Commentary Magazine


Hitler's Children, by Jillian Becker; Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist, by Colin Smith

Urban Terrorists

Hitler’s Children: The Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang.
by Jillian Becker.
Lippincott. 322 Pp. $12.50.

Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist.
by Colin Smith.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 312 pp. $8.95.

Terrorism has become a fashionable subject during the past few years, but only a few authors have attempted to explain the phenomenon or to place it in any sort of historical and/or political context. Both these books attempt to do just that, with varying degrees of success.

In Hitler’s Children, Jillian Becker, a South African-born British novelist, traces the origins of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang, the band of urban terrorists who made headlines in the early 70′s by robbing banks, setting department stores on fire, and placing bombs in supermarkets and in parked cars—all in the name of protesting “fascism” in the German Federal Republic. Much of the book is taken up with biographical accounts of the principal members of this group, which called itself the “Rote Armee Fraktion”(Red Army Faction)—the same group that recently kidnapped West German industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer. Like so many chronicles of the period, it reads like fiction.

The story begins in 1967, a year of mass student demonstrations throughout Germany against such things as the Vietnam war, the Shah of Iran, and the Axel Springer publishing empire. In that year Andreas Baader, a youthful drifter of no particular political persuasion, whose father had been killed on the Russian front, took up with Gudrun Ensslin, a student radical living off the stipend of a prestigious national scholarship. The daughter of a solid German family of liberal inclinations, Gudrun Ensslin had been one of the planners of a Berlin student protest against the visiting Shah of Iran. A student, Benno Ohnesorg, had been shot and killed by the Berlin police in the course of this demonstration. Though not himself a radical, the dead Ohnesorg became a hero of the German Left, and it was in his name that Gudrun Ensslin shortly thereafter abandoned her husband and infant and went off with Baader to Frankfurt. Here the two of them teamed up with another couple to set fire to a department store in protest against the “consumer state.” They were promptly arrested for arson.

The ensuing trial became a cause cèlèbre, thanks to its coverage in the pages of Konkret, a glossy journal combining pornography with left-wing politics. The author of the stories was Ulrike Meinhof, a founding editor of the magazine. An orphan who had been brought up in the home of a prominent German historian and political activist, she was already something of a celebrity in Germany, having twice been sued for slander by German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Strauss. The articles in Konkret turned the four defendants into heroes, and later—when the four fled Germany to avoid serving their sentences—Ulrike Meinhof retained close contact with them. Eventually she left her husband, also a Konkret editor, and her two small daughters, to join up with Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, a Berlin lawyer named Horst Mahler, and a small group of others to form what would be known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. Schooled in terrorism at a Jordan-based training camp of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the group returned to Germany and began the rampage of bombings, holdups, and murders which ended some two years later with the arrest of almost all the Baader-Meinhof members.

Miss Meinhof, the ideologue of the band, who spent hours preparing its manifestoes, ultimately committed suicide in prison after the failure of an attempt to secure the prisoners’ release by a group calling itself “The Movement of the Second of June” (Ohnesorg had been shot on that date). In that attempt, the German embassy in Stockholm was occupied; hostages, including the German ambassador, were held at gunpoint; and demands were issued that the Baader-Meinhof prisoners be freed and flown to safety. These demands were rejected, and in the ensuing impasse one of the terrorists accidentally triggered an explosive device, blowing up the embassy building, most of his comrades, and himself. The surviving hostages escaped unharmed.

Two of the group’s members who had escaped the police dragnet were killed by Israeli commandos at Entebbe airport in Uganda last summer. Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and two other gang members recently committed suicide in prison after a German commando raid on a plane hijacked to Somalia.

____________

 

Carlos, the story of the Venezuelan-born master terrorist who worked closely with Baader-Meinhof members and with many other groups of armed revolutionaries operating in Europe, is a less satisfactory narrative, if only because it is still unfinished. The author, a reporter for the London Observer, reconstructs by means of interviews with family, associates, and police officers, the transformation of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez from the pampered son of a highly successful corporate lawyer (the father, a Communist, named his three sons Ilich, Lenin, and Vladimir) into the world’s most wanted terrorist.

It was at some point after his expulsion from Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow that Sanchez became a terrorist operative, though under whose auspices (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine? the KGB?) remains unclear. Smith concentrates instead on following Sanchez’s, or Carlos’s, trail as he commutes between European capitals and the Middle East. In the course of those travels, he has planted bombs in Jewish-owned stores in Paris; shot and wounded the British Zionist leader, Joseph Sieff, in London; organized an assault on the train carrying Russian Jews with exit-visas to the Israeli-run transit camp near Schönau; and, finally, led the raid on the OPEC ministers’ conference in Vienna. This chronicle of mayhem is both a testament to Carlos’s own skill as a terrorist and a sad comment on police incompetence. Yet, for whom he works, and what his aim is, remain a mystery.

____________

 

What motivates a student activist to become a hijacker of airplanes on behalf of the Basques or the Palestinians? What are the roots of contemporary urban terrorism? Of the two authors, Jillian Becker does attempt to deal with these larger issues; in fact, she offers a theory about terrorism in West Germany. In her view, there is a generational struggle peculiar to the German situation which expresses itself in the form of groups like Baader-Meinhof. Their outrages are part of a backlash against the National Socialist state of the previous generation. Guilt, of a consuming nature, and the bomb-throwers’ psychological need to identify themselves as victims of the state, are pervasive in the lore of present-day terrorists in the Federal Republic. “We are the Jews of today—” the oft-repeated and nonsensical slogan of the late 60′s—illustrates this desire of some on the radical Left to assume the exalted status of victims.

Miss Becker identifies a possible cause of this syndrome in the denazification proceedings that took place under American auspices during the postwar period. It was this process, she contends, which led some of those educated after the war to see the world in terms of black and white, fascist and antifascist. Miss Becker claims that from the reeducation programs under the Occupation, students learned to regard every member of the older generation as “fascist by default, unless an individual . . . could prove himself otherwise.” But since the fascist state was long since dead by the time these students reached adulthood, the “consumer state”—the new Germany of the Economic Miracle—became their target.

There are obvious problems with this explanation of the roots of West German terrorism. In the first place, the vast majority of today’s German students were educated long after the denazification procedures had ceased to be in effect. Secondly, if Miss Becker’s psychological analysis were correct, one would have expected many more young leftists to have gone the route of terrorism; neurotic guilt does not, however, in most cases, turn into political action of the kind followed by the Baader-Meinhof gang. Finally, although many of Miss Becker’s comments on the psychological makeup of the terrorists are acute, they suffer, curiously, from her inability to restrain her own hatred of the group and her disdain for their emotional infantilism—a disdain which expresses itself in Miss Becker’s relentlessly sarcastic tone.

Not that the subject lacks opportunity for sarcasm. Baader himself was a political imbecile, the group as a whole had no coherent ideological line, and most of the members were products of a leisure class that knew nothing of workers and cared even less about them. Indeed, as Miss Becker points out, the catalyst for the formation of the Baader-Meinhof gang was not some sudden and overwhelming desire to smash the state, but rather the bourgeois emotional attachment of Gudrun Ensslin to Andreas Baader. Still, sarcasm, however appropriate, does not serve to elucidate the phenomenon altogether. Miss Becker raises any number of fascinating questions in her account, but unfortunately abandons them.

Colin Smith, for his part, seems to have only one major question on his mind: is Carlos an employee of the KGB? This too is an interesting question, but in the end he is unable to come to a firm conclusion-other than that Carlos, at this stage of the game, may well be in business for himself, giving rather than taking orders. And so, aside from a cursory examination of how the international terrorist network operates, Smith has little to offer. Nor is he any more helpful on the question of who profits from Carlos, though he himself raises it. Political issues, even of the most elementary nature, are apparently beyond his scope. Still, if one is looking for a good cops-and-robbers story, particularly one in which the criminals lead the cops around by the nose, Carlos will certainly do.

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