chapter capsules Chapter 20 — The German Autumn

September 1977 – November 1977, 60 pages: The final chapter will provide a fitting climax to the story. It will primarily focus on the 44 days in the fall of 1997 that have become known as “The German Autumn.”

In April of 1977 the longest and most expensive trial in German history is over. Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe are found guilty of four murders and 54 counts of attempted murder. The defendants settle into their cells in Stammheim prison and begin serving their life sentences. Outside of the prison, the so-called “second generation” of the Baader-Meinhof Gang plots their release.

An abortive kidnapping attempt of Jurgen Ponto, chairman of the Dresner bank, is made in late July. The Baader-Meinhof commandos accidentally kill Ponto, so they are unable to use him as leverage for the release of Baader and his imprisoned comrades. They have better luck a month later.

On September 5th Hanns-Martin Schleyer, former Nazi SS, current head of the German manufacturers association, and perhaps the most prominent businessman in Germany, is kidnapped in front of his Cologne home. The following day a note is sent to the press demanding the release of ten Baader-Meinhof defendants. In the two years since the kidnapping of Berlin mayoral candidate Peter Lorenz, most German politicians had reconsidered their policy of acceding to terrorist demands. Now they are in no mood to release any prisoners, so the kidnappers and the German government settle into a month-long stalemate.

On October 13, four Palestinians (initially aided by several Baader-Meinhof defendants), hijack a Lufthansa Boeing 737 bound for Frankfurt with 88 passengers on board. The plane is redirected towards the Middle East as the hijackers also demand the release of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists. The German government reluctantly begins planning for the possible release of Baader and his comrades, but they also put their crack antiterrorist unit, the GSG-9, on alert.

On the night of October 17 the Lufthansa plane, now in Mogadishu, is stormed by a commando unit from the GSG-9. The Germans kill three of the four terrorists and rescue all 88 hostages unharmed. In Stammheim prison Baader is listening to coverage of the storming of the plane on a smuggled radio. Knowing that all hopes of him and his comrades leaving are now lost, Baader contacts Raspe, Ensslin and another terrorist, Irmgard Möller. Baader uses an ingenious “telephone” system which uses a power line between all of the cells that is unelectrified 23 hours a day. Together the four terrorists seal a suicide pact.

Baader and Raspe each pull out the smuggled handguns that they had carefully hidden in their cell walls months before. They both shoot themselves in the head. Ensslin takes a long strand of smuggled piano wire and hangs herself on the metal mesh covering her window. Möller takes a sharpened bread knife and stabs herself in the chest repeatedly, narrowly missing her heart sac. Möller is the only one to survive “Death Night.”