1970-77 Fear and Terror

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The arrogance of militant activists/ Civil rights suspended/ How did the Radikalenerlass work?

The period when the Berlin women’s center was founded was marked by terror, and this terror assumed a number of guises: many women’s center activists knew there was no point in applying for a public service job after completing their studies because the German domestic security agency, the Verfassungsschutz, already had its eye on them. In order to fall under the Radikalenerlass,[i] it sufficed to have lived in a “suspect” communal apartment. For that reason some people created their own workplaces, for example women’s projects.

Then there was the terror exerted by the omnipresent hounding of terrorists, which was applied for a wide range of purposes. For instance, the police searched the women’s center and confiscated the files of the abortion rights group under the pretext that they were looking for a wanted terrorist.

On the other hand, friends or acquaintances from the old days who had gone underground approached women and asked for help, for example housing people sought by the police, or they roped women into convincing clueless friends to make their apartments available “for a few weeks.”[ii] This quickly swelled the ranks of the women who voluntarily or involuntarily became “supporters of a criminal organization.”

Many women in Black Aid and Red Aid who were active in helping inmates were outraged by the conditions of political prisoners. Some of them joined the Red Army Faction (RAF) or other groups in the underground for that reason.

The state was suspicious of its rebellious youth and did everything possible to isolate them and shut them up, and we were equally mistrustful of the state. A few anecdotes from the period will illuminate how this situation came about and how it operated in everyday life.

The violence begins

Following the April 11, 1968 assassination attempt on Rudi Dutschke, the Springer delivery trucks were only set on fire because the Verfassungsschutz, in the guise of confidential informant Peter Urbach, brought ready-made Molotov cocktails—a mix of gasoline and diesel in bottles—to the publishing house. The demonstrators themselves had not planned so far in advance. A short while later, Urbach supplied Communes 1 and 2 with bombs for the visit of US President Richard Nixon in Berlin on February 27, 1969.[iii] During the subsequent house search the bombs were found, which allowed the authorities to put the popular figures Rainer Langhans and Dieter Kunzelmann behind bars for a while.

A further example of the efforts of the state authorities to stoke the conflict was the “Battle of Tegeler Weg” in November 1968, in which the 68er movement turned to violent demonstrations. Unidentified people managed to drive a truck loaded with paving stones straight through the police cordons to the demonstrators. The protesters used the stones and for the first time gained the upper hand over the police, who were protected only by their shakos.[iv] Later they found out that a police unit equipped with modern helmets, which could have brought the episode to an end quickly, had been on stand-by but was held back. At that point it dawned on the street fighters that the police leadership had instrumentalized them, and that a large number of injured officers had been necessary to politically justify better equipment for the police.

In the early 1970s, anarchist attacks were generally directed at symbolic targets: courthouses, police vehicles, banks, Amerikahaus, etc. These attacks remained symbolic acts with little tangible effect. People felt compelled to respond and wanted to make their mark as fighters. A comparison between this behavior and later Greenpeace actions, in which activists carefully researched in advance when, why and which drainage pipe or chimney should be brought to public attention, makes the lamentable intellectual laziness of the spontis all too apparent.

But the approach of the police in the 1970s was just as unfocused or irrational, and equally marked by mere reaction or actually overreaction. Nobody put a stop to the state’s manhunt hysteria. Tens of thousands of people were under constant “observation.” In order to get on this list all you had to do was travel in the same train compartment as a suspect, park in front of a suspicious building or lose your ID card.[v] In those days tens of thousands of individuals had experiences like the one I am about to relate here.

Categories of violence

When the Red Army Faction (RAF) shot and injured the employee Georg Linke while springing Andreas Baader from police custody in 1970, and when the bomb planted at the British yacht club by the June 2nd Movement on February 2, 1972 killed the boat builder Erwin Beelitz, it was completely unintentional. The principle “violence against property, not people” still prevailed. The bomb at the yacht club had not exploded, and the boat builder found it the next morning and clamped it onto his workbench for closer inspection.

I knew that Inge Viett was involved in this attack and reproached her severely, but she merely brushed it aside. In her memoirs she pushed responsibility off onto Harald Sommerfeld, saying that he had not planted the bomb properly.[vi] I no longer recall whether the phrase came from Inge herself, but in those days people said that if somebody worked for the “swinish system” they could expect to end up in the line of fire. Scarcely was the first unintended shot fired, Ulrike Meinhof—the moral pointing finger of the Left up to then — also managed to find grandiose words of justification. Four weeks after the first death, Der Spiegel printed the transcript of a tape recording of her from the underground, in which she explains in the usual lofty and convoluted language of the time why she took up arms:

However we are of the opinion that organizing the proletariat is a mere bogey if we do not begin at the same time to do what we are doing now, namely building the Red Army… if we do not prepare ourselves at the same time and create the preconditions to continue to exist during such conflicts—in other words, that all political work is simply pointless and cannot extend beyond a few reforms… if we do not simultaneously arm ourselves and organize the proletariat and work at the factory and neighborhood level… We say the guy in the uniform is a pig, not a human being, and that is how we have to deal with him. That means we don’t talk to him, and it is wrong to talk with these people at all, and of course you can shoot.[vii]

Up to that time, the RAF and the June 2nd Movement had impressed the public with their spectacular bank robberies. By carrying out two or three bank robberies simultaneously they demonstrated how well organized even a left-wing group could be. The bank robbers from the June 2nd Movement passed out chocolate kisses to the horrified bank customers and gave part of the money to leftist projects, which amused and thrilled many people. Now, however, their callous reaction to their first victims showed that they were willing to accept deaths in the process. This lost them the sympathy of the left-wing public.

What made people support the terrorists in droves in subsequent years, however, was not their actions but the outrageous behavior of the justice system. Political justice compromised the rule of law and nobody prevented this. For many it became a moral imperative to support people persecuted by the German legal system, not just in Germany but abroad as well.

To give one example: In the summer of 1973 Inge Viett broke out of the prison on Lehrter Strasse. At the time my then-girlfriend Waltraut Siepert and I were at the International Women’s Camp in Salecina, Switzerland. Waltraut dropped everything to return to Berlin and help Inge, her former partner. Even though I criticized the methods of the June 2nd Movement, it seemed to me that Inge deserved a chance in that situation, so I tried to find a place for her to stay in Switzerland. One comrade gave me a list with addresses of people who might be willing to take Inge in. I went to every address, all well-situated Swiss citizens, and not a single one refused. All of them were prepared to take in a person persecuted by the German justice system.

A police van on every other corner

They say that some Berliners start singing when they return to the city and catch sight of the radio tower. In the early 1970s West Berlin had more police for its ca. 2 million inhabitants than (in those days) fascist Spain. Scarcely had one passed the radio tower and entered the city, one saw a “green Minna,” as police vans were popularly known, on every other corner. They stood around for no apparent reason. The “ruling class” apparently felt constantly threatened, and so did we. Having left the city and experienced the relative normality of life in West Germany, returning was always mingled with fear. The house searches and fresh accusations continued, of course, even during our absence. We never knew for sure what we would find when we went home.

But one time things were different. We were in Berne, just leaving a movie theater when my eye fell on a BILD newspaper with two photos of our apartment on the front page. The bedclothes were rumpled and the curtains half pulled down: “This is how the terrorists live” was the commentary. The unlocked front door had been shattered with an axe.

The other time we didn’t even need to look in the newspaper. When Inge Viett broke out of prison in 1973 the police found it obvious to look first in the last apartment where Inge had been registered as living, which was our place. At the time two women from the women’s center were living there. We had joked when we left, “Don’t worry if the police show up.” They met the nocturnal raiding party with composure.

One day we found our apartment door locked. What had happened? The door was always left unlocked, even when we were out of town. All of our neighbors were friendly with each other and went in and out of each other’s apartments with a skeleton key fashioned from a bent aluminum clothes hanger. There hadn’t been a key to this now-locked door for quite some time. So the tricky question remained: what kind of burglar would lock the front door to cover his tracks? We had our suspicions, and began to check the apartment and found two metal pipes we had never seen before hidden behind the kitchen curtains. The next thing would be for the state security service to show up and arrest us for making bombs; that much was obvious to us. So we had to protect ourselves before that happened. We went to the next police station and reported the break-in. Things became complicated when they asked what was missing. “Nothing is missing, but something was added. Well that is fine then, what’s your problem? Actually all we want is for you to tell your colleagues from the state security that they don’t need to come again.” At that point we were thrown out of the police station on our ear. At six the next morning the police was standing at the door, as expected: a black phalanx behind helmets, bulletproof vests and submachine guns. When we informed them that we had already found and removed the pipes they actually left.

One Sunday Waltraut Siepert and I were in the midst of installing a new exhaust pipe on our VW Bug when two police vans pulled up alonside us and the policemen grabbed us and threw us up against the wall of the building with their weapons cocked. Then they stormed the apartment. Inside sat “Granny,” an old woman released from prison with nowhere to go who was just taking a footbath. When asked the reason for this raid we learned that they had received a tip-off. We looked like wanted terrorists. How was this possible? We were well known on that street in Kreuzberg and—it seemed to me— well liked. What is more, the police already knew us from numerous house searches.

Once I was arrested when I went to my usual bank to pick up my stipend. I was standing at the teller’s window when two policemen stormed the bank. They thought a robbery was in progress because our car—now an old DKW—was parked outside the bank with the motor running and Waltraut at the wheel wearing a parka. The bank teller, who had been serving me for a year, did not feel compelled to clear up the mistake. And so I was led away to be interviewed.

Citizens as a “community of enforcement”

The most dangerous situation I encountered was in the autumn of 1977 with Cillie Rentmeister in a village in Lüchow-Dannenberg. It was nighttime and we were looking for a room. When we entered the hotel restaurant, the men sitting there stared at the two young women. We paid them no mind and went to the manager, got a room key and left. We had just gotten into bed when the door of our room slowly opened and we found a pistol pointing at us. The gun was followed by a police officer and then several more. One of the guests had “recognized” us as wanted terrorists, whereupon the police surrounded the hotel and the bravest among them ventured into our room. How easily one nervous move on our part could have caused them to shoot! In those years, the police had already accidentally shot and killed five bystanders[viii] while pursuing terrorists. Our reserved attitude towards the village patriarchy had thus sufficed to set the entire county police force in motion. One look at our rickety old car should have been enough to dispel any suspicion of terrorism. Was the whole thing perhaps not just about rooting out terrorists, but also about terrorizing uppity-looking women?

Employment bans

On January 28, 1972, under Willy Brandt’s chancellorship, the conference of the minister presidents of the German federal states passed the Radikalenerlass, which was intended to protect the public service from political radicals. This stopped the plans of activist students to engage in a “march through the institutions.” The Protestant and Catholic Churches also played along, as did the trade unions: They excluded members suspected of allegiance to the K groups[ix] or spontis, with members of the German Communist Party (DKP) acting as informers, which allowed them to rid the works councils of pesky left-wing rivals. The union newspaper Metall even published the names and addresses of workers banned from the metalworkers’ union IG Metall. The companies then dismissed these workers or refused to hire them in the first place. This meant that the Radikalenerlass affected all larger employers, not just the public service.

The Radikalenerlass — an internal administrative interpretation

The 1972 Radikalenerlass stipulated that people applying for public service positions be subjected to background checks with the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Since as an administrative provision, the Radikalenerlass was and is not generally applicable law, but rather an internal administrative interpretation of civil service law, the bureaucracy alone, which is not subject to external controls, decides who is an “enemy of the constitution.” Even anonymous accusations suffice. Decisions must not be justified, or only on appeal before an administrative court. A court case is expensive, though. Not everybody had the 10,000 DM needed in those days for lawyers’ fees and court costs. As a result, the framework law on civil servants was and is given precedence over the basic civil rights guaranteed by the constitution, according to which no one may suffer disadvantages because of his or her political opinions or membership in a party or be prevented from taking part in political assemblies.[x]


Who is an enemy of the constitution?

To go by the Bayernkurier newspaper, Willy Brandt, too, should actually have been regarded as an “enemy of the constitution.” While he had never been a member of the Communist Party, “he would probably have a difficult time proving that he was not an abettor of Communism,” the paper wrote.[xi] Thus in Bavaria, some members of the SPD were also barred from civil service careers as enemies of the constitution. Edgar Vögel, for instance, was accused of having promoted “the progressive democratization of all societal decision-making processes” and the “perfection of the planning of economic, social and cultural development on a democratic basis” in the program of the Student University League (SHB).[xii]

In those days we were amused by a cartoon showing two men from the security service confiscating a copy of the Basic Law: At the time, a number of passages could very easily have been considered “anticonstitutional,” for example Article 14, which states that “Property entails obligations. Its use shall also serve the public good” or Article 15, according to which “Land, natural resources and means of production may for the purpose of socialization be transferred to public ownership…”


Up to 1977, the domestic security service vetted, spied on and interrogated 2 million young West German citizens. It carried out 800,000 individual investigations and imposed employment bans on 4,000 applicants. This process employed 10,000 civil servants, and 20,000 informants supplied information to the federal and state Offices for the Protection of the Constitution. Up to 1976, nearly half a million applicants nationwide had been scrutinized for their loyalty to the constitution.[xiii] The number of those who did not even bother to apply for a public service position must have been far larger.

When individual terrorists are pardoned nowadays or the RAF announces its disbanding, they are admonished to express their regrets and beg the victims for forgiveness. Certainly that would be a positive gesture. However, we should expect the same from the other side as well. It was not enough for Willy Brandt to say “I was wrong at the time.” This politics of hysteria and hounding people in the 1970s not only suspended our civil rights, it destroyed promising lives and careers, deprived the public service of the most committed democratic forces of the time and robbed an entire generation of hope.

[i] From 1972, this law was used to keep extremists out of the public service.

[ii] When I returned from a journey I was surprised to find our kitchen table half burned. Philip Sauber had been playing around with explosives there—a friend had put him up at the apartment. After another trip we found a strange couple in our bed, who reacted quite angrily to our unexpected return.

[iii] Translator’s note: The German edition of Michael “Bommi” Baumann’s memoir Wie alles anfing was published in 1975. The English cited here is based on the 1977 published translation. The “Secret Police” referred to in the passage was the Verfassungsschutz. According to Bommi Baumann, the bomb “was made with a timing device, and Peter Urbach had once again put that into our hands. The night before we had run into him at the Republican Club at the teach-in for Nixon’s visit… We couldn’t see through that at the time. We were the unwitting fall guys for a very specific strategy by the pigs… Of course the Nixon bomb didn’t work. Some ignition wire was broken. We hadn’t seen that. The next night we picked it up again and put it away. And a few days later there was a house search. They turned the whole place on its head and found nothing. The bombs were lying in the kitchen cabinet. At K. 1 there was a house search too, and the same kind of bomb was found over there. Urbach had put it there, and Rainer [Langhans] and Dieter [Kunzelmann] were arrested.” Michael Baumann, How it All Began: The Personal Account of a West German Urban Guerilla, trans. Helen Ellenbogen (1977; Vancouver, B.C., 2002), p. 47. Baumann also related that Peter Urbach had started “to deal shit with a morphine base. So the Secret Police delivered to the junkies; they had a new strategy. It is now known that Peter Urbach really did deal morphine base. The Secret Police got lots of junkies involved.” How It All Began, p. 56.

[iv] Cf. the testimony of eyewitnesses in the film documentary “Die Schlacht am Tegeler Weg” by Barbara Kasper and Lothar Schuster, NDR 1988.

[v] Peter Koch and Reimar Oltmanns, SOS Freiheit für Deutschland. Sicherheit. Ordnung. Staatsgewalt (Hamburg, 1978), p. 79.

[vi] Inge Viett, Nie war ich furchtloser. Autobiographie (Hamburg, 1997), p. 91.

[vii] “Natürlich kann geschossen werden. Ulrike Meinhof über die Baader-Aktion,” Der Spiegel, June 15, 1970.

[viii] The dead were Richard Epple, apprentice (d. March 1, 1972), Günter Jendrian, taxi driver (d. May 21, 1974), Ian James McLeod, businessman (d. June 25, 1972), Manfred Perder, technician (d. April 3, 1980), Petra Schelm, 20 years old (d. July 15, 1971). See Hans-Peter Feldmann, Die Toten: 1967–1993. Studentenbewegung, APO, Baader-Meinhof, Bewegung 2. Juni, Revolutionäre Zellen, RAF (Düsseldorf, 1998).

[ix] Cf. the chapter The 68er Movement Splits.

[x] Following protests, the federal states stopped these measures over the course of the 1970s and 1980s. Bavaria was the last to do so in 1991. In the meantime, background checks are only initiated when there are doubts about an applicant’s allegiance to the constitution. Only in Bavaria do people have to fill out a questionnaire declaring this allegiance. Despite this mitigation, the Radikalenerlass had and continues to have severe consequences.

[xi] Quoted in Koch and Oltmanns, SOS, p. 55.

[xii] Quoted in Koch and Oltmanns, SOS, p. 56.

[xiii] Koch and Oltmanns, SOS, pp. 155–56.