The Baader Meinhof Gang
A Country Haunted, Divided and Prosperous
The official title of the country in which most of these events took place was the Federal Republic of Germany. Usually known as West Germany, it was divided from communist East Germany and had been since a united Germany was defeated at the end of World War II.
Both Germanys were haunted by that relatively recent history for Germany had presided over the Holocaust, the most barbaric and monstrous horror in recent historical memory and arguably the greatest tragedy in the history of humanity. About six million Jews had been murdered in a genocidal attempt to exterminate that entire religious and ethnic group. Millions of Gypsy or Romany (as they call themselves and prefer to be called by others) people died when a similar campaign had been launched against them. Gay men, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many others had suffered greatly under the vicious rule of the Nazis.
While Gudrun Ensslin may have been wrong about many or most things, she was not speaking foolishly when she spoke of the middle-aged folk of her era as "the Auschwitz generation." Not all of them had been Nazis, of course, but a great many had supported Hitler. Many had been in the Hitler Youth and served in the armed forces, fighting Nazi wars of conquest. A minority had ineffectively resisted Nazism but, as a whole, it was a generation coping with an extraordinary burden of guilt and shame.
Jillian Becker speculates in Hitler's Children that many of the people who joined what would come to be known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang were motivated by an unconscious desire to prove to themselves that they would have risked their lives to defeat Nazism. In effect, she says, they were fighting Hitler "a generation too late." It is likely that there is truth in this analysis. The general false perception that Nazism and Communism are polar opposites since the former is called the "extreme right" and the latter the "extreme left" probably fed into the psychic defense mechanisms at work in these misguided young folks. The Marxist insistence that capitalist societies are "fascist" would fit the needs of people born too late to fight a true fascism.
It should be emphasized that West Germany was not, in the years between 1968 and 1977 when most of our story takes place, a country shrouded in gloom. It was a bustling and increasingly prosperous capitalist nation with a burgeoning middle class as well as many wealthy people. While Germany's defeat after the First World War had plunged it into the most abysmal poverty, its loss after the Second had been followed (at least in West Germany) by what was widely and rightly hailed as an "economic miracle."
However, there was an economic problem typical of advancing capitalist societies in the Federal Republic. The free enterprise system gives no "A" for effort. Its rewards are distributed with great unevenness. "Hard work" is often said to be the key to success but the truth is that many of those who work the hardest, like factory laborers and farmers, fare very poorly. This is not to say that the affluent people do not work hard but that work is monetarily valued for complex reasons, such as the rarity of skill. What's more, those who start out with some money for whatever reason, including inheritance through accident of birth, can gain great wealth if their investments are both wise and lucky.
The major players in what would be called the Baader-Meinhof Gang became adults in a society in which the prosperous enjoyed a great deal of conspicuous consumption. However, the workers who did the roughest, most unpleasant, dangerous, and sweaty jobs, together with their children, sometimes went without adequate shelter, food, and medical care. Marxism promised salvation from this morally maddening paradox, saying it would liberate the working class, or the "proletariat," from the tyranny of capital.
Of course, that is not how it works out in fact, as the vast majority of West Germans well knew. Many of them had relatives in East Germany and were well aware that life under communism was regimented and puritanical at best and often monstrously oppressive. Before the American Civil War, a wise individual retorted to pro-slavery apologists that the Underground Railroad ran in one direction, from the South to the North and not the other way around. Similarly, the Berlin Wall was put up by the Communists to prevent people from fleeing to the capitalist West.
It should be emphasized that, to the credit of working class people, they have usually rejected communism and tend to regard it with contempt. The low paid workers of West Germany were no exception and the Red Army Faction would draw most of its members and sympathizers from the children of the well to do.