The Baader-Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust

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The Baader-Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The definitive – and then some – look at the Red Army Faction of terrorists, in Germany in the 1970s. You could not hope to better this for documentary detail, and the style and depth allow the layman to become impressively immersed and educated.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: November 2008
Publisher: The Bodley Head Ltd
ISBN: 978-1847920454

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There are not that many non-fiction books in translation concerning vaguely-remembered foreign terrorist gangs that become eminently faithful, successful and dramatic cinema films, for the simple reason that it would be impossible to make such movies from the great majority of such books. Here, though, it comes across as seeming almost easy.

The Baader Meinhof Gang that terrorised what was West Germany in the 1970s was borne of a most singular sense of frustration. America was becoming ever more vicious in the Vietnam War, and as host to many USA bases in Cold War Europe, Germany was seen by at least some within as imperialist, fascist toadies. A select band saw the generation they were going to university with as being constantly betrayed by the one above it, that should have had a sterling impetus given what Germany had been through in WWII to change her society, and, allegedly, had done nothing.

There was never a singular cause as to what formed a gang of terrorists, on a date when Andreas Baader was sprung by friends and colleagues from captivity, having been sentenced for arson. The influences that led several of the criminals to join together are equally diverse, and in some cases just indecipherable, but as well as they can be they are included in this volume. And despite the propaganda and mission statements put into the public domain by well-known left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof, at times the intent was certainly woolly.

The history of the seven years of main activity are superbly put down here, in a book which wears the fact that its author was privy to some of the protagonists and events by first-hand knowledge exceedingly well. It also conveys a shattering spread of detail, with copious dialogues reported courtesy of what must amount to months of interview, and acres of archived source material.

Despite the name given to the group (who called themselves the Red Army Faction), it is clear the female lead was never Meinhof, but Baader's partner, Gudrun Ensslin, who is quoted as saying we have nothing to prove, but something to say. There was certainly a coldness about the whole operation, from the way more than one member was seemingly able to forsake a life partnership and even their children for the sake of going underground, to the dismissal via bored-sounding apology when civilians were caught in bomb blasts, and when kidnappings went fatally wrong.

The history of the Faction is fascinating in its minutiae. This was a group of young Germans who became very successful – to some extent – with what they were doing. However they also sent munitions, forgery blanks for ID documents, and purloined uniforms to each other in bodged parcels that leaked and showed all to the authorities. Meinhof, while training, pulled the pin from a live grenade, held both, and practically asked 'what happens next?'. One member took it upon himself to help with a second, more daring jail break, by building himself his own helicopter.

Clear, strong, implacable, determined… – the aims of the personalities at the forefront of the Red Army Faction, who never, it seemed, caught the irony of how that must have sounded to the people they decided were letting the country down a generation beyond Nazi rule. And how was that nation treating them? With all seriousness, given the huge efforts in capturing them. One day at least the entire country was subject to complete gridlock as roadblocks were formed. Civilians cheered and waved on the helicopter police monitoring the checkpoints.

And more irony – if the Gang members saw a police state as crunching down on them and their fellows, there certainly was one in place come the end of their reign of terror – built up with them and some other collectives in mind. When the RAF leaders are finally rounded up and put on trial together, again we see details to make this book even more stunning in its comprehensive documentation. The first trial judge, who seems utterly inept given the amount of filibustering he allowed the four defendants to get away with (I understood you to call me a dirty bastard; did I hear that correctly? – oh how I wish I could quote the meatier exchanges in that conversation), was sacked for tapping up the senior judge who would look over any possible appeal hearing. And come imprisonment, what's with the telecommunications equipment and dissident literature let in and out of their cells, not to mention the guns smuggled in?

This unmistakeably is a definitive volume. It looks an overly hefty chunk of dryness, but with the help of short chaptering, and an approachable reportage throughout, it reads superbly well. Those chapters do make the beginning a bit scattershot – trendily starting with the end, then the end of the beginning, then the rest – but the flow is soon allowed to settle down and give us what we needed to know, and a whole lot more besides.

And that is not to say that the book is a surfeit of detail, for I say again it is with such a forensic look at what went on that the reader is immersed so absolutely in those times. Ensslin refused to cooperate for the mug-shot photographer, until she was tickled about the neck, and only then finally looked up.

I don't want to hark on the trivial such as that when the RAF were definitely doing heinous things through Germany and beyond. From just a few agitators and their (anti-)political thoughts sprang with remarkable ease a gang of people living underground, who were able equally easily to go for guerrilla training with Palestinian terrorists (one of whom, to further the global picture, was fresh from being lethally active in London). The gang left behind a much-changed country, in a very different world, and many bereaved.

The book lacks nothing – although I would prefer double the pictures included – until the end. The historian would call for a clue-in to what the Germany of 2009 thinks of the RAF, but only once does Stefan Aust allow himself any hint of judgement, when at the last gasp he declares the Gang's output (not incorrectly) as madness. Despite that omission – or indeed because of it – this book remains a timeless look at a particular piece of world history. It has been updated due to interviews and revealed sources that came to light only throughout 2007, and it is obvious to anybody that to best this volume would be an undertaking beyond all.

It is not only Aust who has worked supremely well to bring this to us – he dates his preface August 2008, and within four months my review copy was in my hands, translated superbly by Anthea Bell. Nothing feels rushed about this current edition, however, and with this and the film fresh in my mind the clear outcome is how expert I feel about something I knew very little of, just a month ago. Yet you don't need to wish to become so thoroughly well-informed to get a lot from this so learned and so entertaining of history books.

For those interested in turning next to the film version, or using it as a shorter primer to the subject, I can easily compare it to Spielberg's Munich. Both share very common ground in how they recreate the 1970s, cast no judgement on meaty political events, and end without forcing any conclusions down our throat.

We at the Bookbag must thank Bodley Head for our review copy.

If this book appeals to you then we think you might also enjoy The Wonga Coup by Adam Roberts.

Booklists.jpg The Baader-Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust is in the Top Ten Books For Slightly Geeky People.

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