“I can still see myself sitting there with Gudrun and Andreas, in front of us a long report on Vietcong attacks in the US military’s hinterland in South Vietnam. Guerrilla units had attacked US military headquarters right in enemy territory. One single attack already conveyed the entire strategy. Attacks in the hinterland of imperialism by small armed guerilla units. In international terms the hinterland was here, in the metropoles. Years earlier, the chairman of North Vietnam’s communist party, Le Duan, in a global-strategic speech, had spoken of the vision of armed struggles in the capitalist centers.
“Now we were on our way.
“What a certainty we had.
“And what a smile on our faces.”
– Helmut Pohl on the beginnings of the RAF1
“I think the fundamental error made by all the groups on the radical left, including the RAF, was that we didn’t live in reality enough and we were far too invested in ideology. There were meetings, papers, theoretical discussions, events, campaigns – but none of that was real. And the collapse of the radical left at the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s was the hour of truth for that political structure, as it had evolved out of the ’60s – if anything was to be gained, which was the whole point, then something new would have had to be introduced. But that’s not what happened. Instead, we got voluntary dissolution and treading water. And that, in the end, brings us to the fact that the RAF, like the rest of the German radical left, or the left overall, was never able to overcome the contradiction of living in a highly developed system and being unable to address the contradictions that arise from that system. On the one hand, you want to flee to something better. On the other hand, it’s the best of the existing options. This contradiction spawned a theory and practice across our spectrum that was based in an ideology characterized by a circular form of activity and actionism. I call that ‘pseudopolitics.’ Politics require genuine processes – not ideology. Rarely was there anyone anywhere in the world who was as clever as the white European left, and the German left in particular. Nobody ever read more or talked as much as the left here. But that’s not politics. That represents a stationary process that is easily adapted to the prevailing social norms.”
-Helmut Pohl, interviewed by Oliver Tolmein in 1996
The Red Army Faction was one of the first wave of urban guerilla groups to emerge from the First World New Left; at first preoccupied with survival actions and establishing an underground infrastructure, in 1972 it went on the offensive carrying out a series of bombings against two US military bases as well as a judge, police and a newspaper chain, police and military targets. Soon after, many of the RAF members were captured, and it looked as if the organization was finished. Without the unwavering commitment of a handful of comrades, including Helmut Pohl, it might well have been.
Pohl had been one of the earliest members of the RAF, immediately joining the group when Ulrike Meinhof asked him to in October 1970. He was arrested for stealing a car in the summer of 1971, and released in the summer of 1973. Previously he had worked as a journalist, which led to him meeting and befriending Ulrike Meinhof (also a journalist, and then one of the founding members of the RAF). About this early period he defiantly testified in the infamous Stammheim trial in 1976: “What was clear was the drive, the resolve, quite simply, the search for something new— something different from the shit here.”
For years after 1972 the RAF was simply focused on survival and maintaining an underground existence. In February 1974, before it could act again, seven people, including Pohl, were arrested in predawn raids in Frankfurt and Hamburg. While those arrested had not carried out any actions, they had kept the RAF alive during a critical period. This time, Pohl was sentenced to five years in prison. During this period he would participate in five of the RAF prisoners’ collective hunger strikes against isolation torture (solitary confinement). “Isolation represents a more intense version of the situation which dominates on the outside, which led us to engage in clandestine armed struggle in the first place,” he later explained. “Whoever doesn’t find a way to struggle against this situation is destroyed—the situation controls you and not the other way around.”
Pohl was released from prison in September 1979 and soon returned to the underground. Despite having carried out an attack on Alexander Haig (NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander at the time) in June of that year, the RAF was still somewhat in disarray due to the arrests and police killings that had followed its 1977 offensive to free its prisoners. Discussing this period in a 1996 interview with Oliver Tolmein, Pohl would say, “At the beginning of the ‘80s, we didn’t want to strengthen the RAF. We sent people who wanted to join us back into the local struggles. We wanted to develop our structures and political processes, but the feedback that we received came as requests that we carry out actions.”
Pohl was one of a number of guerillas who worked through the practical and theoretical questions facing the organization, and as such laid the basis for what the group would do next. In 1981 the RAF bombed USAFE in Rammstein and carried out a rocket attack on General Frederick Kroesen, the supreme commander of the U.S. Army and of NATO’s Central Europe section. In 1982 the RAF released a major position paper – which Pohl was instrumental in crafting – proposing a West German anti-imperialist front integrating the guerilla, the militant anti-imperialist left, and the legal movement, as well as a front with other guerilla groups in Europe.
Although Pohl would be arrested in July 1984, before the proposed front came to fruition, the legacy of his second period underground would be an unparalleled wave of anti-imperialist militancy in Germany and successful cooperation with the French guerilla group Action Directe.
Nevertheless, despite its successes, the Front failed to weather the storms of the 80s, and by the end of the decade the RAF seemed at an impasse. Behind the scenes, Pohl and other prisoners from the organization urged a reappraisal of the group’s strategy; this did not occur. As he would later explain: “The thinking about a break was above all connected to international developments. To us, it was clear in 1987 that as a result of these developments relationships had to be shifted. And as a result, from our point of view, the entire RAF concept up to that point needed to be re-examined. But no discussion arose from this analysis. Things just got stuck. That criticism also applies to us, the prisoners: when it was clear to us that we weren’t making any progress, we should have clearly stated that things couldn’t continue as they were. But at that time, we didn’t think we could achieve anything in that way.”
After nearly fourteen years in isolation and numerous hunger strikes, Pohl was finally pardoned and released from prison in May 1998. The occasional interview aside, Pohl’s poor health prevented him from fully participating in the politics he so strongly identified with.
When Helmut Pohl died on August 12, 2014, we lost a comrade who could teach us all a thing or two about commitment and perseverance.
We print below the English language translation of the eulogy delivered at Helmut Pohl’s funeral by longtime friend Ron Augustin. We thank Ron for providing us with the translation.
german writer peter chotjewitz once asked me whether, for those who for a long time had been in the raf and then longtime in jail, there would be a life after the raf. without thinking much, i answered the question with yes. nevertheless, even when it seems to be a bit simplified, i think one can say that for helmut the meaning of his life was – the raf. and one cannot imagine the group without helmut.
i got to know him when he left prison for the first time, 1973. andreas had told us so much about him that we immediately got him into the group which had survived the 1970 and 1972 waves of busts. we needed him, and he wanted as well, straight away. together with the others he then took care of strengthening the group and preserving the continuity upon which the later groups could build despite subsequent busts.
when in 1979 he left prison for the second time, he and wolfgang beer blew fresh wind into the group which had reconstituted itself a few years earlier. he absolutely wanted me to get to know wolfgang. it never happened because wolfgang then died in a car accident. a short while earlier helmut and i often went swimming during our conversations. helmut insisted that there would be no swimming without diving. apparently quite a few people have been harrassed by him with that. at some point i lost my specs, which i had in my hand while diving. helmut then fished them up from the bottom of the swimming pool. proudly grinning, as always.
he was the first person i later contacted again, when he had left prison for the third time. the first thing he wanted to know was whether i “had” a woman. as per usual, we talked about our “women issues”, those oh so similar patterns of what rather makes up “men issues”, but also the dialectics of individual love affairs and friendships within the collective. what was left of the latter, then, or not, had made him rather bitter, yet wishes, hopes, ideas for the future kept him going.
time and again, his health both in prison and outside caused him a lot of trouble. it made discussions difficult, at some point impossible. but over the past two three years his old ironic and open ways increasingly came back again. thus, he remained my “old friend”. he wanted to write, was pushing, history should not be abandoned to total oblivion, repulsion, distortion. particularly the history of the raf, its comprehension and the comrades which shaped and carried it.
a life after the raf, yes, but, for him, with the same references. regarding the goals, the criteria, the starting points. from the moment the group was started to helmuts last days.
- junge Welt, August 18, 2014, in a notice mourning the passing of Helmut Pohl, by comrades and friends. [↩]