 8, quickly ascertaining from a landlord that a single woman had rented apartment 104, revealing a 10 cm thick bundle of banknotes as she paid the deposit and rent. This information was passed around various police departments, where nobody troubled to check the woman’s name, which was false, or her previous address in Wüppertal, which did not exist. By mid-September the kidnappers had moved Schleyer - hidden in a laundry basket - to an apartment they had rented in the Hague. Another potential hideaway was found in Brussels, for the RAF was realising that, if you kidnap someone, all police information systems effectively stopped at national borders.

While the kidnappers and the authorities conducted complex negotiations, which the latter obviously sought to delay, the majority of the RAF kidnap team flew to Baghdad, leaving Stefan Wisniewski in charge of the smaller team guarding Schleyer. In Baghdad, Wadi Haddad was most concerned to persuade Brigitte Mohnhaupt that the Bonn government should give each freed RAF prisoner one million DM, ten times the original sum requested. A surprise German fellow guest, Johannes Weinrich - a close associate of Carlos the Jackal - thought of putting further pressure on the German government either by storming the German embassy in Kuwait or by hijacking a Lufthansa tourist flight from Palma to Frankfurt. Wadi Haddad told Mohnhaupt that both operations were at an advanced planning stage and that she could choose one or the other. Recent experience in Stockholm inclined her and Boock to the hijacking, although they had reservations about taking holidaying Germans hostage as their connection with Schleyer was far from obvious. Haddad was responsible for the idea of using Russian hand grenades cased in glass or plastic to frustrate airport security x-ray devices. The final details of how the spoils were to be divided between the RAF and PFLP were decided in Algiers. The Algerian secret services provided a scrambled telephone apparatus so that Mohnhaupt could communicate with Schleyer’s kidnappers in Europe. Another secret service was also helping the RAF terrorists since Haddad had reams of copied confidential material concerning them from the West German criminal police, on which the name ‘Ministry of State Security’ - that is, the Stasi - had only partially been obliterated by whoever photocopied them. The opportunity for the East Germans to make mischief was simply too tempting.

The hijack operation began by equipping four young Palestinian refugees with forged Iranian passports. They flew separately to Mallorca. They were followed by a Dutch woman, in reality Monika Haas, and her pretend husband Kamal Sarvati, together with their baby daughter. The weapons for the hijacking were concealed in the baby’s things, with the ammunition in tins of sweets. Sarvati was Said Slim, a nephew of Wadi Haddad. On 13 October 1977 the four Palestinians commandeered Lufthansa flight 181 ‘Landshut’ shortly after it left Palma. Two men rushed the cockpit and dragged out the co-pilot, while two women stood in the aisle brandishing hand grenades. The plane altered course for Rome where it landed two hours later. There the new captain Mahmoud used a loud-hailer to demand the release of the RAF prisoners. Ignoring the request of the German interior minister to shoot out the tyres, interior minister Cossiga and Communist leader Berlinguer decided to have the plane refuelled to get rid of the problem as soon as possible. The Boeing took off for Larnaka in Cyprus, from where, having again refuelled, it left for Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Following behind was another Lufthansa jet, filled with tough-looking young men in jeans and trainers from GSG-9. No sooner had the hijacked plane arrived in Bahrain than captain Jürgen Schumann was forced to fly to Dubai. The airport runway, however, was blocked with fire engines, which were removed only when the pilot pleaded that he was running out of fuel. The ninety-one passengers and crew were trapped in the intense desert heat. Bizarrely, when he learned that it was the birthday of a Norwegian stewardess, Mahmoud ordered a cake to be brought on board and cracked open champagne. His mood changed when he realised that one of the women passengers was Jewish; hitting and kicking her, he shouted that the next day he would shoot her through the aircraft’s door. Mahmoud was a Palestinian called Zohair Youssef Akache. He had studied aeronautical engineering in London. During two separate pro-Palestinian demonstrations he had hit policemen and was eventually deported. Using a different name he returned to Britain in early 1977 where he shot dead the former premier of Yemen, his wife and a Yemeni diplomat as they left the Royal Lancaster hotel. Scotland Yard had known he was in London, but failed to stop him flying out of Heathrow the same evening.

While ninety-one people sweltered on board ‘Landshut’, the GSG-9 commanders discussed how to storm the plane with two SAS personnel, a major and sergeant, who were training Dubai’s own special forces. Before a rescue could be effected, Mahmoud had the plane in the air again, headed for Aden. The atmosphere on board was ugly as the terrorists wired up the cabin with plastic explosives. Despite being refused landing permission, Schumann managed to put the aircraft down on flat sand next to the runway which was blocked with armoured vehicles. The plane was surrounded by Yemeni soldiers. Before he took off again, Schumann insisted on inspecting the wheels and undercarriage. He took too long doing it. As soon as he re-entered the plane, Mahmoud made him kneel in the aisle and shot him. With Schumann’s corpse locked in a closet, and his stray brain mass thrown out of the cockpit window, the co-pilot took the refuelled plane back up into the sky. Two-and-a-half hours later it landed at Mogadishu in Somalia, a bad choice as the Somali authorities were far less sympathetic than the Yemenis.

The hijackers informed the Somali authorities that they would blow the plane up if the RAF prisoners had not been released by 5 p.m. their time. They bound the passengers and crew, dousing them with all the alcohol on board the plane. With minutes to go before they killed the hostages, the chief German negotiators who had flown in earlier that day managed to have the deadline put back to 3.30 the following morning, claiming that the RAF prisoners were on their way. They would arrive in Somalia at 4 a.m. When darkness fell, the hijackers failed to notice the arrival of another plane with its windows darkened. Nor did they see the shadowy figures who crept about beneath the cabin, placing listening devices. German negotiators indulged Mahmoud, in order to keep him in the cockpit. At 10 p.m. local time he was blinded by stun grenades which detonated outside the windows. Within seconds the plane’s doors were opened and black-clad figures worked their way through the aircraft, shouting ‘Where are the bastards?’ They shot three of the hijackers dead, including Mahmoud, and critically wounded the fourth. The passengers were then thrown down the escape chutes. The entire rescue mission was over in a couple of minutes. On hearing the success of Operation Magic Fire the normally reserved Hamburger Helmut Schmidt cried tears of relief.

News of this triumph was broadcast by the German media later that night. Listening to Suddeutschen Rundfunk was Jan-Carl Raspe in his cell at Stammheim. Using their cell-to-cell communication system, Baader, Raspe, Ensslin and Irmgard Möller resolved to kill themselves, while endeavouring to make this seem like an act of murder by the German government. Baader retrieved the pistol he had hidden in an empty cell from the compartment he had built in his record player. The last music he heard was Eric Clapton’s ‘There’s One in Every Crowd’. He fired a few shots into the wall and his mattress before shooting himself through the neck. He had already put the empty cartridges near his own body to make it seem as if he had been executed. Raspe used a Heckler & Koch 9 mm to shoot himself in the temple. In Cell 720 Gudrun Ensslin took a length of cable from her stereo, fashioned a noose and threaded it through the fly mesh separating her from the cell’s bars. She then hung herself by kicking away the stool she was standing on. In Cell 725 Irmgard Moller stabbed herself repeatedly in the left breast, failing to puncture her heart. She would later claim that this was the work of the German secret service acting in consort with the CIA. All of them were discovered when the cells were opened for breakfast at about eight o’clock the following morning.

In faraway Baghdad, the leaders of the RAF went into shock, with the exception of Brigitte Mohnhaupt. Long before these deaths had occurred, she had explained to Susanne Albrecht that if the hijacking was unsuccessful the Stammheim prisoners had resolved to kill themselves, in order to blame their deaths on the German government. There was one more death in this cycle of violence. On 19 October 1977, a caller informed the French newspaper Liberation that Schleyer’s body could be found in a green Audi 100 parked in Mulhouse. After forty-three days the RAF had decided to ‘put an end to his lamentable and corrupt existence’ by shooting him three times in the head. As Schleyer had grass in his mouth and pine needles stuck to his crumpled suit, it was presumed he had been murdered in a wood, probably in Alsace. At his funeral the German president apologised to his son and widow that they had not done enough to save him.


After the deaths at Stammheim, definitive command of the RAF passed to Brigitte Mohnhaupt - who shared Baader’s capacity to rave uncontrollably - together with Sieglinde Hofmann, Adelheid Schulz and Christian Klar. They had begun their terrorist campaign in 1973, and it would continue until 1982. They were initially based in Baghdad before relocating to Paris, a sort of ‘Parishof’ before ‘Londonistan’ was born. Thenceforth France was always their haven, which is why they undertook no active operations on French soil. Their depression and sense of failure in the wake of Mogadishu and Stammheim were compounded when a drug-addicted Peter Jürgen Boock despatched several RAF members to purchase drugs (and his favourite oat flakes) which he could not obtain in Baghdad. He imagined he was suffering from cancer; in fact he was a junkie. As a direct result of this mission, eight RAF terrorists were arrested in France, Holland and Yugoslavia, notably Stefan ‘the Fury’ Wisniewski who was detained at Orly airport using a false passport after French police compared his signature with terrorist handwriting specimens they had received from their German colleagues. He was intimately connected with the murder of Schleyer, and would spend the years 1978-99 in prison. Plans were laid, and aborted, to spring Wisniewski from jail using a chartered helicopter. Instead, as they brushed up their use of bazookas and bombs at a Palestinian camp in Aden, where several of the women terrorists had flings with their Arab hosts, the new RAF leaders resolved to kill US general Alexander Haig, who was now the commander in chief of NATO.

Several bank robberies were carried out to fund Operation Stallion. Following one such raid Elizabeth van Dyck was shot dead by the police when she revisited a safe house. The attack on Haig occurred a week before his retirement as he and five bodyguards drove from his house to NATO headquarters at Maisières in Belgium. Susanne Albrecht had conveyed explosives supplied by the Palestinians from San Remo to Belgium to dispel the widespread impression that she was not up to the job. These were buried in a hole dug under a road. As Haig’s three-car convoy sped over this spot, the road erupted, the explosion narrowly missing both Haig and his bodyguards. None of them was seriously injured. In the following months the RAF lost two members in a fatal car crash, while a third, Henning Beer, dropped out after suffering a nervous breakdown. Attempts to co-operate with the Red Brigades were not a success. In 1978 a member of the Red Brigades was sent to meet a representative of the RAF in a crowded Milan subway. The unknown contact would be carrying a crime novel. The Italian returned disconsolate as he had spotted no one looking like a German, and only young girls were reading crime novels. That observation did not amuse his feminist comrades. When the two groups did finally meet, the Italians’ insistence on knowing about the RAF’s ‘party structures’ were met with embarrassment. There were none. More successfully, a merger with the 2 June Movement restored the RAF’s depleted numbers, and made it less necessary to undertake bank robberies since their new partners had extorted 4 million DM from the family of a kidnapped German industrialist. A series of RAF robberies of Swiss banks had resulted in scenes worthy of the Wild West and the death of a shopper killed in the crossfire. When the RAF robbers made off on bicycles, with their loot in plastic bags, a pursuing Swiss motorist lost them as he dutifully insisted on stopping at the traffic lights.

As the attack on Haig indicated, by the early 1980s the second generation of RAF terrorists had decided to focus their attacks on the US military presence in Europe. On 31 August 1981 a huge car bomb exploded directly outside the headquarters of the US Air Force on Ramstein airbase, causing over 7 million DM worth of damage. On 15 September they attempted to kill general Frederick Kroesen, the commander in chief of US land forces in Europe. As his armoured Mercedes - on the first day he had used it - stopped at traffic lights in Heidelberg, Christian Klar, who for several weeks had been camping in a wood above the road, fired two missiles from a Soviet RPG-7, one of which, launched from 126 metres away, exploded against the trunk of the general’s car. Kroesen had a lucky escape, which he jokingly attributed to the fact that his assailants were not using American-made weapons.

The German police were in luck too. A year later two mushroom pickers combing a wood near Frankfurt came upon a dip containing two large plastic boxes. In addition to the Heckler & Koch used to shoot Schleyer’s bodyguards, there were ninety-one identity cards, fifteen passports, 55,000 DM in cash and Polaroid photos of Schleyer. Among the thousand or so items the boxes contained, there were coded documents and maps showing the location of eleven similar depots. Despite the freezing temperatures, some two thousand police officers were used to stake out these depots. The first terrorists to appear with their plastic shovels were Brigitte Mohnhaupt and Adelheid Schulz, who were seized by GSG-9 men. The women had a plastic bag with them in which was the Polish-manufactured submachine gun used to kill two Dutch customs officers two years earlier. Five days later, undercover policemen disguised as people out for a walk in the woods followed Christian Klar as he made for the depot code-named ‘Daphne’. He was surrounded by three hundred and fifty waiting policemen and arrested. This effectively meant the end of ‘the old RAF’ as it was known in police circles, or, to be more accurate, of the ‘second generation’.

Unknown to the West German police, the ranks of the RAF had already been depleted by several ‘drop-outs’, or Aussteiger in German. In 1979, a total of eight RAF members had indicated that they were no longer prepared to engage in terrorism, symbolically handing their weapons over to Klar or Mohnhaupt. Some of them were nervous wrecks, others felt guilty about their victims, especially if they were bystanders killed in the crossfire. Sigrid Sternebeck was one of those who had the realism to see that ‘we live in central Europe, not under a Fascist dictatorship with a population living at subsistence levels that is ripe for revolution’. Her colleague, the former nurse Monika Helbing, was plagued by thoughts of their dead comrades. Helbing’s husband, Ekkehard Freiherr von Seckendorff-Gudent, since 1977 the RAF’s group doctor, also wanted to get out.

What to do about these failures presented the RAF leadership with a serious problem. If they were caught by the police, they would very likely break as they had already demonstrated their scruples and lack of fortitude. There was talk of despatching the group to Angola or Mozambique, a forlorn prospect, although they did begin to study Portuguese. The terrorist Inge Veitt came to the rescue. After the second of her two spectacular breakouts from Berlin’s Lehrte Strasse women’s prison - in one she sawed through the bars, in the second she used knotted blankets as a rope - she had been commissioned to spring two male 2 June Movement terrorists from Berlin-Moabit prison. En route through East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport she was stopped by frontier guards who, after disarming her, handed her over to the genial, purple-nosed major ‘Dirty’ Harry Dahl of the Ministry of State Security. ‘Good day, comrade!’ he announced at their first encounter. Shortly afterwards a rearmed Veitt was on her way to West Berlin on the S-Bahn. Harry and his superiors, Erich Mielke and ultimately president Erich Honecker, solved the problem of the eight RAF drop-outs, all of whom were equipped with new identities for their fresh start in the German Democratic Republic. There were several reasons why the GDR’s leaders decided to harbour terrorists.

They feared that some terrorist group might spoil a big state occasion just as Black September had done in Munich, and so were keen to know the inner workings of such groups. They liked having some of the fiercest opponents of the Federal Republic sheltering under their wings. Above all, Mielke, who as a young Communist militant had murdered two Berlin policemen in 1931, forcing him to flee to Moscow, and Honecker, who had been in a Nazi concentration camp, felt a certain fellow feeling for comrades on the run. The official line (among the dozen people who knew) was that while the strategy was wrong, the RAF terrorists had demonstrated courage, a line which overlooked the reason why the eight were in the GDR. This was how the Terrorism Department of the Stasi happened to become the protector of eight West German terrorists, despite the fact that all eight were on a list of 620 radicals whom their colleagues in the frontier police were to forbid entry to the country as it celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary. Speaking of anniversaries, every year the Stasi organised a reunion for the former RAF members they were sheltering. This being the GDR, there were a few Orwellian touches. The homes of all eight were bugged and their telephones tapped. Three of the new GDR citizens entered into the spirit of the place by becoming active Stasi informers, spying on their friends or colleagues. It was impossible to keep their identities secret. Neighbours noticed that they easily got a Trabant car, and did not have to wait for plumbers; workmates watching West German TV realised they knew the wanted terrorists whose faces were shown on the news bulletins. All eight were rapidly detained by the newly consolidated German police force shortly after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, receiving far milder sentences related to crimes for which their predecessors had been jailed for life.

Unknown to the drop-outs the Stasi were also running training courses for very active second-generation RAF terrorists. Beginning in 1980, Christian Klar, Adelheid Schulz, Helmut Pohl, Inge Veitt and others made biannual trips to the GDR where, disguised as National People’s Army soldiers, they received weapons training and instruction in military-level bomb making. The high point came when the Stasi let them loose with Russian RPG-7 rocket launchers. An old Mercedes was used as a target, with four dummies - in overalls filled with sawdust - and a distressed Alsatian placed inside to gauge the effects. The rocket streaked into the car, hurling the dummies around and singeing the dog, which was given the coup de grace by a Stasi officer. Co-operation between the Stasi (anti-)terrorism branch and the RAF terrorists continued until 1984, although the Stasi also facilitated Libyan and Syrian state terrorism in West Germany thereafter. Some of this Stasi expertise would be put to ill effect, by a third generation of RAF terrorists trained by their predecessors.

The depletion through arrests and drop-outs of the second generation of RAF terrorists did not lessen Germany’s problem with RAF terrorism. In late 1982, the bank robberies recommenced, suggesting that a third generation was stirring. This was confirmed when in July 1984 an elderly electrician, resting on his sofa watching TV, heard a loud bang from the flat above. Half an hour later a blonde girl appeared at his door claiming to be tending cats for an absent friend, in whose flat she had knocked over a pail. Had any water come through his ceiling, she inquired? No, but, as it happened, later he glanced down and noticed that a spent round had. When two policemen called at the flat concerned, they found six people hiding in a rear room. They did not have enough handcuffs to restrain them. To their amazement the police discovered six revolvers, 250 rounds of ammunition, a grenade and large amounts of money. They had caught forty-year-old Helmut Pohl and five of the latest recruits to the RAF. They also discovered over eight thousand pages of documents, some with details of potential targets. Despite these arrests, in November 1984 two men raided a gun shop in Ludwigshafen, making off with twenty-two pistols, a couple of rifles and 2,800 rounds of ammunition. The RAF third generation was rearming. Its campaign would continue until 1998, although an epochal moment came in 1992 when the group formally renounced political murder.

The third generation’s first attempt at atrocity was a failure. A twenty-five-pound bomb was found in a car parked within the NATO academy at Oberammergau. An alert German instructor noticed a slovenly US soldier hurriedly leaving the site, and quickly asked guards whether the man had parked a car there. The site was evacuated. A technical failure prevented the bomb from going off. The explosives had come from a quarry in Belgium, stolen by the French terror group Action Directe six months earlier. Shortly afterwards a bilingual communique announced that the two groups were acting in concert. As if to demonstrate this, on 25 January 1985 Action Directe terrorists shot dead general Rene Audran, head of weapons exports in the French Defence Ministry. Responsibility was claimed by a Commando Elisabeth van Dyck, its name commemorating the RAF terrorist shot by police earlier. A week later, a young messenger girl rang the doorbell of the Starnberger See home of Ernst Zimmermann, head of MTU, manufacturers of engines for Tornado fighters and Leopard tanks. The messenger, with a letter Zimmermann had to sign for, was followed by a young man with a gun, who after tying Zimmermann to a chair shot him dead. This was the handiwork of Commando Patsy O’Hara, named after an Irish National Liberation Army terrorist who had starved himself to death in the Maze prison. Two things were significant about these attacks. The victims were not symbolic targets like Ponto or Schleyer. They were what the RAF called ‘bearers of functions’, that is men who were key players in their respective defence sectors. Secondly, the international martyr nomenclature was intended to forge alliances with other European terrorist groups so that a ‘West European Guerrilla’ would confront an increasingly integrated EEC and NATO. How successfully this was done can be gauged from the fact that an attack was named after Vincenzo Spano (an Action Directe terrorist who was alive in a French jail) when in fact it was intended to commemorate Ciro Rizatto, a Red Brigades terrorist killed in a bank robbery. The RAF corrected the mistake in a further communiqué.37

In August 1985 the third generation detonated a 126-kilogram car bomb inside the US Rhein-Main airbase in Frankfurt, killing two Americans and injuring twenty-three others. The night before an attractive German woman lured a twenty-year-old US soldier from the Western Saloon on his base in Wiesbaden. He body was found the following morning, shot in the back of his head. He had been killed so that the RAF could use his ID to get the bomb on to the Frankfurt base. A roadside bomb was used to murder Karl Heinz Beckurts, the leading German industrialist and advocate of nuclear power, together with his chauffeur, both of whom resembled charred puppets flecked with blood by the time the police found them. RAF Fighting Units simultaneously attacked material targets, including the Cologne offices of the German secret service. On 10 October 1986 RAF terrorists executed Gerold von Braunmuhl, deputy to foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, as he arrived home late from work in a taxi. Responsibility was claimed by the Commando Ingrid Schubert, this one commemorating the RAF terrorist who had hung herself in Munich’s Stadelheim prison three weeks after the group suicide in Stammheim. When the RAF claimed that Braunmuhl had been chosen because of his representative status -the RAF was now going for the state itself and especially those connected to the ‘pan-German EEC’ - the dead man’s brothers published a moving letter, in Germany’s main left-wing newspaper, asking who had appointed them to murder people. Shortly afterwards, Action Directe murdered Georges Besse, the head of Renault, in what turned out to be the group’s denouement. In February 1987 French police arrested the four Action Directe leaders at a farmhouse near Orleans. Co-operation with the RAF ceased.

On 20 September 1988, RAF gunmen disguised as road surveyors narrowly missed state secretary for finance Hans Tietmeyer as he was driven to work. A year later they were all too successful when they used a seven-kilogram bomb attached to a parked bicycle to kill the Deutsche Bank chief Alfred Herrhausen as he was driven in a convoy of three armoured vehicles to work. One of the most charismatic and powerful businessmen in Germany, Herrhausen had been affectionately known as ‘Don Alfredo’ by his friend chancellor Kohl. The attack had been meticulously planned, with terrorists posing as a road-working gang laying a long command wire to an infra-red system which triggered the explosion as Herrhausen’s car crossed the beam made by a light and a reflector. The terrorists had also found a way of focusing the explosion precisely on the rear seats of the car. Police remarked that Herrhausen would have died even if he had been in a tank. His killers have never been caught. One may wonder where the expertise evident in this attack was learned other than in the GDR. On 27 July 1990, Hans Neusel, the state secretary in the Interior Ministry responsible for internal security, narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded as he drove by. The fact that he was driving saved his life, as the bombers had assumed he would be travelling in the rear of a chauffeur-driven car. Following the outbreak of the first Gulf War, in January 1991, RAF terrorists stationed on the Königswinter bank of the Rhine opened fire on the US embassy in Bonn, smashing a number of windows and sending the cleaners scurrying, before disappearing in a VW Passat.

Nineteen ninety-two finally brought significant developments which signalled that the end of terrorist violence was at hand. In the teeth of bitter opposition, but in line with advice from the secret service, justice minister Klaus Kinkel announced that the state must be ready for ‘reconciliation’ in appropriate cases, releasing terrorist prisoners in return for the RAF abandoning violence. This was less of a concession than conservatives feared, for all prisoners were entitled to parole having served two-thirds of their sentences, which meant after fifteen years for those serving life. Kinkel and his advisers were trying to sever the Gordian knot whereby the real or imagined plight of RAF prisoners served as the main recruiting sergeant for future terrorists. The secret service also agreed with the prisoners’ desire to be held in one jail, although for different reasons. Given how easily even small groups of terrorist inmates could dominate a prison, this was a calculated risk. They hoped that this policy would divide and disaggregate the terrorist prisoners, opening rifts between hardliners and moderates and weakening the organisation. This gesture elicited a response from the RAF in April 1992. Cheekily suggesting that Kinkel had revealed divisions within the ruling apparat, the RAF ruefully acknowledged that the world had changed since the collapse of socialism and the end of the Cold War. It also admitted that it had little or no public support for its campaign of terror. The group promised to ‘de-escalate’ its campaign and to cease killing prominent business or government figures. A longer follow-up paper published in August more explicitly renounced political murder. Between early 1992 and September 1993, the authorities released nine RAF prisoners.

That this did not mean the end of RAF attacks was dramatically evidenced when on the night of 26-27 March 1993 a masked RAF team broke into a newly built prison, scheduled to be opened five days later. Apart from three security guards who were eating chips and drinking beer, and seven prison guards who, to save money, were sleeping in otherwise empty cells, the building was unoccupied. Although the prison had six-metre perimeter walls, the RAF team had used aluminium and rope ladders to scale them. As the security men and guards were bound and loaded on to a VW truck, the reasons for this bizarre raid on an empty prison became evident. The terrorists drove a green truck into the prison. Shortly after 5 a.m. five separate bombs, totalling at least 200 kilograms of explosives, virtually demolished the entire building, causing 123 million DM of damage and requiring four years of restoration work. The same year also saw a police success in capturing RAF third-generation terrorists turn into disaster. The secret service had managed to infiltrate an agent into the RAF scene, who succeeded in winning the confidence of Birgit Hogefeld, another graduate of the committees against torture, who together with her partner, Wolfgang Grams, was among the key third-generation RAF leaders.

After further brief encounters, the agent and Hogefeld agreed to meet in a small town in Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania, where Hogefeld planned a short vacation. In June 1993 the agent and Hogefeld spent a weekend in a damp seaside bungalow, watched by large numbers of undercover policemen who also overheard their conversations through bugs in the walls. A plan to snatch Hogefeld as she took a bus to the station was aborted at the last minute in order to see who she had arranged to meet. At a small town called Bad Kleinen, Hogefeld and the agent were joined by Wolfgang Grams. The police decided to spring the trap, code-named Operation Wine Harvest. As the three left the cafe, seven men in jeans and blousons surrounded Hogefeld, while a ‘passenger’ put a gun to her neck shouting ‘Hands up!’ Wolfgang Grams reacted faster, sprinting up nearby steps to the platforms, and pulling out a 9 mm pistol. He put four shots into twenty-five-year-old Michael Newrzella, one of his GSG-9 pursuers, who later died. There was a furious gun battle between Grams and the other GSG-9 men during which some forty-four shots were fired. A female train driver was shot in the arm. Badly wounded, Grams tried to flee along the tracks until he collapsed. There was some controversy over claims that GSG-9 men put a couple of extra bullets into his head, although after an inquiry they were exonerated. In fact, the wounded Grams had shot himself dead.

The dramatic events in Bad Kleinen effectively signalled the end of the RAF. With Hogefeld arrested and Grams dead, there may have been as few as three further RAF terrorists on the run in Germany, although no one could be sure. There were bitter divisions among the RAF prisoners, with some opting to make their peace with the authorities, leaving a tiny implacable group led by Brigitte Mohnhaupt. In the mid-1990s the once feared terrorist organisation only appeared in the form of readers’ letters to left-wing newspapers and magazines as they sought to set this or that historical issue straight. In 1997 former RAF members held a reunion in Zurich. Surveying their middle-aged faces, whose younger selves had adorned so many ‘wanted’ posters, journalists were reminded of a conference of school teachers, or rather of polytechnic lecturers, which at least semi-identified where this delusive Red plague had begun, namely in the left universities of the Western world. On 20 April 1998 Reuters received a brief communique: ‘Almost twenty-eight years ago on 14 May 1970 the RAF emerged in the course of an act of liberation. Today we conclude the project. The urban guerrilla, in the form of the RAF, is now history.’ Five sides of single-spaced type reviewed the RAF’s history. There was an honour roll of the twenty-six who had ‘died in the armed struggle’. In his retirement, Horst Herold, who had done more than anyone else to combat RAF criminality, remarked that this paper was ‘the tombstone erected by the RAF itself’.

Not quite, however, because on 30 July 1999 a jeep and a VW Passat were used to block in an armoured security vehicle as it delivered money to Duisberg-Rheinhausen banks. The guards found themselves staring into a bazooka shouldered by one of the masked assailants. The robbers made off with one million Marks. Perhaps the third generation were arranging their pensions as there have been no further signs of life from the Red Army Faction since. By contrast, much has been heard from Horst Mahler. Following the intervention of Gerhard Schroder, Mahler was allowed to resume his commercial practice in 1988. After a decade, he became politically active again. He went back to his roots. In 2000 he joined the far-right NPD. This finally bestirred his colleagues to chuck him out of the lawyers’ association, in that curious dual response to Communist and Nazi criminality that characterises the left in general. Mahler became an active Holocaust-denier, combining radical anti-Semitism with hatred of the USA which he conflated with Israel. As a lawyer he subsequently specialised in defending other Holocaust-deniers. In 2004 he was disbarred, making several court appearances for virulent anti-Semitic agitation. He wrote a book with the former SS soldier Franz Schönhuber, the leader of the Republican Party, entitled An End to German Self-Hatred, a title more apt for the story of the RAF itself.38

Now, in an ultimate victory for consumer capitalism, the RAF has become just another marketing brand. There are several coffee-table books of photos from the group’s heyday, including Astrid Proll’s Hans und Grete, or in its English version Pictures on the Run 67-77. When London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts held an exhibition entitled Crash, which included a section on ‘Radical Chic’, one smart designer house was quick off the mark with a new collection that included the slogan ‘Prada Meinhof’ and the outline of an AK-47, printed on the scarf worn by a fashion model.39

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