Following the horrible terrorist attack at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and the botched rescue attempt that left all of the hostages dead, Germany created a special federal anti-terrorism police unit known as GSG 9. The Munich attack was carried out by foreign terrorists, but in the ensuing years most of the terrorism incidents in Germany have been carried out by domestic terrorists. Although there are right-wing, neo-Nazi groups in Germany, most of Germany’s home-grown terrorism since World War II has come from the left side of the political spectrum. But we’ll start with the radical right, since they have been in the news so much lately.
The “Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund” (NSU, “Nazi Underground”)
The strange case of Beate Zschäpe and the NSU has dominated the headlines in Germany from late 2011 to the present. The NSU is accused of ten racially motivated murders of Greeks, Turks (the “Döner” or “Bosphorus serial murders”) and a policewoman between 2000 and 2006. The NSU group is also suspected of 14 bank robberies, several bombings and other crimes. Evidence of the right-wing extremist group’s existence only came to light in November 2011 after Beate Zschäpe’s house was partially destroyed in a fire, revealing clues about the NSU. Based in Zwickau in eastern Germany, investigators now think that the NSU may have had the support of over 100 people from the right-wing scene.
Zschäpe surrendered herself to the police on Nov. 8, 2011. After a three-week delay caused by a controversy over press and media access, her trial began on May 16, 2013 in Munich. (Under German law, the trial must take place in a state where at least one of the crimes took place. Five of the NSU murders were committed in Bavaria.) Her sensational trial could last over two years, with as many as 600 witnesses to be called. Four other coconspirators are also on trial with Zschäpe.
Prior to Zschäpe’s arrest, two of her accomplices (Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt) apparently committed suicide after a bank hold-up in Eisenach. Several other men suspected of NSU involvement were also arrested in late 2011. The Attorney General of Germany has called the NSU a “right-wing extremist group” whose purpose is to “kill above all fellow citizens of foreign origin as a result of xenophobic and anti-state attitudes.” (“Zweck der Vereinigung soll es gewesen sein, aus einer fremden- und staatsfeindlichen Gesinnung heraus vor allem Mitbürger ausländischer Herkunft zu töten.”)
The NSU case is also an embarassment for German law enforcement because the murders remained unsolved for so long, and there seem to have been cover-ups that contributed to this. Germans are still asking how the NSU could have been active for 13 years without the police knowing anything about the violent neo-Nazi group. For years, investigators assumed that the murders were family-based revenge killings, rather than racially motivated – despite the fact that all of the victims were non-Germans. Now add the failure of the Bavarian court trying Zschäpe in Munich to provide access to the Turkish and Greek media for the trial. It took an upper court ruling to finally get the judges to reconsider this affront to the people most concerned with the series of murders.
There is now an official federal inquiry into how there could have been such a massive failure by the German police and anti-terror agencies. Several government officials have already resigned as a result of the scandal.
In its early years, the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion, RAF) was commonly known in the media as the Baader-Meinhof Gang (or Group). The RAF, West Germany’s most prominent left-wing militant group, was founded in 1970 by Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. They described themselves as a communist, anti-imperialist “urban guerrilla” group engaged in armed resistance against the Federal Republic of Germany, which they regarded as a fascist state. The RAF was responsible for the murders of 34 people, and numerous bomb attacks, arsons, kidnappings and other crimes between 1970 and 1998.
The RAF’s origins can be traced back to the German student rebellions of the 1960s (led by Rudi Dutschke). Their antiautoritär (anti-authority) attitudes helped foster a unique brand of German anti-establishment terrorism that continued sporadically into the 1990s.
The “Revolutionary Cells”
Although not as well known as the RAF, another left-wing militant group called the “Revolutionary Cells” (Revolutionäre Zellen, RZ) was responsible for many more bomb attacks, arsons and other crimes in Germany than the RAF. Between 1973 and 1995, the RZ is suspected of carrying out almost 300 attacks. The RZ was best known to the general public for the 1976 hijacking of an Air France airliner from Athens to Entebbe, Uganda, which it carried out along with a Palestinian liberation group. The skyjackers demanded the release of prisoners held in Israel, France, and West Germany. Two RZ founders, Wilfried Böse and his girlfriend Brigitte Kuhlmann, were killed in the Israeli “Operation Entebbe” that freed 102 mostly Jewish hostages. Following the Entebbe disaster, the RZ decided to no longer conduct international missions. After German reunification in 1990, the RZ largely faded away in Germany as well.
The German Embassy Attack in 1975
On April 24, 1975, several RAF members took over the West German embassy in Stockholm. Two of the hostages were murdered after the German government under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt refused to give in to their demands. Two of the hostage-takers died from injuries they suffered when their own explosives detonated.
The big RAF trial, which the court allowed at times to become a circus, began on May 21, 1975. The proceedings took almost two years (a total of 192 days in session), finally ending on April 28, 1977. In the meantime, most of the defendants had died in prison. The three remaining RAF defendants were convicted of murder, attempted murder and forming a terrorist organization. They were sentenced to life in prison. (But see below for what eventually happened.)
Long after the trial and the deaths of Baader and his cohorts, another wave of RAF terrorism took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including a police shoot-out with suspected RAF terrorist Wolfgang Grams, and the assassinations of prominent Germans such as banker Alfred Herrhausen (1989) and Treuhand head Detlev Rohweder (1991). This more recent wave of RAF acts kept the memories all too fresh. Thus, the possible release or parole of imprisoned RAF members was particularly disturbing to many Germans. However, as of 2013, all but one of the convicted RAF terrorists have been released from prison, the most recent in 2011.
In April 1973, the GSG 9 (Grenzschutzgruppe 9, Border Police Group 9) counter-terrorism unit was formed in response to the “Munich massacre” during the 1972 Olympics. In their bungled attempt to rescue nine Israeli hostages (all of whom were killed in the operation), the West German police embarassed the nation by doing everything wrong and demonstrating that they lacked the training and equipment to deal with terrorist acts.
Today the GSG 9 is a federal law enforcement agency under the German Federal Ministry of the Interior (Bundesministerium des Innern, BMI). It is a civilian agency and part of the Federal Police (Bundespolizei), not the German military. Since 2005, its official name has been “GSG 9 der Bundespolizei” (GSG 9 Unit of the Federal Police). The “GSG 9” tag was retained because of the fame and reputation of that unit. (The “9” arose from the fact that when the group was formed, there were already eight GSG units, and this was the ninth.) An estimated 300-400 people now work within the GSG 9, but the exact figure is not known. Its work today concentrates on counter-terrorism, hostage situations and disarming bombs.
One of GSG 9’s early successes was the rescue of 86 hostages taken in the Oct. 13, 1977 hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt. The Palestinian and Lebanese skyjackers (allied with the RAF) demanded the release of imprisoned RAF members in Germany. After a circuitous 6,000-mile flight via Cyrpus, Beirut, Bahrain, Dubai and Aden, the Boeing 737-230C (named “Landshut” for the Bavarian city) finally ended up in Mogadishu, Somalia. After a failed attempt by West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to negotiate the release of the passengers, a GSG 9 team was flown to Mogadishu. On October 18, in a well-executed 2:00 a.m. operation, all 86 passengers plus four crew members were freed and three of the four hijackers were killed. Only four hostages were slightly injured. (The plane’s captain, Jürgen Schumann, 37, had been killed execution-style by the hijackers earlier in Aden, South Yemen.) As a result of this incident, West Germany instituted a policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
Deutscher Herbst 1977
The GSG 9 mission was one of the few bright spots during what has become known as the “German Autumn” (Deutscher Herbst) of 1977. In addition to the hijacking of Flight 181, that year saw a series of terrorist acts by the RAF and the deaths of several RAF members in prison. In April, Siegfried Buback, the Attorney General of Germany was shot dead alongside his driver and a passenger, in an ambush while traveling from his home to the Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Supreme Court) in Karlsruhe. In July, Jürgen Ponto, the head of Dresdner Bank, was shot and killed at his home in Oberursel during a botched kidnapping.
The Hanns Martin Schleyer Kidnapping
In Cologne on September 5, 1977, an RAF “commando unit” of four or five attacked the chauffeur-driven Mercedes carrying Hanns Martin Schleyer, the president of the German employers’ association. Two policemen in a police escort vehicle and Schleyer’s driver and bodyguard died in a hail of bullets. Schleyer was taken alive and held captive in an effort to get several jailed RAF members released. The police were unsuccessful in trying to locate Schleyer, who at first was held in a high-rise apartment building near Cologne, and later in Brussels, Belgium. Following the death of three imprisoned RAF members* on October 18, 1977 (the same night that GSG 9 ended the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181), Schleyer’s corpse was found the next day in the trunk of a car in France, after a phoned-in tip to a German news agency.
*In all, five RAF members died in prison. Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their prison cells on Oct. 18. Irmgard Möller, also imprisoned, survived with four knife wounds in her chest. Less than a month later, Ingrid Schubert was found hanged in her cell. Earlier, Ulrike Meinhof had also died in prison (May 1976). She was found dead, hanging from a rope made from jail towels. All this has led to various conspiracy theories, but the high-security Stammheim Prison near Stuttgart actually had poor security. The RAF defense attorneys were even able to smuggle guns into the prison for their clients.
Other Terrorist Attacks in Germany
- 1980: Gundolf Köhler detonates a pipe bomb at Oktoberfest in Munich, killing himself and 12 others.
- 1985: On June 19, a bomb left in a canvas bag explodes in the international departures lounge (Hall B, Terminal 1) at the Frankfurt Airport, killing three people (including two young Australian children) and injuring 42. The perpetrators were never found.*
- 1985: On August 8, a bomb attack kills two US soldiers at the Rhein-Main Air Base. Another soldier is killed by the bombers to gain access to a secure area of the base. The RAF claims responsibility, and two RAF members are convicted of the crime in two separate trials. Eva Haule was paroled in 2007; Birgit Hogefeld was paroled in June 2011.
- 1986: In the early morning hours of April 5, a bomb destroys the Berlin discotheque La Belle, frequented by US troops. The blast kills two US soldiers and a Turkish woman, and seriously injures 28 people. The attack is later blamed on the government of Libya (with East German involvement).
- 1989: Assassination of German banker Alfred Herrhausen on Nov. 30. See below.
*Two other deadly airport attacks took place in 1985: On December 27 there were almost simultaneous attacks at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport and at Vienna’s Schwechat Airport. The Abu Nidal Organization later claimed responsibility for both attacks, in which gunmen sprayed passengers with bullets and tossed hand grenades into the crowd. Both attacks were in areas where passengers were waiting to board a flight to Tel Aviv. The two strikes killed a total of 19 people, including a child, and wounded around 140. Of the seven terrorists, four were killed and three captured.
Banker Alfred Herrhausen fell victim to a deadly terrorist bomb shortly after leaving his home in Bad Homburg on the morning of November 30, 1989. He was being chauffeured to work in his armored Mercedes, with bodyguards in both a lead vehicle and another following behind. At the time of his death Herrhausen was a key director (Vorstandssprecher) on the Deutsche Bank board. He had been with Deutsche (DOYTSCH-uh) Bank, Germany’s largest, since 1969. From 1971 on he was a member of the bank’s board of directors.
The fatal light-activated bomb had been hidden in an innocent looking school bag on a bike next to the road that the terrorists knew Herrhausen would be traveling in his three-car convoy. In the bag was a seven-kilo (15-pound) TNT bomb that was detonated when Herrhausen’s car interrupted a beam of light as it passed close to the bomb. The bomb and its triggering mechanism were quite sophisticated. The bomb targeted the most vulnerable area of Herrhausen’s car – the door where he was sitting – and required split-second timing to overcome the car’s special armor plating. The terrorists also had to account for the bodyguards’ lead vehicle, and precisely place the bomb-laden bicycle in such a manner that the blast would do the most damage when it struck the side of Herrhausen’s car. (See photo.) The banker died instantly, just two months before his 60th birthday.
The German terrorist group RAF later claimed responsibility for the assassination and released a bizarre anti-imperialist statement (signed “Kommando Wolfgang Beer”) blaming Deutsche Bank for just about all that the RAF felt was bad or unfair in Germany and Europe. However, despite a new investigation in 2009, the case has never offically been solved.
On the day after Herrhausen’s death, about 10,000 people participated in a silent march through Frankfurt’s bank district. To memorialize the former bank chairman, the Alfred-Herrhausen-Straße is now the address of the Deutsche Bank building in Eschborn, a suburb of Frankfurt. There is also a modest memorial at the actual roadside location of the bombing.
RAF: Jailed, Released, Paroled or Never Captured
- Hanna Krabbe: jailed in 1975; released in 1996 after 21 years in prison.
- Rolf Clemens Wagner: jailed in 1979; released in December 2003 after 24 years in prison.
- Adelheid Schulz: jailed in 1977 (life sentence); health pardon in 1998 after 16 years in prison; full pardon from German President Rau in February 2002.
- Rolf Heißler: jailed in 1982 (life sentence); paroled in October 2001 after 19 years in prison.
- Brigitte Mohnhaupt: jailed in 1982; released in March 2007 after 24 years in prison.
- Christian Klar: jailed in 1982; paroled in December 2008 after 26 years in prison.*
- Eva Haule: jailed in 1986; paroled in August 2007 after 21 years in prison.
- Birgit Hogefeld: jailed in 1993; paroled in June 2011 – the last RAF member released from prison.
- Andrea Klump: jailed in 2001, still in prison.
Alleged RAF Members Never Captured
To this day, seven alleged RAF members have never been located or arrested. Ingeborg Barz may have been murdered by Andreas Baader, but that has never been confirmed. Angela Luther vanished in the early 1970s. Ingrid Siepmann may be deceased. Warrants for their arrest have expired. Friederike Krabbe, Daniela Klette, Ernst-Volker Staub and Burkhard Garweg are still being sought by police, but their whereabouts are unknown.
*Jürgen Vietor, the co-pilot of hijacked Lufthansa Flight 181 in 1977, was awarded the German Federal Cross of Merit 1st Class. He returned his medal in December 2008 to protest the release on probation of Christian Klar who, among other things, had been involved in the kidnap and murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer in 1977.
Next | Notable Germans
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- The Police – Law enforcement agencies in Germany
- Mini Bios A-Z – More brief biographies of people from the German-speaking world
- Featured Biographies – More detailed bios of notable people from the German-speaking world
- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Famous Graves in Germany – Where are they buried?
ON THE WEB
- Baader-Meinhof Gang – Richard Huffmann’s site about this infamous German terrorist group and German terrorism in general offers an “extensive exploration of ’70s German terrorism.”
- The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) – Official site for this 2008 German film
- Andreas Baader biography from HDG (in German).
- The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) – Official site for this 2008 German film
- Black Box BRD (2001) is a German movie about the RAF, Germany in the 1980s and Alfred Herrhausen.
- Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft der Deutschen Bank. The Alfred Herrhausen Society (in English or German).
- Lufthansa Flight 181 – Wikipedia – About the 1977 hijacking
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