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Germany rattled by militant's release

March 26, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — She was a young leftist with a machine gun and bizarre thoughts about changing the world, but that was 30 years ago, back when Brigitte Mohnhaupt helped lead a terrorist gang whose assassinations of politicians and industrialists mesmerized postwar Germany.

On Sunday, Mohnhaupt again rattled the public consciousness when she was released from prison as an unrepentant convicted murderer. Once a brazen and unrelenting mastermind for the anticapitalist Red Army Faction, or RAF, the 57-year-old inmate stepped back into a nation still agitated over a bygone era of bombings, fanatical screeds and urban guerrillas.

"There is huge debate over her release," said Butz Peters, a lawyer who has written two books about the RAF, a band of disciplined, well-armed radicals who killed 34 people after emerging from the university protests of the late 1960s. "The injured German soul of that time has not healed. Everything that was buried deep down long ago is arising again."

Mohnhaupt was serving five life sentences in southern Bavaria. A court recently ruled that she was eligible for parole after serving a minimum of 24 years. Her release and the prospect that one of her accomplices, Christian Klar, may receive a presidential pardon have outraged conservative lawmakers and prompted calls of forgiveness from left-leaning politicians. German law states that no matter what the crime, a person deserves a second chance.

"Neither Mohnhaupt nor Klar are of any danger to Germany," said Alexander Strasser, a political scientist at the University of Regensburg. "The RAF stands for ideological defeat ... an example of the failure of violent resistance."

A recent poll, however, found that 66% of Germans believed the militants should serve their full life sentences. Known to most of the country from her wanted poster, which showed a broad-faced woman with light hair and thick mascara, Mohnhaupt today is at the center of a debate over a legal system rooted in European liberalism that prides itself on tolerance and compassion. Her case also has revealed that vestiges of extreme leftist politics still resonate among certain intellectuals who never realized their anarchist dreams.

"The people are against releasing Mohnhaupt and Klar," said Gabriele von Lutzau, who was a flight attendant on a Lufthansa jet hijacked by RAF-inspired Palestinian militants in 1977. "The RAF wanted to free the masses, but the masses wanted them thrown into the dungeon and the key tossed away. How many people do you have to kill before they don't let you walk free?"

The RAF went through several incarnations between 1968 and its disbanding three decades later. It was a violent spinoff of a student movement that demanded Germany account for its Nazi past, denounce capitalism and oppose U.S. power. Public support for the RAF evaporated quickly in the face of the group's bombings and kidnappings, which unnerved a divided nation that was rebuilding from World War II and navigating the dangerous politics of the Cold War.

The terrorists turned the country into a film noir landscape where TV news carried images of bullet casings and blanket-draped bodies. It was a time that also foreshadowed a new generation of politicians, including Joschka Fischer, a cabdriver- turned-street protester who would become Germany's foreign minister, and Gerhard Schroeder, a young lawyer who represented an RAF member and would be elected chancellor in 1998.

Mohnhaupt and Klar surfaced as two of the RAF's main leaders in the mid-1970s. During their tenure, the group stormed the West German Embassy in Sweden, tried to forge bonds with other European extremists and killed several leading German citizens, including federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback and banker Juergen Ponto, whom Mohnhaupt and Klar shot at least five times after delivering flowers to his home.

Neither Mohnhaupt nor Klar has offered public apologies or given details about the RAF's inner workings or which members carried out certain killings. Nor was Mohnhaupt required to apologize under the terms of her release.

Their reticence has left criminal cases unresolved, including bombings and attacks on U.S. bases in Germany. Furor and bewilderment concerning the imprisoned terrorists' fate intensified in January when a letter in which Klar called for the overthrow of capitalism was read at a political conference.

"Considering the gravity of this wrongdoing," Gunther Beckstein, the conservative interior minister of Bavaria state, said of Mohnhaupt's crimes, "I can't imagine that the victims and those affected will consider it justice when a criminal like this walks around in freedom."

The center-left newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote that the case underscores the wisdom of German law: "The state remained a state of justice; it didn't become a state of revenge. The decisions to release prisoners from jail, these acts of humanity ordered by the state, show the strength of this state far more impressively than any tightening of laws."

Flight attendant Von Lutzau watched the aisles fill with panic when Palestinians hijacked her plane in Spain and flew it to an airstrip in Mogadishu, Somalia. The plot was an attempt to seize hostages as a bargaining chip to gain the release from prison of two RAF members, including one of the group's founders, Andreas Baader. The five-day ordeal ended when German special forces rushed the plane and killed all but one of the hijackers.

"I needed to move beyond that time," Von Lutzau said. "I became a wood sculptor. I work with a chain saw and fire. I will never be a victim again."

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