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Big Spoilt Brats with Guns: The Baader Meinhof Complex November 30, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in Film, History, Terrorism.


Everyone should go and see The Baader Meinhof Complex. It’s an exhilarating film, based on Stefan Aust’s book of the same name, and the two and a half hour running time whizzes by. It hardly needs saying, but the film is the story of the emergence and activities of the Red Army Faction, or Baader Meinhof gang, as it is more commonly known. The film covers the period that led to its creation until the events of autumn 1977 (the German Autumn) that saw desperate terrorist attempts by the RAF to have their leaders freed, and the controversial deaths of those remaining leaders of the first generation of the RAF, including Andreas Baader, in Stammheim prison. I am unable to judge the historical accuracy of the various scenes portrayed, but the atmosphere of the film is certainly very convincing. I won’t try to go into all the issues it raises here, but concentrate on those that struck me most.

The film begins with Ulrike Meinhof and her husband and two daughters at the beach, giving a glimpse into the secure family life of this influential left-wing columnist, who had joined the banned Communist Party in 1959. It is during a visit by the Shah of Iran and his wife’s visit to west Germany, and Meinhof pens an open letter to the Queen discussing the poverty and oppression suffered by the people of Iran. While clearly of the further left, she has not yet come close to adopting the ideas she later became synonymous with. One of the successes of the film is to track her gradual radicalisation, although the lack of dates given in the film can make it hard to be sure what is happening when.

The first key scene is a protest against the Shah and his wife in west Berlin in 1967. Iranian students – all male, suited, and heavily built – supporting the visit launch an attack on the disparate band of lefties, young and old, protesting against the march. In order to do so, they walk through the police lines, meeting no opposition, before the police mount their own attack on the shocked demonstrators, beating all round them. For an Irish audience familiar with the stories of the civil rights movement at home, this seems familiar territory (and in fact the sometimes criticised Simon Prince may also be inclined to blame the German leftist protestors for provoking the violence, as in Derry, as the film shows some flour bombs being thrown by them before the attack). However, unlike the attacks on the NI civil rights marches in 1968, the German police shot one of the protestors dead. This event convinced many – particularly students – that the west German authorities remained riddled with fascist attitudes and fascist sympathisers, and radicalised many, adding to the momentum that would culminate in 1968. There was a great deal of truth in this, and the film conveys it very effectively.

The radicalisation not just of Meinhof but of Baader and the effective co-founder and joint leader of the RAF Gudrun Ensslin, a preacher’s daughter, continues apace amidst the Vietnam War and the attempted murder of the radical leader Rudi Dutschke. The film shows the attack on the Springer publishing group that followed. Around the same time, Baader and Ensslin begin their violent activities with an arson attack on a department store. The recklessness with which Baader treats the process of making the firebombs is representative of his portrayal in the film – impatient, impetuous, obsessed with things being done his way, casual in his attitude to planning and violence, and hostile to criticism. This is demonstrated again and again, whether it is when he encourages his lawyer to steal a woman’s purse, during training in Lebanon or at his trial. The leniency with which the arsonists are treated when captured and released several months later pending an appeal somewhat undercuts their idea that west Germany was a fascist state, and this is true later in the film, when Meinhof, Ensslin and others are able to exploit similar leniency to arrange his escape. This is the fateful moment in Meinhof’s life, when she breaks with the original plan, and decides to go underground with the others.

This portrayal of the radicalisation of those involved is one of the main strengths of the film, relating this aspect sympathetically and convincingly, but not shying away from the mixed motivations and character flaws of those involved (such as the young people clearly looking for a way to avoid their personal problems through violent activism). So while this part of the film may seem to be sympathetic to the people who would go on to found the RAF, the rest of the film is much more critical.

The Germans in the training camp in the Middle East show no respect for their hosts, whether it is their cultural traditions regarding the separation of men and women and nudity, or for their professional expertise. The willingness of the leaders to use violence and deception to rid themselves of unwanted elements speaks badly of them, and their internationalism seems skin deep when confronted with the reality of the Palestinians and their struggle. This may be revolution, but it will be on their terms whatever the consequences.

The most effective part of the second half of the film is its portrayal of the naivety and futility of the whole RAF project. This is perhaps best summed up by the image of one of the terrorists firing a pistol at an armoured personnel carrier the police have when coming to arrest him. The increasingly extreme tactics adopted by the police hunting for the gang as they travel across the country carrying out robberies, bombings and shootings form a central part. The police chief in charge of hunting them understands better than his masters that the RAF represents a political as well as a policing problem. One in four Germans under 30 – 7 million people – declared themselves sympathetic to them in the early years. Faced with such odds, the police adopt increasingly sophisticated tactics, becoming more and more the authoritarian and surveillance state of the RAF’s propaganda. Yet the RAF is itself becoming increasingly isolated. Bombs kill and injure innocent workers, while the world has moved on since 1968. More and more, they are likely to be turned in by ordinary citizens. One is caught when she leaves a gun in a jacket while going into a changing room, the victim of her own amateurish stupidity and a hostile sales assistant who call the police. Nevertheless, new generations continue to be recruited and to remain active, although it is now much harder for the police – and the audience – to understand the attractions.

As the film moves on into the 1970s, the story does increasingly resemble 6 against 60 millions. The targets increasingly become industrialists and businessmen as the terrorists desperately try to free their leaders from gaol. In prison, the RAF is waging a campaign over its conditions. In the opposite situation to Ireland, they demand the same conditions as criminal prisoners. A hunger strike is inaugurated, culminating in the death of one of the prisoners, who is denied treatment by the authorities at the end. The four leading prisoners – including Baader, Meinhof and Ensslin – receive good conditions, including the freedom to associate and cooperate in planning their defence, but they become irrevocably split, and the psychological disintegration of Meinhof as she becomes isolated from and hostile to the other prisoners is vividly portrayed. It is clear that the filmmakers regard her death as a suicide, although the other prisoners claimed in court it was murder, and there would be a similar controversy over their own deaths in the future. The desire for revenge forms a major motivation of the subsequent generations of the RAF, who even Baader regards as too extreme. They take the struggle to free their leaders far beyond Germany. The more vicious later generations in fact seem more motivated by nihilism, vengeance and terrorism than anything else, though they are never developed as characters in the same way.

This is not a film that glamourises terrorism or the RAF. On the contrary, the main message I saw in it was the utter futility of their terrorist campaign, even by their own lights. Rather than lionise the participants, it shows them for what they were – deeply flawed people, motivated by an imprecise ideology and above all a commitment to action. It is never really made clear what exactly the ideology of the RAF actually was, perhaps because they themselves never really knew, beyond a commitment to revolution that would be inspired by anti-imperialist struggles in the developing world and urban terrorism in the west. In the film’s portrayal of their ideology and actions, we can detect the influence of the Frankfurt School critique of commercialism, we see Ensslin reading Trotsky in the bath and the usual Che posters, the RAF assert the link between sexual and political revolution, and we hear the words of the communiques issued after attacks, and the lionising of the urban guerilla; but it is clear that it was the excitement of the guns, the bank robberies, and the bombings that formed the main plank of their ideology. The lack of a clear ideology or strategy is above all what isolated them from the people, even those initially sympathetic, and ensured they would slowly shrink and die off, and the RAF eventually disbanded in 1998.

Theirs was a legacy of needless death, with nothing positive. One aspect that was missing that I thought would be made more of was the issue of support from the DDR, which was at best implied. It was a major mistake of that regime ever to give any credence whatsoever to people who were ultimately vain, shallow, adventurist dilettantes playing at being revolutionaries, without the commitment, discipline or willpower necessary for sustained and successful political struggle, and who represented the very opposite of the Marxist-Leninist tradition of political struggle. Watching the film, I could not but dwell on the necessity for organised and disciplined political action by a political party of and for the working class, while thinking of Lenin’s denunciation of left-wing communism, the infantile disorder.


1. Renoir - November 30, 2008

Really well done, Mr Garibaldy. This is certainly the film I saw.

Something I’d like to know more is the world of German conscientious objectors who did not do military service. West Germany more or less created a counter-cultural class of radicalised youth who without their resistance to military service would not have developed their left-wing oppositionism or solidarity. Consequently, in some of the bigger cities entire neighbourhoods became more or less opposed to the state. This, I think, helps account for the latent sympathy the RAF gathered, why they were well-shielded and why it took the state so long to shut them down.


2. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

Thanks Renoir. I met someone from Germany who did his national service in civilian life once, but that was in the 1990s, so I don’t really know. It’s a very interesting point that I hadn’t considered as to why they had so much support among young people, and your argument makes sense to me.


3. ejh - December 1, 2008

were ultimately vain, shallow, adventurist dilettantes playing at being revolutionaries

Well, they weren’t “playing”, whatever else they were doing.


4. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

I see your point, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that all this was for many of them a big adventure. On a different note, I do think that from my political perspective, that accusing them of playing is legitimate. Running around knocking off banks, planting bombs or whatever is not the same as organising seriously for political action and intervention. The hard slog is in many ways more difficult than the intense excitement and feeling of action of this type of stuff, and that’s what I was trying to get at.


5. ejh - December 1, 2008

it’s hard to escape the feeling that all this was for many of them a big adventure

Well not really, because from an early stage it involved death and prison.

Running around knocking off banks, planting bombs or whatever is not the same as organising seriously for political action and intervention.

It may not have seemed so to a lot of people at the time, a point you do tend to bid us remember when it comes to certain other political traditions and their errors.

For my part, I really don’t know what to think about them unless I’m tpo operate with the benefit of hindsight. What they were involved in is nothing much to do with anything I’ve ever been involved in, or wanted to be: and to be honest, middle-class Englishman that I am, I’ve never so much as touched a loaded gun. I would have preferred them not to do what they did and I don’t doubt that the recklessness of youth contributed to their decisions to take the road they did. But was it necessarily any more “playing”, any more of an “adventure”, than that undertaken by the large number of Communist ex-public schoolboys who went out and died in Spain? Why would I think of them as diletanttes, and not, say, this chap?


6. goodhardrant - December 1, 2008

I haven’t seen the film yet, but certainly will.

Does Eichinger or the film touch on the RAF / BM descent into anti-semitism? Much of RAF and popular radicalisation of Germany in the 1960s was in reaction to the generational complicity of their parents in the Holocaust. His ‘Downfall’, did a worthy if tedious job of reminding Germans of their uncomfortable past. But it also swerved away from the horror of the camps, and of cultural anti-semitism; focussing on the pretty-but-naive-but-nonethless-complicit secretary as a means of viewing Hitler’s ideology in defeat. I know we’ve been there before, but trust me, there are people who still think it didn’t happen.

The RAF / BM school of celebrity terrorism is an interesting next step for Eichinger, but given the way in which these radical sons and daughters of the Reich moved toward anti-semitism in the guise of anti-zionism makes me wonder about the politics of Eichinger’s subject-matter. Does it come up, Garibaldy, or not?

The fact that Horst Mahler – the second in command after Baader -is now a Neo-nazi tells us much about how deeply held the Marxist beliefs in the BM were.

Incidentally, Luke Haines concept album ‘Baader Meinhof’ (1996) is worth a few listens. Paired down, synths and strings with the usual vicious hissing from El Haines. Track ‘Mogadishu’ is particularly excellent. I think he even toured with it. Again, like the film you discuss, it doesn’t condone the BM but it does give you a sense of the bitter seductiveness of extremist positions. ‘The Hate Socialist Collective’ I think he calls it at one point.


7. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008


You are of course correct that there were serious aspects to this, and serious consequences. On your point about how it seemed at the time. I understand what you are saying as well. But these people claimed to come out of a Marxist-Leninist tradition, in which terrorism by a small group has no place. Then again, maybe they thought they were the equivalent of Fidel et al on the Granma, to be generous, though any reflection on the differing contexts should have made it clear how wrong they were to think they could spark a revolution in west Germany.

I think the difference between these people and people who went to Spain was that the people who went to Spain were going for what was clearly a struggle that involved the masses, and was a genuine struggle between the forces of democracy and fascism. I am sure there was an element of adventurism for some of those who went, but they would not really be the same in my eyes as the RAF because of the different contexts.


8. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008


I don’t think there is much about them being anti-Semitic, though they are clearly anti-Israeli, and the Palestinian situation is mentioned repeatedly. I don’t think though it shows them condemning Jews as Jews in say Germany, nor does it use derogatory language about Jews the way Baader does repeatedly about women, at least not that I remember, though I may be wrong, but I think I would have been struck by them if they had.

I note you say they became anti-Semitic in the guise of anti-Zionism. I am sure this is true of some people, but I don’t think that opposition to the state of Israel, or its actions, has always been anti-Semitic (I say that as someone who believes in a two-state solution). I wouldn’t be inclined to make assumptions that Eichinger is dodging the issue of anti-Semitism, any more than the idea that he is trying to defend the DDR but not clearly demonstrating its links to the RAF, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.


9. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

Oh, and thanks for the info about Mahler. I didn’t know that. It might indeed say a lot about the bankruptcy of the whole project.


10. goodhardrant - December 1, 2008

No, anti-semitism and anti-zionism are certainly two different things, but given Mahler’s move to the far right I think it’s certainly worth considering – though he was effectively turfed out out the group by the 1980s due to his barmy politics. Israel is not a neutral state, by any means. However I do think there is a strain of anti-semitism in some, though definitely not all, of those groups associated with the BM and who emerged in the radicalism of the 1960s – the failed 1968 bombing of a Jewish Community centre on the anniversary of Kristallnact by ‘Tupamaros West Berlin’ (whose leader, like the BM crowd, was the son of a wealthy banker), for instance, or the ‘selection’ of Jewish and non-Jewish passengers on the Entebbe hi-jacking should give us pause.

It’s more that the slide toward something resembling anti-semitic enthusiasm shows how ideologically reactionary (I’m probably using this word somewhat sloppily, but what the heck) these guys were.


11. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

I agree that there is a strain of anti-semitism in some supposedly on the left, as instanced by the examples you give. Certainly I think we can argue that such things are objectively reactionary, and that the ideology and strategy of the RAF was an impediment to genuine political progress.

After I wrote this piece, I came across an academic paper via a link that Eamonn McDonagh put up in one of the places he blogs which discussed the phenomenon you are talking about around a new type of anti-semitism among the left in Germany. I found a lot of it unconvincing, and a smear attempt more than a serious discussion. It insisted that the RAF be seen as part of the communist movement of the C20th, and quoted the Black Book of Communism. That set alarm bells ringing.


12. Baader Meinhof Film Review « Garibaldy Blog - December 1, 2008

[…] Meinhof Film Review By Garibaldy I have posted a review of the Baader Meinhof Complex film over at Cedar Lounge Revolution. It discusses the film, and the […]


13. ejh - December 1, 2008

the people who went to Spain were going for what was clearly a struggle that involved the masses

Yes, that’s so: but firstly, in West Germany at the time there was no apparent struggle involving the masses, and secondly there was, apaprently, a struggle involving the masses on a much wider, worldwide scale. Or so it would have seemed to them. You or I might have said “well, where’s the organised working-class movement in that then?” but they might have replied that where they were, there might have been an organised working-class – but not one that was interested in struggle. Why would they have been wrong?

and was a genuine struggle between the forces of democracy and fascism.

Well, up to a point. There was a certain democratic deficit among some elements of the forces of democracy, as I recall.

via a link that Eamonn McDonagh put up

Spare us


14. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

I think you have described their mentality regarding a wider world-wide struggle very well. And certainly the working class in west Germany was not ready for revolutionary struggle. But that doesn’t mean that they were sensible in deciding to start one via terrorism, even in the context of the time.

As for Spain, I was going to say revolution and counter-revolution, but perhaps republicanism and fascism ought to have sprung to mind.


15. ejh - December 1, 2008

Not sure “sensible” and “late Sixties” fit together very well.


16. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

this is true. Apart from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association of course.


17. Dunne & Crescendo - December 1, 2008

I enjoyed the movie as an action film; I think that the female actors were considerably ‘sexed up’ compared to the real RAF activists though. I also thought that the RAF could not have survived without a pool of supporters, given the pressure they were under. Even some of the stuff they pulled off later on, like the attempt on the life of Alexander Haig (NATO commander in Europe) were hardly the stuff of ‘big spolit brats with guns.’ Mad, possibly, bad, maybe, but playing games? I think not.
There is a question of the RAF and similar groups and their development in the late 60s/early 70s that could do with some analysis. You had the Weather Underground coming out of SDS in the States, and the Black Liberation Army out of the splintering of the Black Panthers. In Italy famously the Red Brigades. In Spain, initally under the dictatorship, GRAPO. In France Action Directe. In Greece, am, I’ve forgotten November?
All similar, but all different in some key ways. The Red Brigades seem to have had a genuine base among some Italian workers for a while. Many of the Weathermen and some of the others I’d describe in classical Marxist terms as ‘wankers’. Most of them didn’t give a shite about the working class but there were objective and interesting reasons for their emergence.
If I recall correctly many orthodox communists condemned these groups for their terrorism and implied that the CIA were involved with them. As it transpires the DDR were involved to some degree with the RAF and the Palestinians were certainly happy to help all sorts of Euro-nutters (and the Japanese Red Army now that I think of it). Is there not an element of communist security services using these groups to cause disruption for their enemies?
Last but not least Horst Mahler is indeed a neo-Nazi now.


18. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008


You are right to say that these people were part of a broad swathe of movements in this period, though I think the situation under Franco is different from the rest, with the possible exception of Greece. I think really these groups were essentially the madder elements of the student movement. The Italian case was again slightly different, due to violence from the right too. The objective conditions they were part off I think say a lot about the failings of the New Left of the 1960s, both in its right and its left.

I think there was an element of trying to use these to tie up their enemies by certain states, but that was a clear mistake.


19. ejh - December 1, 2008

I think that everybody on the Left at the time was occupied with the question of what to do about the fact that the capitalist state (as theywould then have called it) had the potential and willingness to use enormous violence to protect itself, and that therefore (as they would then have concluded) it wold be necesary to use violence against that state.

I don’t think that at root any of this had much to do with romanticisation or desire for adventure, not least because if it had, more people would probably have got involved in it. I just think that people were grappling with a real problem and had a choice of inadequate means to deal with it: and some people made different choices to opthers. At the end of the day, if you have a crisis then somebody is going to say that there have to be actions rather than words and that somebody needs to take the first step rather than waiting for somebody else. And so they do, and before too long it ends up with tiny groups of people running around wondering which of their friends are police agents.

No, it’s not good, and of course our Marxist analyses would have told us to stay well clear of that sort of thing. Then again, our Marxist analyses told us a lot of things and a lot of them weren’t quite so obviously right.


20. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

Most of what you say there is very convincing EJH, but I don’t think we can separate the decision to be the first to take that step from issues of adventurism and the glorification of violence without a proper appreciation of its nature and consequences.


21. ejh - December 1, 2008

There’s another thing to ask which is – how many of these people were there? I mean, as a proportion of people who were on the left in Western Europe at the time? I think it was tiny. The number of people who were actually interested in pursuing this line of political work was miniscule.

Now of course there were a wider layer of supporters and it’s possible to quote polls saying that a larger number still “sympathised” with them, but “sympathy” is often a nebulous concept which is made to look rather more solid than it is, often for purposes of political guilt-by-association. Nevertheless really very, very few people got involved with this sort of stuff at a time when it really wouldn’t have been too hard for people to do, had they wanted it.

I remember finding it a little odd when Christopher Eccleston’s character in Our Friends In The North was portrayed as becoming involved in some sort of Maoist group for a brief period in the Seventies – you might recall his old man, Peter Vaughan, laying into him and shouting something about “hoying bombs at people”. Now I appreciate that this is more glamorous than becoming, say, Branch Secretary and Conference Delegate for the NUT, but Peter Flannery must know that the latter would have been a far more likely political option for a Seventies radical than throwing bombs was.


22. ejh - December 1, 2008

I don’t think we can separate the decision to be the first to take that step from issues of adventurism and the glorification of violence without a proper appreciation of its nature and consequences.

Well again, aren’t there some tu quoque points one could make here?


23. Dunne & Crescendo - December 1, 2008

I think whether or not you became an union branch secretary also depended on the particular circumstances and conditions that existed where you lived. You can’t separate the RAF from the 1960s ‘shadow of the Nazi state, what did my daddy really do in the war’ thing. As Garibaldy notes Italy in the early 70s was a very violent place, with bombings and assasinations by the far right as well as street fighting on a regular basis. I know there was plenty of street fighting in Britain in the 70s but nobody really suggested getting the guns out. remember the Notting Hill carnival in 1976? PC Plod were using dustbin lids as shields. Compare that to what the French and German cops had at hand in the 60s.


24. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

I think your number 21 ejh backs up my point. That the small numbers involved are suggestive of the unusual and extreme attitude to violence these people had. That’s the infantilism I’m talking about. There is a line in the film that sums up their stupidity perfectly from someone close to them, but I didn’t quote it as I’d prefer to leave it for people watching the film to see it, but it has the same message as the symbolism of the pistol against the armoured car.

On the tu quoque, (a) it’s lucky I know some Latin, and (b) I would like to be clear on what precisely you are referring to before I respond.


I agree that the RAF were the reductio ad absurdum of many legitimate critiques of the 1960s, as well as some of the sillier tendencies of that period.


25. ejh - December 1, 2008

but nobody really suggested getting the guns out.

Give or take Joe Strummer perhaps.


26. ejh - December 1, 2008

but nobody really suggested getting the guns out.

Give or take Joe Strummer perhaps.


27. ejh - December 1, 2008

That’s the infantilism I’m talking about.

I think it’s dubious to talk about “infantilism” where you’re talking about gus and bombs. I think the people wh oobtained and used them knew what they did. I see no obvious reason to thin kthey had a more heroic view of themselves than people wh osigned up for the International brigades and wrote songs and poems about it.

I would like to be clear on what precisely you are referring to before I respond.

Well, it seems to me clear that large parts of the traditional Communist movement had an insufficient amount of trouble with, say, the glorification of dictators or the operation of large-scale violence that killed many innocents. The sins of the Communists were, as ever, far greater (and since you mention the DDR in your post, I believe their soldiers and policement killed rather more people than the RAF ever managed).

Now there were a lot of people who thought they were facing the last fight and who made some dreadful judgements as a result. I’m prepared from a historical point of view to put these into the context of the knowledge and understanding that people had at the time. What I’m not prepared to do is do this for one set of people but not for another, or to judge one set of people as “infantile” but to excuse another set from that judgement because they thought they were acting as part of the world proletariat.


28. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

I see EJH. I wasn’t sure if that was what you meant or a reference to Ireland.

I am trying to judge the RAF’s action in context. I can see no sensible or plausible reason for them to have come to the conclusions they did, unlike, say the Jacobins in the 1790s or Franco in the 1930s. I might agree with one and not the other, but there were reasons for both that would make the application of violence seem reasonable. I don’t think that the application of violence by the RAF met the criterion of being reasonable.


29. Starkadder - December 1, 2008

Interesting post Garibaldy. I wonder if Cabaret Voltaire or Luke Haines’
songs about the B-M Gang might just be on the soundtrack?


30. ejh - December 1, 2008

Neither do I, but I think the same about the shooting of people trying to get over the Berlin Wall.

I really think the last paragraph of your review is asking for trouble on any number of grounds.


31. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

I have no idea if that music was on it, Starkadder, but from what I remember, it was mostly contemporary music.


I thought I’d throw in something on the politics of the overall thing at the end in the hope that it would provoke some debate.


32. WorldbyStorm - December 1, 2008

Garibaldy, one of the most interesting posts on the CLR in a while. Just thinking about the points Goodhardrant raises (incidentally I really like the Auteurs but I’ve never got around to that album) I hadn’t joined the dots, but I’d certainly agree with them that Downfall was a bit shallow about the structural aspects of Nazi anti-semitism and the Baader approach lent itself to running – counterintuitively – in a direction that became very anti-semitic.

ejh, I understand where you’re coming from, but I’d beg to differ with your conclusion. Whatever about their tools and outcomes being nowhere near playful, their programme and their approach was puerile. One can look at Spain in far too rosy a light (particularly from an orthodox CP viewpoint), but at least there was some prospect, as elsewhere subsequently around the globe, of shifting a societal direction generated by a coup d’etat by force of arms. The FRG was nowhere near that and no serious analysis then or now could make it so. I tend to hate the idea of self-hating, it’s usually used for all the wrong reasons, but in this case so much of the approach of B-M seems to have been just that, completely unable to see the wood for the trees.
And in that for me Baader Meinhof – perhaps contrary to your thoughts – was utterly middle class. Jim Monaghan puts it very well on this weeks Left Archive Thread… “The Northern [Irish] struggle arose out of a mass movement. It was based on a genuine upsurge, where the RAF had no links with real struggle.” It may well, in the North, have ended up in a grim place, but it was organic in a way that the B-M wasn’t. This was the personal made political, not through the daily grind of experience and repression but through the opposite – a sort of faux identification not with the working class but with an absolute idealisation of supposed revolutionary struggle. Forget whether they cleaved to a ‘Marxist’ viewpoint of whatever line (it’s a bit of a red herring to throw in the Berlin Wall, isn’t it?) and consider what they sought to achieve…

It reminds me of people I went to college with who given a push one way could have gone that route, given a push another way would wind up in commerce (as indeed happened). And all their stuff about the FRG being ‘fascist’. Jesus wept. While real workers were seeing the Social Democrat social contracts whittled away there and elsewhere by the much less exotic beast called conservatism (which to me explicates the entirely dismal outcome for them on a personal level in prison which in its own way was entirely tragic whatever their crimes).


33. Garibaldy - December 1, 2008

An easy thing to blog about WBS so good was the film. I seriously recommend it. I agree totally with your characterisation of the Baader Meinhof gang.


34. ejh - December 2, 2008

The FRG was nowhere near that and no serious analysis then or now could make it so.

I think you’re missing the point that to them, at that time, the world was in ferment: their little corner of it not, but there were armed movements against imperialism all over the planet. A great deal of political discussion on the far left at the time involved the observation of this fact, a comparison with more quiescent societies in Western Europe and a question as to how radicals within those latter societies could square that circle.

These were real dilemmas taking place in a real world. Now we can react to the bad choices that some people made by characterising them as puerile, or in general by psychopathologising people in a way which we would object to if somebody on the Right did so about the choices that we made in the Seventies and Eighties. Is that really wise? Moreover, is it reasonable? There seems to me to be something missing, when somebody says “well, their politics didn’t have anything to do with the organised working-class”, which is that they were aware of that, and they had a rationale for it, which was that the organised working-class weren’t presently interested in radical politics. That’s an argument, it was an argument at the time and it’s an argument now, and it seems to me that it should be taken as such.

Or, if we don’t want to do that, we must accept precisely the same when it comes to people who thought the IRA might force the Brits out of the North, or who thought that the Soviet Union might be an economic (or political) model to emulate, or indeed almost anything that was beyond the boundary of “iberal democracy and a mixed or market economy.

It’s bad politics and it’s also bad history: history isn’t about characterising people as psychologically deficient (or rather, proper history isn’t, though writing rightwing books for the applause of the righting press certainly is) but about discussing the decisions and choices, often bad ones, made by thinking adults.

You know Thompson’s phrase about “the enormous condescension of posterity” ? It doesn’t just apply to the deluded followers of Joanna Southcott two hundred years ago, it applies also to radicals who made some delusional choices thirty or forty years ago and ended up in some very bad places. We can either discuss them as historians do, or we can discuss them as aggressive Right do, in which case we can hardly complain when the same thing is done about ourselves, and our own bad choices, regardless of how attached we were to the organised working class.


35. Garibaldy - December 2, 2008

To say that people were adventurist or undeveloped in their politics is not automatically to enter into the language and practices of the aggressive Right, I would say (but then I would wouldn’t I?).

I don’t think I’ve been arguing that all of them were psychologically deficient, though I have been saying that some of them were clearly attracted to this type of activity for the wrong reasons.

I agree that we need to look at why they took the decisions they did. It seems to me that they fundamentally misjudged the nature of the crisis of the 1960s, and their own power to influence events. So in frustration they turned to terrorism. I don’t think to say that that decision was the result of inadequate ideology and in some cases of inadequate ability to deal with life’s stresses is the same as we could expect from, say, Francois Furet or Niall Ferguson had they written about these people.


36. Garibaldy - December 2, 2008

Just to add to that last post, I think the film clearly portrays Meinhof as different than Baader in that respect – as I tried to say in the review, the process by which Meinhof was radicalised is very well presented, and makes her decision to go underground seem not unreasonable, whereas Baader is portrayed as someone excited by violence, and others are protrayed as motivated by the harshness of their lives as young people in state care.


37. ejh - December 2, 2008

I think a lot of people probably reacted to their activities in the Sixties by saying something like “my God, we were just kids who didn’t know what we were doing!” and to some extent this is probably true – and mercifully few of them ended up doing so from the inside of a prison cell. I suppose I feel that I don’t there should be an overreaction here. Yes there were many absurdities and stupidities engaged in (and supported) in the Sixties but none of them them were quite so absurd or stupid as the Vietnam War and I’m not sure that I want to judge Baader-Meinhoff or Bill Ayers on different criteria to those I’d use to judge Robert Macnamara, though as personalities I prefer the latter two to the first two.

I’m also desperately suspicious of hindsight – and to a degree it’s hindsight even if we (quite rightly) pointed out that many other leftists insisted on the stupidity and futility of this road at the time.

I suppose I might also link it to the experience in NI. There must be plenty of people from the Six Counties – perhaps even people reading this blog – who thought about picking up the gun and decided not to, and have been relieved about their decision ever since. But they thought about it all the same. (Yes, I know PIRA was in many respects a different sort of thing to RAF, but you know what I mean nevertheless.) I suppose I think that “there but for the grace of God go I” is far from the worst perspective to approach these things.


38. ejh - December 2, 2008

I should say I don’t want to deny that there may often be elements of glamorisation or even love of violence in people who were attracted to this kind of thing – although of course I’d observe that the same may well be true of people who join the regular armed forces and who like looking good in uniform. I wouldn’t deny the role of psychology and hidden motives in politics (I wonder, for instance, how extensive inthe formation of socialist ideas is the theme of resentment of one’s father?) but while perhaps valuable as a means for discussing particular, well-studied individuals, I’m sceptical about its merits as a means of characterising whole groups.


39. Garibaldy - December 2, 2008

Have you seen the Macnamara documentary? I forget its name now, but it is excellent, and well worth hunting out if you haven’t seen it. His encounter with the Vietnamese Foreign Minister I think it is shows just how ridiculous the US involvement in Vietnam was.

The NI thing is I think relevant here, but not necessarily in the way you suggest for everybody reading here, though no doubt it is for some. Having been in a society where terrorism – albeit of a different order in terms of scale and support as Jim said – was an option, and rejected it, it might give a tendency to feel less sympathetic to the RAF. More sort of what a bunch of idiotic halfwits rather than there but for the grace of God go I.


40. ejh - December 2, 2008

It might. There will be all saorts of reactions, as many as there are people in that situation. But even so you see my point. People making choices. I was never asked (or in a position) to make any choices like that and I’m profoundly glad about that.

The Macnamara documentary is The Fog of War. It’s top stuff and if you don’t like the guy long before the end then I think you’re missing something. But he never ended up shooting himself in the back of the head, nor writing mea culpa pieces for the Sundays.


41. Joe - December 2, 2008

ejh: (I wonder, for instance, how extensive inthe formation of socialist ideas is the theme of resentment of one’s father?)

Japers, EJH, you may be on to something here. My da was a Haughey FF nationalist, I’m a rabid FF hating two nationist. I’m afraid to ask my 18 yr old young lad what he thinks. Very afraid.


42. skidmarx - December 2, 2008

There is a song called Ulrike on the Chumbawamba album “Slap”, on the sleeve there is a quote by Astrid Proll going something like “I sometimes wonder what would have happened to her if she’d survived.. she might be a Green MP by now.”


43. ejh - December 2, 2008

Ah, I was wondering if my mention of “the Sundays” might evoke that memory in anyone, since I lifted it from that very song.


44. Dunne & Crescendo - December 2, 2008

How irrational were some of the RAF’s actions? The US was bombing North Vietnam. The US had bases in Germany. Marching and picketing was not stopping the bombing. Why not bomb those bases? They did that and coused casualties, in their view I suppose, the waging of the war of the Third World in the First, make one, two, many Vietnams etc. Loads of high up West German police and government officals had Nazi pasts so why not make their lives difficult?
Now I don’t buy the RAF’s politics and dislike a lot of their members and actions but there is some logic to their campaign.


45. Garibaldy - December 2, 2008

Sure there was logic to what they were doing. But there is logic to the threat against community workers last week in the New Lodge. It’s still politically bankrupt and ineffectual. Blowing up a US base during Vietnam can be seen as rational at one level as you say. But does that mean the camapign itself was rational? Not necessarily. Surely the application of violence is only ever rational in the right cricumstances?


46. ejh - December 2, 2008

Isn’t the phrase “politically bankrupt”, by now, politically bankrupt?


47. Garibaldy - December 2, 2008

I quite like it but.


48. WorldbyStorm - December 2, 2008

ejh, in some ways I think we’re a lot closer in our viewpoints than you seem to think. I certainly agree, trying to psychopathologise them is pointless (although sometimes such a critique is useful). I think the explanation is a lot simpler (incidentally it’s you who brings in issues as regards fathers, children and politics 🙂 ). The significance of stupidity (and here I mean it in the sense that clever people can be very stupid often) in human affairs is often understated.

They had a rather stupid worldview. There’s not a lot more to be said about it other than that worldview, or rather the way they attempted to integrate it into their actions, was ultimately murderous. Their ‘Marxism’ appears to have been almost a sham, certainly not very deep one way or another. One could argue that they were missing the point. Their little part of the world wasn’t into ferment, as you note. Quiescence isn’t fascism. Quiescence is many many other things. Some good some bad. A bit of quiescence over Iraq would have been vastly preferable to activism. And these are precisely the same charges we keep hearing from the right, that to not intervene in Iraq was a symbol of our supposed decadence, etc. That our societies were and are in thrall to Islam, etc, etc.

Re the North and the USSR. Well, one can take any of your examples and at least make a half-way decent case that at some point in recentish history for those living through a time such actions or support as you describe might have made rational sense. But overthrowing the FRG with thirty people? Or hoping that that would inspire others to rise up? Or that their actions would impact on the Vietnam war in any serious way? This was hardly a serious ‘strategy of tension’. It was hardly serious except for the protagonists and those who they saw as adversaries.


49. ejh - December 3, 2008

Well, the strategy of starting a guerilla war somewhere and hoping that other people would join in was more highly thought of then than it is now. They might have looked to Cuba or to a number of other Latin American countries as a model.


50. skidmarx - December 3, 2008

I’ve just seen an Anarchist Federation sticker saying “You don’t have to be a pilot to die in the RAF”. As I am reminded by Dunne & Crescendo that it is the agents of state terror who do far more damage. During the Mumbai massacre one BBC reporter described the city as being in the grip of terror. Actually, if you’re out of the line of fire it is far less terrifying than being bombed by a conventional airforce. As Tom Lehrer put it # The widows and cripples of Old London Town, owe their large pensions to Werner von Braun # .

I think one of the best arguments against individual terrorism is the McWhirter Principle – kill one right-wing scumbag and an identical twin pops up in his place.


51. ejh - December 3, 2008

Well, also, you don’t really want self-appointed people deciding that they have can have people executed. There is at very least a large element of accountability in the decisions made by actors within a modern democratic state, however limited that accountability and that democracy may be.


52. Ken MacLeod - December 3, 2008

Re the point raised by skidmarx @50: does anyone know if there’s any truth in the claim I’ve seen somewhere that the Baader-Meinhof group took a name with the initials ‘RAF’ as a friendly nod to the memory of other RAF, the Royal Air Force, who also bombed Germany? The strange leftist current called ‘anti-German’ demonstrated around the Dresden bombing anniversary with RAF roundels (and US, UK, Soviet and Israeli flags) and slogans like ‘Thank you Mr Harris!’


53. Starkadder - December 3, 2008

That’s interesting, Ken. Were the “anti-German” group actually based in


54. WorldbyStorm - December 3, 2008

ejh, couldn’t agree more with your thoughts re comment number 51.

The anti-Germans… that rings a bell…


55. Ken MacLeod - December 3, 2008

Starkadder – yes, they’re a current of the German far left some of whose elements evolved from Maoism, I think. Their main point of contention with the (rest of) the Left is that they are implacably pro-Israel.


56. WorldbyStorm - December 3, 2008

That’s some journey they’ve taken then… But I guess a subsequent question would be whether they’re two-statist, or are they de facto pro-Israeli govt… which is not quite the same thing…at least in my book.


57. WorldbyStorm - December 3, 2008

Although checking out wiki I see that they managed to be both pro-Israeli and pro-Serb government (during 1999). That’s an interesting amalgam.


58. Ken MacLeod - December 4, 2008

I read as much about them as I could find online in English a while ago and have no intention of going there again, so I may be missing some nuances, but from what I recall they were and are in total solidarity with Israel, ‘the armed community of Holocaust survivors’.

They also have a more interesting argument that much leftist and Green anti-capitalism is ‘structurally antisemitic’ in that it sides with ‘productive’ and ‘national’ and ‘organic’ and ‘local’ capital against ‘transnational’ ‘financial’ ‘decadent’ (etc) capital, i.e. with blood and soil against rootless cosmopolitanism.

Being pro-Serb makes sense if they see the Croats and Bosnian Muslims as the inheritors of the Ustashe and Bosnian SS in WW2. Which I suspect they do.


59. D.J.P. O'Kane - December 4, 2008

Isn’t it just an accident of history that Green parties are assumed to be (in whatever vague way) ‘on the left’?

Certainly, the Irish Greens never made any such pretence.


60. Garibaldy - December 4, 2008


I think you’re right about that.


61. sonofstan - December 4, 2008

Just back from seeing it. Wish I’d taken my daughter with me, just to see how it looked from a younger persons perspective, one who didn’t live through the 70s
I take the point in the original piece about their confused and superficial politics as portrayed in the movie but i think it must have been an over- simplification – more detail on Meinhof’s thought would have been welcome. Conversely, the scene in Jordan, where Left internationalism (in this instance) proves as arrogant as its capitalist counterpart rang true – it’s easy to forget how pervasive the casual assumption of western superiority was then, and Baader’s contempt for the ‘camel- driver’ (who happens to be fighting a real war) certainly situates in its time, just like the rather overbearing insistence on everybody smoking all the time.

Baader as Butch Cassidy/ Jean-Paul Belmondo is just unbelievable – at one point when he pulls a balalclava over his face preparatory to a bank raid you wonder why he bothers, given that he’s wearing his trademark biker jacket (he wears it in the desert too…..).

The most interesting thing about the RAF is the near gender equality in their leadership and the composition of the commandos, and this isn’t teased out nearly enough – the women are shown as the brains, the guys as the swaggering outlaw brawn, but it can’t have been that simple.


62. Garibaldy - December 4, 2008


You’ve already had a younger person’s perspective 🙂

I’m sure you are right that there was oversimplification of their politics, but I’m not convinced from listening to their words quoted in the film and reading around it since that there was that gross an oversimplification.

I thought that Baader came across as the dominant military figure, with Ensslin as his joint but junior commander.


63. sonofstan - December 4, 2008

Not just an oversimplification of their politics, but of the politics of the GDR as a whole; if you didn’t know, would it be possible to guess from the film that Germany was then divided? that there was real existing socialism (or ‘socialism’) a mile away from where the demo against the Shah took place? I guess a German audience wouldn’t need to be told, and I’m sure much of the incidental detail was lost on me. Still…..

The more I think about, the less impressed i am by the portrayal of Baader – its like his bits are directed by Oliver Stone…..(driving to Darmstadt in a stolen Merc with The Who blaring and shooting off guns randomly…..come on). So much so that the bit in the end where he spells out the distance the 2nd/3rd gen. RAF have travelled, it sits oddly with the excitable hoodlum portrayed up till then.

All that said, i did enjoy it, and it didn’t feel a wasted afternoon.


64. Starkadder - December 4, 2008

D.J. P. O’Kane:

“Certainly, the Irish Greens never made any such pretence.”

Reading a “Journey to Change”, I was dismayed to find out that not only was Christopher Fettes an admirer of some English Tory thinker
(H J Massingham? Major Douglas? I can’t remember) but that the
Irish Green Party pushed the stupid slogan of “We are neither left nor right but in front”. You CAN’T be “neither left nor right” by definition.

Still, it might explain why the Greens have completely sold out.


65. Garibaldy - December 4, 2008

I think SoS what you are saying is true. Wouldn’t really disagree. Which is unfortunate as saying that is as satisfying as writing an objecting comment.


66. WorldbyStorm - December 4, 2008

Of course you could make an argument that the distorted Marxism of whatever variety one wishes to ascribe to B-M was in part a reflection *of* the existence of the GDR. That route was closed so they took a different path. It’s not quite the same but I often think libertarianism in the US is a sort of distortion within an overwhelmingly centre right polity. People aren’t going to go left so they go right.

Ken, that makes perfect sense. A pity they’re so uncompromisingly unwilling (the Anti-Germans) to see the problematic aspects of a total identification with Israel – and I say that as a two nationist.


67. D. J. P. O'Kane - December 15, 2008

I finally saw this on saturday night, and don’t have much to add to the foregoing, except to say that I agree that it’s an excellent film.

One (slightly tangential?) point I’d make is that it was refreshing to see a film about the 1960s/70s which was free from the nostalgic rubbish that usually accompanies depictions of that era.


68. Joe - December 16, 2008

and I say that as a two nationist.

Welcome aboard WBS. I knew you’d see the light sooner rather than later. (Insert winking smiley). Happy Christmas.


69. The Ironies of History « Garibaldy Blog - June 6, 2009

[…] Ironies of History By Garibaldy Back last November, I posted up a review of the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex on Cedar Lounge Revolution. An excellent film it was too, […]


70. Garibaldy - August 26, 2011

Interesting looking documentary on RAF and Japanese Red Army flagged up on the Guardian



71. RepublicanSocialist1798 - October 26, 2011

Sry I looked at the title of the post and burst out laughing.

Good review btw.


72. Pancho Villa - October 27, 2011

The shooting of the student was done by a Statsi double agent as it turned out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl-Heinz_Kurras


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