Closeup/International Affairs

Is Germany Burning?

Exploring terrorism’s least likely crucible

Marci McDonald February 20 1978
Closeup/International Affairs

Is Germany Burning?

Exploring terrorism’s least likely crucible

Marci McDonald February 20 1978

Is Germany Burning?

Closeup/International Affairs

Exploring terrorism’s least likely crucible

Marci McDonald

The image is etched in memory and newsprint. In the sharp wind that bows the skeleton oaks on the far hill of Stuttgart’s Domhalden cemetery, the camera zeroes in for a close-up of a small gaunt woman in

black beside the fresh gouge of a double grave. She refuses to weep as her daughter’s body is lowered into the frozen ground. Once she had rocked this, her fourth child, to sleep in their spare evangelical parsonage with soft choruses of At All Times Sing Hallelujah and Is Your Life Full of Guilt, had taught her the Bible and the violin, had soothed her childhood nightmares and when she ran into a wall with her toboggan, slashing her forehead above the right eye, had bandaged the gash as any mother might, calling her “meine kleine liebling”—my little darling. But now the world calls Gudrun Ensslin a terrorist, the driving force and intelligence behind the dread BaaderMeinhof gang, and strangers phone the Ensslin’s unlisted number in the night to hiss their delight that she is dead.

Guards found Gudrun Ensslin’s body dangling from the window of her Stammheim prison cell, hanged by a record player cord. The authorities had not bothered to call Pastor Helmut Ensslin and his wife to notify them. They heard

it, as the world did—announced over a radio newscast as a calculated suicide. But despite the findings of an international coroner’s jury, they do not believe the verdict. Just weeks earlier, Gudrun had warned them that she was afraid of being murdered.

Now, more than 1,000 mourners have turned out for the ceremony, banners flagrantly raised before the TV lenses, scarves pulled high up over noses like holdup masks to prevent identification. As Pastor Bruno Streibel intones the final words, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” a cordon of 1,000 policemen train their submachine guns on the bowed heads and armed helicopters buzz incessantly in cross-hatch patterns above

the grave. Frau Ensslin’s face betrays no emotion. But slowly, ever so slowly, she raises her right arm. The camera clicks, the tableau is frozen. The world watches as the good God-fearing parson’s wife holds her

clenched fist high in wordless defiance.

In Cologne, 400 miles north, another terrorist monument, another mother. Barely a car length from the corner of Vin-

cenz-Statz-Strasse in the city’s sleek residential enclave, a short leafless sapling is banked high with fir funeral wreaths and pots of plastic geraniums, red banners and candles kept burning night and day. Angelika, a shy, unremarkably pretty lawyer’s wife who is too frightened to allow her last name to be used, walks by the impromptu shrine daily with a shudder. Her two sons, Axel, nine, and Jenst, who is seven, pedaled by it on their bicycles in the gathering dusk of September 5, just minutes before a woman pushed an empty baby carriage into the path of a Mercedes limousine turning the corner, cutting it off while a parked Volkswagen van suddenly erupted with masked figures firing submachine guns with chilling precision. The chauffeur and three plainclothes police guards in a tail car were gunned down without a single bullet wasted, without a scratch on their quarry—Angelika’s

next-door neighbor, president of two powerful industry and employers’ associations, the boss of bosses, Hanns-Martin Schleyer.

Now Angelika keeps a wary eye on the pavement from her kitchen window. Another prominent official lives down the block, ripe prey. She waits tensely for the next terrorist strike, whether here or on some other unsuspecting street, as all of Germany waits these days—with resignation. But an even deeper horror menaces her. After the boys have wolfed down their goulash and tumbled from the table, her eyes mist abruptly with tears. “I worry all the time,” she says. “What if this comes to them? What if they become terrorists? One day suddenly they disappear, go underground. We never see them again. Oh yes, it could happen.”

Through a winter fog, Bonn rises ghostly

on the left bank of the Rhine where ancient Goths once built an altar to the bloody goddess of retribution. Nothing is clear. Could this be a new form of vegetation curling so discreetly around public buildings and private gardens? But no, it is barbed wire crawling insidiously through hedges and along walkways, coiling like some indolent indefatigable slinky toy across rooftops and the manicured front lawns of the chancellor and president of the federal republic. Bonn is a capital of barbed wire, of chain link fences and front yard sandbag bunkers, a hulking green armored car rumbling down residential streets every 20 minutes, the head of some pimply youth poking from the turret. When international headlines screamed that Bonn had become a city besieged during the Schleyer kidnapping, the good burghers were indignant. “Why, the barbed wire has been here for five years, ever since the Palestinian massacre at the Munich Olympics,” retorts a member of parliament—as if that somehow made it normal.

The echoes of wartime revisited, in the city still referred to some 30 years later as the “provisional capital,” are eerie and unsettling. Here, in this shining model of an industrial democracy, the claptraps of a potential police state loom like embarrassments in every street. European newspapers rush to alarming conclusions, analyzing the surface evidence for omens of re-Nazification, gloating over the chaos the terrorists have unleashed in the heart of Western Europe’s giant, while cringing too against the incomprehensible malady from which even they may not prove immune. If their pessimism may prove unfounded, terrorism has driven Western Germany today to a turning point, and the danger signs are everywhere.

Months after the Mogadishu hijacking and Schleyer’s murder, the house of the Bavarian right-wing opposition leader, Franz Josef Strauss, resembles a fortress, with khaki clad youths toting machine guns strolling the lawns behind iron barriers. German shepherds and border police with walkie-talkies pacing under the neighboring willows, an armored car hunkering in the drive. Cabinet members no longer ride in their ministerial limousines, although their presence can scarcely be camouflaged when, at red lights, the doors of their police escort cars routinely burst open, machine guns fanning the air.

Who knows where this cancer called terrorism which gnaws at the very bosom of German society will strike next? No one seems immune. If Schleyer with his four guards could be taken, who was safe? Civilians have their vulnerability pressed home each time they board a Lufthansa flight under the nose of machine guns, each suitcase minutely examined.

Suspicion hangs exquisitely in the air. Friends no longer talk openly in cafés or restaurants about this consuming problem of the terroristen. Since authorities published that about 50 hard-core terrorists

are supported by a network of 1,500 to 6,000 sympathizers who provide cars, shelter or false papers, any voice that does not demand a terrorist lynching has become suspect. A slip of the tongue can mean a police visit. When the Federal Criminal Bureau broadcast an appeal for reports of abnormal behavior, they received 30,000 anonymous phone calls—98% of them from good citizens denouncing their neighbors. As former chancellor Willy Brandt warned, begging leftists to stop abetting the terrorists, “This country will become hell. The father will distrust his son, the neighbor his neighbor, the institutions of the state will spy on its citizens.”

No one is completely trusted. Jürgen Ponto, the brilliant head of the Dresdner Bank, had often had long political arguments with his 26-year-old goddaughter Susanne Albrecht, the child of his old friend, a wealthy Hamburg marine lawyer. He did not hesitate to open his door last July 30 when she and two friends dropped by bearing his favorite red roses. When he refused to go with them as a kidnap victim, they shot him in the back.

No one understands what causes the seeds of youthful discontent to burst into full-blown terrorism, but despite the fact that German prisons now hold more than 120 terrorists or suspects, the movement continues to send up shoots. The founders of the Red Army Faction, Ensslin, Andreas Baader and the journalist Ulrike Meinhof, once a mother herself and society’s darling, all sprang from the student riots of 1968, bombing empty department stores and U.S. military installations, fueled by Marxist fervor and fury at the Vietnam war. But now police speak of a “third generation” of terrorists for whom Vietnam is only a vague word from some forgotten history. Their ages range from 17 to 25, compared to Ensslin’s 37; despite rumblings about solidarity with the workers, they are almost without exception the children of privilege and the finest schooling. They seem to have no clearly articulated political goals, while killing with a keener cold-blooded efficiency.

“Hitler’s children,” British author Jillian Becker has christened them on the basis of their links to Palestinian terrorists who have an unswerving devotion to antiSemitism. If the metaphor is oversimplified, its implications strike angst into the national psyche. For here is the marvel of a model society resurrected phoenixlike from World War II’s rubble—the defeat and shame of the Hitler years all but erased by that byword of the modern German vocabulary, the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miraçle. In less than three decades the Flihrer’s fallen have become the strongmen of Western Europe, smug concrete monuments to affluence rising on every horizon, each taxicab a Mercedes. Even as its neighbors stagger under forecasts of economic disaster, German unemployment flutters at a mere 4.4%, inflation rose to only 4.3% last year and in a

final irony the deutsche mark had to bail out the American dollar. Now with one swift blow from the terrorists, the eyes of the world have turned on Germany to see the glittering house that Marshall Plan bil lions and dedicated materialism built sud denly revealed as rotten to its innards-the first flowering of its postwar offspring laid bare as monsters. This is a society in moral crisis In the past seven years, 24 persons in Germany have died at the hands of the Red Army Faction. More than twice that number are killed on the autobahn every three months. But it is terrorism that has suddenly turned this nation inward to painful self-exam ination. Criminal bureau deputy Rupert Rupprecht outlines centralized computer data banks and revised identity checks to combat terrorism, but he pauses abruptly in mid interview to wonder Maybe we should also try to develop other values than making money and consuming

At Stuttgart University, Richard Bucher, a 26-year-old engineering student on strike, glances up at the giant blue neon Mercedes symbol revolving over his city with undisguised disdain. "All this pros perity, this wealth, this materialism-but for young people it is not enough. We have rebuilt the country on the outside, but the intellect, the spirit has died. I can feel it. We are a cold generation." Nobel-prize-winning novelist Heinrich Boll speculates that for the generation growing up with the shadowy history of Hitler so close yet verboten, the spectacle of their parents' swift embrace of the democracy and affluence served up by the Allies may have seemed a conversion rid dled with the hollow ring of hypocrisy. Others postulate that terrorism is the inevi table by-product of a people who brook no outlet for the legitimate voice of dissent. Germans proudly report that in the 1976 federal elections. all radical narties. right

and left combined, polled less than 1% of the popular vote. But numbers do not paint the total picture. Ever since the 1972 introduction of the hated Radikalenerlass or Radicals’ Decree which permits the investigation of Germany’s 3.5 million civil servants for their loyalty to the Constitution, every mother’s son knows that to become a Communist means never to be hired as a garbage collector or teacher.

“This is basically a country for conformists,” says a British journalist stationed in Bonn for 12 years. “If you play the game, don’t flush the toilet too many times after 11 p.m., don’t cut the grass on Sunday or let the kids play outside after lunch, then life can be very pleasant. But if I were young and single I might find it very difficult. Sometimes you want to send up a scream.”

The terrorists’ scream has sent shock waves reverberating to the very foundations of this society. In what other nation have the provocations of a tiny band of ruthless radicals sent the head of state scurrying to the microphones to assure the world, as Helmut Schmidt did, that free-

doms would be preserved? “We are living very close to our own recent history,” says Social Democratic deputy whip Karl Liedtke. “Democracy is very new here, very fragile.”

During Schleyer’s kidnapping, the average citizen’s reaction could best be summed up by the solution proposed by one Bonn butcher: an imprisoned terrorist

should be shot every 20 minutes until his release. Opposition cries for law and order proved so piercing that at the height of the crisis the government rushed through the controversial Contact Barrier law in two days, permitting all suspected terrorists to be held in jail without contact from their lawyers or the outside world for an unlimited period during national security

crises—a legal precedent that has human rights defenders in consternation, although only four Social Democrats opposed it. The government has since introduced further legislation giving police the right to demand identity cards on the street, requiring hotels once more to examine guests’ passports and sanctioning a spate of new police information-gathering methods.

“Today I see no real danger for the liberty in our country,” says Liedtke. “But I don’t know how it will look in the future. If another wave of terrorism comes, there is danger of more demands for law and order. I cannot say I am not worried.”

The sands of public opinion are shifting. Slowly, inexorably, quite apart from legislation, Germany drifts toward the right. During Schleyer’s kidnapping, the Christian Democrats’ secretary general issued a catalogue of quotations intended to damn those who had once shown any modicum of rationality on the subject of terrorism, former chancellor Brandt and novelist Boll heading his list of bogeymen. In the offices of the extreme right Christian Socialists, Count Franz Ludwig von Stauffenberg, the towering son of the Third Reich colonel who led the abortive July 20, 1944, assassination plot against Hitler, calls for a purge of all leftist professors and intellectuals who propagate “this political social infection—this ideological background from which young people become killers.”

“The witch-hunt is on,” warns Boll, whose masterwork The Lost Honor Of Katharina Blum was withdrawn from a TV showing in Bavaria as too provocative. “The seeds of anti-intellectualism are already here.”

In the mists of fear and confusion blown

in on the ill wind of terrorism, the country is being polarized into two solitudes—a threatened left muttering of an impending police state, and an ever more entrenched right. Here, where history looms like old bones in the attic, the parallels with the Weimar Republic are terrifying—and unavoidable. While the National Democratic Party, today’s neo-Nazis, captured less than 0.5% of the popular vote in the last federal election, there are those who point to Germany’s rising unemployment statistics with an ominous nudge: in 1925, Adolf Hitler was a jailed eccentric with a decimated party; eight years later, as the unemployed mounted to six million, he was in power.

None other a Cassandra than Willy Brandt has already sounded the alarms. In a July 12 letter to his successor, Helmut Schmidt, Brandt warned that extreme right-wing groups were flagrantly parading forbidden Nazi insignia. Investigations have since been launched into two German military college incidents where students rollicked around a bonfire to shouts of “Let’s burn Jews,” and celebrated Hitler’s birthday with a reported round of Sieg heils. Last summer Joachim Fest’s bland film biography of the Führer, Hitler—A Career, packed German cinemas. This Christmas bookshelves were crammed with tinsel-draped tomes on Hitler, Rommel, Göring and Goebbels, while a rash of record albums surfaced myste-

riously to brisk sales with such titles as From The Fuhr er's Headquarters and Hitler Speaks.

“The time is ripe for us,” says the deputy chairman of the National Democratic Party, a 44-year-old former Ottawa landscape gardener, Helmut Schmitz, who arrived in Canada at age 18 where he spent the next 22 of his politically formative years. Once president of an Ottawa-area Kiwanis club, he made himself a comfortable fortune before signing up with the neo-Nazis long-distance and moving back to his homeland in 1973 to heed the call of politics. He reports that his party has gained 5,000 new members, many of them discontented youth, swelling the ranks to 15,000, and he promises more converts if this climate continues. “When people’s materialism comes tumbling down, they start to look for other answers,” he says. He surveys his party’s prospects in the upcoming provincial elections with brimming optimism. “There’s no doubt about it,” he smacks his lips, “the terrorists are helping us.”

Such portents may not be far removed from the script once foreseen by that original ragtag band of the disenchanted who first called themselves the Red Army Faction and learned to wire bombs from howto handbooks by South American urban guerrillas. In 1968, Ulrike Meinhof upbraided a reluctant comrade with a sense of their mission: “We must force the expo-

sure of the fascist in the police for all to see, and then the people will turn to us for leadership.”

The ultimate tragedy of Germany today may lie in her mistaken assumption. As her heirs in terror evolve into a grotesque cadre of fugitive killers, ever more iso-

lated, hiding out in Palestinian commando training camps, as Schleyer’s abductors are reported to be doing, waiting for plastic surgery and new papers to ease their passage back into Germany for yet another chilling strike, they have lost all hope of ever igniting the glorious mass revolution they once fantasized. The students and the left have already recoiled from this random horror that drives a wedge into the very heart of Germany. What remains is the right-wing backlash they have set alight, its flames fanned steadily by their bloody fury.

In Krefeld, a small town northwest of Düsseldorf, artist Jürgen Heckmanns sits among the mixed media collages he has assembled from newspapers during HannsMartin Schleyer’s kidnapping, the images of government officials and terrorists alike transformed into gross papier-maché caricatures. He broods over the uncertain future of his two children asleep down the hall as he scans the latest edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung where a front-page story assures the populace that police soon hope to combat terrorism by placing hidden TV cameras in every crowd. He tosses the paper down on the breakfast table in disgust. “You know, I think of George Orwell and what he wrote about Big Brother watching in 1984,” he says. “Thanks to the terrorists, 1984 may come even sooner in Germany.”^