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Hanns Martin Schleyer: Sacrificed by the state?

Volker Wagener
September 5, 2017

The abduction and murder of the powerful industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer 40 years ago was a dramatic turning point for the Federal Republic of Germany. The drama is still fresh in the minds of many Germans.

Schleyer Entführung 1977
Image: AFP/Getty Images

The images are among the most iconographic in the history of a still young West Germany. It was October 25, 1977, and a chastened Chancellor Helmut Schmidt appeared before Waltrude Schleyer. Just days before, her husband, Hanns Martin Schleyer, had been murdered execution-style by the Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists who had abducted him weeks earlier. In exchange for Schleyer's freedom, they had been demanding the release of 11 RAF members from a Stuttgart prison.

Helmut Schmidt
Schmidt appeared on television to make a statement on the kidnappingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Schmidt was categorical from the get-go: no deal. Both his government and the opposition were in agreement that it was against the national interest to negotiate with terrorists. The kidnapping of Schleyer marked the beginning of a period that came to be known as the "German Autumn."

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier marked the 40th anniversary of Schleyer's abduction on Tuesday by laying a wreath in the western city of Cologne where he was kidnapped.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier laying a wreath in Cologne to mark the 40th anniversary of the abduction of Hanns Martin Schleyer
President Steinmeier laid a wreath to remember the kidnapping that started the 'German Autumn' of leftist violenceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

Who was Hanns Martin Schleyer?

For the RAF, Schleyer was the poster child of a despicable capitalist state. He served as president of major industrial associations, and having been a member of the SS during the Second World War, he was viewed as a symbol of the continuity of Nazism in the West German establishment.

Schleyer was not the RAF's first prominent victim. Earlier that year, the group shot dead Germany's public prosecutor general, Siegfried Buback, and murdered the banker, Jürgen Ponto. But with Schleyer's abduction on September 5, 1977, RAF terrorism took on a new dimension and presented the government with a pressing question: Can the state allow itself to be blackmailed?

Film scence from the film "Baader Meinhof Komplex" (picture-alliance/ dpa)
The kidnapping was one of the scenes shown in a 2008 film about the RAFImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Constantin Film

Escalation: The hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181

A clear answer to that question was quick in coming. Hanns Martin Schleyer was abducted from his car in Cologne at 5:29 pm local time. Members of his police protection and his driver were killed in a spray of machine-gun fire. By 11 pm, the Chancellery was agreed: There would be no prisoner release in exchange for Schleyer's freedom. After a tense week during which little happened, Chancellor Schmidt went on TV to tell the German public and the RAF that terrorism had no chance in the long term.

The Bundestag made quick legal reforms granting law enforcement more powers. It was then, on October 13, that terrorists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked Lufthansa Flight 181 on its way from Majorca to Frankfurt with 86 passengers and five crew on board, forcing it to land in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. By that point, Schleyer had been a hostage for six weeks. He appealed to the German government in a video message: "In my present situation, I wonder whether something more really has to happen to make it possible for [the German government] to decide."

The hijacked plane
The pilot of the plane, Jürgen Schumann, was murdered by the terrorist leader Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/H. Koundakjian

GSG 9 in action

The hijacking was an early instance of global coordination among terror groups. With the German government trying to buy time and the hijackers becoming more aggressive, Germany's elite counter-terrorism force, the GSG 9, went into action. The special unit had been preparing for such a situation since it was created in the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis, which led to the deaths of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes. GSG 9 members stormed the hijacked plane on October 18, killing three of the four hijackers and safely freeing all the hostages.

Read more: Hijacked 'Landshut' plane returning to Germany  

GSG 9 elite force picture-alliance/dpa)
Commander Ulrich Wegener (l.) led the rescue by GSG 9Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Schleyer's family goes to court

Meanwhile, Schleyer's family had been trying to force the government's hand. On October 16, however, Germany's highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, ruled against it, arguing that the state was responsible for protecting all citizens, not just individuals. The family was additionally prevented from offering 15 million Deutschmarks as a ransom. The ruling sealed Schleyer's fate.

On the same day as the successful GSG 9 operation in Mogadishu, three leading RAF members committed suicide in their Stuttgart prison cells, while one survived her attempt, though severely injured. Schleyer was murdered soon thereafter, his body found in the trunk of a car in the Alsace region of France on October 19. From the viewpoint of his family, he was sacrificed by the state.

Schmidt takes responsibility

Chancellor Schmidt never forgot the German Autumn.

Although he defended his government's tough stance, he felt responsible for Schleyer's death. In an act of reconciliation with the Schleyer family, he was awarded the 2012 Hanns Martin Schleyer Prize at a ceremony in 2013.

"Theoretically, we could have taken the RAF's offer," he said upon receiving the award.

Schmidt honoured by Schleyer family