Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of a crucial event in Germany's worst episode of domestic terror. It was on Sept. 5, 1977, that the Red Army Faction (RAF), the radical left-wing terror group also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, kidnapped Hanns-Martin Schleyer, a leading industrialist and head of the German Employers' Association, killing his driver and three escorting police officers in the process.
The group's demands were simple: They wanted to blackmail the government, led by then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, into releasing one of the group's founders, Andreas Baader, and three other RAF members being held in prison.
Schleyer was held in captivity in an apartment in Cologne and forced to deliver appeals for his and the others' release. One strong image of the period is the picture released by the kidnappers of Schleyer in captivity, facing the camera resolutely while standing beneath the RAF's symbol. But Schmidt remained firm in his decision not to give in to the group's demands.
To ratchet up the pressure, Palestinian allies of the RAF aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked a Lufthansa jet in Mallorca on Oct. 13 and flew the jet to Mogadishu, Somalia, executing the plane's pilot en route.
Once again, the situation escalated. While again denying the terrorist's demands, Schmidt ordered elite troops form the German special task force GSG 9 -- formed to prevent a situation similar to the failed response of the German forces during the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis -- to raid the plane. All hostages were rescued; three of the four hijackers were killed.
In response, that same day Baader and two other RAF members killed themselves in jail and one survived self-inflicted stab wounds. The next day, Schleyer was found shot to death in a car in Mulhouse, France.
The RAF announced its disbanding in 1998. Wednesday's anniversary takes place in an environment of ambivalence about the survivors from the violent events three decades ago. For example, one member of the kidnap gang, Christian Klar, was recently refused clemency by President Horst Köhler. At the same time, after serving years in jail, RAF members Brigitte Mohnhaupt and Eva Haule were released from prison this year. The releases were fiercely criticized by victims' relatives and conservative politicians.
The anniversary brings to the fore memories of the group that -- with a number of bombings and assassinations -- held Germany in fearful suspense in the 1970s and '80s. Television stations are marking the event with documentaries about the events, and newspapers are launching long series about the "German Autumn." German commentators analyze the events of 30 years ago:
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung focuses on the effect that the pictures of Schleyer in RAF captivity still have on modern Germans:
"This RAF was a criminal product of the decay of '68 generation, who demanded an explanation from their parents, a guilty plea and atonement for the crimes of National Socialism. It grew out of a generation that wanted to reclaim moral integrity for itself. But with the kidnapping and murder of Schleyer, this integrity was perverted. The RAF shot Schleyer in a Gestapo- and SS-like manner. With the photos of the humiliated man these fanaticial moralists proved that they were self-righteous executioners."
"The longer the hostage crisis lasted, the more bitterly those who saw these images fought alongside the victim -- independently of one's political beliefs, age or generation."
"In these images, you see the hubris of a few dozen people, who saw themselves as the violent executors of history who had declared war against the state. These photos did not unmask 'the System;' they exposed the RAF. They brought to a conclusive end the hidden warm sympathies felt for the RAF among parts of the left. Moreover, the Schleyer photos destroyed the self-righteous morality of the post-war generation; it froze the pose of arrogance."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"It is part of the not-yet eradicated myth of the RAF that the terror group posed a danger to the constitutional state. The opposite is true: The Federal Republic actually gained in stature at that time. It survived the challenge without bending the law. Then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt feels partly responsible for some of the tragedies that happened at the time because he did not allow the state to be blackmailed or, to put it more personally, because he did not give in to the terrorists. However, if the government had shown itself to be open to blackmail in 1977, then it probably would not have had the fortitude to allow NATO nuclear missiles to be deployed in Western Europe in 1982-83 -- against the resistance of people who had previously sympathized with the RAF and had felt 'clandestine joy' about the individual murders. If the German state had been so weak, it would not have been the focus of hope for the reform movements in Eastern Europe, whose regimes sheltered escaped terrorists But despite the historic changes of 1989-90, German reunification and the joint European and international fight against terrorism, the RAF's chapter is not closed. For one thing, the murders of (German banker) Alfred Herrhausen and (German manager and politician) Detlev Karsten Rohwedder are not yet solved."
In a guest op-ed piece in the left-leaning Der Tagesspiegel, German filmmaker Andres Veiel, who made the successful RAF documentary "Black Box BRD," writes:
"What would have happened if the state had negotiated with Schleyer's kidnappers after Sept. 5, 1977? The government's crisis task force regarded negotiating with murderers as equals as 'cowardice in the face of the enemy.' But what if the state had tried to break through the deadly spiral of violence with compromises? Perhaps then the radicalization of the next RAF generation and the more than 30 post-1977 murders could have been avoided."
"However a debate about that possibility has not yet taken place. Coming to terms with Germany's RAF history is only possible if we succeed in creating an atmosphere where questions can be asked and we are able to connect the political, legal, biographical and social approaches (to understanding the history of the RAF) with each other, despite their contradictions. Only then can the wreck which is lying on the seabed of the German post-war period, and in which the guilt complexes of both sides are encased in concrete, can be raised -- even 30 years later."
-- Josh Ward, 2 p.m. CET