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Planned German Terror Exhibition Triggers Outrage

An exhibition on the disbanded terrorist group Red Army Faction has German politicians up in arms. Despite the organizers' denials, they say the show is distasteful and will glorify the notorious German guerillas.


The RAF killed at least 30 people including head of the German Employers Federation Hans-Martin Schleyer.

An exhibition that hasn't yet opened its doors or even gotten past the planning stage has sparked outrage and protest in Germany. At the heart of the controversy is the internationally-renowned Berlin exhibition hall Kunst-Werke that has been developing a project focused on the now defunct German terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF).

The show was initially meant to be called "RAF, the Myth," and that seems to be part of the problem. Critics, who include leading politicians like German Interior Minister Otto Schily, a former lawyer for RAF member Gudrun Ensslin, have said they fear the exhibition will glorify the terrorist group.

"It's a scandal"

"The exhibition should be cancelled without any ifs or buts," oppostion Christian Democratic Union Secretary-General Laurenz Meyer announced on Friday in Berlin. He said it was incomprehensible why the people responsible for the project had not been sensitized to the topic. The RAF was not about "ideals, but about terror and the murder of innocents."

His party colleague Rupert Scholz condemned the exhibition in even sharper tones. "An exhibition like the one apparently initiated here is absolutely unacceptable. In reality, it is a scandal," he told a radio station.

Ruthless campaign of killings

The Red Army Faction, which had its roots in the radical leftist student movement of the late 1960s, carried out a campaign of killings, robberies and bomb attacks from 1971 to 1993 in Germany with the aim of destroying a society they condemned as imperialist and capitalist. The move starkly polarized West German society still struggling to reconcile its liberal democratic aspirations with its Nazi past.

Leading figures of the extremist group such as Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof attracted widespread sympathy from many young people critical of western consumer society and equally trenchant condemnation from an older generation stunned by their ruthless violence.

At least 30 people including prominent industrialists and businesmen were killed in RAF attacks.

Outrage over the planned exhibition first surfaced when the tabloid Bild reported that the Berlin Senate planned a "scandalous exhibition about the RAF" which would be financed with €100,000 ($125,000) in federal funds. Bild said relatives of the RAF's victims had appealed to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to prevent the exhibition from promoting the myth that already surrounds the group and glorifying it.

Now the Federal Center for Political Education (BPB) and the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, advisors to the exhibition, have said they will only cooperate with the organizers if they meet certain conditions, including consulting with the relatives.

An absurd debate

But organizers of the exhibition are nonplussed by the furore sparked by it.

"I find the debate rather absurd," the vice president of parliament, Antje Vollmer, who has been advising the organizers said on Thursday. "Throughout the whole process I never had an inkling of a feeling that something could go wrong."

"The project aims to do just what we're accused of: to allow a historically-grounded assessment of the RAF that counteracts glorification and mythologization," Klaus Biesenbach, the exhibition's artistic director told the German news agency DPA. He said pop culture and the media had dealt with the RAF in an ambiguous and at times uncritical manner in recent years.

The public commotion suggests that it is very important to do this review of a horrible chapter (of Germany's history), said Biesenbach.

In any case, the controversy has resulted in at least one change: Though originally planned for November, it will not open until November 2004 so organizers will have time to consult with the victim's relatives and figure out how to deal with such a sensitive issue.

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