1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Fifty years of Germany's Red Army Faction

Matthias von Hein
April 1, 2018

Future members of the Red Army Faction committed their first known attack on April 2, 1968, when two Frankfurt department stores were hit with arson. The RAF dissolved in 1998, but many questions are still unanswered.

Frankfurt: A burned department store in 1968
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Hampel

Three former members of the Red Army Faction are still on the run. Last November the Federal Criminal Police issued new photos of the RAF's Ernst-Volker Staub, Burkhard Garweg and Daniela Klette, all of whom went to ground around 1990. A series of robberies in the late 1990s put the authorities back on their trail. These thefts served no apparent political goal: Their only purpose was to finance the fugitives' lives on the run.

The RAF is not history, primarily because the murders, bombings and attacks carried out between 1970 and 1998, in which 33 people were killed and more than 200 injured, have not all been solved or explained. It is not history, not least because belated apologies are still stirring up people's emotions: Last autumn, for example, the former RAF member Silke Maier-Witt met the son of Hanns Martin Schleyer and asked for forgiveness for the group's 1977 kidnapping and killing of the executive.

The RAF is not history, even though the museumization of far-left terrorism has gained pace with last September's return to Germany of the Lufthansa plane Landshut, which was hijacked in 1977.

It remains unclear what role Germany's intelligence services played when members of the student protest movement of the late 1960s and early '70s began to show inclinations toward terror.

Peter Urbach key figure

A key figure was the informant Peter Urbach, the Hamburg-based political scientist Wolfgang Kraushaar told DW. "Urbach played an important role, one that cannot be conclusively evaluated, in transforming a small-but-hard core of what was then the protest scene into militant groupings, and eventually into circles from which the terrorism emerged," Kraushaar said.

Security camera still that possibly shows former RAF members
Police say the people seen in this security camera footage are still-free RAF membersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Landeskriminalamt Niedersachsen

Urbach was active on April 11, 1968 - the day that student leader Rudi Dutschke was shot and critically injured in an assassination attempt by a far-right activist.

Two thousand angry students marched on the headquarters of Axel Springer's publishing house. The mogul's Bild newspaper had been agitating heavily against the student protests and against Dutschke himself. Kraushaar said Urbach was among the demonstrators and was carrying a wicker basket of Molotov cocktails, which he distributed to the protesters, who were already in a state of outrage and fury.

"When the first few gasoline bombs didn't achieve what the protesters were hoping to achieve, which was to set these cars ablaze, Urbach showed them what they had to do," Kraushaar said. "First they turned the cars over so it was easier to get at the gasoline tanks underneath. Then they set fire to them. Then the cars all went up in flames and burnt out."

Schmidt honoured by Schleyer family

Effort to discredit

Kraushaar said Urbach was also the first person to distribute guns to left-wing protesters. In his view, Urbach was an agent provocateur who had considerable influence on the actions of Germany's nonparliamentary opposition.

This raises the question of what motivated Berlin's city-state administration, and possibly such West German allies as the United States, France and Britain — who were the city's occupying and controlling powers until reunification in 1990 — to give such a man a free hand.

"They wanted to get demonstrators with particularly militant leanings to discredit themselves and others, and ultimately the whole left-wing nonparliamentary active movement, with acts of violence," Kraushaar said.

Though the RAF was the best-known far-left terror group, it was not the only one. There were also, for example, the Revolutionary Cells; the 2 June Movement, named after the day of the murder of the student Benno Ohnesorg by a police officer in 1967; and the Tupamaros West-Berlin, who attempted to bomb Berlin's Jewish Community Center on November 9, 1969 — the 31st anniversary of Kristallnacht.

The center was full, with around 250 people present. Fortunately the bomb failed to explode. Here, too, Germany's intelligence services were involved. "Just imagine: A Jewish institution was attacked with a bomb from the intelligence services, supplied by this Peter Urbach," the historian Michael Sontheimer said. "This was the start of terrorism in West Germany, in West Berlin."

In hindsight, it is clear that government agencies were prepared to pour fuel on a fire that was already raging.

Every evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of news and features. You can sign up to receive it here.

Skip next section Explore more

Explore more

Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

A bombed out building in Mariupol
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage