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Convicted Terrorist Seeks Return to Life in W. German Theater

March 08, 1987|SUSAN J. SMITH | Associated Press

BOCHUM, West Germany — Christof Wackernagel did not start out as a terrorist. Before he joined West Germany's notorious Red Army Faction and got into a shoot-out with police, he had been a promising young movie actor.

Now 35 years old and with a decade of prison behind him, Wackernagel hopes that West Germany will allow him and other convicted terrorists to take their places in a society that might have been theirs had they not become involved in revolutionary ideology and murderous violence.

While a prisoner, Wackernagel disassociated himself from the Red Army Faction in 1984 and said it should give up its violent attacks on West German and American military, industrial and political targets.

Last September, West German authorities began allowing him to leave prison for up to 15 hours a day to work as an assistant director at the Bochum city theater.

'Not Only Him'

"I am not only that man," Wackernagel said in an interview, referring to his image as a former terrorist. "I am an actor, I ran a printing press, I have written books. I am not only him ."

In 1980, a Dusseldorf court convicted Wackernagel of membership in the Red Army Faction and of attempted murder in a 1977 shoot-out with police in Amsterdam.

Wackernagel was sentenced to 15 years in prison, with credit granted for the three years he spent in custody awaiting trial.

His current arrangement, in which he spends days at the Bochum playhouse and returns to an area prison at night, followed appeals to authorities from a theater director who had known Wackernagel as a young man.

Acting Since 15

Starting at age 15, Wackernagel had major roles in several West German films, including "Die Taetowierung" ("Tattooing") and "Engelchen," ("Little Angel") and several made-for-television movies.

Claus Peymann, the former director of the Bochum Theater, came forward last year to say that Wackernagel still had talent, had reformed in prison and should be given a second chance.

But the idea received a mixed reception in West Germany, where the Red Army Faction continues to kill. Its more recent victims included a Siemens electronics company executive, Karl-Heinz Beckurts, who was killed July 9, a week before Wackernagel's new job in Bochum was announced.

Anonymous Threats

West German newspapers carried such headlines as "Terrorist to Be Assistant Director." The mayor of Bochum was threatened by anonymous callers who demanded that he block the appointment.

"The media wrote more about me than the new theater director," Wackernagel said in the interview in his small office at the Bochum playhouse.

The son of a theater director and an actress, Wackernagel said his conversion to terrorism was gradual.

In the late 1960s, he opposed the Vietnam War and what student protesters charged was the imperialism of the United States and its allies, including West Germany.

Faction Begun in 1968

The Red Army Faction had its roots in those protests.

The gang's founders got started by setting a fire in a Frankfurt department store in 1968 and went on to bomb businesses, rob banks, kill American soldiers and kidnap and kill prominent members of the West German Establishment.

In the early 1970s, Wackernagel moved into a Stuttgart commune and set up an alternative printing press. But he grew dissatisfied after a few years.

"The commune was the first utopia that shattered," he said. "It was a great disappointment to find out that one can't build an island apart from society."

He said he went underground with the Red Army Faction in 1977 to find out "whether you can find freedom if you completely break with society."

'Lucky I Was Caught Soon'

But within a few weeks he and another gang member, Gert Schneider, were arrested after a shoot-out with the Amsterdam police. Three policemen and both Schneider and Wackernagel were wounded.

"I was lucky I was caught so soon, so there weren't other crimes added to my name," Wackernagel said. Fifteen of the 40 or so Red Army Faction terrorists now in West German prisons are serving life sentences.

In 1981, a hunger strike by convicted terrorists led to better prison conditions for some of them. Wackernagel and Schneider were allowed to live in the same prison and see each other three times a week.

"That was the start of our critical thinking," Wackernagel said. "Together, we could examine whether we had done anything wrong."

'It Just Didn't Work'

He said they started to read the works of Karl Marx, Vladmir Ilyich Lenin and others "on which our fight was allegedly based."

"The more we read, the more difficult it became to justify our armed struggle," he said. "It just didn't work."

In 1984, Wackernagel and Schneider wrote to newspapers saying the Red Army Faction should stop its violence and seek an amnesty for convicted gang members. They were disappointed by the results.

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