Surveilling Germany’s Right-Wing Populists
Conservatives fret about a snooping deep state, the Left sees Weimar. But it’s the history of the Baader-Meinhof Gang—a case study in modern extremism—that’s worth revisiting.
In the late afternoon of July 30, 1977, Jürgen Ponto, chairman of Dresdner Bank, was at his home in Oberursel, outside Frankfurt, packing for vacation with his wife Ignes. There was a knock at the door. It was twenty-six-year-old family friend Susanne Albrecht. She called him “Uncle Jürgen.” He was godfather to her little sister. Susanne had brought two friends along and a bouquet of roses. Frau Ponto took the flowers into the kitchen to put them in water. Jürgen invited Susanne and company into the living room.
Suddenly, shots rang out. This wasn’t a friendly visit; it was a kidnapping. Ponto resisted. He was shot five times, and died later that day at the hospital. Susanne and her friends fled in a getaway car waiting for them outside the Ponto house.
This kidnapping-gone-wrong was part of what came to be known as the grim and tumultuous German Autumn. The Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, was committing in those days bank robberies, bombings, kidnappings, arson, and assassinations that rocked the Federal Republic of Germany. Throughout the horror of 1977, the German government, led by Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, had to balance liberal principles against the country’s security.
Germans may well be at the cusp of similar challenges. Let’s hope this time the problem isn’t so acute, and that it doesn’t take so long to bring threats to heel.
Germany’s AfD Problem
Franz Josef Strauss, the legendary leader of the Bavarian sister party to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—the Christian Social Union (CSU)—used to say that the only thing to the right of him was the wall. His CSU would own the national conservative space. The unruly and radical fringe would stay inconsequential, and on the fringe.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, the current CDU head, has tilted German conservatism to the left in recent years. She has been compelled to work with Social Democratic coalition partners, it must be said. She also infuriated the Right with her 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to roughly a million refugees. She’s principled and pragmatic, say her allies and advisers. Fair enough. But she created a vacuum, that space Strauss had been determined to keep closed. The AfD, Alternative für Deutschland, has moved to fill it.
AfD voters are not a bunch of fascists, though the Left habitually sees them as such. AfD is a right-wing populist hodgepodge of a political party—a Sammelbecken (collecting bowl), as Germans say. It includes Euroskeptics, immigration restrictionists, family traditionalists, free marketeers, foreign policy isolationists, nationalists, and, to round things out, Russophiles. I’ve traveled through AfD strongholds the last several years doing research for a book on political change in Germany. The supporters I’ve met are in the main—ranging from right to left—ordinary citizens who fume over what they call out-of-touch elites with too much power and too little empathy. Think Bernie-Trump voters in 2016.
This doesn’t make AfD an issue for law enforcement. It does make it, chiefly in any case, a political problem for the mainstream parties. If you treat AfD voters with distrust and contempt, what you’ll get in return is even more distrust and contempt.
The Problem of AfD Leadership
Unfortunately, that’s not all there is to the AfD, because the party is changing before our eyes. It’s no longer just a protest party that’s out to give Germany’s deep state a comeuppance through the political process. To be clear: there has indeed been real ugliness from the outset, a hard-right wing with hard-right followers. Politician Björn Höcke—a high school teacher from western Germany who has represented a constituency in the east—has led this wing with race baiting, Holocaust minimizing, violence-threatening rhetoric. I even had another AfD politician tell me privately, “He’s honestly a Nazi, Björn Höcke.”
What appeared several years ago to be one piece of a larger whole turns out to be stubbornly malignant and spreading.
Late last year, a number of AfD parliamentarians smuggled right-wing activists into the Bundestag to protest a new law allowing authorities to impose anti-coronavirus lockdowns. The activists insulted and harassed Bundestag delegates. Last fall, AfD press officer Christian Lüth was caught saying of immigrants to a right-wing YouTube blogger, “We can always shoot them later ... or gas them.” For this unconscionable piece of filth hiding behind the principle of free speech, Lüth was sacked. But good Lord, Houston, we certainly have a problem.
It’s not just a problem of rhetoric. In August 2018, in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, a fight and stabbing involved two Kurdish immigrant suspects. There were demonstrations against violence that quickly led to face-offs between serious hard Left and serious hard Right. When I was in Chemnitz a couple of weeks afterward, senior security officials told me they had been surprised by the preparedness and coordination among right-wing rioters—skinheads, soccer hooligans, bona fide neo-Nazis. More disturbing, some of the rioters were communicating with AfD politicians, locally and in other parts of Germany.
Concerns continue. Some in the far-right camp maintain links to organized crime and to Russian-sponsored paramilitary groups in eastern Ukraine. Public reports by Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, see signs of growing programmatic coherence on the far right, too. Targets of violence may no longer be restricted to Muslim immigrants and Jewish synagogues; right-wing extremists increasingly blame “the state” for a longer list of societal woes.
The fight is on over who leads the AfD. But in a range of ways, AfD leadership is already aiding, abetting, and very possibly generating forces beyond its control.
At the end of September Germany will hold federal elections. The AfD, with eighty-eight seats, is the Bundestag’s largest opposition party. Early this month, someone leaked news that the government—in particular, the BfV, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a department of the Interior Ministry that, among other things, keeps watch on right-wing extremism—was getting ready to propose official surveillance of the AfD on a national basis. Björn Höcke and his faction have already been under surveillance.
A political row has ensued. Like most political rows, timing and motivation have a lot to do with things. “The BfV,” cautioned the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, “exists to protect the Constitution, not the established parties.” The politically fraught, legally complex problem now sits with the courts.
Not the First Stress Test
Is the activity on the German right really getting out of hand? It is certainly important to note here that Germany has a dangerous hard Left today, too; but it’s the Right that is now on a roll.
Germany is not yet being subjected to the kind of stress test the country experienced in the autumn of 1977. Here’s why, if you want history for reference, the Red Army Faction period—Baader-Meinhof—is more interesting than Weimar. This was a time when a small group of fanatics—loose and disorganized at the outset, well-networked and disciplined as time went on—took a stable democracy and turned it upside down.
No heavy breathing. No predictions. Yet pictures of a moment, of a milieu today are taking shape. Attacks on synagogues, immigrants, and women wearing headscarves are no longer a rarity in Germany. The country’s largest police union, a conservative association, has taken the exceptional step of expelling AfD members. The army is facing similar problems, with right-wing extremist cells being identified in its ranks. It’s likely that the elite special forces group—Kommando Spezialkräfte—will be dismantled and reorganized during the next legislature.
Back then, the problem came from the militant Left. Andreas Baader was one of the early leaders of the RAF. He was a high-school dropout. He liked to rob banks and steal fancy cars. In 1968, he and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, set fire to a Frankfurt department store to protest the Vietnam War. Baader was in and out of jail.
Ulrike Meinhof was a journalist-intellectual who studied philosophy and sociology. She joined West Germany’s banned Communist party, then became in essence chief ideologue of the RAF. Meinhof’s essays, pamphlets, and manifestos included, “The Concept of the Urban Guerrilla.”
Meinhof’s relationship with Baader was, to say the least, bewildering. She, the radical feminist in the context of Marxist-Leninist armed struggle; he, the misogynist who loved shoot-outs and called female colleagues the c-word. But for both her and him, conspiracy theories abounded. Categories were always clear, strict, and unforgiving.
A British journalist who met the then-thirty-year-old Meinhof in 1964, “before she took up the gun,” said she had a couple of little girls playing at her feet and struck him as “tender and vulnerable.” Her chief concern at the time was poverty, especially those left behind by Germany’s “economic miracle.”
Meinhof would later be compared in media to Beate Zschäpe of the far-right National Socialist Underground, which was responsible for a series of immigrant murders between 2000 and 2007. Meinhof would die in prison by hanging in May 1976, a probable though disputed suicide. A year after her death, in revenge for her alleged murder, the RAF assassinated Germany’s attorney general.
The RAF would come to achieve painstaking detail in its planning and operations. Industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer had a police escort for his car in downtown Cologne on September 5, 1977, when a female RAF member stepped into the street with a baby carriage. Traffic halted. Four masked men with assault rifles appeared, opening fire. Within minutes, Schleyer’s driver and three police officers were killed and Schleyer was abducted.
Schleyer, the hard-nosed head of both the German Employers Association and the Federation of German Industries, was the perfect “ugly capitalist” for the Red Army Faction to use, then destroy. He was executed five weeks after the kidnapping, when authorities refused to exchange him for imprisoned RAF members.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Some twelve years after the failed kidnapping and murder of Jürgen Ponto, when the Berlin Wall had just come down, Deutsche Bank chairman Alfred Herrhausen was on his way to work. On November 30, 1989, he sat in the back of his armor-plated Mercedes leaving the Frankfurt suburb of Bad Homburg. Herrhausen had two escort vehicles. His security team had evaluated the parked bicycle along the route before; it had been there for days. On this day, however, as Herrhausen’s car passed an infrared light, a bomb attached to the bike exploded. A copper projectile pierced the vehicle’s back door, severing both his legs.
Herrhausen bled to death.
Longtime Der Spiegel editor-in-chief Stefan Aust, author of The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2009), has described the RAF as a story of the “hyper-moral turned into immorality” and the transformation of human beings into ruthless killers. After Ponto’s murder, Susanne Albrecht wrote a note that patiently explained, “It had not been clear to us that these people, who start wars in the Third World and destroy entire populations, are dumbfounded when violence faces them in their own house.”
Susanne, the daughter of a Hamburg lawyer, had trained with Palestinian terrorists in Yemen. She tried to assassinate U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig in Germany and attempted to mount a rocket attack on Germany’s Supreme Court. In 1980, Susanne fled West Germany for Communist East Germany, where the Stasi, the East German secret police, provided her with a new identity and gave her work as a translator. She married a physicist and had a son; neither knew about her Baader-Meinhof past. But in 1986, colleagues recognized her in a report on West German television about the RAF. The Stasi moved her from the city of Köthen to East Berlin and arranged a fellowship at the time in Moscow for her husband—who, an internal Stasi memo reported, still knew nothing about her “terrorist background.”
It wasn’t until after German reunification in 1990 that Susanne, now living under the name of Ingrid Becker, was finally arrested. She was sentenced to prison for twelve years and paroled after six. Today, at age seventy, she lives in Bremen, where she has taught German to immigrant children—under yet another name.
It took a long time for the RAF to burn out. It didn’t happen until after the Baader-Meinhof Gang had worked its way through three generations of leaders, corpses, and shattered communities.
German democracy survived the terror, but it would have been far better not to let the fire start in the first place. We Americans should be taking notes.
Last year, the AfD proposed the creation of a museum dedicated to the victims of the Red Army Faction—and the triumph of the rule of law, the Rechtsstaat, over left-wing terrorism. What the AfD means by the “rule of law,” however, is anyone’s guess.
Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
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