At Large

Prison Reds

A leader of a German terrorist gang gets out of jail free.

By 2.15.07

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For over two decades, Brigitte Mohnhaupt has been known as the most dangerous woman in Germany. The distinction is well deserved. A onetime commando in the Red Army Faction, the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement that terrorized democratic West Germany in the '70s and '80s, she was sentenced in 1985 to five life terms and an additional 15 years for her role in a spate of high-profile kidnappings and murders. Prison life has prompted her neither to repudiate her radical convictions nor to betray the faintest glimmer of remorse. It would be difficult, in short, to conceive of a less qualified candidate for early release.

So it is a harsh verdict on the present state of German justice that Mohnhaupt was pronounced free this week. "Life term" being one of those hoary anachronisms the country's legal establishment is disinclined to take seriously, Mohnhaupt had been allowed to file for parole and German authorities last month convened a hearing on her case. On Monday, a federal court ordered her release on five years probation, which will become official on March 27. Having freed the most menacing member of the RAF's living leadership, authorities have little grounds for denying the three RAF veterans who remain incarcerated -- Christian Klar, Birgit Hogefeld and Eva Haule -- the same privilege.

To describe this week's ruling as outrageous is to traffic in understatement. To begin with, nothing in Mohnhaupt's record suggests that she merited a pardon (German authorities contest the term but, legalisms aside, it is exactly that) and there is at least one good reason for thinking she did not: As the architect of several RAF terror campaigns -- most notoriously in the so-called "German autumn" of 1977, which saw the kidnapping and cold-blooded execution of Hanns Martin Schleyer, then-head of the German employers' federation, and the hijacking of a Frankfurt-bound Lufthansa airliner, the Landshut, in a failed bid to win the release of jailed RAF members -- Mohnhaupt unquestionably has blood on her hands.

Nor is she burdened by regrets. Just the opposite: In a 1993 letter to RAF colleagues on the outside, she urged a continued commitment to the fight against the evils of capitalism. The "sense and contents of our politics" remained an "inseparable" and "existential" part of her life, she wrote. Not so for her comrades. Embarrassingly for Mohnhaupt, they severed ties with the jailed RAF leadership that same year. Shortly thereafter, in 1998, the RAF was officially disbanded. If there is any evidence that Mohnhaupt is similarly ready to rejoin civil society, it is a well-guarded secret.

How is it that she has nevertheless won her freedom? Any plausible answer to that question must plumb the cultural fissure that has formed between much of the country and the political, journalistic and judicial elites who, for assorted reasons, have dispensed with such quaint notions as justice to embrace a coldly procedural view of criminal punishment.

For politicians, particularly the formidable Green Party and the grassroots Left, Mohnhaupt is much more than a graying radical. Reading the appeals for her release these past few weeks, one could detect a desire to erase the unsavory fact, of which the RAF is a throbbing reminder, that the hard Left took its stand with the wrong side during the Cold War. It was hardly a coincidence that Volker Beck, a Green Party parliamentarian from Cologne and a veteran of the "non-aligned peace movement" -- a spectacularly dishonest handle for what was effectively an organized cheering section for Soviet expansionism -- had called for Mohnhaupt's release because it would be "a signal of reconciliation." In this instance, of course, coming together would mean leaving behind a dark past.

If many in the political world were eager to move forward, something akin to nostalgia prevailed among the media and intellectual set. That's not surprising. For much of its history the RAF, an offshoot of the Baader-Meinhof terror gang, could count on the support and sympathy of a credulous cognoscenti. Jean-Paul Sartre, even as he (meaninglessly) distanced himself from their violent tactics, saluted the RAF as a "real revolutionary movement." In a show of solidarity, Sartre even visited RAF leaders in prison. Heinrich Boll, winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize in literature, romanticized the RAF as a valiant David doing battle against the Goliath of the German state. Boldly braving the odds, the RAF, Boll declared, were "six to six million."

Perverse as this plotline was -- recall that this was a far-left terrorist group working to sabotage a liberal-democratic state while savagely gunning down business leaders, diplomats, judges and unfortunates caught in the crossfire -- it found a receptive audience. Page through academic histories of the Cold War and you are bound to find RAF members described as "underdog outlaws persecuted by an overbearing state," in the unfortunate words of Drew University professor Jeremy Varon. Inconveniently, RAF faithful were, almost to the man, children of middle-class privilege, while the group's insignia, a submachine gun superimposed on a Communist star, spoke volumes about its destructive intentions. But why let anything so banal as the facts get in the way of a good propaganda parable?

In the end, the RAF's call for communist revolution failed to "detonate in the consciousness of the masses," as early RAF propaganda announced with characteristic militancy. But it triggered lasting affection among some of the West's opinion leaders.

Such enthusiasm as exists for the release of the Mohnhaupt and the remaining RAF members also has its source in Europe's distinctive definition of justice. No longer is repentance or even the admission of guilt regarded as a precondition for parole. In the new, ostensibly more enlightened understanding, the mere fact that someone is eligible for parole makes them entitled to it. Giving voice to this fashionable legal wisdom, Wolfgang Kraushaar, a scholar at the Institute for Social Research in Hamburg, recently assured Berlin's left-leaning Tagesspiegel newspaper that it was absurd to expect prisoners to evince remorse. "This would be an inadmissible mixture of a moral-political attitudes with a legal procedure," he explained. "It is a question of justice, and remorse should play no role." The paper enthusiastically agreed, editorializing that demands to keep Mohnhaupt in prison showed only that a "portion of society is always vindictive."

Which brings us to these "vindictive" elements. Or, as they are otherwise known, the families of RAF's 34 victims. Backed by more than half of the German public, at least if newspaper polls are any indication, they had petitioned the federal government to deny an early release to Mohnhaupt and her RAF comrades. Short of that, they had hoped to get them to acknowledge their responsibility for the murders of their loved ones. Michael Buback, the son of Siegfried Buback, a West German attorney general murdered in 1977, reputedly on Mohnhaupt's orders, spoke for many when he told an interviewer that "it would be important to learn, finally, who shot my father." Even this small consolation now appears unlikely.

Mohnhaupt's release heralds a dismal end to the RAF saga. In the blood-soaked aftermath of the autumn of 1977, German authorities decided, wisely, that they would no longer negotiate with terrorists. And so they haven't. How much more impressive their resolution would have been had they also applied it to keeping convicted terrorists behind bars.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.