Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Why the Red Army Faction Matters

Projectiles for the PeopleThe Red Army Faction, A Documentary History - Volume 1: Projectiles For the People by André Moncourt and J. Smith, with forewords by Bill Dunne and Russell "Maroon" Shoats
  • $34.95 from left-wing books dot net
  • Paperback book
  • 736 pages
  • Published by Kersplebedeb and PM Press in 2009
  • ISBN 9781604860290

It is of immense importance that the soldier, high or low, whatever rank he has, should not have to encounter in War those things which, when seen for the first time, set him in astonishment and perplexity; if he has only met with them one single time before, even by that he is half acquainted with them. This relates even to bodily fatigues. They should be practiced less to accustom the body to them than the mind. In War the young soldier is very apt to regard unusual fatigues as the consequence of faults, mistakes, and embarrassment in the conduct of the whole, and to become distressed and despondent as a consequence. This would not happen if he had been prepared for this beforehand by exercises in peace.
- Carl von Clausewitz, On War

A couple of years ago i visited San Francisco to table at the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair, which was a somewhat disappointing experience - however, the bonus of any such trip is the chance to meet with comrades and colleagues who you otherwise only know via email.

So it was in this way that after the bookfair i found myself out with some folks from AK Press drinking beer. Talk turned to work and future publishing plans, and on the walk back to the subway someone asked me why today's radicals would be interested in reading about the Red Army Faction - West Germany's iconic Cold War urban guerillas, and the subjects of a book i had vague plans to publish.

I remember being at somewhat of a loss. In fact, if memory serves, i think i admitted to not knowing why anyone would want to learn about the RAF, or why they should. Not the best pitch, i admit, but at the time the whole "book about the RAF" thing was something i felt ambivalent about - not only did the project seem daunting and the group's writings somewhat unintelligible, but i didn't really like what i thought i knew about them in the first place, the impression i had being of an authoritarian bunch of Germans with pretensions of historical grandeur. Not like we haven't seen enough of that before...

It's now a couple of years later, and I have just received twenty odd cases of Projectiles for the People, the first of what will be a multi-volume series about the RAF. If, in 2007, i had doubts about how this project could be either interesting or relevant, today i am firmly convinced of its importance. Indeed, my own opinion of the RAF was at first challenged and then completely overturned by authors Moncourt and Smith's work, which not only places the guerillas in their proper historical context, but also provides a crash course on postwar Germany and its New Left from a radical anticapitalist perspective.

So what happened? Well, first off - surprise, surprise - it turns out a lot of what i "knew" about the guerillas was just wrong. While the state and media lie about all revolutionaries, they seem to have really gone into overdrive about the Red Army Faction, to the point that it soon stopped being shocking and became funny, and has now stopped being funny and has simply become expected. One only has to look at the blather that's been written about the group over the past year, and it becomes clear that some journalists are still willing and able to just make it up when in need of new material.

This is the legacy of the state's psychological warfare campaign against the RAF, a campaign very similar to the FBI's COINTELPRO. The West German experience involved many "false flag actions" - threatened or actual attacks, generally against civilians, blamed on the guerilla but most likely carried out by the far right or government secret services. It also involved a constant stream of media stories personalizing the guerilla's politics, making it all a matter of unbalanced individuals with crazy ideas and unhealthy interpersonal dynamics. This psychological campaign reached its crescendo around the deaths of RAF members in prison, which the state insisted were suicides, even though compelling evidence existed to suggest that they were in fact murdered.

Even a liberal author like Jeremy Varon, whose book Bringing the War Home attempts to explain where the RAF was coming from, ends up presenting a misleading story marred by his own liberal bias, which requires him to dismiss much of the group's politics without properly grappling with them on their own terms. This shouldn't be surprising, given that when Varon wrote his book hardly any of the RAF's own documents were available to English readers.

What's even more problematic, as Moncourt and Smith explain, is that for years the English translations of RAF documents that were available were of a very uneven quality, and some were downright atrocious. From their "Translators' Note":

In no few cases, segments of the original text were found to be missing from the available translations. It was also not uncommon to encounter what might best be called transliteration—the translator “adjusted” concepts to suit the milieu for which he or she was translating the document. The end result of this latter phenomenon was often, however unintentional, the ideological distortion of the original document—usually only slight in nature, but occasionally egregious. Perhaps the oddest thing we encountered on more than a few occasions was the existence of accretions in the translated documents we referred to; usually only a phrase or a sentence or two, but occasionally entire paragraphs.
Given this status quo ante, the publication of all of the RAF's communiqués and theoretical documents (up until 1977) in Projectiles for the People is of value simply because it corrects and completes the historical record. Countering some of the bias in extant accounts, Moncourt and Smith also devote significant space to examining the deaths of RAF prisoners, showing that despite claims to the contrary there is no reasonable basis for insisting that these were suicides and not executions.

But for radicals, i would argue, the value of Projectiles for the People goes far beyond this. It's worth quickly looking at some of this story's themes, to tease out some political threads, in order to explain why.

In two introductory chapters Moncourt and Smith take us through the quarter century after the Second World War, showing how a political alliance between U.S. imperialism and the German middle and upper classes guaranteed the continuity of key elements of the Nazi state. Moncourt and Smith quote William D. Graf to the effect that:
Almost all the representatives of big business labeled as war criminals by the American Kilgore Commission in 1945 were back in their former positions by 1948; and of roughly 53,000 civil servants dismissed on account of their Nazi pasts in 1945, only about 1,000 remained permanently excluded, while the judiciary was almost 100% restored as early as 1946.
Little surprise that before the New Left revolt of the 60s/70s, West Germany was an intensely conservative society, one where parents were still criminally liable if they allowed their children to spend the night together before the age of 21, where students could be expelled from university for interrupting a lecture, and where corporal punishment was routinely resorted to throughout the school system. Radical opposition faced constant repression, the Communist Party of Germany being banned in 1956 and its leadership imprisoned, while throughout the fifties and early sixties, over ten thousand cases of "treason" were brought before the courts.

This was the world that most future RAF guerillas grew up in, the world they were revolting against. When the so-called "Auschwitz trials" in the early sixties shone light on what had actually happened during the Holocaust - a subject that had been taboo, effectively hushed up in polite German society before then - this combined with revulsion at imperialism's ongoing crimes in the Third World to instill the New Left with a real sense of urgency and determination. Just as Jim Crow discredited America even in the eyes of many of its white children, the older German generation’s participation in genocide discredited them in the eyes of many German youth.

Moncourt and Smith document this evolution in terms of the wider West German left and the other radical tendencies that also opted for armed politics. Groups like the anarchist 2nd of June Movement and the autonomist Revolutionary Cells weave themselves in and out of the narrative, showing how the movement could field different organizations with their own tactics and strategies, all within an overarching worldview that took the need for revolution as a given.

So far so good, but you may still be wondering what's so special? After all, within white North America there were also several armed groups, ranging from the Weather Underground to the George Jackson Brigade and the United Freedom Front, and including smaller ad hoc outfits which proved themselves willing to engage in armed struggle. A very widely quoted figure from Scanlan's magazine in 1970 reported hundreds of acts of sabotage and violence in the united states as part of the campaign against the Vietnam War. This figure does not refer to those armed actions that took place in the context of the national liberation struggles which rocked North America at the time, anticolonial insurgencies of Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Indigenous peoples that constituted the main revolutionary fronts on this continent. In Canada, it is worth remembering that an armed organization fighting for an independent and socialist Quebec - the FLQ - was stamped out not only by social democracy and its own contradictions, but also by the imposition of martial law, tanks in the streets, and predawn raids in October 1970, which saw hundreds of Quebec nationalists and progressives incarcerated as political prisoners.

So why is the RAF worth learning about, why are these voices from so far away worth listening to?

First off, it is certainly also worth learning about what happened here, and much work remains to be done documenting these North American movements. This is all the more pressing, as many remain in prison after all these decades for the part they played in the liberation struggles of the day. For instance, even after almost forty years behind bars comrades like Jalil Muntaqim and Herman Bell are not only consistently denied parole, but are now being dragged through the courts to face new charges dating back to the early seventies. Showing how the system’s thirst for blood can never be quenched, only appeased or resisted.

But it is important to recognize that this is not a case of either/or, and that the RAF was not completely separate from what was happening here. Certainly there were major differences - political, historical, cultural - between the situation in West Germany and that in North America, but all these people saw themselves as part of a global struggle against a worldwide capitalist system led by U.S. imperialism. For all these groups, Vietnam was a reference point, and for all these groups, an awareness of each others activities and goals served as inspiration.

Secondly, the RAF differs from most North American armed organizations in the number of documents it produced, not only analyzing imperialism and capitalism and the historical circumstances the organization found itself in, but also examining its own struggle, the specifics of its actions and the broader meaning of these actions in the lives of its members, and for the left. In these documents, the guerillas laid out ideas and strategies regarding not only Germany and Vietnam, but also alienation, subjectivity, and the hard choices revolutionaries must face. These contributions retain their relevance today.

What emerges from the RAF's documents - all translated here for the first time - is a subtle, nuanced, and realistic strategy that embraced the complexity of the German situation, the tragedy of being revolutionaries in a society in which revolution was not likely, at least in the short term. As they put it in their founding manifesto, "The RAF’s urban guerilla concept is not based on an optimistic evaluation of the situation in the Federal Republic and West Berlin."

The guerilla did not envision "victory" in the sense of seizing power or precipitating revolution all by themselves, but rather saw its actions as a requirement of the broader revolutionary struggle. Indeed, the impression one gets is that the RAF’s goal - at least initially - was to complement the aboveground left, to support it and be supported by it in turn. This view is repeated time and again in early statements:
If the red army is not simultaneously built, then all conflict, all the political work carried out in the factories and in Wedding and in the Märkisch neighborhood and at Plötze [women's prison] and in the courtrooms is reduced to reformism; which is to say, you end up with improved discipline, improved intimidation, and improved exploitation. That destroys the people, rather than destroying what destroys the people!
(Build the Red Army!, 1970)

Some say that the political possibilities of organization, agitation, and propaganda are far from being exhausted, and only when they have been exhausted should one consider armed struggle. We say that the political possibilities will not be fully utilized until armed struggle is recognized as the political goal, as long as the strategic conclusion that all reactionaries are paper tigers is not grasped despite the tactical conclusion that they are criminals, murderers, and exploiters.
(The Urban Guerilla Concept, 1971)

When we build the revolutionary guerilla, we are creating an instrument that is beyond the reach of the system’s repression, that does not depend on the system’s tolerance for its capacity to act, that does not have its room to maneuver determined by the Verfassungsshutz [secret police].
(Statement to the Red Aid Teach-In, 1972)

For the first few years that it existed, the RAF's main priority seems to have been avoiding arrest, surviving underground, and developing their capacity to act. Apart from bank robberies, the group's only "actions" during this period were deadly firefights with police, who had adopted a "shoot first and ask questions later" attitude. (Indeed, unarmed innocent bystanders were killed by police in these years precisely because the cops would sometimes shoot on the mere suspicion that they had spotted members of the guerilla.)

In 1972, the group moved to a new level. At the May Day demonstrations that year, supporters handed out copies of the RAF's second major theoretical manifesto, Serve the People: the Urban Guerilla and Class Struggle, a document that attempted to grapple with the realities of class in West Germany and how this related to the anti-imperialist revolutions in the Third World. Again, the armed struggle was posed as central to the work that must be done:
We’re not saying it will be easy to build the guerilla, or that the masses are just waiting for the opportunity to join the guerilla. However, we do, above all, believe that the situation will not change by itself [...] We believe that the guerilla will develop, will gain a foothold, that the development of the class struggle will itself establish the idea of armed struggle only if there is already an organization in existence conducting guerilla warfare, an organization that is not easily demoralized, that does not simply lie down and give up.
(Serve the People: the Urban Guerilla and Class Struggle, 1972)
Shortly after releasing this document, the group went into action. On May 11, a RAF commando bombed the U.S. Army V Corps headquarters and the site of the National Security Agency in Frankfurt - three blasts went off, killing a Lieutenant Colonel and injuring thirteen others. The next day two police buildings were bombed in the cities of Munich and Augsburg, as payback for the deaths of guerillas at the hands of the Bavarian police. Bombs would continue to go off throughout the month, targeting a right-wing newspaper chain, a judge who presided over RAF trials, and another U.S. military base, this time killing three soldiers.

One of the chief merits of Moncourt and Smith's treatment of these bombings is that they place them within the context of the ongoing imperialist massacre in Vietnam, and the debates occurring within the West German New Left at the time. This was clearly what was important to the RAF itself, as shown by a tape recorded statement Ulrike Meinhof sent to a teach-in organized by the political prisoner support group Red Aid, at the end of May.

Dialogue with the left remained a priority for the guerilla. While this conversation may not have always been polite, the relationship between the RAF and other revolutionaries is one of the most interesting themes in Projectiles, one which belies the claim by many authors that the guerilla was uninterested in reaching out to others. Indeed, this is a story punctuated by demonstrations, protests, one-off bombings and riots, all carried out by others in support of the RAF, or at least against the repression the guerilla faced.

For most of those involved, the 1972 "May Offensive," as it came to be known, proved to be both the first and last series of attacks of its kind. Thousands of cops were mobilized and, on the first day of June, several leading members of the RAF - Andreas Baader, Holger Meins, Jan-Carl Raspe - were cornered and apprehended in Munich. As the police pressed on with their hunt, more and more guerillas were captured, and plans for future actions had to be called off, as the organization found itself almost entirely wiped out.

If this were the end of the story, i would still say it was worth checking out. This "first generation" of the Red Army Faction included many seasoned activists who had spent years organizing legally in the student movement, the antiwar movement, and various anarchist, socialist, and communist organizations. Ulrike Meinhof was a leading intellectual of her day, as well as having formerly been a secret member of the banned Communist Party. Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin were well known members of the West Berlin scene, and enjoyed the status of folk heroes for having firebombed two department stores to protest the Vietnam War. In the 1960s, Horst Mahler had been the most high-profile political lawyer in West Berlin. (He would later be kicked out of the RAF, and finally decades later would reinvent himself as a neo-nazi and Holocaust denier.)

With this solid basis in the movement, the early RAF's texts resonate with debates that have not been resolved to this day. While predictably concerned with armed struggle, they also grapple with questions of political agency, of how to relate to Third World movements, and of what kind of organization is best suited to revolution in the First World. They are well-written, articulate explanations of how the guerillas saw their struggle, and if few readers will agree with them completely, i am sure many could benefit from their study.

But this is not the only reason this story is of interest.

Unlike most armed movements in North America, the RAF managed to survive the arrests of all its key members following the May Offensive.

As Moncourt and Smith reveal, the West German state pioneered various forms of "clean torture" in an effort to break the captured guerillas and force them to recant. The goal here was to use the prisoners against the revolutionary movement, by pushing them to publicly admit they were wrong, or else by messing them up so badly that they appeared insane.

This ongoing campaign against the guerillas took the form of isolation imprisonment. Prisoners were separated from the general population, allowed limited or no visits, and had their mail routinely intercepted. In many cases, entire prison wings were emptied so there was no possibility of even calling out to others through the bars.

In some cases this isolation was taken even further, amounting to sensory deprivation. RAF members Astrid Proll and Ulrike Meinhof were both subjected to this then-experimental form of torture in Cologne prison. As Moncourt and Smith tell us:
The cell was lit twenty-four hours a day with a single bald neon light. It was forbidden for the prisoner to hang photographs, posters, or anything else on the walls. All other cells in the wing were kept vacant, and when other prisoners were moved through the prison—for instance, to the exercise yard—they were obliged to take a circuitous route so that even their voices could not be heard. The only minimal contact with another human being was when food was delivered; other than that, the prisoner spent twenty-four hours a day in a world with no variation.
Some of you who were active at the time may recall similar conditions at the united states' hideous Lexington Control Unit, where female political prisoners were held in the mid-eighties. Lexington was closed down after a campaign showed how this kind of sensory deprivation, coupled with 24-hour-a-day surveillance, was intended as a form of psychological torture. In fact, these techniques had been pioneered in Germany in its attempt to smash the RAF.

The women endured these conditions for months on end. As Astrid Proll would later recall:
During the 2½ years of remand I was 4½ months completely isolated in the Dead Wing of Cologne-Ossendorf. Not even today, six years later, have I completely recovered from that. I can’t stand rooms which are painted white because they remind me of my cell. Silence in a wood can terrify me, it reminds me of the silence in the isolated cell. Darkness makes me so depressive as if my life were taken away. Solitude causes me as much fear as crowds. Even today I have the feeling occasionally as if I can’t move.
It is difficult to say what would have happened if the authorities had adopted a less vicious attitude towards the captured guerillas, but as it is his persecution forced them to react.

In a series of hunger strikes throughout the 1970s the RAF prisoners not only brought attention to their plight, they essentially opened up a new front in their war against the West German state. These hunger strikes, in 1972, 1973, and 1974-5, and then in 1977, became the key organizing tool for the captured combatants. As the prisoners explained in their statement announcing their third such strike:
In isolation, the hunger strike is our only possible form of collective resistance to imperialism’s counterstrategy. Revolutionary prisoners and prisoners who have begun to organize themselves to fight are to be psychologically and physically, that is to say politically, destroyed. Disarmed, imprisoned, isolated, this is our only option for asserting our psychological and spiritual strength, our identity as people, so that the stones the ruling class has thrown at us may land on their own feet.
Not only did these hunger strikes force the radical left to take the RAF into account, they also served to inspire a new generation of radicals to take up the gun and renew the organization. Against all odds, from inside the prisons, the RAF would, time and time again, successfully draw in new recruits through the use of hunger strikes and the campaign against "isolation-extermination."

The story of how the RAF, a revolutionary guerilla organization originally oriented around the realities of 70s New Left, survived wave upon wave of arrests by renewing and reorienting itself in response to the plight of the prisoners, is an undercurrent running through Projectiles for the People. While they are gentle in their judgments, Moncourt and Smith clearly view this as an error, one that led to isolation from much of the left and several serious miscalculations.

This focus on the prisoners finally reached its logical conclusion in 1977, when a number of former legal supporters went underground and joined with the RAF to try to force the state to alleviate isolation conditions, and ultimately to release the prisoners.

This campaign started with the assassination of the Attorney General during the RAF's fourth hunger strike. While this initially seemed to work to push the state to make concessions, the hard line was soon reasserted, and a new plan had to be put in motion. An attempt was made to kidnap a leading banker - it failed, and he was killed. Next, Germany's leading industrialist was successfully kidnapped and held for weeks as the guerillas attempted to negotiate with the prisoners' release. The country was plunged into de facto martial law, and matters were further complicated when a Palestinian commando skyjacked a plane in support of the RAF's demands. After several days, the Palestinian commando was wiped out in a lightning attack by Germany's special forces, and that same night several leading RAF prisoners were found "suicided" in their cells. For the guerilla, failure could not have been more complete. (For more details on the 1977 events, see the series of articles from the Sketchy Thoughts blog in 2007, reposted on the German Guerilla website.)

As Moncourt and Smith argue in their conclusion:
it is striking how much the RAF’s legacy and credibility were damaged by 1977; it took years to recover, even while most of the guerillas remained uncaptured. Most popular and even scholarly works about the group act as if it disbanded afterwards, while in fact it remained active until the 1990s.

Compare this to 1972, when practically the entire guerilla had been wiped out by arrests, and yet the actions of the May Offensive inspired renewed resistance throughout the spectrum of the revolutionary left.

One part of the equation was the distance that had grown between the RAF and the rest of the left, both as a result of its own paradoxes and of the vicious state repression and psychological operations. The other factor, in its own way an expression of the first, was the level of confrontation in which the 1977 commandos had chosen to engage, well beyond the capacity of any other segment of the left to imitate or even support.
Despite these observations, in retrospect it is difficult to know what else could have been done. The "error" of focusing on the prisoners to the exclusion of other contradictions may have been unavoidable, one which the organization had to go through in order to get past it. And as the 1980s would show, the RAF would in fact manage to get past it - though that is a story that will not be told until the next volume in this series.

Projectiles for the People will likely be of interest to researchers and academics of various persuasions, in part because this is the first time most of the RAF's documents have ever been translated into English.

But for radicals, for those of us who are anticapitalist and anti-imperialist in 2009, looking back at the strategies and thoughts of past revolutionaries is particularly rewarding. While it would be foolish to set out to compile a "list of lessons" from such and intense story, learning about the RAF may help prepare us for the struggles that lie in our own future.

Urban guerilla warfare will likely never be waged again in exactly the same way it was in the 1970s, but it is equally unlikely to ever be completely removed from the menu. By theorizing about what they were doing while they were doing it, the RAF combatants have left us a rich legacy from which to draw not only inspiration, but also knowledge and understanding of the dynamics and pitfalls associated with armed clandestine movements.

As noted by Carl von Clausewitz in the quote that introduces this text, it is indeed of immense importance that the soldier, high or low, should not have to encounter those things which, when seen for the first time, can appear daunting and perplexing.

For that reason, i think Projectiles for the People is a book worth reading.


The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History - Volume 1: Projectiles For the People
by André Moncourt and J. Smith, with forewords by Bill Dunne and Russell "Maroon" Shoats
Paperback 736 pages
Published by Kersplebedeb and PM Press in 2009
ISBN 9781604860290

available from left wing books dot net (Kersplebedeb) and PM Press.

for more information on the Red Army Faction, check out the German Guerilla website: http://www.germanguerilla.com


  1. The various Kersplebedeb publications that revive the notion that Baader and compnay were murdered go head to with the latest work of Stefan Aust, which argue on the basis of internal RAF documents that not only did the prisoners commit suicide but that the RAF members on the outside knew this almost immidiately and chose to lie about this in order to advance their objectives. It is noticeable that the Kersplebedeb publications are silent about the correspondence between the Stammheim prisoners and the other material that Aust relies on. This gives rise to the unhappy suspicion that they are being highly selective with the evidence.

  2. i'm not quite sure what "latest work" of Stefan Aust you would be referring to - the recent reprinting of the english edition of his 1985 book? Some recent interview? Please provide the reference.

    In any case, while Aust obviously does believe the RAF prisoners committed suicide, he is generally honest enough to acknowledge that there is no way of knowing for sure. Take for instance this statement he made a couple of years back:

    "Murder would make the better story. I looked under every rock. I spent weeks and months following up every lead, and the simple truth is there is nothing that allows you to truly maintain that it was clearly either a murder or a suicide."

    To me this is a respectable and honest kind of position. A far cry from what Mr or Ms "Anonymous" is claiming.

    However a point is worth making about Aust. While his book is i think unparalleled in its detail, it is a pastiche of elements built around a selective thread in this tale, and highly influenced IMO by his desire to paint Ulrike Meinhof - with whom he had been friends - as a "nice" revolutionary lead astray by the passions of the times and the "mean" revolutionaries like Baader and Ensslin. The theory of Meinhof being driven to commit suicide by the prospect of Ensslin and Baader turning against her is really based on this desire to cast her in the "nice" light and them in the "bad" light, and this then flows naturally into the idea that they might have committed suicide all as part of an elaborate and manipulative ruse to discredit the state. Aust has every right to have his opinion, but readers should keep this bias in mind when evaluating his theories.

    And i would certainly be interested in seeing a reference to these "internal RAF documents" (do you mean Das Info?) which "prove" the prisoners committed suicide. Please provide one.

    As for the position taken by authors Moncourt and Smith, i think they are quite clear in Projectiles for the People, as they explain in chapter 14:

    "The editors of this volume cannot be certain of what happened that night in Stammheim. Nevertheless, as in the case of Ulrike Meinhof’s death in that prison, we feel there is compelling evidence pointing to state murder [...] As in the case of Meinhof, we consider the way in which accounts of these latter Stammheim deaths gloss over these inconsistencies to be a sign of the unhealthy political culture we live in today."

    As for myself, i can't know if they committed suicide or were executed. But the way in which so many authors who have never studied the matter themselves act as if it was all settled - and always by someone else who they don't bother to reference - is fundamentally dishonest.

    For more on this, see the article on the Stammheim deaths on the German Guerilla website.

  3. The "recent reprinting of the english edition of his 1985 book" is in fact an abridgement of the (900 page) third (2008) edition of Aust's book on the RAF. See either for details of Aust's case.

  4. Is the 900 page version just in German or is there an english copy? If it is in english could you give a link to it.