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It is October 18th, 1977. Five men make their way into Stammheim Prison, leaving behind the chilly morning air that hung over the West German city of Stuttgart.
They are Officers Stoll, Stapf, Griesenger and Hermann, along with Sergeant Miesterfeld, and they are entering the state-of-the-art maximum-security detention centre, ascending its stairs in order to reach the seventh floor, otherwise known as the Dead Wing. Clocking in at 7.15am, they start their shift, leaving the night guards to finish, and for the next twenty-six minutes, slowly they prepare themselves for another long day.
Although the past handful of weeks had been particularly chaotic, nothing seemed peculiar as the alarms were disabled, thus enabling the guards to enter the holding area. In saying that, whatever happened outside the prison gates, these men already seemed to have their hands full on a something of regular basis. They were after all, working inside what was essentially a psychological weapon. It was not designed with the average prisoner in mind.
Still, it was quiet. Maybe that was because all the cells were padded to prevent sound travelling even a few centimetres beyond each door. Whatever the case, the silence must have been pleasant, timed perfectly to coincide with what had ended up a spontaneous day of national celebration.
Six and a half hours earlier, a radio broadcast sent good news from Somalia regarding a hijacked Lufthansa Boeing 737-200. Flight LH 181, the aircraft had been captured on October 13th, by four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, and operating under the name Commando Martyr Halime. Having taken exactly eighty-six passengers and five crew members hostage, the demands were issued by “Captain Martyr Muhamud”, AKA Zohain Youssif Akache. The state of Turkey was to release two Palestinian political prisoners, the state of West Germany was to release ten of their own and in addition, they wanted a total of fifteen million dollars.
“The passengers had been soaked in duty-free spirits. There would be no enthusiastic renditions of ‘Happy Birthday'”
For 128 hours, they led a chase across three continents. In that time, the flight’s captain, Jurgen Schumann was executed and a cake was brought on-board for stewardess Anna-Maria Staringer who had just turned twenty-eight. The plane was laden with explosives. All of the passengers had been soaked in duty-free spirits. There would be no enthusiastic renditions of ‘Happy Birthday’. They flew from Rome to Larnaca, Bahrain to Dubai, Aden and finally, Mogadishu, where GSG-9 (Boarder Guard Group 9), an elite German counter-terrorist unit lay in wait, preparing to launch an assault, Operation Feurzauber.
Disregarding the Commando’s threat, GSG-9 raided the flight. They opened fire, killing three of the four hijackers, while miraculously leaving everyone else unscathed. Then at 00.38am on October 18th, word got home and a nation drew one major breath of relief.
Seven hours later, Officers Stoll and Stapff were bringing a set of breakfast meals to the four prisoners locked up on the Dead Wing.
Beginning with cell number 716 at 7.41 am, the pair unlocked the door, behind which they expected to see the haggard glare of a moustachioed man known as Jan Carl Raspe. He was there, glowering or sulking every morning. Today, however, he was still in bed, sitting upright, breathing heavily.
Approaching him, they noticed blood splattered across the wall to his left. His right temple was bleeding profusely. It did not take long for them to register that Raspe had incurred a bullet to the head.
The day had officially begun.
The men left him lying there, locking the door as they went to relay this news back to the deputy chief officer, Inspector Horst Bubeck. Minutes later, two orderlies were summoned onto the scene. Accompanied by two more officers, Inspector Gotz and Sergeant Munzing, the group re-entered Raspe’s cell to conduct a thorough search of the interior.
It did not take long. Just one glance down at the bed and they found the weapon, a 9mm Heckler and Koch pistol. An ambulance was called arriving at 8am. However, by 9.40, Jan Carl Raspe was dead.
Then, at 8.07, the guards proceeded to check cell 719, which held a man named Andreas Baader. Situated two doors down from Raspe and separated by a staircase the first person to enter was the Medic Orderly Soukop.
He opened the door slowly. Out of nowhere a mattress fell to the ground. Baader must have propped it up against the door. He could be highly irritating like that. The room was dark. Soukop walked a little further inside. His eyes adjusted. After a few moments, he saw that Baader was not in his bed. He was spreadeagled out on the floor.
His left arm outstretched and the right over his chest, Baader lay supine in a pool of blood. Eyes wide open, to the left of his head was a 7.65 caliber FEG pistol, the standard model carried by local Bonn police officers. He had succumbed to a bullet wound, which entered through the back of the neck at the hairline and exiting through the forehead.
One dead prisoner could be written off as depressed. Two, on the other hand said something entirely different. Quickly realizing this, Baader’s door was locked and the staff hurried across to cell 720, which held Gudrun Ensslin, Baader’s girlfriend. Soukop entered. He called out her name.
There was no answer.
Again, he waded into the darkness. She wasn’t in her bed, nor was she on the ground. He turned and saw her. She appeared to be standing. Staring out the window, her figure was partially obscured because she was behind a blanket, which she had used as a curtain. Yet, when he looked down at her lower half, he saw that she was floating forty centimetres off the ground. Around her neck was wrapped an insulated two-wire cable. Her face was blue and swollen, like Baader, she had been dead for a number of hours.
Alerting the other members of staff to the fact that a third body had been found the men now rushed to cell 725, across from Raspe’s cell, where a woman named Irmgard Moller resided. She however, was still in bed, lying on her side with a blanket pulled right up to her chin. Breathing, there was some relief in the fact that she was actually conscious.
Conscious, but not responding to anything in her surroundings, Soukop knelt down to check her condition. She was moving, but only just.
Soukop rolled Moller onto her back. She was drenched in blood like the others. Yet, her wrists were intact. He proceeded to lift up her t-shirt. There it was: four stab wounds, varying between one and one and a half centimetres in depth. By pure luck, her heart sac was not punctured. The weapon, they deduced was the butter knife next to her.
“At the end of the 70’s, three comrades who were in wanted posters were shot in the head”
Delivered to Robert Bosch hospital, Moller would make a recovery, but while she was unconscious, a press release was issued.
A suicide pact, the Bonn Government’s spokesperson Klaus Bolling called it. As a result of the “despair at the failure of attempts by guerrillas outside to force the government to release them”, the four prisoners, all members of the Red Army Faction, commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof Group made attempts on their lives, and all but one had succeeded.
Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, Jan Carl Raspe and Irmgard Moller, these were all names on the list issued by Commando Martyr Halime. The three deceased were central figures in the RAF’s conception during 1967.
Imprisoned since 1972, this, their final lunge at freedom had fallen a few inches short of the mark. Only it was not their final option. There had still been one life hanging in the balance. A man named Hanns Martin Schleyer, arguably a far greater bargaining chip than ninety-one German passengers.
“As compensation for our pain and suffering over the massacres in Mogadishu and Stammhein, his death is meaningless”
Schleyer was President of the Confederate German Employers Association and the Federation of German Industrialists. A former member of the SS, he was the epitome of everything the RAF sought to eradicate from West Germany and hence, the perfect candidate to be made an example of. Held captive by the RAF’s Siegfried Hausner Commando since the 5th of September, Schleyer lasted all of six weeks before they loaded him in the trunk of a green Audi and went for a little ride.
The next day, a very different press release appeared in Liberation, a French newspaper. Only this one was issued by members of the RAF. It said:
“After 43 days, we have put an end to Hanns Martin Schleyer’s pitiful and corrupt existence. From the moment he began his power play… [German Chancellor Helmut] Schmidt gambled with the possibility of Schleyer’s death…
“As compensation for our pain and suffering over the massacres in Mogadishu and Stammhein, his death is meaningless… [We] are not surprised by the dramatic and fascist methods the imperialists used to exterminate the liberation movement.”
This was the same situation, right? So, why did the release say “massacres”? Was it that those RAF members still at large suspected Bolling had been spreading a lie? Certainly, the Social Democratic Party had pulled such tricks before. Way back in January of 1919, they were the party who covered-up the executions of two Spartacist revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, claiming they were shot while attempting to escape incarceration.
Was this history repeating itself, or an attempt to convince the world that Germany was slyly returning to its brutal authoritarian past?
“Naturally, it was revenge… Today, the historiography from above goes unchallenged… [During the kidnapping] the so-called crisis management team discussed ‘exotic’ approaches.”
“It’s rumored that [chairman of the Christian Social Union] Franz Josef Strauss demanded that a prisoner be shot every hour until Schleyer be freed… At the end of the 70’s, three comrades who were on wanted posters were shot in the head.”
Of course, this rhetoric could be equated with the old SPK slogan, “Suicide Equals Murder”, or indeed, written off as a wild leftist conspiracy theory. The opacity of what happened on the night of October 17th has remained as such, intensifying over the years, the theories growing increasingly more elaborate and cinematic as time goes by. It was a surreal end to one of the most violent periods in post-war German history, the ‘German Autumn’, 44 days of urban warfare waged by a small gang of hip radicals who seemed incapable of explaining what it was that they actually wanted.
Over the next few weeks, I will delve deeper into the night and the stories which surround it. What actually happened when the prisoners went to bed on the night of October 17th? Why did official autopsies successfully manage to make the deaths look like murder, while somehow the RAF prison writings clearly made it look as if they were planning this pact for months? Who was to blame, the mainstream media, Mao or an Italian art house classic? What can a butter knife tell us about Moller’s injuries and more importantly, why did the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre want in on the whole story?
The questions are endless, so I will leave you with one that can actually be answered. How did this all start?
The short answer is timing.
It was at 8.01 when Klaus Bolling released his statement to the press, declaring that the RAF prisoners had turned their Coca-Cola war on themselves. That is to say, six minutes before the body of Andreas Baader was found.
Feature Image, Schleyer in Captivity