“We Wanted to Push the Revolutionary Process Forward” junge Welt interview with Helmut Pohl and Rolf Clemens Wagner

The interview was conducted by Rüdiger Göbel, Peter Rau, Wera Tichter, and Gerd Schumann.

junge Welt: The media has squeezed everything possible out of the 2007 anniversary of the “German Autumn.” The events of 1977 came to a bitter end. The way it is being depicted on TV, on the radio, and in the print media constitutes a sort of hysterical coming to terms with the Red Army Faction (RAF): The Stammheim Night (Spiegel), a series; The Terror Years (Die Zeit), a special issue; The Bourgeois Children’s War, a primetime ARD documentary. How do you feel about the way in which the RAF’s history is being handled, given that this history is an important, if not the essential, component of your personal biographies?

Helmut Pohl: It’s unpleasant. To be smashed over the head with this sort of campaign of defamation, caricature, and debasement is somewhat infuriating. It has concrete consequences for Christian[2], as well. Beyond that, it seems to me that the principal component of the campaign, the two-part Aust[3] documentary on ARD, bombed. It’s already been done to death. People don’t want to hear about it anymore.

jW: You’re talking about the fuss surrounding Christian Klar during the first three months of 2007. In the case of a prisoner who has been behind bars for 24 years, relaxed conditions with the possibility of a pardon and release seems appropriate. His admittedly partisan, but essentially analytical contribution to the junge Welt Rosa Luxemburg Conference in January,[4] which in no way encouraged violence, unleashed an anti-RAF and anti-Klar onslaught from politicians and the bourgeois media. What this made clear was that a prisoner’s right to express himself does not apply to Klar. In fact, it was turned into an exceptional case for the German justice system.

Rolf Clemens Wagner: In fact, this year, we’re experiencing two approaches to dealing with the RAF. One concerns Christian. Suddenly, the question of remorse for the victims of the RAF is central. A discussion about helping to “clarify” the actions has begun. Why now? I was pardoned a few years ago, and no one asked this of me. I did not have to show any remorse. There was no discussion of me having to help “clarify” the actions.

jW: Yes, why at this point in the case of Christian Klar?

RCW: For me that is connected to general political developments. The clearer it becomes both that the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are descending into chaos and that they are being conducted with extreme brutality by the occupying powers, the greater the ruling class’s fear of losing legitimacy will become. So, they present themselves as a moral authority, making use of the concept of “human rights,” claiming they are defending these rights against “terrorism.” They are making an example of Christian Klar. The second aspect of the campaign, the current RAF media hype, is meant to advance domestic political measures that facilitate wars abroad. The instruments that Schäuble[5] and Jung[6] are now putting together are meant to make preventive counterinsurgency easier – online searches for buzzwords, shooting down airplanes, domestic military deployment of Bundeswehr units. They are now procuring the means to fight a battle that they see coming. As such, the entire campaign is politically necessary for the ruling class.

HP: My case was similar to Rolf’s. I was pardoned in 1999 and Rolf in 2003, and in between Heidi[7] got out. The process of arriving at a decision took a long time as it wound its way through the various institutions, and then I was released. Nobody asked me to make statements or to express remorse. With Christian, it’s unfolding differently – at present, there is a strong public effort to create a shift in popular consciousness.

jW: Under the rubric of the evil Baader-Meinhof terrorists of yesterday and the evil Al Qaeda terrorists of today?

HP: Certainly part of it is an attempt to draw parallels between the attacks of today and our actions at the time, which is inaccurate. With the RAF, no one had to fear that a bomb would explode in some random parking lot or on some random tram, like in London and Madrid.[8] We carried out targeted actions and never attacked any uninvolved civilians. We acted on the fundamental basis of a model of limited warfare. Military operations were to serve a political function.

jW: If it’s ok with you, we will return to the question of the sense or senselessness of RAF actions later. Perhaps, at this point we should explore the impact of the German Autumn campaign. Why at this late date do you want to participate in the debate?

HP: In my case, it is to address the image of the RAF and to set the record straight regarding my dead comrades, in the face of what has been presented in recent months. This is important to me. On a similar note, the way that Ulrike’s alleged history is presented upsets me. From the very beginning, from 1970-1971, it has been claimed that Ulrike wanted to leave the armed struggle. That is complete nonsense. It is psychological warfare and propaganda and one must place it in the context of the subsequent attacks: isolation torture in the dead wing and the attempt to force her to undergo a brain examination.[9] It was all an attempt to dismantle the revolutionary Ulrike. And Aust warms up the age-old, long-refuted myths about the exclusion of Ulrike and about Gudrun’s criticisms of her in Stammheim, which allegedly led to her deep despair and ultimately to her alleged suicide.

The many questions posed in the investigatory commission’s report regarding her death still remain unanswered,[10] and the conflict over the attack on the Springer Building in 1972[11] had long since been resolved. It is true that it came up again in the context of the trial, but not as a controversial issue at that point. In fact, Ulrike wanted to say something in court to clarify the Springer action, while the others rejected that, preferring to concentrate on the attacks against the U.S. military.[12] The Hamburg action against Springer was an error, although we were of course part of the tradition of struggle against the Springer Corporation.[13] However, it was the lives of workers and employees that were put at risk – and that was never the RAF’s thing. We criticized the action and drew conclusions for the future.

jW: In the summer of 1977, you were placed on the seventh floor in Stammheim.[14] By that point, Ulrike had already been dead for a year.

HP: In spite of that, the first conversation immediately turned to Ulrike. For Andreas, Gudrun, and Jan, it was completely out of the question that Ulrike had killed herself. It was completely obvious that shortly before her death, things were going well for Ulrike. She had been working a lot and had plans for the future, so… I don’t really know what I can say about it.

jW: How did you meet Ulrike Meinhof?

HP: Working as a journalist for Hessischen Rundfunk[15] in Frankfurt. That was about two or three years before the RAF began, so around 1967-68. She often visited me when she was doing something in the neighborhood. Later, when the RAF’s history was set in motion by the liberation of Andreas in West Berlin, it quickly became clear that the she couldn’t remain where she was. West Berlin was not the terrain for the urban guerilla we wanted. She came to West Germany, and I was one of the first people she approached. She asked me how I felt about armed struggle. Well, I immediately joined, and in the early period, at the beginning of the seventies, we worked closely together.

jW: Ulrike Meinhof was a major figure in bourgeois intellectual circles – and it is perhaps as a result of her and the parson’s daughter, Gudrun Ensslin, that the image of the RAF as a bunch of crazies is once again being put forth. Spiegel editor Stefan Aust titled his TV film War of the Bourgeois Children and suggested in a FAZ[16] (August 22, 2007) interview something like the existence of some sort of “terror gene”: “Extremism must already be part of an individual’s personality structure for that individual to proceed down the RAF’s road.” Are you “bourgeois children”?

RCW: Bourgeois children – if I have to hear that again… It is of no importance where someone comes from. That’s not the point. In fact, it’s a battle cry used to delegitimize our history – all the way up until today and always. The nonsense about our road being based in individual personality structures is also a part of this. It is a psychologization of our history, a socio-psychologization, that unfortunately some former RAF people have also embraced. These stories are tools of psychological warfare, meant to distract from an actual political analysis of the RAF, the political purpose of the actions, and the overall concept. I didn’t join the RAF because I was a bourgeois child. On the contrary, I experienced a genuine politicization and arrived at the conclusion: That’s the right way.

jW: In the current media narrative, as in the past, a lot of effort is being put into portraying Andreas Baader as a criminal. What was your experience of him?

HP: As is the case with Ulrike, this mythmaking serves a propaganda purpose. The whole “criminal past” is laughable. Of us all, Andreas had the greatest capacity for strategic thinking and for practice. Everyone knew that. He provided the orientation.

jW: Characteristic of the media treatment of the RAF and its history – besides the psychologization – is the broad refusal to talk about the conditions which gave rise to the urban guerilla. Admittedly, the so-called 68ers, the student movement, the Shah’s June 2, 1967, visit, with Karl-Heinz Kurras shooting Benno Ohnesorg[17], and, above all, the Vietnam War are not completely absent. Rather, they are used a props. It is acknowledged that these issues are important to understanding the time, but they are in no way supposed to help explain the decision to take up arms. How were you politicized?

RCW: Actually, we wanted to avoid being overly personal in our approach to the actual political conditions. Individualizing things can contribute to misunderstandings. The motivations for struggling arms in hand were perhaps as diverse as the various people who joined the RAF. Throughout the world, the critique of the Vietnam War was also a critique of the capitalist system. In the FRG an extremely specific factor was added to this. Young people could also understand that bourgeois society easily gave rise to fascism. From this it followed that one couldn’t just superficially criticize the Nazis, but rather had to criticize this underlying reality. This gave rise to a broad cultural uprising. It was a revolt not only against the war, but against everything that constituted bourgeois society. Germany was the place where it was possible to find concentration camp commandants who could play a Bach concerto beautifully. We argued that the contradiction between bourgeois culture and fascism was not very great. It wasn’t a case of criticizing any of the system’s specific excesses. The system itself was being questioned on a fundamental level.

jW: The reconstituted conservative German imperialism stood as the continuity of fascism. The recent revelation that the BKA was essentially established using high-level SS officials was no big secret 40 years ago. This resulted in something like a sense of responsibility to oppose this system – so as not to fail historically, like the older generation, whom it could be said failed to act against the drift to the far right. In fact, the bourgeois state armed itself – long before the RAF. How did you experience that?

RCW: There was, for example, the Emergency Powers Act in 1967-1968.[18] That was something that brought many people into the streets. The fact is that there was no reason to be preparing for a domestic crisis at the time. Sure, in the mid-sixties there was a wave of strikes, but with the Emergency Powers Act the state was addressing something that it anticipated, not something that already existed. What they were combating, the so-called “emergency,” had not yet arisen anywhere. It was purely preventative. One sees something of that sort continuing to the present day. We’re seeing it again with Schäuble and Jung.

HP: The Emergency Powers Act was enacted as the final step in the so-called post-Second World War reconstruction, at a time when the FRG had again coalesced to some degree. It was becoming increasingly involved in international politics. The Emergency Powers Act symbolized the FRG recovering its sovereignty. It was in a position to address emergencies itself. It was part of preparing for German imperialism to take on a greater role.

jW: And internationally? What were your thoughts about the emerging protest movement against U.S. genocide in Vietnam?

RCW: Vietnam was central to a change in perspective. In Vietnam, a people was defending itself with arms against a neocolonial power – and it was clear that all over the world there were movements developing independently of each other. Cuba, the Three Continents overall – one also heard about others. We discovered the history of the October Revolution, and that immediately provided us with a different relationship to the world. Bourgeois society was no longer the only reference point. One could think about things from an entirely different angle. It was simply the historical process in which one moved and from which one drew an enormous sense of confidence.

jW: And the RAF arose – suddenly and unplanned, right? At first glance, the basis for this seems to be a tragic incident during the liberation of Andreas Baader from a library in West Berlin on May 14, 1970,[19] where he was supposed to have an institutionally approved work-related conversation with Ulrike Meinhof regarding a project they were both working on. That never happened. One of the liberators lost his nerve and Georg Linke, a librarian, was shot and seriously injured. Ulrike Meinhof jumped out the window and into the underground with Andreas Baader. Is this a case of a journalist panicking and becoming an unwilling RAF founder?

HP: That’s nonsense. I don’t know exactly what the considerations were – I can say with certainty that the question of whether Ulrike went underground immediately or later would only have been tactical in nature. She intended to join the guerilla one way or the other. She had already discussed the underground with me a year earlier, in the context of setting up an urban guerilla group. That had already been discussed at the Vietnam Congress in February 1968.[20] By no later than 1969, you could see across the board that the movement that had existed during the previous years was gradually dissipating. For us, that was unimaginable. We definitely wanted to carry on. The decision was taken. If anything, only the question of when we would disappear remained uncertain.

jW: At the point that you decided to take up the armed struggle, there were other political options for resisting a system that generated exploitation, oppression, and war. A powerful apprentices’ movement arose, there was an increasingly high level of politicization, and the older generation were again being criticized. Why, in such a favorable situation, with, for example, one out of every two students sympathizing with Marxist ideas, did you nonetheless go underground and isolate yourselves from these movements, so to speak?

RCW: We weren’t alone in this… There were other armed groups struggling in Western Europe – in Italy, Spain, Northern Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and France. We saw ourselves as an internationalist group. The question was what model was the most appropriate for combating imperialism. If we’re speaking of the “movement,” then sure there were groups formed, primarily K-groups.[21] I didn’t find their model particularly suitable for smashing the powerful, developed structures of the state apparatus. It was a question of the domestic emergency and the war internationally – obviously Vietnam, but the anti-colonial movements in Africa and the liberation movements in Latin America as well. They were being combated militarily everywhere, and everywhere the U.S. and Western Europe were the driving force behind that. We wanted to contribute to strengthening this worldwide process, and that could only be done by acting on the appropriate level.

jW: The armed struggle, then? At that point Ernesto Che Guevara, in his 1967 “Message to the Tricontinental,”[22] called for the creation of “two, three, many Vietnams,” but the strategy had already suffered defeats – in the Congo, as well as in Bolivia.[23] Obviously, the determination of revolutionaries to make revolution, as put forth at the 1968 Vietnam Congress, had not in fact achieved its goal. As an urban guerilla, how did you see yourself winning people over to your political goals?

HP: I have to say that we had no faith in agitation among the masses. We did not take this K-group revolutionary strategy seriously. Our project was different from that of traditional communist parties. We set about the process of developing the guerilla and of polarizing society through our actions. From our point of view, the guerilla was the small motor that would jumpstart the large motor. It was necessary to build and anchor this small motor.

RCW: We had no patience. We were worried and wanted to advance the revolutionary process.

jW: Were you convinced at the time that you could prevail and win more people over to the struggle?

HP: We had no illusions about the conditions in the FRG. However, we saw our struggle in the context of and in unity with the liberation struggles on the Three Continents and in Europe. The liberation movements throughout the world were on the offensive. It was on this level that we hoped that we would win. We placed ourselves within the tradition of resistance, liberation, and revolution. It was no longer necessary for one to struggle ineffectively and for oneself alone. Freedom for us also meant being a conscious part of an historical development, and the historical process was clearly directed against capitalism. That the world revolutionary process also led to changes in this country and that this gave rise to hope that provided the basis for a sense of optimism here is something that is hard to explain – particularly to someone who is 15, 20, or 25-years-old today.

jW: Certainly in part because complexities specific to the world historical epoch in which we live have since arisen. At the time, it seemed clear that we were in a transitional phase from capitalism to a more humane social order that would be controlled by the people, and in which exploitation would be vanquished through the elimination of private property – perhaps called socialism, but from a communist perspective.

RCW: Grasping this historical process was actually the sudden insight that characterized the revolt of the 68ers. Suddenly you understood that history would not make itself, but that you could make it. History was on your side. We may have always been a minority, but we didn’t recognize that fact. We had decided upon an overall process and we struggled for it – that made it seem less dire. There was no reason to be demoralized by the weakness of the left. Looking beyond the situation in Germany provided a different perspective.

jW: It is precisely this culture shock that is completely ignored in the retrospective occasioned by the anniversary of the “German Autumn.” It would be too dangerous to recall that this was a youth revolt, but also more than a youth revolt. Just one statistic: The Allensbach opinion poll institute announced that in 1971, one out of every four people under the age of 30 sympathized with the RAF. And the state responded to the war the RAF had declared against it with a previously unparalleled expansion of its apparatus. As a result – or so went the accusation from the left at the time – the RAF achieved the exact opposite of what it sought. “Internal security” took precedence, and the RAF actions, bank robberies, and attacks on U.S. facilities provided the pretext for this.

RCW: It allowed for the creation of a context that didn’t exist. Obviously, the RAF project served as a pretext for everything imaginable, for toughening laws, for computerizing manhunts, and for the creation of computerized surveillance. But that would also have occurred without the RAF. Those who were concerned with securing their power would have looked for other pretexts and used them to argue that the “domestic security state” was enormously advantageous to the people. When the Emergency Powers Act was developed, the RAF didn’t exist yet.

HP: The plans to restructure the BKA as the key agency in the manhunt apparatus date back to 1966. Those plans began to be implemented three years later. The RAF came into existence in 1970. The entire causal linkage is simply inaccurate.

jW: Nonetheless, the gap between the legal left and the RAF widened. That was a reaction to the events of the RAF’s 1972 offensive[24] – attacks against the U.S. headquarters in Frankfurt, against the police headquarters in Augsburg, against the Munich LKA, against the federal judge Wolfgang Buddenberg, against the U.S. army headquarters in Heidelberg – all of that followed by the Munich Olympics hostage-taking in the Israeli team’s quarters by the Palestinian “Black September,”[25] which you had nothing to do with. How did you perceive this growing distance?

HP: I don’t think the distance got larger or smaller. It existed more or less from the beginning. By and large, it was clear that the state was the first to resort to violence. On the whole, it was also clear that the U.S. was behaving in an increasingly brutal fashion in Vietnam, napalming women and children and torturing and killing countless people. The country was entirely carpet-bombed. However, it wasn’t clear how one could respond to that. Some engaged in spontaneous activities, while others engaged in cadre-style “mass work.” There were those who proposed the long march through the institutions – everyone knows where they ended up. The distance grew in relationship to the degree that the left of that day drifted away from the revolutionary process.

jW: In the autumn of 1972, there was a gigantic manhunt in the FRG. The media and political manipulation machines blared on about the hunt for the “Baader-Meinhof Gang,” while the left helplessly sought to relativize the hate-mongering, settling on speaking not of a “Gang,” but of a – more civilized and not explicitly criminalized – “Group.” In essence, it was the necessary first step in the distancing ritual required by the general mood.

RCW: Distancing is not a problem unique to the relationship between the legal left and the RAF. The history of all movements, including the revolt in the sixties and later on, has always included this problem of distancing. This gap also exists at militant demonstrations. It even happens today, for example, in Rostock-Heiligendamm, the anti-G8 protests this year. And the sort of assessment that concludes that actions must remain within the bounds of legality or on a scale allegedly acceptable to the masses is particularly tricky when it’s a question of a relationship with a guerilla group. At the beginning of the ’70s, there was a broad acceptance of both the RAF’s political strategy and analysis. Hardly anybody was unaware of it, and it generated a lot of discussion. It was a factor present in political debates. The problem of distancing will continue to preoccupy us in the future – at this point, I can’t see any solution to that.

HP: Why the RAF is still – or once again – subjected to this sort of unrestrained attack is, I think, an interesting question. The project ceased to exist almost a decade ago, and I see no indication of anything similar arising. The so-called threat invoked by the state doesn’t exist. So why this campaign, and why is it so intense? The 25th anniversary of the “German Autumn” was not dealt with in such a pointed way. It is directly connected to the current situation. The more common war becomes, the more they need to claim the moral high ground. Another factor has to be that the FRG had never been attacked in the way that it was by the RAF at the time. A relatively small group attacked this powerful state from the inside. That proved that it was possible, and the state is still trying to suppress that fact.

jW: In June and July 1972, the apparatus succeeded in arresting a series of leading and founding members of the RAF, including Andreas Baader, Holger Meins, Jan-Carl Raspe, Gudrun Ensslin, Brigitte Mohnhaupt, and Irmgard Möller. In February 1974, you, Helmut Pohl, and five other RAF members were arrested. You got a five-year prison term for membership in a “criminal organization.” In spite of that, the RAF continued to exist on the outside. A phenomenon?

HP: The RAF was, of course, greatly weakened by this blow from the state apparatus. In spite of that, we had the personnel necessary to carry on. Part of the history of the RAF is the fact that there were always new people and groups to carry the concept forward. The RAF was never organizationally stable. New people were always joining. That didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the result of the appeal of our struggle.

jW: Could you specifically identify these upheavals – whether as a result of arrests or as a result of political ruptures?

HP: They occurred in the seventies at least three times – 1972, 1974, and 1976 – and twice more in the ‘80s. New groups always arose. The fact that that continuity was established in spite of everything is certainly a sign of strength. Nonetheless, I must categorically criticize us for a major failing; we were not successful in transforming the RAF’s military actions into a political process leading to a tangible political project.

jW: How could that have happened?

HP: In the way it did with the urban guerilla in Uruguay. After the Tupamaros prisoners were released, there was a widespread collective discussion amongst activists about the future of the political project. The Tupamaros remain part of the political structure in Uruguay today. Obviously the conditions and relationships there and here can’t be directly compared. Nonetheless, it continues to disturb us today that we, the prisoners and those underground, didn’t succeed in achieving a political continuity. There was no debate about this, and on the outside actionism was always dominant.

jW: Which actions do you think prevented such a political development?

HP: For example, there was the 1985-1986 Action Directe (AD)-RAF common offensive. AD was right to issue a communiqué ending the offensive against the military-industrial complex. It was time to undertake a fresh analysis and to draw the necessary conclusions for the struggle. The RAF had failed to do so. For example, there were constant attacks against business leaders, and I wasn’t the only one who found them pointless. The political strategy that should have been developed through discussion was lacking.

RCW: Those of us in prison already knew by the mid-eighties that a historical shift was looming that would dismantle the entire world system, and that as a result, the entire political context in which we had formed the guerilla no longer existed. No one wanted to see that at the time. We constantly came up against incomprehension. The necessary discussion within the left on the outside, including within the RAF, did not, in fact, occur, nor was a political project suitable to the new situation developed. After that the actual developments set in motion by 1989[26] rolled over us. The RAF was unable to develop any further political activity. The 1998 dissolution was late in coming.

jW: You have also spoken about a serious crisis in the RAF’s politics that followed the failure to liberate the prisoners in the autumn of 1977.

HP: You certainly can’t compare that to the situation ten years later. Of course, the hijacking of the airbus was an error. Given the events in Entebbe in 1976,[27] there had been a thorough discussion, particularly among the prisoners. We were critical of that action for a number of reasons: the selection of passengers with Israeli passports, the resolution of the action on the Three Continents instead of in the metropole, and most importantly, the tactic of hijacking a plane. In spite of that, our people on the outside accepted the Palestinians’ proposal for the airbus hijacking.

jW: According to publications about the “German Autumn,” the phase in the RAF’s development that followed the arrests of the leadership in 1972 was exclusively directed at freeing the prisoners. The Spiegel catchphrase was the “prisoner-liberation guerilla.” With the “German Autumn,” which ended tragically on October 18, 1977, had the RAF become an end in itself?

RCW: What does “end in itself” mean? In the period before 1977, freeing the comrades who were at risk was an absolute priority. They were being held in dead wings, and the first murders had already occurred: Holger Meins, Siegfried Hausner, and Ulrike Meinhof. The situation was extremely urgent. It was clear to us that freeing the prisoners was our most important and pressing objective. On the one hand, they faced a threat to their very existence, and on the other hand, we wanted them out. Actions to free prisoners are indispensable for a guerilla movement. Of course, we constantly asked ourselves what we could concretely do, what made political sense.

Some of our conclusions remain correct from today’s perspective, such as the decision to kidnap Hanns Martin Schleyer. With his SS history as a Wehrwirtschaftsführer[28] in the occupied zones and his role at the time as an organizer of lockouts and the president of the employer’s association, he was not chosen at random.[29] With him, we could have communicated our analysis and our politics; the historical continuity that he represented, for example. That didn’t occur. Instead, we failed altogether to make sufficient use of these political issues. He was a prisoner, and that was that. There was absolutely no political statement, merely a demand to exchange people. Then there were pleas issued to the federal government, such as Schleyer’s written and spoken statements, but nothing from us.

jW: Why didn’t you attempt to present a political argument? Was it a result of your continuously extending the action? Schleyer was kidnapped on September 5.

RCW: First there’s something I want to clarify, because the rumor continues to circulate that the ‘77 offensive was planned in Stammheim. The actions were not discussed in Stammheim. They were only ever discussed on the outside. They were prepared in a very short period of time. Part of the idea was that along with Jürgen Ponto[30]

jW: …the chairman of the Dresdner Bank…

RCW: …another high-level representative of German capital was to be kidnapped. This was meant to create intense pressure that would lead to a positive outcome. That was our plan. However, the Ponto kidnapping failed, and the Schleyer action dragged on, with the crisis management team playing for time. We didn’t make use of this time. The political dimension played far too small a role. Throughout these six weeks, we continued to hope the prisoners would be released.

jW: With Schleyer’s freedom in return?

RCW: That was the plan, and that’s what would have happened. Initially, the airbus was not part of it. Later, the Palestinians came to us with the proposal to hijack an airplane to increase the pressure. We agreed to this. In retrospect, that is the worst decision I was ever party to. Difficult to comprehend, but given the situation perhaps understandable – a situation marked by a total lack of movement on the part of the state regarding the question of freeing the prisoners. We, that is, the RAF outside of prison, totally lacked a political approach in 1977. Looking back, you can say many things about Schleyer, but you can’t say that the public felt any sympathy for him. We should have worked with that politically.

jW: So Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s line – with the catchphrase “the state will not be blackmailed” and that under no circumstances would the kidnappers’ demands be met – might perhaps have shifted under pressure. Or alternately: Schmidt settles on the manhunt and risks Schleyer’s death if it fails.

RCW: Obviously, Schmidt could have met our demands. At the time, the prisoners specifically stated that they would not return to the FRG, which ruled out the alleged danger of them carrying out further actions after they were released.

jW: What happened in the case of the airbus in Mogadishu was bloody, with a total of four killed.[31] Then Schleyer was shot by the RAF’s Siegfried Hausner Commando, even though it was clear that the original goal could not be achieved. Are you as critical of that today as you are of the airbus hijacking?

RCW: No.

jW: On the morning of October 18, 1977, the “German Autumn” ended with the deaths of three prisoners on the seventh floor of Stammheim: Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe. It was claimed that they killed themselves with pistols smuggled in by their lawyers – or in Ensslin’s case, that she hanged herself with a loudspeaker wire. Irmgard Möller was the only survivor – severely injured. She is alleged to have stabbed herself in the chest with a blunt knife three times – an incredibly crazy claim. Helmut Pohl, you were fortunately no longer in Stammheim. You were transferred in August 1977, shortly before the beginning of autumn. Had that not been the case, most likely you wouldn’t be alive today.

HP: Yes, I also think about that sometimes.

jW: According to Aust’s version of events, which has been elevated to the position of official historiography, the suicide thesis is incontestable. He speaks of the suicides as a “final act of rebellion,” and in this regard the underlined quote from Brecht’s Measures Taken,[32] which develops a similar idea, was found. Did the prisoners’ collective discuss suicide as an act of resistance?

HP: No. Aust also alleges that all conversations were secretly recorded, except for the “suicide pact.” Perhaps the simplest explanation for this is that such a conversation never occurred, so it couldn’t be recorded. All of us that ended up captured clearly understood that the struggle didn’t end with prison, but that prison merely changed the terrain on which one could act – even if only in an extremely limited way. After his 1972 arrest, Andreas answered a question about how he was dealing with defeat by saying, “What defeat?” Things carry on. I never heard any such discussions, and certainly didn’t participate in any such discussions. And I can’t imagine that they occurred.

jW: When you heard about the prisoners’ “suicides” were you immediately certain that they had been staged?

RCW: Naturally. It was revenge, and it was to eliminate cadre.

HP: And that wasn’t new. In the case of Andreas, for example, they tried to kill him during one of the hunger strikes by depriving him of water. There were physical assaults during the arrests and in prison. There were threats. And 16 years later, the death of Wolfgang Grams was also declared a suicide, although there was a witness who had seen him executed in Bad Kleinen.[33] It’s always the same.

jW: It’s actually astonishing how the suicide version is accepted as obvious today. There are several unanswered questions regarding the circumstances of their deaths, all of which are largely ignored.[34]

RCW: Today, the historiography from above goes unchallenged. In 1977, immediately after the Stammheim night, we didn’t meet anyone – and it wasn’t at all the case that we only had contact with the left – who believed it was suicide. In fact, it seemed completely logical that in the end the same people whose freedom had been sought were now dead.

jW: Even today, there are meters of files about the events that have never been released, for example, the investigatory committee’s findings. Even Aust points to a series of inconsistencies – but nonetheless oddly presents the suicide thesis as a sort of historical truth.

RCW: At the time, the so-called crisis management team discussed “exotic” approaches. It is rumored that Franz-Josef Strauß demanded that a prisoner be shot every hour until Schleyer was freed. Or the reinstitution of the death penalty for those whose freedom was demanded. In the aftermath, taking as few additional prisoners as possible became the line. At the end of the seventies, three comrades who were on the wanted posters were shot in the head.[35] At the time, we called it the “killer manhunt.” At the time, many people considered this state capable of doing things that had nothing to do with its democratic claims. Obviously, that has since changed.

jW: It is not only state officials who contradict your version of the “German Autumn,” but former RAF activists themselves. Most importantly, in the Aust reports in Spiegel and on ARD, people like Horst Mahler, now a neo-Nazi, and Peter-Jürgen Boock, now a crown witness and media source for hire, are used to write the RAF’s history.

HP: We could, however, perhaps publish something in which Boock plays no role…

jW: We would be happy to do that. Nonetheless, we must at this point address the crown witness law – reduced prison time, a shorter sentence, or release in exchange for useful testimony – as it leads to statements useful to the prosecution. In your case, Rolf Clemens Wagner, after the fall of the GDR, people who had been in exile there for ten years testified against you, for which they were rewarded.[36]

RCW: The crown witnesses constitute a sad chapter. However, I believe they were largely discredited by their umpteen versions of events. Anybody who seriously and impartially examines their role has to arrive at the conclusion that their statements can’t be believed. Regarding Mahler, it should be noted that he was expelled from the RAF in 1973.[37]

jW: How did the defection of ten members of the RAF and the 2nd of June Movement come about, and how did their exile to the GDR in 1980 come about? Did the political crisis in the years following the deadly Stammheim night play a role?

HP: Certainly. The RAF found itself in a very serious crisis. People wanted to leave, but to where? Through contacts to the GDR it was possible to provide them with good conditions – otherwise they would have ended up in prison. Given the existing reality, the comrades in the GDR really did offer them the best possible conditions. To begin with, they put a lot of effort into integrating the ten – two others arrived later. The defectors weren’t sent off to some secluded area. They received professional training and were able to study. The GDR really went all out. Nobody should denounce them.

jW: But then came the discovery of the RAF defectors, which affected both the GDR and the defectors’ former comrades in arms.

HP: They turned on all of their former fellow combatants who had made the contacts and who had, at great risk to themselves, organized their defection.

jW: Why indeed did the GDR take them, Helmut Pohl? In 1980, you were involved in the negotiations we’re discussing.

HP: There were no negotiations, just discussions. Our contact person on the GDR side always emphasized that the GDR understood its contact with us as an expression of internationalism – and likewise that the GDR’s politics were fundamentally internationalist, for example, the liberation movements on the Three Continents.

jW: However, the GDR side knew of the RAF’s – shall we say – critical distance regarding real existing socialism. Moreover, many communist parties write the urban guerilla off as “individual terror” or “left sectarianism.”

HP: I was myself astonished by much of what they said and did, particularly as they said that they actually held our approach to be politically incorrect. They also knew about our reservations regarding the GDR and that, beginning with party building, we simply had an entirely different perspective.

jW: The western left also constantly claimed that at least sections of the RAF were infiltrated by the Verfassungsschutz.[38] That the RAF’s GDR coup was only uncovered after the dissolution of the GDR speaks against this. Nonetheless, at the end of the sixties there was a Verfassungsschutz infiltrator named Peter Urbach,[39] who, according to Spiegel, was involved in providing weapons. And twenty years later there was the Verfassungsschutz infiltrator Klaus Steinmetz, who betrayed Birgit Hogefeld and Wolfgang Grams.[40]

RCW: The RAF was never infiltrated by the Verfassungsschutz. There were people with whom we were in contact who later made it apparent that they were working as infiltrators. In any case, a fundamentally different question must be asked. Namely, did they manage to exercise any influence? Some of us had already had experience with infiltrators when we were active aboveground. Their task was to track groups and, above all, to know who did what, where and when. However, the fact that the state attempted to position or insert infiltrators is only one side of the coin. The other side is whether the infiltrators had any actual potential to exercise influence. The RAF’s history demonstrates that they were never able to do so. The rich fantasies about infiltrators persist. One cannot talk these claims away. They are the bread and butter of hacks.

jW: From the outset, RAF prisoners were subjected to particularly severe prison conditions. You, our partners in this discussion, have a total of 45 years of imprisonment in this country between you. How did you survive this lengthy period?

RCW: “Severe prison conditions” meant: isolation, 23 hours a day in the cell, weeks of sleep deprivation as a result of constant neon lighting, solitary yard time, a total ban on contact with fellow prisoners, visits (including with lawyers) through glass barriers, and rigorous censorship. After conviction, some of us were held in small group isolation in the high security units. Most of us were still in individual isolation at the time of the 1989 hunger strike,[41] cut off from any direct communication with comrades for years or even decades. We dealt with that, above all, through the struggle to communicate with each other. When the attack is constant, as is the case in isolation, then you are constantly defending yourself. No other option remains, if you are planning to survive with integrity. You cannot endure it. Nobody can. The entire prison situation inevitably came to a point where something had to be done. My experience is – and I’ve heard the same thing from other prisoners – that one feels the best during hunger strikes. Not physically, but because one is active and struggling in unity with others.

HP: There is a new campaign, once again claiming that there was no isolation. The situation on the seventh floor in Stammheim is used to support this argument. The truth is that the prisoners’ conditions in Stammheim improved when the trial began there.[42] That, however, was a result of the prisoners producing expert medical opinions that further isolation would make them unfit for trial. The justice system was forced to allow limited association, exceptional periods during which the prisoners were allowed to meet, had access to books, and other similar things. Otherwise the trial that they so desperately wanted would have fallen apart. After the verdict, the prisoners were returned to isolation, where everyone else had, in the meantime, remained.

jW: What about after that, after the long prison terms? In 20 years or more, the world has changed, in some cases so much that it’s barely recognizable.

HP: It’s definitely not easy after such a long time. One must start from scratch, experience a changed political situation, and regain perspective. However, we weren’t separate from the world: we followed and analyzed the political and social developments on the outside very closely. “Barely recognizable” is not accurate. It’s the same old conditions. However, it is true that capitalism has reached a new stage.

RCW: We knew, for example, that exploitation had gotten unbelievably intense, that labor as a commodity was increasingly devalued, that poverty and degradation were increasingly rampant – to mention only domestic conditions. Which is to say, the immediate consequences of unrestrained capitalist production, or globalization – we knew about that. However, what it felt like to be a “client” at the employment agency, to have to deal with Hartz IV[43], how that controlled the individual, that was something else altogether. Having to organize daily life in that context was not easy. Our position regarding this entire development remains unchanged. To be sure, increasing numbers of people experience the effects in their daily lives, but the revolutionary left is weak. However, the seeds of change can be seen everywhere.

[1] The interview was conducted by Rüdiger Göbel, Peter Rau, Wera Tichter, and Gerd Schumann.

[2] Christian Klar was one of two remaining prisoners from the RAF when this interview was being conducted, the other being Birgit Hogefeld. Klar was released on December 19, 2008. (Hogefeld was released in 2011.)

[3] A reference to Stefan Aust, the author of the controversial and problematic Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the RAF, generally considered the authoritative source on the RAF.

[4] At the annual Rosa Luxemburg Conference in Berlin, clergyman Heinrich Fink read a message from Klar calling for people to continue the struggle against capitalism and for a more humane society. This message can be viewed online at http://germanguerilla.com/2007/01/15/christian-klars-message-to-the-2007-rosa-luxemburg-congress/.

[5] Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) was the Minister of the Interior at this point.

[6] Franz Josef Jung (CDU) was Minister of Defense at this point.

[7] Adelheid Schulz was released from prison as a result of poor health in October 1998 and pardoned on February 26, 2002.

[8] On March 11, 2004, a series of nearly simultaneous, coordinated bombings were carried out against the Cercanías commuter train system of Madrid, Spain. The explosions killed 191 people.  On July 7, 2005, a series of coordinated suicide attacks in central London were carried out targeting civilians using the public transport system during the morning rush hour. 52 people were killed in the attacks.

[9] See André Moncourt and J. Smith, The Red Army Faction, a Documentary History, Vol. I: Projectiles for the People (Oakland: PM Press, 2009), pp. 237-241 and pp. 271-273.

[10] An International Investigatory Commission into the Death of Ulrike Meinhof (Internationale Untersuchungskommission zum Tod von Ulrike Meinhof) was formed on July 16, 1976; its findings, delivered on December 15, 1978, revealed compelling evidence that Meinhof had been murdered. See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, pp. 382-388.

[11] The RAF’s bombing of offices of the Springer Corporation in 1972 was controversial as several people working for the newspaper chain were injured in the explosion. See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, p. 165 and p. 177.

[12] See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, p. 163, pp. 165-166, p. 174 and p. 178.

[13] See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, pp 150-151.

[14] Stammheim was West Germany’s highest security prison, where the key prisoners from the RAF were held. It was also the site of their trial.

[15] Hessian Broadcasting, public broadcasting for the Land of Hessen, headquartered in Frankfurt.

[16] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Frankfurt General Newspaper) is a conservative daily German national newspaper.

[17] Benno Ohnesorg, a student, was shot and killed by undercover police officer Karl-Heinz Kurras during a demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Iran to West Berlin. Initially acquitted, Kurras was retried, convicted and spent four months in jail, but was allowed to retain his job. According to most accounts, this murder constituted the defining moment in the birth of the 1960s generation’s revolt in West Germany. An unexpected and almost unthinkable twist to this story came to light in 2009, when journalists uncovered proof that Kurras was at the time of the shooting an informant for the Stasi, and a secret member of the East German Socialist Unity Party.

[18] See Moncourt and Smith vol. 1, pp. 38-39.

[19] See Moncourt and Smith vol. 1, pp. 54-55.

[20] See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, pp. 35-36.

[21] So called because of the ubiquitous “k” (for “communist”) in their names, the K-Groups were those Marxist-Leninist parties and pre-party formations that emerged from the decline of the sixties New Left.

[22] The document was Create One, Two … Many Vietnams, and can be accessed at http://www.rcgfrfi.easynet.co.uk/ww/guevara/1967-mtt.htm

[23] Guevara had fought as part of guerilla insurgencies in both the Congo (1965) and Bolivia (1966-1967), losing his life in the latter conflict.

[24] See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, pp. 163-180.

[25] See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, pp. 187-236.

[26] A reference to the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989.

[27] See Moncourt and Smith vol. 1, pp. 439-441.

[28] Literally: defense economy leader. Schleyer had joined the Nazi SS in 1933, just two months after his eighteenth birthday. A committed fascist, he held several important positions in the Nazi Student Association before and during the war. In 1943, he began working for the Central Federation of Industry for Bohemia and Moravia, where he was in charge of “Germanizing” the economy of Czechoslovakia. Following the Nazi defeat, he was captured by French forces and imprisoned for three years, classified as a “fellow traveler” by the denazification authorities. He was released in 1949 and used his experience during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia to get hired to the foreign trade desk in the Baden-Baden Chamber of Commerce and Industry. (Heike Friesel, “Schleyer, a German Story,” Litrix.de: German Literature Online, translated by Philip Schmitz, http://www.litrix.de/buecher/sachbuecher/jahr/2004/schleyer/enindex.htm)

[29] Following the publication of this interview in 2007, the newspaper Bild Zeitung and former Federal Minister of Defense (CDU) Rupert Scholz called for charges to be laid against Wagner for “speech encouraging criminality” and “disparaging the memory of the dead,” citing these statements in particular. In the end, however, no charges were laid.

[30] See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, pp. 474-477 and p. 494.

[31] Besides Zohair Youssef Akache, Hind Alameh, and Nabil Harb from the Palestinian guerilla, Lufthansa captain Jürgen Schumann had been killed by the hijackers as they made their way to Mogadishu.

[32] The quote referred to comes from Bertolt Brecht’s 1930 play. It reads: “It is terrible to kill/but we don’t only kill others, we also kill ourselves/when necessary/because this homicidal world can only be changed with violence/as everyone alive knows.” (our translation) This book, with this passage underlined, was allegedly found in Ensslin’s cell after the Stammheim deaths.

[33] On June 27, 1993, RAF members Wolfgang Grams and Birgit Hogefeld were lured into an ambush in the town of Bad Kleinen by Verfassungsschutz infiltrator Klaus Steinmetz. Following a shootout, both GSG9 agent Michael Newrzella and Wolfgang Grams lay dead. Eyewitnesses reported that Grams was executed on site after he had been subdued.

[34] For a list of some of these, see Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, pp. 511-520.

[35] Willi Peter Stoll in a Chinese restaurant in Düsseldorf on September 6, 1978; Elisabeth von Dyck entering a house in Nuremberg in May 4, 1979; Rolf Heißler entering an apartment in Frankfurt on June 9, 1979. Only Heißler survived his injuries.

[36] In 1993, Wagner was sentenced to twelve additional years in prison on the basis of testimony provided by former RAF member Werner Lotze.

[37] See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, pp. 254-257 and pp. 288-291.

[38] The German domestic spy service and the main agency for intelligence actions against the guerilla and the left.

[39] See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, pp. 40-41 and pp. 53-54.

[40] See above.

[41] In 1989, political prisoners participated in the 10th collective hunger strike of prisoners from the RAF, demanding improved prison conditions and the right to communicate among themselves.

[42] See Moncourt and Smith Vol. 1, pp. 351-354 and pp. 372-375.

[43] The fourth in a series of series of fiscal reforms to employment and welfare programs in Germany, named after their primary proponent, Peter Hartz. Hartz IV, passed in 2002, substantially reduced unemployment benefits and welfare payments.