Interviews 1999 Interview with Richard Huffman for Eye Magazine

Interview with Richard Huffman in the Eye Magazine in 1999

Sam Gaines/ Eye Magazine In the late-’60s and ’70s an underground revolutionary group existed in Germany known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Decades later, on September 16, 1999, Austrian police killed Baader-Meinhof member Horst Ludwig Meyer in a Vienna shoot-out that started when he and his wife, Andrea Martina Klump, disarmed a Viennese policewoman. His wife was taken into custody. Were these the last two remaining members of the gang? Both were fugitives in hiding believed to be involved in assassinations and bombings-Klump herself is linked to the 1989 murder of Deutsche Bank executive Alfred Herrhausen.The shoot-out that led to Horst Ludwig Meyer’s demise transpired a year and a half AFTER the Baader-Meinhof Gang announced, via fax to Reuters, the formal dissolution of the organization and its mission. But whether Left Wing or Right Wing, terrorism never really goes away.

Soon, author Richard Huffman will publish The Gun Speaks, the first definitive history of the Baader-Meinhof Gang written in English. Huffman’s research is exhaustive, but his first encounter with the group was as a boy in Berlin, where his father headed the U.S. Army’s very busy Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit.

The story of Horst Meyer’s death and the capture of his wife, both 43 at the time, received worldwide media coverage since both were reputed members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), one of the most notorious terrorist organizations of the 20th century. But the German press pegged a misnomer onto the organization back in the early ’70s-the Baader-Meinhof Gang (BMG)-and the name still sticks today.

For three decades, the Baader-Meinhof Gang stood at the vanguard of a war of terror against the powers that be. Industrialists, corporate heads, and government officials were their primary targets, but many of their victims were ordinary citizens and American soldiers. More than 30 people were killed by Baader-Meinhof bombs and bullets, with millions of dollars’ worth of property destroyed.

Author Richard Huffman’s strange engagement with Baader-Meinhof began long before the group’s last official statement in April 1998. His father, U.S. Army Col. Chuck Huffman, headed up the Berlin Brigade’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit at a time when explosive ordnance detonation was a regular occurrence in Germany. The pending publication of Richard Huffman’s book, The Gun Speaks: the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Postwar German Decade of Terror, will tell the story of the organization’s reign of terror, and one man’s remarkable intersection with one of this century’s most fascinating-and violent-underground organizations.

In the spring of 1972, 3-year-old Richard Huffman was whiling away his morning in Berlin’s Kinder Keller (“Children’s Cellar”) as his mother attended an officer’s club social at Harnack House. Mrs. Huffman and approximately 50 other officers’ wives were in the midst of their meals when a man approached the ranking officer’s wife and whispered into her ear: a bomb threat. Within moments, the women coolly filed out of the club. On her way out, Mrs. Huffman passed her husband, who was leading his bomb disposal unit in. Huffman’s unit was among the elite; only the British bomb disposal units, then very busy in Northern Ireland, ranked alongside.

Chuck Huffman’s unit defused the bomb-later attributed to Fritz Teufel’s radical Movement 2 June faction-with just 15 minutes remaining on the egg timer. All in a day’s work for the ordnance expert, to be sure, but it was the germinating seed for his son’s obsession with a tumultuous period of German history.

The roots of that interest took hold many years later, however, when Richard was an adult. What awaited his discovery-and in some ways, rediscovery-was a tormented period in German and European sociopolitical history. It was a time when “revolution” was more than a slogan and a bandwagon-it was a commitment, a gun, a bomb, and an all-too-real war against society. And it all started with the accidental 1967 death of Benno Ohnesorg, a very unfortunate young student.

In early 2000, Huffman will revisit Germany with his father with an eye toward continuing his research. I spoke with Richard about his research, his obsessions, and his impressions of the radical organization that continues to wield influence over his life.

Interview with Richard Huffman

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
Do you remember when your fascination with RAF/Baader Meinhof began?

Richard Huffman
I remember the exact instant. I happened to visit my father on his lunch break at work. He was having a conversation with a coworker about FBI efforts to catch the Unabomber. He made some disparaging remarks about the FBI bomb squad; I felt I had to take him to task. Who was he to call the FBI poorly trained? So he tells me and his friend about defusing Baader-Meinhof bombs in Berlin. I was only vaguely aware of Baader-Meinhof, but I looked into it, delving deeper and deeper, and I haven’t seen light for going on four years now.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
The detail of your research is remarkable. How long has it taken you to gather all this together?

Richard Huffman
The vast majority of my research was conducted over a two-year period beginning about three and a half years ago. Here’s something that surprises many people: My German is pretty weak. I had the odd fortune of falling in love with a subject that was just narrow enough to allow me to read ALL of the English language documentation. It’s a lot of reading, but entirely doable in, say, two years. Two things conspire to make source documents from that era very tough to read. One is that the German language is very formal and patrician. Every noun is capitalized. One semi-ridiculous by-product of the German student movement of the ’60s was a movement against the patrician German punctuation. Students, and later terrorists, would write their tracts without capital letters anywhere. Ulrike Meinhof’s famous magazine konkret is the most obvious example. Anyway, this abhorrence of capital letters, coupled with stilted self-analysis “dialogue”-style communiqués, made reading the work of the terrorists tough for Germans. Imagine how tough it is for me while I am just learning the language.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
The gang’s leader, Andreas Baader, was a violent, yet strangely compelling figure-a petty criminal, yet an opportunist who became a charismatic leader. Is there any analogy to be made from a “cult of personality” standpoint-say, similar to the role Charles Manson developed with his “Family”? Also, continuing with this probably unwieldy analogy-Manson and his Family are rightly reviled for their brutal deeds. Is the BMG similarly held in contempt in their native land, or has a certain romanticized notion of revolution colored perceptions of their legacy?

Richard Huffman
I wouldn’t compare him to Charlie Manson other than in very broad ways. Baader was unquestionably the leader of the group, but there were other strong leaders as well, particularly his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin. What attracted people to the BMG was partially based on a true interest in some form of revolution based on real thinking. The only people in Germany who have romanticized notions of revolution were born after 1965. Most of the people who lived through the times and were old enough to understand them have not changed their tune about the BMG. If they were conservative, they hated them and continue to do so. If they were moderate to mildly liberal, they hated them because they were counterproductive. If they were radical, they probably supported them, and today still find ways to excuse their murders.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
At your site, you mention that your father holds an “it-was-my-job” attitude toward his extraordinary presence-and courage-in Berlin at the time as head of bomb disposal for the army. How did he react when you brought up the idea of visiting Berlin together next year?

Richard Huffman
My dad is an interesting guy. The Army definitely picked the right guy when they gave him the super-security clearance that they gave him; my dad just did his job and didn’t seem interested in talking about it. He would laugh if I described his job as “courageous.” He is very interested in going back to Berlin with me, mostly to see his old haunts. I told him that I fully plan to introduce him to the guys who tried to kill him (and tried to kill my mom and me, too). His reaction was basically a shrug. I suspect that he thinks, “OK, that’ll take an afternoon, leaving me enough time to visit the Brandenburg Gate.”
My mom and brother both seem to love what I am doing. My mom will be joining me in Berlin as well next year; she’s more talkative and I suspect that she’ll fill me in on more background detail than my dad.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
Let’s talk about the BMW success story you discuss on your site that could be linked to Baader-Meinhof. Supposedly, when the Gang started hot-wiring BMW 2002s, the “BMW” acronym became known as the Baader-Meinhof Wagen, and sales for the cars exploded. Eventually, the gang became so widely known for their 2002 hijacks, that they had to move on to different auto makes. Has the BMW company ever made any mention of it?

Richard Huffman
Well, no. I have looked into it carefully and think I make a good case. The company WAS faltering through the late-’60s. It’s cars WERE considered staid. After the Baader-Meinhof Wagen connection came about, the company DID acquire a new cachet. To be fair, no one else seems to make this connection and the numerous BMW 2002 fanatics who e-mail me seem to believe that it was their own personal faith in the Bayerische Motoren Werke that rescued the company and made BMWs cool. Who am I to argue with them? When I am in Munich next I plan to take the obligatory tour of the BMW factory, and I intend on cornering at least one official and hammering on him until he tells me that I am in fact correct, or begs for mercy, or both.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
Regarding the June 1970 training of Red Army Faction members in a Palestinian military camp: was the inevitable culture clash a culprit in cutting the camp short, or were RAF’ers behaving badly?

Richard Huffman
Both. The Palestinians weren’t really into “training” Germans or any of the other visitors to their Jordan camps. They basically would give their visitors the summer camp version of the training regimen-let them shoot some Kalis, throw some grenades, crawl under some barbed wire-and then send them home. It was hoped that the visitors would go home and get their friends to support the Palestinian cause both financially and emotionally. Well, Baader and his cadre would have none of this. They had “proven” themselves by burning down a department store, escaping from jail, injuring an elderly man-there was no way they were going to settle for the summer camp version. The exasperated Palestinians reluctantly agreed to give them real training. It is ironic that the Israelis were so frightened of the Palestinian terrorists; had they followed Baader’s lead and set about to annoy the Palestinians into submission, the entire Palestinian people would have probably packed up and moved to South America. Anyway, Baader and his cohort had absolutely no respect for their hosts. When the Palestinians grew tired of the group firing hundreds of rounds into the desert each day, they put the German proto-terrorists on ammo rations. The Germans retaliated by going on “strike.” Which was fine with the Palestinians, except the German women would then sunbathe naked on the roofs of their living quarters in full sight of shocked Palestinians. You can imagine how this went over. Much of the history of the Baader-Meinhof Gang describes a very lucky group of Germans. They managed to escape from situations through sheer bald luck and blind stupidity, and Jordan was no exception. Had the Germans not behaved so badly, they probably would have not been forced to leave by the Palestinians. Had they stayed, they certainly would have been killed the following month when King Hussein mowed over the training camps in what came to be know as Black September (the Black September terrorists of Munich 1972 were named after this).

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
Was there a quality of personal obsession to Horst Herold’s hunt for RAF and other terrorist groups? Was he something of a J. Edgar Hoover for the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA)?

Richard Huffman
Horst Herold could be compared to J. Edgar Hoover in that he was the driving force behind the BKA becoming a centralized police force similar to the FBI. He certainly developed an odd obsession with Baader, going so far as to claim that “Baader is the only man who has ever really understood me, and I am the only man who has ever really understood him.” In retirement, Herold lived in a heavily guarded house as he was assumed to be the No. 1 target of terrorists. He would often compare his “imprisonment” to the imprisonment of the BMG terrorists in Stammheim-Stuttgart prison. No reports of him wearing women’s clothing though.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
The relationship between the RAF and the media is fascinating. The conservative Springer Press seems at least partly responsible for spreading misinformation about Baader-Meinhof’s involvement in some violent incidents. Do you think this may have ironically enhanced the group’s image? Conversely, might coverage of Baader-Meinhof and other radical terrorist groups have aided the Springer Press’ publishing prominence (and, of course, their sales)?

Richard Huffman
They absolutely, unequivocally fed on each other. The Springer papers were already prominent before the decade of terror, but Baader et al provided a perfect bogeyman to continue to stir up the public. The whole Springer coverage looks a lot different in hindsight than it must have looked in the early ’70s. Looking back, it is clear that it was actually quite accurate, if over zealous. In fact, the Springer papers did themselves a tremendous disservice often by taking their stories one step further than necessary, because it made them easy target of influential liberal critics. The most famous instance occurred just before Christmas 1971 when the Köln edition of Bild ran the headline “Baader-Meinhof Murders On.” Bild assumed that a recent murder of a cop during a bank raid was done by Baader-Meinhof Gang members, and ran the headline as such. It was clearly a wrong thing to do, as Heinrich Böll pointed out two weeks later in Der Spiegel, because all of the evidence had not been gathered yet. But forgotten in this story is that Bild was later proven correct: the death WAS at the hands of Baader-Meinhof members. Because of the Springer Press’s own zeal, intellectuals like Böll were able to turn terrorists like the Baader-Meinhof Gang into martyrs for civil rights abuses.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
Was the 1998 announcement from Germany’s FBI, BKA, via Reuters that the RAF was finally disbanding considered an inevitability, the culmination of an organization in decline, or was there an element of surprise in reactions to the announcement?

Richard Huffman
I think the only surprise on anyone’s part was that the RAF actually went to the trouble of making an announcement. Save for one very large bombing in 1994, the group had essentially been defunct for almost a decade. But for a group who followed up everything, EVERYTHING, with a communiqué, should we have been surprised to see an 8-page single-spaced self-serving fax float across Reuters’ fax machine?

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
I want to talk about the dynamic by which the peaceful student protests of 1967-8 became the violent terrorist organizations of a year later. Did that transformation occur because opportunists like Andreas Baader seized upon the frustrations of disillusioned student leftists? What role did the martyrdom of Benno Ohnesorg play? And do some combination of those and other factors explain that evolution of peaceful student organizations into well-armed terrorists?

Richard Huffman
You are bringing up one of the most common misconceptions of the narrative. Though the student protest movement and the terrorist groups are inexorably linked, it is a little unfair to say that the terror groups were directly transformed from the student groups. If you look at the makeup of the Baader-Meinhof Group you’ll see a diverse group of people: Baader never completed high school, Meinhof was out of school for 10 years, Ensign was sometimes a student, and then there were a bunch of followers who were more often than not NOT students. Their attraction to the Group was probably equal parts sexual intrigue, a desire to defy social norms, a desire to party, and a vague commitment to radical causes. Benno Ohnesorg’s death was quite simply the catalyst of the terrorist movement. It was as important as the Kent State massacre, but with more insidious effects. You could actually tie the entire terrorist movement to that fateful night on June 2, 1967, when the Berlin police decided that the Shah of Iran didn’t need to see German kids protest his presence. A young German girl, Gudrun Ensslin, witnessed the killing. She wandered into the SDS (a German student union unrelated to the American SDS) headquarters the following night. She screamed that the people who killed Ohnesorg-her parents’ generation-“were the Auschwitz generation! You cannot argue with them! Violence must be met with violence!” It was Gudrun’s passion that would later inspire a talented German journalist named Ulrike Meinhof to give up the bourgeois trappings that she felt so guilty about and become a terrorist (Meinhof was out shopping for furniture for her fashionable Hamburg home while Ohnesorg was lying in a street, blood pooled around his head). It was Gudrun’s passion that would prompt the big-talking Andreas Baader to actually turn his talk into action; it was either put up or shut up.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
A few innocent persons were killed by police in pursuit of Baader-Meinhof. Were there any legal, legislative, or political repercussions to these accidents?

Richard Huffman
Generally, no. One notorious case involved, I believe, a young Scottish businessman. The police burst into his apartment, acting on a tip, and ended up shooting and killing him. They later claimed that he was somehow connected to the BMG, but they never actually said in what way. And since he was dead, he never had a trial to prove his innocence. In legislative terms, the German government progressively clamped down on what Americans would consider basic civil rights. It is important to note that most Germans were quite comfortable with these efforts. After all, they were “stopping the terrorists.”

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
Some of the penalties meted out to some members of Movement 2 June and RAF for violent crimes seem rather light, given the gravity of their crimes and their stated commitment to violent revolution. Was German criminal law fairly liberal in its sentencing at the time?

Richard Huffman
Yes and no. Generally German sentences were light compared to American sentences, but then America has the most stringent sentencing laws of any Western nation. What’s more intriguing is how so many prisoners were given early releases in exchange for vague statements “renouncing” terrorism. To me what this actually did was constantly put the limelight on the terrorists, well beyond the time when they would have otherwise been forgotten. When Irmgard Möller, who killed three American servicemen in Heidelberg, was let out of prison in 1994 after 22 years in prison, she was the longest-serving German woman in any German prison. To many Americans, 22 years seemed awfully brief for three lives. For many Germans, it seemed about right. Go figure.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
What was the relationship between the cultural radical Left and the political/militant radical Left?

Richard Huffman
So many of the bourgeois left-derisively called the Schikeria [Chic Left] or the “Raspberry Reich”-lived vicariously through the actions of the terrorists. They simply could not turn down requests for help from the terrorists, and after fulfilling a seemingly innocent request, found themselves forced to fulfill more and more dangerous and illegal requests, or be turned in to the police for consorting with terrorists-in other words, blackmail.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
You note on the web site the Spiegel article about bringing the children of key German Leftists back to the site of the June 2, 1967, Benno Ohnesorg killing for the 30th anniversary of that event. Do you know what became of the children of Ensslin, Meinhof, or any of the other RAF, 2 June, or RZ members?

Richard Huffman
Ensslin had one son with the semi-famous writer Bernward Vesper (who committed suicide in the early ’70s). Felix Vesper, or a fictional representation of him, was a major character in the Von Trotta film Die Blierne Zeit, which was the lightly fictionalized account of Gudrun Ensslin and her sister. At the end of the film someone horribly burns Vesper, presumably because of his terrorist lineage. The film never makes clear if this was a true event or not. If it was, it is truly a despicable act. Someone e-mailed me claiming that Felix Vesper was running for some form of a government post last year on the Greens’ ticket. But he never e-mailed me back with supporting info. One of Meinhof’s twin daughters wrote a book about her mother five years ago. They’re around and I hope to interview them next year (hopefully their English is better than my German!) Most of the other RAF, M2J and RZ members have faded into ordinariness.

Fritz Teufel is probably the saddest to me. Here was this guy who was a prominent student leader at Berlin’s Free University, which was ground zero of the German student movement. He was a leader of Kommune I, the notorious commune that was constantly in the press in 1967-1969. He later became a terrorist with Movement 2 June (and tried to kill my dad!), and would have probably been the most famous terrorist in Germany had Meinhof not lent her famous name to the BM cause (Teufel’s name, which means “Devil” would have helped too). So what is 55-year-old Teufel doing now? Riding around as a bike messenger. It’s kind of sad.

Sam Gaines/Eye Magazine
Recently there’s been news of renewed terrorism by the Red Brigade in Italy (the murder of a governmental labor advisor, if memory serves), and possibly similar violent actions in Greece. Is radical terrorism of one form or another “here to stay” in Europe? Why hasn’t it taken hold in the United States to the same extent-or do you think it might?

Richard Huffman
I assume that you are referring to radical left-wing terrorism. Yes, I think that some form of radical terrorism will always exist; it is the last bastion of political discourse and it can make six people seem as powerful as six million. That said, terrorism clearly comes on a pendulum. It swings back and forth between right-wing and left-wing. It seems we are now seeing the tail end of the right-wing terrorism in some European countries, and with the rise of globalization of corporations, a whole new evil has arisen for unempowered young people to hate. So maybe we are about to see a new era of left-wing terrorism. But I might be wrong. I was pretty certain that the Seattle Mariners were going all the way last year. As for why terrorism like the European flavor hasn’t taken hold in America, well, I think a lot of it boils down to effective police forces, and a political and economic system that is more open than in these other countries. I am basically a true Lefty, so I always feel weird saying this, but America is just plain freer.