Steinmeier calls on RAF terrorists to break silence 40 years after German Autumn | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 18.10.2017
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Steinmeier calls on RAF terrorists to break silence 40 years after German Autumn

German President Steinmeier has presided over events marking the national crisis sparked by the RAF in 1977, saying many questions remain unanswered. But the terrorists are not the only ones still keeping secrets.

Black and white photo of Hanns-Martin Schleyer holding a sign reading 'For 31 Days' (AFP/Getty Images)

Employers' Association head Schleyer was killed October 18, 1977

A cellist plays Beethoven for the guests invited to the German president's residence, Bellevue Palace. Among them are the co-pilot and passengers who were held hostage in the Lufthansa plane, Landshut, as well as the son of Hanns Martin Schleyer, the murdered president of the German Employers' Association. 

It was 40 years ago that the German Autumn, the bloody standoff between the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the German state, reached its peak. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier invited the guests to honor the victims and reflect on the events that unfolded four decades ago.

Steinmeier during his speech in commemorating the 40th anniversary of Hanns Martin Schleyer's murder (picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm)

Steinmeier said it was time to hear from RAF members who have been silent for four decades

RAF terrorists killed 11 people in 1977, but by the time their last victim was shot in 1991, some 35 people had died. For Steinmeier, however, the time has not come to close this chapter of German history.  There are too many unanswered questions, he said, calling on RAF members to break their silence.

"If you have the backbone that you so often accused others of lacking, then speak," he said. "Then disclose your crimes in full!"

In his remarks, Steinmeier also spoke of the dilemma faced by the German government at the time.

"The refusal to be blackmailed can have the consequence that you sacrifice a human life," he said.

Read more: Terror casualty Hanns Martin Schleyer - sacrificed by the state?

Schleyer's kidnapping was meant to give the RAF leverage in demanding the release of leading terror cell members who were in jail in Stuttgart. That was the same goal in the hijacking of the Landshut plane, an operation carried out by Palestinian sympathizers.

Burial of Ensslin, Baader and Raspe beigesetzt in 1977 (picture-alliance/dpa)

RAF leaders Gudrun Ensslin, Jan-Carl Raspe and Andreas Baader were buried under tight security

The chancellor at the time, Helmut Schmidt, refused to negotiate. A day after the hijacking, Schleyer's body was found in the trunk of an Audi 100. Three RAF members were found dead in their cells, having committed suicide. Reflecting on the Schmidt government's stance, Steinmeier commented that "the history books say the state was tough, the state would not be blackmailed."

Myths and conspiracy theories

No one in Germany would doubt Steinmeier when he says that the events of the German Autumn continue to influence the collective conscience today. Books, artworks and especially film productions keep revisiting the era of the RAF.

"Telling the story of the conflict as a duel — the terrorists versus the state — makes this subject very attractive," said historian Andreas Rödder.

Read more: The legacy of the 1977 German Autumn of left-wing terror

Much of the discussion now delves into the myths and conspiracy theories surrounding the terrorists. Did the imprisoned RAF leaders really commit suicide? And the later phases of RAF terror in the 1980s and 1990s are also open to speculation, in part because the perpetrators of the third generation were never caught.

Rödder was one of the panelists who continued the discussion about the German Autumn after Steinmeier's speech. He was joined by Federal Prosecutor Peter Frank, public opinion researcher Renate Köcher and journalist and publisher Stefan Aust.

Aust, one of the most high-profile authors to have chronicled the terrorist organization, said it's time that the authorities open their archives to the public.

"After 40 years, it's time to stop the secrecy," he said, adding that he would not be surprised to find information on mistakes made by investigators, or dubious surveillance activity.

Terrorist campaign with lasting impact

"Next to the building of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Wall, Germans list the RAF era as one of the most important events in the postwar period," Köcher said, adding that this applies to the population of the former West Germany.

The peak of the group's activities in the fall of 1977 marked a turning point and was accompanied by a heavy police presence in Germany, she added.

"Sympathy for the RAF's goals decreased by half," Köcher said, adding that trust in the state began to grow, and people allowed the state much more room to increase security measures. "That trend continues today."

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