June 01, 2009

AWRF 2009: Stefan Aust


To hear Der Spiegel editor Stefan Aust would be interesting anyway, but when I found out that he had written the ‘seminal work’ on the Baader-Meinhof gang, that was when I knew I had to be there. This man quit his job and spent three years researching and writing The Baader-Meinhof Complex, so determined was he to get the story on this band of radical left-wing terrorists who for ten years splattered Germany with violent deaths, finally including, for the leaders, their own.

At their own hands or not? This was the question. An attempt to spring them from prison by hijacking a Lufthansa flight and using the passengers as ransom had failed when German commandos stormed the plane in Mogadishu and freed the passengers. The next morning, all over Europe the papers screamed “Baader, Ensslin and Raspe dead!” The verdict of the authorities: they had committed suicide in their cells in the ultra-security wing of Stammheim Prison, the two men by shooting themselves, Ensslin by hanging herself with electrical wire.

All the time I lived in Europe, I and everyone I knew took it for granted that this had been an execution decided by the Germans to obviate further death-seminating attempts to free them. We laughed: how could the inmates, strip-searched each day after their appearances in court or visits with lawyers, have gotten guns? How could they, in isolation in sound-proof cells, have arranged a collective suicide? “Can you believe those Germans?” we’d say. “They know the whole world knows they killed them and they just don’t care.”

Now I finally had the chance to hear from a German about it. I was on a high as I headed through the doors into the darkened ASB and down the aisle to my usual close-up seat. I listened to Aust describe these “very special people”: Andreas Baader, “Brando in The Wild One, he could have been any kind of outlaw”, Gudrun Ensslin, the "hypermoral" pastor’s daughter, and Ulrike Meinhof, the celebrity journalist and “intolerant individual who thought she knew things better than others” who made the choice to go underground with them. “They became famous because she was so famous.”  To put it in a New Zealand context, Kim Hill with a SIG P210 pistol next to her typewriter.

Their credo “We are marching towards a fascist state and we need to act now" led to dozens of kidnappings, robberies, bombings, murders, and eventually their capture and imprisonment. During the trial, there were signs that Meinhof may have been thinking of disassociating; to the judges she hinted “if one wanted to speak” but it was ignored. Would it have gone differently if it hadn’t been, asked Aust, who had worked with her at konkret, the voice of the New Left in Germany. Depressed, bullied by the others – “If you’ve read Dostoevsky's The Demons, you can see the parallels, how they behaved to each other” -- one night she ripped up her towel and hanged herself.  In the margin of a notebook, a phrase about suicide as the final revolutionary act.

A year later, after the life sentences, after the third attempt to free them had failed, came the deaths of the other three founding members. To my amazement, Aust declares himself convinced that theirs really were suicides after all. He has the investigative details: how the guns were smuggled in, how they communicated; he has his intuition of what they would have done when they lost hope. He convinces me. Driving home after, it felt strange, like losing a ring you’ve worn for so long you don’t even think about it, except now your finger looks odd without it. But the three Italians I am out to dinner with the next night keep their rings and laugh. They don’t buy a word of it.

“Today,” Aust reflects, “the sympathy for the group which you could feel in the late 1970's has vanished – that idea people had that ‘They died for our ideas.’” A poll of Germans back then showed that 1 in 10 would have sheltered them if asked. It was only 30 years from the end of World War II. Old Nazis -- why do people say "ex", they hadn't resigned or anything -- were everywhere in prominent positions. Hanns Martin Schleyer, the president of the industrialists’ association whom the gang kidnapped in another attempt to spring Baader and Ensslin had been in the SS. Within hours of the collective suicide, he was driven to a wooded area, made to kneel, and shot through the head not once but three times.

Unlike the snotty reviewer from the Washington Post I came across inthe Guardian (why?), who calls it  “a simple tale of thugs in love with violence”, I see it as a tawdry and tragic tale of Shakespearean dimensions.  On a German website I found an interview with Irmgard Moller, found in her cell at Stammheim the morning of the collective suicide with four stab wounds to her chest and a bread knife beside her, in which she recalls the night’s events. I consulted that  Delphic oracle which they call internet translation, and read in awe the Macbethian hallucination that flashed onto the screen.

Before kidnapping in the evening someone went
of the attendants rum and the bulbs collected,
during the contact barrier it off simply the river turned.
I needed thus candles. I operated the record player
with batteries, that could be done. I wanted
to be somehow awake in any case, in order to hear
the first morning messages at six o'clock. In addition,
I was already completely overtired. I went then
in the cell a little back and forth, in order
not to fall asleep. But then I am sometime
nevertheless away-dawned...

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 02:30
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