The 1977 assassination of Siegfried Buback by the far-left Red Army Faction is one of Germany's most famous unsolved murders. Now new evidence suggests that former RAF member Verena Becker may have been involved. But the intelligence services, who used Becker as an informant, are keeping the lid on a top-secret file which could clear up the crime.
Bergengruenstrasse in Berlin's upmarket Zehlendorf district is an exclusive street, the kind of place where well-off residents of the German capital live. Attractive apartment buildings, home to flats with stucco ceilings and polished timber floors, can be seen behind rows of trees. The people here seek the quiet life: They like the lawn trimmed, the Volvo gleaming, the hedge at eye level, maybe a white wooden bench in the garden. The small house in the second row is no exception, plastered in bright colors and impeccably well kept. It is the house where Verena Becker lived.
In this idyll, the ex-terrorist tried to live with herself, with her memories of the blood-drenched time of the RAF. For years she sought a normality in these surroundings -- the unlikely normality of her life's second act, minus the bloody first act.
At some point she began an internal dialogue, listening to her inner self and writing about herself. And perhaps not just about herself, but also rewriting a piece of German history: the story of the assassination in 1977 of Siegfried Buback, the German chief federal prosecutor. Becker, now 57, was more closely involved with the assassination than was previously assumed. The question is the extent to which she was involved, now that federal prosecutors have seized her notes, searched her computer, and brought Becker back to the place where she lived for 15 years -- behind bars.
Becker was transferred from Karlsruhe, where she was being held in custody, to a women's prison in Berlin on Tuesday of this week. Investigators assume that she will be charged and sentenced next year for her part in the Buback murder. It would be a unique undertaking: a trial involving the far-left Red Army Faction, which terrorized Germany during the 1970s and 1980s, using the resources and standards of the 21st century and far removed from the bitter mood of the time.
That said, it is by no means certain that Becker will be alone in the dock. Did investigators at the time overlook or even suppress evidence, as the murder victim's son Michael Buback has speculated for the past two years? Did Becker work as an informant for the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, not only in the early 1980s, as SPIEGEL revealed in 2007, but also earlier, before Buback's death? Was there a cover-up of Becker's involvement so that the terrorist never stood trial for the Buback murder, despite there being indications of her complicity as early as 1977?
Over two years, though only from 1981 to 1983, Becker supplied the Office for the Protection of the Constitution with insider details on the RAF in a secret operation titled "Zauber" ("Magic"). It had been hoped that Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble would release parts of the previously secret files on the operation this week. However the Interior Ministry announced on Tuesday that it would not open up the files, although it said it would allow prosecutors limited access to the files to help them build their case against Becker.
The RAF's war on the state might be over, but the battle over its history still rages. Many secrets have not been told; the former terrorists remain silent, not wanting to incriminate their one-time comrades in arms, themselves even less so. Certainly, many who were members during the early years had put the RAF behind them even before 1989, when the terrorist group announced it had disbanded. A handful were willing to come clean, but none over the murders. Who shot industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer? Who was involved in the later and still completely unexplained attacks, namely the 1989 killing of Deutsche Bank head Alfred Herrhausen, and the 1991 murder of government official Detlev Karsten Rohwedder, who was responsible for the privatization of the state companies of the former East Germany?
Proceedings against Verena Becker, it is hoped, could clear up at least one secret: Who shot Buback on April 7, 1977 from the pillion seat of a 750cc Suzuki motorcycle, who was driving the bike and who was waiting in the getaway car? And what was Becker's role?
As it happens, some mysteries are easier to solve today than at the time. As a DNA report from Feb. 27 establishes, Becker handled the letters claiming responsibility for the act that were posted in Düsseldorf and Duisburg; she had licked the flaps and stuck the stamps on the envelopes -- striking evidence that she was involved with the RAF structures responsible for the attack. As a result of the DNA evidence, federal prosecutors began eavesdropping on Becker's telephone conversations in the spring.
On other questions, the passage of time obscures the picture, such as the motives of the judiciary, which are difficult to comprehend from today's perspective. Was cheap opportunism, for example, part of their thinking? After all, Becker had already received a life sentence, so why go to the expense of making her stand trial for Buback again?
It is possible that at the time, the law was bent or even perverted, and that in the Buback case charges were filed, not on the strength of evidence, but because of the national interest. This would surely have been unworthy of a constitutional state like Germany which prides itself on being based on the rule of law. On the other hand, it was certainly not a conspiracy in favor of the public enemy Verena Becker. To date, no evidence has been found to support such conspiracy theories.
The Long Road into Darkness
Verena Christiane Becker's long road into the darkness of the RAF began when she was aged just 19. Together with her friend Inge Viett, she would smash the windows of sex shops and bridalwear salons in Berlin at night. She left behind a sticker which warned: "The black bride is coming," an allusion to the color of the anarchist political movement.
Shortly thereafter, the two girls went to ground and joined the Second of June Movement, a West Berlin militant group of young anarchists. The first death that Becker would have on her conscience was that of a boat builder. In February 1972, he handled a suspicious device in a British yacht club in West Berlin that turned out to be a bomb. Becker's cell had intended it to go off the night before as part of a campaign against what they saw as British brutality in Northern Ireland. The bomb exploded late and the man bled to death.
In 1974, the Berlin courts sentenced Becker to six years in juvenile detention. Two months later, leading CDU candidate Peter Lorenz was kidnapped shortly before the elections for the Berlin state assembly. By exploiting their hostage, the Movement 2 June managed to secure the release of several anarchists -- among them Verena Becker.
With four other prisoners, she landed in a terror camp in southern Yemen run by a radical minor faction within the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. RAF members also began to trickle in to the camp to rebuild the group following the arrest of RAF founders Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, who were being held in Germany's Stammheim prison. Their leader was RAF lawyer Siegfried Haag. Becker defected to the RAF and took her place at Haag's side -- not only in the struggle against "fascist" West Germany.
Buback's death sentence was already decided in Yemen. The militants wanted the attack on the chief federal prosecutor to be the prelude to the "Offensive 77," which over the course of the year culminated in the abortive attempt to obtain the release of the Stammheim detainees, the Schleyer kidnapping, and the hijacking of the Lufthansa jet "Landshut," which was later stormed by the elite German GSG-9 police unit in the Somali capital Mogadishu.
As Haag's confidante, Becker was in the nucleus of the so-called "second generation" of the RAF, which was considered more hard-core than the "first" generation of Meinhof, Baader, Ensslin et al. Becker's former comrades recall her as being "hard as steel." Her stance was more extreme than that of the newly recruited RAF members Knut Folkerts, Günter Sonnenberg, and Christian Klar.
Who Pulled the Trigger?
Buback's life ended at a red light in the German city of Karlsruhe shortly after 9 o'clock on the morning of April 7, 1977. The assassin on the Suzuki emptied at least 15 rounds from a Heckler & Koch automatic weapon into Buback's official car, a Mercedes. Buback was killed, along with his driver Wolfgang Göbel and the head of the chauffeur service, Georg Wurster.
That same day, a police spokesman announced that police were considering the possibility that the person who fired the shots was a woman. Could it have been Becker, who, at 1.64 meters (just under 5 feet 5 inches) tall, is on the short side by German standards? Three witnesses claimed to have seen a diminutive individual on the back of the Suzuki. Yet their statements were not taken seriously by the investigators. Instead, one day later, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) identified three men as the perpetrators: Klar, Folkerts, and Sonnenberg, all of whom are tall.
Three weeks later, it became undeniably clear that Becker had, at the very least, had close contact to the Buback killers. She was arrested in Singen, together with Sonnenberg. The two had a backpack with them which contained a Heckler & Koch HK 43, complete with three magazines and 97 rounds of ammunition. In late 1977, the Higher Regional Court Stuttgart ruled that Becker knew it was the murder weapon.
Later, investigators argued that the gun could not be linked to her; they suspected Sonnenberg, as the owner of the backpack. However, the backpack was the two militants' only large item of luggage -- Becker did not have her own backpack. Moreover, both had shoulder bags with them. According to the court ruling, Becker's bag contained another two individual cartridges -- which were for the HK 43.
During their attempted getaway in Singen, Sonnenberg emptied his pistol at a policeman lying on the ground, and Becker also fired on a defenseless officer. Both victims were lucky and survived. While the two militants were trying to escape in a hijacked car, Becker pulled the Buback gun from the rucksack in order to shoot from the passenger seat. But she did not manage to load the weapon -- whether she lacked the strength or the car was too cramped was a matter left undecided by the court. Why, amid all the commotion, did she choose the Heckler & Koch instead of her two loaded revolvers and a pistol, if she did not know how to use it properly?
Ticked Off the List
There are many questions and much speculation regarding these points, as so often in the Becker case. But this much is certain: In the arrest warrant from May 10, 1977, it was stated that both Becker and Sonnenberg were key suspects in the Buback murder. Seven months later, Becker was given a life sentence for six counts of attempted murder for shooting at her pursuers during the getaway in Singen. The evidence against her was overwhelming. But the Buback-related investigation against Becker was spun off, and then -- as with Sonnenberg -- wound up.
This complacency on the investigators' part is baffling. For Michael Buback, too, it is a mystery, one which is now assuming enormous significance within his version of events. Were they intending to protect Becker?
Completely clearing up the crimes was apparently not the top priority of the federal prosecutors. The drawn-out proceedings in Stammheim against Baader, Meinhof and Ensslin had also left its scars on the judiciary. By this stage, the investigators' main aim was to give life sentences to each and every member of the RAF. One possible explanation for the half-hearted investigations against Becker and Sonnenberg is the fact that, seeing as they had already been sentenced, they could be ticked off the list.
Take the example of the RAF's hold-up of a branch of Dresdner Bank in Cologne on April 12, 1977. On that day, a person of slight build was seen jumping over the counter, but federal prosecutors let 22 months pass before organizing an identity parade that included Becker. And when it came to the Buback murder, prosecutors preferred to indict Knut Folkerts. At his trial in 1980, judges left open the question of whether Folkerts was riding the Suzuki or waiting in the getaway car. It was a question they seemed not to consider important. "It is certain that he was doing one or the other," they said at the time -- and that was sufficient to give him a life sentence.
Folkerts, for his part, refused for many years to speak about his role in the murder. But then, two years ago, he said that he had been casing a bank in Cologne on the morning of Buback's death. On the evening of that same day, he said, he was in the Netherlands acting as a driver for a new RAF recruit, Silke Maier-Witt, who has confirmed Folkerts' version of events. This arguably rules out Folkerts as being involved in the Karlsruhe murder.
Questions and Speculation
So was Becker the person sitting on the pillion seat of the Suzuki after all? There is substantial circumstantial evidence that Sonnenberg was driving the motorcycle. He knew his way around Karlsruhe, he had rented the Suzuki and knew how to ride the heavy motorbike. Klar had no training in using automatic weapons so it is unlikely that he fired the gun. A more probable explanation is that he was the driver of the getaway car; like Sonnenberg, he knew the area well.
But whose finger was on the trigger? Both ex-RAF member Peter-Jürgen Boock as well as Becker have pointed the finger at Stefan Wisniewski, whom federal prosecutors are also now investigating in the Buback case. He was one of the most senior members of the underground movement, and knew how to handle the weapon. But did Becker only finger Wisniewski to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution to get herself off the hook?
Since Becker's arrest, speculation has been rife as to whether she was already in collusion with intelligence agents before the attack. The evidence allegedly comes from a document prepared by the notorious East German secret police, the Stasi: "There is reliable information that B. has been handled and kept under control by West German intelligence since 1972, because of her membership of terrorist groups."
In all likelihood this only means that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution had Becker in their sights. Another Stasi document clearly states that: "There is no known evidence of contact to enemy intelligence agencies."
"If some intelligence service had already recruited Becker as an informant, we would definitely have known about it," says Winfried Ridder, who in the past was responsible for evaluating information relating to the RAF at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. An internal government investigation reached the same conclusion. In fact, Becker did not begin to talk to intelligence agents until the fall of 1981.
In contrast to what was previously believed, this secret cooperation lasted longer than just a few days. The confessions kept coming over a period of more than two years. And it was not the Office for the Protection of the Constitution that had softened up Becker -- she herself had approached the detested state apparatus. The harsh conditions in the Cologne prison where Becker was being held had brought her to the verge of collapse. Her strength was almost exhausted -- as was her loyalty to the RAF. This was also noted by the intelligence agents, who were "electrified," as one official recalls. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution had never before succeeded in cracking an RAF veteran.
Becker was picked up at the prison in an unmarked car. Her cover story for leaving the prison was that she needed to go into hospital. Then, in a Cologne apartment rented by the state, Becker revealed details of the inner workings of the RAF. The most important revelation was that Wisniewski had shot Buback. "Becker wanted special privileges in prison and a reduction of her sentence," recalls one investigator. Contrary to some reports, Becker was not, however, interested in getting money to begin a new life. She did not receive 100,000 German marks, as the mass-circulation newspaper Bild has claimed. In fact, she got less than 5,000 marks, money she spent on a language course.
The first round of questioning lasted a good two weeks. The result was an 82-page memorandum dated March 4, 1982. As well as that document, there is also a 200-page file sitting in the Office for the Protection of the Constitution's Cologne headquarters containing the original statements. Both have been classified as "secret" for the last 27 years.
There are no criminal investigators in the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. So as to protect its sources, the agency is not obliged to share evidence relating to crimes. The spooks were more interested in knowing who was in the RAF and in what position. They were less concerned with the question of who had been sitting on the front or on the back of a particular motorbike.
"Becker knew a great deal about the inner workings of the RAF," says one insider today. "That was the most important thing for us." She kept talking about those details until the end of 1983, when the intelligence services deemed their source to have been fully exhausted.
Subsequently, the intelligence services treated the file as if it were illicit goods that had to be kept hidden. Nevertheless, the Federal Prosecutor's Office received three copies, with one for the then-federal prosecutor general, Kurt Rebmann. RAF investigators, however, were not given a copy of the file and remained clueless as to its contents.
In March 1982, the Interior Ministry was informed orally about the contents of the file, and the heads of the Federal Criminal Police Office also knew about it. Those who knew about the file were like an exclusive club of RAF hunters, which, given past slip-ups and setbacks, stuck together like a Masonic lodge, determined to avoid exposing any chinks in their armor which could potentially be attacked. The file's explosive contents didn't even make an appearance in the trial of Klar and fellow RAF member Brigitte Mohnhaupt, which only ended in 1985. Both Klar and Mohnhaupt received life sentences for their role in the Buback murder and other crimes.
'I Have No Real Feeling for Guilt'
Then-Federal Prosecutor General Kurt Rebmann did not forget about Becker, however. In 1989, Rebmann recommended her for pardon, which was granted. Hence Becker's cooperation with the authorities paid off for her in the end. The fact that she had talked to the intelligence services, which secured her release after only 12 years, remained a secret until SPIEGEL's revelations in April 2007.
After that, it seemed that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution was sitting on the Becker statements, and had, with the help of Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who blocked the release of the files, hindered further investigations. Finally, in July 2007, federal prosecutors were permitted to read the original 200-page dossier. They were even allowed to take away a copy of the 82-page memorandum. As late as December 2008, Federal Prosecutor General Monika Harms declared that Becker was not under renewed suspicion. Nevertheless, an embargo remained on any use of the file in court proceedings.
Now the picture has changed. The new DNA evidence, as well as the recently seized notes by Becker to herself, are very likely to result in proceedings against her. In a scrawled note on a piece of paper found by investigators in her home, Becker wonders "how I should pray for Mr. Buback." A few lines later, it reads: "I have no real feeling for guilt." The note is dated April 7, 2009 -- the 32nd anniversary of Buback's death.
Federal prosecutors interpret the document as a confession. However Becker, after her arrest, gave a different explanation for her words. She claims the "Mr Buback" in her note is Michael Buback, the son, not Siegfried Buback, the late father. She also said that the reason she is preoccupied with the notion of guilt is that her name is permanently linked to the crime. To advance their case against Becker, investigators have referred to a note that she made during a train journey in April 2007 in which she wrote that she was meditating for "a new beginning." Becker's lawyer, Walter Venedey, argues that the evidence is "totally inadequate."
Last week, federal prosecutors applied for the release of the 82-page memorandum. Schäuble had signaled within the federal government that he would release the file. Observers believed that he would not want to look like someone with something to hide -- least of all during an election campaign and in relation to a period for which he is not responsible. But then came the Interior Ministry's announcement on Tuesday that it would not open up the files. Since then, prosecutors have said that the limited access to the files that Schäuble is prepared to grant them is not sufficient and have once again demanded that the files be released so that their contents can be used in court.
It is still unclear if the explosive documents will be made public in the end or not. On Thursday, Wolfgang Bosbach, the CDU's deputy floor leader, suggested that the files might be released after all if the case goes to trial and described Schäuble's decision as "preliminary."
However it is debatable whether the trial will reveal Becker to have been Buback's killer. The same applies to Wisniewski; forensic scientists have yet to find any evidence implicating him.
In all likelihood, there will be no relief for the haunted son, Michael Buback. And there will certainly be none for Verena Becker. Whether she spends the next few years in a cell or in Zehlendorf, she will face an oppressive silence which will grant her no peace.
JÜRGEN DAHLKAMP, CARSTEN HOLM, SVEN RÖBEL, MICHAEL SONTHEIMER, HOLGER STARK
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