One Night in Stammheim

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Book review by Christoph Fringeli

Helge Lehmann: Die Todesnacht in Stammheim – Eine Untersuchung. Indizienprozess gegen die staatsoffizielle Darstellung und das Todesermittlungsverfahren. 2nd printing 2012, Pahl-Rugenstein, Cologne.

On October 18, 1977 at 8:53 am, the German news agency dpa sent out a news bulletin announcing “Baader and Ensslin have committed suicide.”

What had happened?

In 1970, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof and Horst Mahler founded the Red Army Faction (RAF) as an armed urban guerrilla group. It was formed as an outgrowth of the radical left student movement of the 60’s in Germany (or as some would argue, as a product of its decomposition). The RAF was convinced that the time was right to pick up arms in order to create another front in what they perceived as a worldwide anti-imperialist struggle. The group started a campaign against targets such as representatives of the German state and the US Army (which they justified as supporting the Viet Cong).

Very early on several members were arrested, including Horst Mahler (in 1970). Two months after the “May Offensive” in 1972, a large number of key members were arrested, including Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin.

From that time onwards, the RAF’s primary goal became freeing the prisoners. As a strategy, several kidnappings were carried out or attempted in hopes of exchange for their imprisoned members. In the past this strategy worked. Peter Lorenz, CDU candidate for mayor of Berlin, was kidnapped in 1975 and eventually exchanged for several political prisoners. However, this action was perpetrated by the “June 2nd Movement”, not the RAF, and the list of prisoners to be freed did not include anyone who was on trial for murder charges. (The only RAF prisoner who was on the list was Mahler, who was also the only one refusing to be exchanged – he had been expelled from the RAF the previous year and had joined the Maoist KPD). (see Datacide Twelve)

Meanwhile, on May 21, 1975, the trial against the imprisoned leadership of the RAF had begun in the high security prison of Stuttgart-Stammheim. For this high profile trial, a special courtroom had been built. This architectural surrounding already professed the special nature of the trial. Many other features characterized this trial, one being the exclusion of the chosen lawyers of the accused. The state’s pretext for this exclusion was the claim that the lawyers were actually supporters or even members of the “criminal organization” RAF. This led to the situation whereby Baader didn’t even have a legal representative at the beginning of the trial. In the face of all evidence, the political nature of the trial was denied by the state and its judiciary, while the lawyers were demanding a prisoner of war status for their clients.

A year later, on May 9, 1976, Ulrike Meinhof died in Stammheim prison. Many open questions surrounded her death. It was widely assumed in radical left circles that she had been murdered. (See “Ulrike Meinhof’s Brain” in Datacide Nine)

On April 28, 1977, the surviving prisoners were condemned to life in prison. The sentences were appealed. Thus, the prisoners still remained in custody on remand, and none of the three who eventually died were legally convicted.

In the meantime there had been numerous struggles by dozens of prisoners from armed groups to change their conditions. Often they had been held in total isolation, treatment that was akin to torture. But their demands were broader. Beyond being recognized as POW’s, they demanded to be put together in one prison with the possibility of social interaction. One of the means to achieve this was the hunger strike – the 5th collective stirke took place in summer ’77.

The months spanning from mid-1975 to spring 1977 were characterized by many arrests and legal convictions. In 1977 the RAF struck again: On April 7, just after the beginning of the 4th collective hunger strike of about 100 imprisoned militants, they assassinated the State Attorney General Siegfried Buback. On July 30, CEO of Deutsche Bank Jürgen Ponto was shot dead during an attempted kidnapping.

On October 5 they kidnapped Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the chairman of the German Employers Association, the „boss of the bosses“. This led to an unprecedented stand-off between the state and the urban guerrillas. Tensions escalated when a Palestinian commando hijacked the Lufthansa plane „Landshut“ on October 13 to add weight to the demands of the Schleyer kidnappers. The plane was stormed by German special forces (GSG 9) in Mogadishu, Somalia shortly after midnight on October 18.

The next morning Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe were found either dead or dying in their cells. Irmgard Möller was found with stab wounds in the chest; she survived.

This event became traumatic, iconic and contested. Just as in the case of the death of Ulrike Meinhof the year before, many people on the far left assumed it to be murder. However, even more so than in the Meinhof case, this became a question of faith, rather than something either side was trying to actually prove.

Now, almost 35 years after the fact, a new book has come out which sets out to challenge the “official version” of a suicide pact. The book is: Helge Lehmann: Die Todesnacht in Stammheim – Eine Untersuchung. Indizienprozess gegen die staatsoffizielle Darstellung und das Todesermittlungsverfahren. 2nd printing 2012, Pahl-Rugenstein, Cologne.

The book comes with a CD of documents and investigates the deaths from all possible angles. He examines the evidence with obsessive attention to detail, and he makes a good case for the “murder hypothesis.” What he leaves unmentioned, though, is more relevant to the value of the book than what is in it. Lehmann is too concerned with proving the “official version” wrong or untrue, and not concerned enough with actually finding the truth.

Naturally, loose ends in the official preliminary proceedings are examined. And there many inconsistencies to be found indeed. I will not go too much into the various points, but briefly stick to some examples. One essentially open question is how the guns got into the most secure prison in the world. Another is why there was no histamine test performed on Gudrun Ensslin, which would have established beyond any doubt if she was alive when she presumably hung herself, or if an already dead Ensslin was hung to create the impression she committed suicide. Lehmann also re-built the “communication system” that supposedly existed between the cells, the hiding places for the guns and the explosives.

There already exists a book that lists most of the inconsistencies that Lehmann is investigating. Karl-Heinz Weidenhammer, who was Raspe’s lawyer, published “Selbstmord oder Mord? – Todesermitllungsverfahren Baader – Ensslin – Raspe” in 1988. Still, Lehmann only mentions Weidenhammer’s book in one footnote, where Weidenhammer is proven wrong in assessing one (not unimportant) forensic detail. Both books were written with similar intentions, trying to provide ammunition for the “murder hypothesis.” Interesting, or perhaps rather disturbing, is the way Weidenhammer imagines what might “really” have happened that night. Suddenly it’s a killer commando from Mossad that is executing the prisoners! Lehmann tries to avoid this kind of mistake. Still, Lehmann adds a chapter on counterinsurgency, the Bilderberg conference, the Trilateral Commission, etc. to create circumstantial “likelihood” for the credibility that the prisoners were killed.

Lehmann also doesn’t go into detail about the doubts raised by other investigations. It is true that Volker Speitel, who is the key witness for allegedly smuggling the guns into the prison, is not very credible. In exchange for his statement, Speitel has been given a new identity under a witness protection program. But Lehmann doesn’t mention the doubts that two researchers from the far left have about the “murder thesis.” These researchers are Karl-Heinz Dellwo and Karl-Heinz Roth.

Dellwo, not to be confused with his brother Hans-Joachim who did turn state witness, never recanted and is – after 21 years in prison – now a far left publisher in Berlin. He still proclaims “the guns in the 7th floor were from us,” (Jungle World, Oct. 18, 2007), although he doesn’t detail how the guns supposedly got there.

Roth, a historian and medical doctor, who had himself been wounded in a shootout with the police in 1975, and who is the author of many historical articles about the German labour movement and other topics, was also a member of an independent inquiry about the deaths at Stammheim. While this inquiry definitely tried to counter the “official version,” he recounts that at some point it was the people in the underground who withdrew their support, and didn’t seem truly interested in the truth coming out. Which indeed would be an indication – but not proof – that there could have been a suicide pact.

One of the arguments for the suicide thesis contends that with the storming of the Lufthansa machine, the prisoners had given up the hope that they could be freed via the exchange of hostages. At this point Schleyer was still a hostage who in theory could have been exchanged. It was the West German government who had decided not to do that and thus condemned him to death.

In this sense the RAF then committed one of their gravest political mistakes: They executed Schleyer. This was within the logic of escalation they themselves had put into motion. But Schleyer was no longer as valuable as he had been when they kidnapped him. It had become clear that the post-Nazi establishment of which he had been such a prominent character mask, had abandoned him; he’d been reduced to a helpless lump of flesh. By releasing him at this point, the RAF could have turned the all-round disaster into a political victory, saying “we don’t kill our prisoners” – unlike the “fascisized” state, if indeed that was what had happened. Releasing him – accompanied with a text explaining the situation, perhaps making it a pre-condition for his release that the text was published in the mass media – could have caused serious embarrassment to the system – much more than killing him, which is what everybody in the game expected.

Finally, what is the legacy of this disaster? Could anything be gained from proving Baader, Ensslin and Raspe were murdered? What are the lessons for the revolutionary left? 

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