Jim Jones’ news broadcasts in 1978:
Red Army Faction & the two Germanys

(Heidi König-Porstner is an author and award-winning translator of poetry, who lives in Vienna, Austria. She works as an editor for the Austrian Committee for Social Work, and has been a research worker in projects on Philosophy of Science and Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. Her publications cover the areas philosophy and history of science, literature and science, and political philosophy. As a literary translator, her focus is on Spanish poetry, and on biographical works. She can be reached at adelheidanna@gmx.at.

(The Appendix to this article is here.)

In the late 1970s, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) faced a crucial moment in the worst period of domestic terrorism the country had experienced since its founding. Following a five-year period of bombings, robberies, and kidnappings perpetrated by an urban guerilla group called the Red Army Faction (RAF) and other violent leftist groups, the country entered an especially violent phase that was to become known as the “German Autumn”:

  • On April 7, 1977, German Federal Prosecutor General Siegfried Buback, his driver, and a passenger were assassinated in Buback’s car.
  • On July 30 of the same year, the banker Jürgen Ponto opened the door to his goddaughter’s sister, Susanne Albrecht, and was killed by the friends she’d brought after he’d refused to be kidnapped.
  • In September, two policemen were killed by members of RAF, and one of its own members died from his injuries; in a gun-battle at the Dutch border, two custom officers were killed.
  • On September 5, Hanns Martin Schleyer, the Chair of the German Employer’s Association and former SS man, was kidnapped from his car. His driver and three policemen were killed during the attack, and Schleyer was held as a hostage. In exchange for his safe liberation, RAF demanded the release of four of their members from prison, among them the leading figures of the group, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin.
  • As weeks went by, and negotiations with the German government led to no end, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP) decided to add weight to the claims of their German partners by hijacking the airplane Landshut, which carried 86 passengers, most of whom had entered the plane in Mallorca to return from a holiday.

The successful liberation of the Landshut in Mogadishu on October 18, 1977 marked the end of the “German Autumn.” The very next morning, the imprisoned RAF members were found dead in their cells; hours later, Schleyer’s corpse was found in the trunk of a car.

In 1978, some of the events of the “German Autumn” and its aftermath received great coverage in Jim Jones’ news broadcasts in Jonestown, Guyana, as did Jones’ detailed reporting of the kidnapping and subsequent assassination of Italy’s former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Italian group “Red Brigade” (March to May 1978). This latter action had resembled so much the pattern of “German kidnappings” that in a first moment, it was assumed the Red Brigade had acted with the support of RAF. As had occurred with the Schleyer kidnapping, several persons were killed in the assault, and Moro was taken as a hostage. The Red Brigade demanded the release of several prisoners, and when the demands were not met, assassinated Moro, who was found dead in the trunk of a car. With this, a fear of “Germanization” arose in Italy: a fear of “a state behind barbed wire” whose “anti-terrorism” measures would pervert its democratic structures and turn it into a police state. Karrin Hanshew, author of “Terror and Democracy in West Germany,” recalls

government buildings walled in by sandbags and patrolled by SWAT teams. For some, it illustrated the German state in crisis: battered down and seemingly helpless in the face of a handful of terrorists. For others, it revealed what they suspected had been there all along: the face of authoritarian or fascist power. Viewed alongside the heavily circulated mugshots of suspected terrorists, this image, with its two divergent interpretations, captures the competing fears that defined West Germany’s experience of terrorism: the violent anarchy of a state too weak to defend itself or a police state at war with its own population.

It is with the background of that divergence – or rather division of interpretations – that Jim Jones constructs his narrative of West German revolutionary groups, a divergence that has its roots in an earlier and most sinister part of the country’s history: Hitler’s Germany, and the division of Germany after World War II.

Two Germanys

Always differentiate the two Germanys. Germany was artificially divided at Yalta by U.S. imperialists: East Germany to the communists, and West Germany, a puppet regime of the U.S. imperialists that now prides itself openly in being the inheritor of Hitler’s Nazi fascist Third Reich… and East Germany, which is a communist modern state. (Jim Jones, 1978)[5]

Meeting at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin agreed to demand Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender and set out conditions and a framework for restoring the invaded countries. Stalin insisted upon a Soviet sphere of influence in the Eastern European region, Churchill pressed for free elections and democracy in all countries (including those of Eastern Europe), and Roosevelt, in order to set the basis for lasting peace, found it paramount that the Soviet Union join the United Nations. Agreement was reached on most points; Roosevelt – who would not live to see the consequences – considered the conference to be a success. However, because Stalin’s commitment to allow democratic systems in the Soviet-dominated countries was soon set aside, Yalta is often seen as laying the foundation for the “Iron Curtain” that would soon divide Europe in two strictly separated parts and herald the dawn of the Cold War.

At the time, though, the common goal of the war allies regarding Nazi Germany was clear: Never again would this country – whose murderous racial ideology and violent expansion policies had caused the deaths of so many millions and plunged the world into unprecedented disaster – ever become strong enough for similar aggressive actions. In the terms of surrender for Hitler’s Third Reich, it was fixed that

The UK, US and Soviet Union shall possess supreme authority with respect to Germany. In the exercise of such authority they will take such steps, including the complete dismemberment of Germany, as they deem requisite for future peace and security.[6]

As a first step, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation – French, British, American, and Soviet – with respective zone sectors in Berlin, and an Allied Control Council to decide on questions regarding the whole region (including the formerly-occupied countries). Its division into two separate states happened four years later, in 1949, and was a result of the breakdown of the alliance: the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) was established in the Soviet zone, and the British, French, and US occupational zones merged to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, or West Germany).[7] Berlin, located in the Eastern zone, was divided into Western and Eastern sectors.

Exorcising Hitler[8]

In the first months following Nazi Germany’s surrender of May 1945, however, the Allies were still united in the process of dismantling the 12-year history of Hitler’s Third Reich. In the Potsdam Agreement of July 1945, and as an obvious first step, they agreed on the dissolution of the Nazi party – known as the NSDAP[9] – and other Nazi organizations, on the demilitarization of former Wehrmacht forces, and on the political decentralization of the country. Most importantly, it was agreed that these measurements had to be accompanied by a thorough process of so-called “denazification.” Trials against German war criminals, and criminals against humanity, such as members of concentration camp staff, were held almost immediately after internees were freed in Dachau, Auschwitz, and Mauthausen. The trials in Nuremberg of Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, and other leading figures of Hitler’s National Socialist regime brought to light the whole extent of the shocking atrocities committed by the Nazi regime, both in Germany and on an international scale.

“Denazification,” however, was meant to go beyond the sentencing of war criminals. Its aim was to “deprogram” the German people as a whole. As a precondition for a new and democratic start, National Socialists not only had to be thoroughly removed from society, but National Socialist convictions were to be eradicated from public opinion and people’s minds.

The means by which this goal was to be reached differed, depending on the political interests of the occupational forces. While the Soviets opted for a kind of “socialization for communism,” “re-education classes” in the American sector aimed at teaching non-authoritarian methods of conduct and speech, in order to set the grounds for new democratic structures. Except in the Soviet zone, a sense of collective responsibility for the atrocities of the Nazi regime in German people was considered essential. To that end, films and posters depicted photographs of concentration camps, of gas chambers and corpses, with texts like, “This town is guilty! You are guilty!” The main “denazification” measurement, however – one that all four forces had agreed upon – consisted in banning all those persons who had contributed to National Socialist crimes in one way or the other (so also former members of the NSDAP) from work in the country’s public sector. Accordingly, lawyers, policemen, functionaries, and teachers were immediately removed from their posts, with about 400,000 eventually interned in “denazification camps.”

It was an ambitious project, started with enormous zeal. Until 1949, about four million denazification proceedings were carried out in the Western sectors alone, with individuals being classified as major offenders, offenders, lesser offenders, followers, and persons exonerated. Consequences ranged from death sentences to restrictions in professional life and civil rights. By 1951, about 500 Nazi criminals had been executed in West Germany, sometimes against the protests of the population.

In the end, these executions, probably more than anything else, made it clear to Germans that a Fourth Reich would not be tolerated. In any other area, especially as regards the personnel changes in the public sector, the initial zeal for “denazification” was soon replaced by pragmatism. During the Third Reich, people outside of Hitler’s NSDAP had been excluded from certain key positions, so the percentage of party members was especially high in the area of public service. This led to the postwar realization that the country could not be run without them. In the newly-founded government of chancellor Konrad Adenauer[10] – and against the initial aims of the Allied Forces – the very same people who’d been removed from their often-highly influential posts were rehired; and amnesty laws were adopted to absolve even many who were guilty of Nazi crimes. Through these actions, Adenauer was clearly responding to the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Germans who felt they’d been treated unjustly by the Allied Forces; they preferred to “move forward” and forget everything that had to do with their Nazi past. In addition, as the Cold War began and new enemies appeared, interest in denazification decreased considerably among Western forces. This was especially true for the U.S., which came to consider West Germany as an important strategic ally against Stalin’s sphere of influence. Though reluctantly, the occupational forces accepted Adenauer’s demands. The official end of denazification procedures was fixed in an agreement, and subsequent German law in 1951.[11]

The real numbers of former Nazis in public positions of postwar West Germany have been disclosed only recently,[12] and the results are shocking: In the 1950s, more than two-thirds of the leading posts of West Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office were still held by former SS members; 80% percent of Hitler’s lawyers and public prosecutors continued to work as such in the FRG; likewise, the number of government members who’d been members of the NSDAP was considerable.

But the most thorough denazification had taken place in the Soviet zone, with its very different political goal.

The “better Germany”

As Catherine Abbott writes, through the establishment of Jonestown, “Jones hoped to create a socialist utopian commune that would rival the United States’ capitalist society.”[13] She quotes David Chidester:

The Jonestown utopia … became a new center, an axis mundi, in the geographical imagination of the Peoples Temple. Jonestown was the new ‘city upon a hill,’ a utopian model for a socialist community.[14]

To many – among them a number of American leftists and Jewish refugees, disillusioned by racism and segregation in American postwar society – the newly-founded East German state became an equally attractive center: a promised land where the utopia of a socialist society, based on equality, would finally become real. And indeed, while it became more and more obvious that in West Germany, not even a former SS membership was a serious obstacle for people to return to their posts, the DRG’s founding principle was an explicit antifascism: the country claimed to be the direct successor of the communist resistance against Hitler, determined to build up “the better Germany.”

Individuals who shared that dream came from all sides: The Harvard-educated American communist Stephen Wechsler, who served in the U.S. occupational forces in Germany, daringly jumped into the river Danube in order to reach the Soviet zone, where he went to live (and still lives) as Victor Grossmann.[15] Political and/or Jewish emigrants, among them some real heroes of the resistance (like the writer Anna Seghers) returned and soon occupied high political posts in the newly founded DRG. “Every place you went, there were Jews in leadership positions!” Grossmann describes his very first impressions. Salomea Genin[16] was one of those who returned: born in Berlin to Jewish parents, she had to flee Nazi Germany as a seven-year-old. The family went to Australia, where the girl grew up to become a dedicated communist. The vision of her native Germany, transformed into an antifascist utopia, free of antisemitism, could not but attract her.

However, there were some obvious flaws in East Germany’s founding principle. Even with former resistance fighters in leading positions, the alleged “direct succession of the communist resistance” hardly applied to the larger mass of Germans. Members of former resistance groups were rare, in both East and West Germany, and their “succession” could hardly be drawn upon the base of historical facts. Ideology would solve the dilemma. A new theory of fascism, propagated by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), served as a founding myth for the new state and redefined the country’s coming to terms with its past.

In the East German (i.e., Soviet) version, Hitler’s rise in Germany had been a mere result of the struggle between working class and bourgeoisie, between socialism and capitalism. A small group of monopoly capitalists, so the tale went, had helped Hitler to come into power. The real victims of the Nazi regime were thus their traditional antagonists, that is, the working class. It was on these grounds that the leaders of the GDF could decline to take a share in West Germany’s payments of reparation to Jewish emigrants. In their view, to pay such reparations would have meant to take money from German workers, that is, from the main victims of Hitler’s fascism. Thorough expropriations had taken place in East Germany, not only of Nazis, but of everyone who’d owned land or houses. With this, the cause of fascism – namely capitalism – had been eradicated, and socialism was victorious, which, as the SED phrased it, made of East Germans, “victors of history.”

This version not only disregards the role Western forces had played in the defeat of Nazi Germany, but it shapes the image of the new enemy countries in the nascent Cold War. Wartime events received a new interpretation: e.g., the destruction of Dresden in East Germany by British and U.S. air forces in February 1945 – which had resulted in the deaths of about 25,000 civilians – could now easily be viewed as perpetrated by imperialists, capitalists, and fascists, which were all one and the same. This interpretation offered East Germans the possibility of feeling as victims of capitalism, instead of perpetrators in the criminal regime whose violent expansion policies triggered World War II. As the guilty parties in Hitler’s rise had also been capitalists – an extinct species in the GDR – ordinary people were exonerated. Unlike in the Western zones, “collective guilt” of East German people was never a topic. According to the SED, the victory of socialism in the “better Germany” had overcome any remnant of fascism, so the country’s Nazi past was simply no longer their business.

The coming to terms with that past – as it had to take place somewhere – was externalized,[17] and that externalization was to the West. “It was as if Hitler himself had become a West German,”[18] the historian Bernd Faulenbach remembers. The East German writer Stephan Hermlin relates that the majority of the people willingly accepted this “exoneration by externalization,” probably as willingly as their West German neighbors had accepted Adenauer’s offer to “move forward” and just forget about it.

The GDR also maintained that antisemitism had been overcome. It was true, as Jones reports, that

There is not a Jew in that country that still does not get at least 600 dollars monthly, just because of them being Jews and treated horribly under the hard, dreaded brutal regime of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.[19]

But at the same time, SED ideology had converted Jewish people into “second class victims.” Salomea Genin reports:

[M]ost of the Jews weren’t resistance fighters. They were only – and I say this, of course, in quotation marks – ‘Jews.’ They actually differentiated between the Jews who had been resistance fighters and those who hadn’t, by paying out two different pensions. The resistance fighters were paid 1800 marks, which was a hell of a lot of money in the GDR, and the Jews, if they hadn’t been resistance fighters, got 1400.[20]

It wasn’t that the six million murdered Jews were forgotten:

[A]ll 14-year-olds were taken to a former concentration camp. There were excellent books and excellent films.… But at the same time, it didn’t teach those kids that it had anything to do with them.[21]

Rather than one of the causes that had led to Hitler’s rise, then, antisemitism became in the SED’s ideology a mere means of veiling its “real” cause: again, capitalism. With this understood, antisemitism was no longer a problem, with the consequence that many former stereotypes (like “All Jews are rich,” etc.) survived in East German society. Genin relates that insisting on one’s Jewish identity (in apparent opposition to Marxist identity) was easily viewed as counterrevolutionary.

In the early 1950s, when Stalin started spotting the imperialist enemy among the supposed friends of Israel – for example, in the show trial of Rudolph Slansky in Czechoslovakia in 1952, in which Jewish communist party members were tortured into confessing to be agents of a Zionist conspiracy – East Germany’s Jewish citizens, if suspected of counterrevolutionary activities, risked being executed after trials in Russia, or simply murdered, and many fled back to the West. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the GDR released its Jewish political prisoners and made an effort to improve their situation. However, the daily reality of life in a Soviet-dominated, economically-lagging country had shattered the hopes of many, and the numbers of those seeking emigration to Western Europe increased to the dimension of a mass exodus. Ideology alone would no longer suffice in protecting the “victors.” An “antifascist barrier” had to be erected. In the Western part of the world, it came to be better known as the Berlin Wall.

In 1978, Jones presented East Germany as “one of the most prosperous nations on earth, even according to capitalist opinion.”[22] Although it is true that conditions had improved in those years, the GDR’s general economic situation was still deplorable. Unlike in West Germany, no foreign support had been granted to help build up the country; quite the contrary, postwar payments of reparation to the Soviet Union, totaling 130 times per person higher in reparation payments than in West Germany, had almost starved the country. The “People’s Uprising” of 1953, in which more than a million East German citizens organized strikes and demonstrations to protest disastrous living conditions, put an end to those payments. Their anger and frustration had been such that not even Soviet tanks and troops could bring the protests under control. As a consequence, the new Soviet leadership decided to loosen some of the policies Stalin had established with East Germany. Substantial recovery, however, was never reached.[23]

The eventual reunification of the two Germanys after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was met with enormous enthusiasm on both sides. Since it was not a unification on equal parts, but rather an inclusion of the GDR into West German structures, many Eastern citizens found it hard to adapt to the new conditions and felt their own experiences to be disvalued. A few, like Grossmann, see the breakdown of the GDR and the subsequent reunification as another challenge to build a progressive and better society.[24]

* * * * *

The image Jim Jones creates of the two Germanys in 1978 mirrors the rhetoric of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Among his assertions: East Germany is “next to most modern state in the world,”[25] “where there’s no prejudice and people have all socialist benefits,”[26] the country is “one of the most prosperous nations on earth, even according to capitalist opinion.”[27] At the same time, Jones hardly ever mentions West Germany without using the words “fascist,” “neo-fascist,” “capitalist,” “repressive,” and sometimes, all of them. Rivalled only by South Korea,[28] with its allegedly prospering neighbor in the North, Jones’ West Germany of the late 1970s is said to be one of “the most cruel, brutal, fascist tyrann[ies] in the world.”[29]

However, one may assume that some of Jones’ rather lengthy insertions are not the words of Radio Moscow or similar sources from which he takes his news, but his own. Time and again, the citizens of Jonestown are exhorted never to confuse the GDR with “Third Reich capitalist West Germany”[30]; “they say they’re the true inheritors of the Third Reich, … Jews have all fled West Germany ….”[31] “where every tombstone of every Jewish grave bears a swastika mark.”[32] Consistently, Jones’ West Germany keeps its political prisoners, not just in “fortress prisons,” but in “concentration camps.”[33] In the picture he paints, the atrocities of the Third Reich are not at all a matter of the past, but either are happening right now or may happen again any minute. That the country is allegedly a “puppet regime” of the U.S. – quintessentially imperialist, capitalist, and fascist – evokes the idea that in this, the U.S. might even pull the strings.

Abbott relates[34] that by 1972 Jones had already evoked the idea of an imminent “Third Reich” in the U.S. According to Jones, the U.S. government planned to eliminate all African Americans from society within only a few months. Exactly like Jewish people in Hitler’s Germany, they were to be brought to concentration camps and murdered in gas chambers[35]. And like the Wannsee protocols of 1942, in which the details of the “Endlösung der Judenfrage” (“Final solution of the Jewish question,” that is, their extermination) had been stipulated, the U.S. government’s alleged plan – called the “King Alfred Plan” – was one of utmost secrecy.[36]

The existence of concentration camps in the S.S. was a familiar subject in Jones’ talks (or threats) regarding the U.S.: they are the places where people are going to rot if they ever leave Jonestown (amazingly, even if they intend to leave for Russia[37]); they seem to be a symbol of what Jonestown saves them from. By stressing the close alliance between “Hitler’s” West Germany and the “fascist” U.S. whenever possible, Jones’ image of the “puppet state’s” horrendous and supposedly perpetuated-NS past certainly adds weight to the threat. Pictures of U.S. concentration camps, dedicated to all but Caucasians, need first to be imagined, and in a second step, believed, whereas the pictures of those in Germany are known, and they are very real.

West Germany: 1968 and the rise of leftist violent groups

While the DRG was still struggling to solve its economic problems and redefine relations with their Russian “friends” (as the SED called them), West Germany had overcome the hardship and material shortages of early postwar years. Supported by America’s European Recovery Program, and having adopted the system of a Social Market Economy, it blossomed in what was to become known as the German Economic Miracle. Full employment was reached, and a consumerist lifestyle dominated everyday life. Only ten to fifteen years after the Nuremberg trials, West Germany was a conservative democracy following in many regards the U.S. model. It had become a trusted partner again and enjoyed a renewed approval on an international scale. The plan to “move forward” and leave behind the memories of “different and difficult times” – a frequently used euphemism – had apparently worked out. However, that would change when the next generation inside and outside the lecture halls of German universities began to talk politics … and to ask questions.

Antiwar demonistration in Germany, 1966

Violent leftist groups in West Germany – “Red Army Faction” (RAF), “Movement June 2,” and “Revolutionary Cells” – developed not from fringe groups, but right from the center of the 1960s students’ movement. Several of the later members had been politically active in the German Socialist Students’ League (SDS), whose various international contacts – mainly with U.S. activists and groups, like the Black Panther Party and Angela Davis – would become an important influence for the conception and goals of their political activities.[38] Poor conditions for studying, outdated curricula, a lack of democracy in the very authoritarian academic structures, and, like in other Western countries, the war in Vietnam had triggered the first student protests in West Berlin. These early protests followed the models of “sit-ins” at Berkeley and were influenced by Martin Luther King’s non-violent resistance before 1967. Due to a massive overreaction of the police and the denunciation of the students by the influential rightwing Springer press (which owned the most widely-read newspapers and magazines in West Germany), the movement soon swept the whole country. As in other countries, the protests were encouraged by similar movements on an international scale: conditions in the Third World and black Americans’ struggle against racism became more and more touchstones of political interest and solidarity. In the case of German students, however, all these topics were fueled by – and, in a way, merged with – an issue of no less importance for the young generation: the country’s response to its NS past. That the generation responsible for that past more often than not blocked massively any form of dealing with it, sparked a decisive shift to the left in large parts of the students’ movement, and caused many to suspect far more than just “authoritarianism” in the country’s attitude toward the movement.

Some authors have found it difficult to understand how so many young West Germans could mistake their country’s reaction to protest movements, and – later on – to leftist terrorism as “fascism.” “Germany was doing its best,” Sarah Colvin says in an interview;[39] Jillian Becker, author of Hitler’s Children, points out that a country where improvements of imprisonment conditions for “public enemies” are heatedly debated in parliament, can hardly be called “fascist.” She certainly has a point.

However, some understanding of the implications at stake might be provided by the more accurate statement that, rather than confronting a “Nazi past,” the generation of ‘68 was dealing with a “post-Nazi present.” While it is true that people’s individual NS past was mostly silenced, it was all but silent: Still in the present author’s youth (20 years after ‘68), elderly bystanders used to yell at demonstrators and demanded that they be sent to the gas chambers. As to NS beliefs, prejudices, or views, there was no real need for young West Germans to rely on history books alone. Such views were frequently uttered, and loudly enough. And the violence with which the West German police reacted to demonstrations and other forms of behavior that seemed to defy their authority was not just a reminder of Hitler’s SS. It was at least in part ordered and executed by former SS members. The fact that students might be put on trial in a court with the lawyers, public prosecutors, and judges who were likely to be the same court officers who’d sentenced people during the Third Reich, was not apt to fortify their trust in the system.

In 1978, after the kidnapping and murder of the former SS man and Chair of the Employer’s Association Hanns Martin Schleyer, the German publisher Walter Böhlich wrote on the RAF:

[I]t isn’t what happened under Hitler that motivates them, but what the Schleyers of this world do today…; that they represent a democratically organized society just as easily as they did a fascistic society; that they remained in the new Germany where they were, namely, on top; that they are implicated in a continuity, which wouldn’t be the case if fascism had been apprehended as the horrendous crime that it was.[40]

Moreover, while the FRG was a democracy, it was young, and its bureaucracy still had authoritarian aspects, so could it be a democracy one could rely on? A majority of its citizens had not been socialized to appreciate the democratic values of criticism or freedom of opinion that the young generation desperately tried to impose. Many of those in leading positions found these values even wrong. West German students of the 1960s had witnessed cases of severe censorship of the press ( e.g. when the publisher and entire staff of a magazine were arrested after printing a critical article). Many of them feared that fascism might rise again. In their protests, they were often decried, sometimes criminalized, and mostly not heard. The feeling of frustration and powerlessness gave some of them the idea that demonstrating in the streets might not be enough.

The conflict wasn’t softened by the fact that, in sharp contrast, “the other side” – the government and large parts of the elder generation – also feared for the young democracy, haunted by a different aspect of the very same ghosts. For them, the growing aggressiveness of student activists, and even more so the surge of violent armed groups, were reminiscent of the militarism of the SA-youth of the early 1930s who’d perpetrated massive street violence against Jews and NS critics, thus shattering the democracy of the Weimar Republic and promoting Hitler’s rise. The state was thus battling against the RAF as against “Hitler’s children” (“red fascists”) and introduced new anti-terrorism legislation that made representatives of both sides fear that West Germany would end up as a police state.

These fears, however, were the fears of the 1970s. Prior to 1967, nonviolence had been a principle of most West German student organizations; the rare exceptions were instances of violence against objects.

On June 2, 1967, during protests against the Iranian Shah’s visit to West Berlin, an event occurred that is often seen as the watershed moment, when protests would lose their nonviolent character. In the midst of police beating up demonstrators, a student named Benno Ohnesorg was shot in the head and died on the way to the hospital. The details remained unclear until after 2009, when it became known that Karl-Heinz Kurras, the police officer who shot Ohnesorg, had been spying for the East German Secret Security Service (STASI)[41]. At the time, though, the West German police still considered Kurras to be “one of them,” and there had been no interest to reveal those details: eyewitnesses were not heard, evidence was destroyed, and Kurras was acquitted.[42] That a German policeman could murder a student before eyewitnesses and get away with it, plus the knowledge that the responsible people were part of the “the Auschwitz-generation,” radicalized the West Germany student movement. It became the focus around which the Red Army Faction and Movement June 2 would be built up.

* * * * * *

It is a terrible thing to kill.
But not only others would we kill,
But ourselves too if need be.
Since only force can alter this
Murderous world, as
Every living creature knows.
– Bertold Brecht[43]

A series of books, films, and documentaries have traced the biographies of Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof, and Andreas Baader, the founding and leading figures of the RAF. Most make for good reading and provide enlightening information on a whole generation’s dilemmas. As to the personal reasons for the RAF leaders to cross the line from political activism to armed struggle, however, no conclusive answer has so far been found.

Gudrun Ensslin, born in 1940 to a family with a Protestant background – her father was a pastor – was, by all accounts, a brilliant student, an open-minded young woman, and a passionate reader. At university, she chose literary studies with the intention to become a teacher. Together with her fiancé, writer Bernward Vesper, she founded a publishing house and edited an anthology of texts against the atomic bomb. In the electoral campaign of 1965, she became an activist for the Social Democrats. Like many young Germans, however, her hopes were frustrated by the party’s decision in 1966 to enter into coalition with the conservative Christian Democrats. With this coalition, in the view of Ensslin and many like her, the possibility of political opposition within Parliament had been shattered. She engaged in the “extraparlamentary opposition” – commonly known as APO – a political protest movement within the West German student movement.

Like Rudi Dutschke, one of the APO’s most prominent spokesmen, Vesper and Ensslin were deeply interested in the Black Power movement in the U.S. They worked on German translations of relevant texts, and engaged in the desertion campaigns for black GIs.[44] In 1967, they had a baby, Felix. Shortly after this, Gudrun Ensslin met Andreas Baader at an APO event, and they became a couple.

Unlike Ensslin’s involvement in politics, Baader’s conversion had been a more recent one, and it focused on activism rather than theoretical foundation. Baader was said to be a bohemian: he didn’t work; he lived with – and depended upon the financial largesse of – an artist some years older than himself with whom he had a daughter. He had a history of carjacking and posed as an occasional model for gay magazines. He was said to be charming, very charismatic, and often frightening. Reports on him do not present an overly favorable picture: He was said to be physically violent with women, to whom he generally referred as “cunts.” The liaison with the very intellectual Ensslin raised eyebrows among her peers. However, it was said that there was a kind of genuine freedom in his behavior that attracted her in more than just a personal way. Ensslin was shaken by the murder of Ohnesorg; the powerlessness and frustration of her efforts to make a political change by discussion, writing, and demonstrating had triggered her desire to transition from theory to action. Baader came along at just the right time, and they’d be a couple for life.

Ulrike Meinhof, married to the publisher Klaus Röhl and the mother of two daughters, was a real celebrity in West Germany when the three of them met. In the words of Karin Bauer:

an established journalist, who wrote for magazines, radio, and television, [she] was one of the most important and well-known figures of the German Left. She had sought to expose, advocate, and fight for political freedom and social justice. Her writings spoke to many, not just to social and political activists from the Left, but also to the liberal establishment that supported progressive reforms. She was an important supporter of the emerging feminist movement and an advocate of disadvantaged social groups.[45]

Meinhof first met Ensslin for an interview, when the latter was in prison. Not too long after their first meeting, she and Baader had set fire to two warehouses in Frankfurt as a protest against capitalism, consumerism, and, as they explained, people’s indifference regarding the war in Vietnam. The arsonists had taken care that no one got hurt. Nevertheless, they were each sentenced to three years in prison.

Ensslin’s way of explaining the motives, her intellectuality and sincerity impressed many. What she told Meinhof, however, will never be known. Allegedly, Meinhof said to a colleague that, if she published the interview, the two of them would never get out of prison again. Instead, she wrote an article about the arson attack, which disclosed a certain confusion (unusual in her). It seemed as if, whatever Ensslin had told her, she hadn’t yet drawn her conclusions.[46].

Baader and Ensslin in prison at Stammheim

In the course of the procedure of revision – similar to parole in the U.S. – Ensslin and Baader were temporarily released from prison. They “fled” the country – in that no one searched for them – travelled to France and Italy, and made contact with, among others, the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who was in close touch with Red Brigade and other leftist groups he supported. At about the same time, Horst Mahler, a German lawyer who’d defended several APO activists, suggested that they found a similar group. Upon their return to West Germany, Baader and Ensslin learned that their sentence had been denied revision, and they decided to go underground. They hid for some time in Meinhof’s house, used false names, and changed their hairstyles. Nevertheless, Baader got caught in a traffic control, mostly because he was unfamiliar with the details of his false driving licence. Ensslin persuaded Meinhof to help her organize a jailbreak: Pretending to write a book together with Baader, Meinhof succeeded in getting him permission for temporary leave, in order to do research in a library. A group of two women and one man were to show up under a pretext and free Baader, while Meinhof was going to stay and explain their motives to the police and press. The plan turned sour when there was a shooting which severely injured a library worker.[47] Baader fled, and Meinhof followed him. Within hours, the celebrated journalist would turn into “Germany’s most wanted terrorist,” hunted for attempted murder. The group had not yet given itself a name, so the press did the baptizing: They became the “Baader-Meinhof gang.”

Their decision to found an urban guerrilla group, however, had already been made long before. In a founding manifesto of 1970, “Red Army Faction” described its motives, already in strong words:

Did the pigs really believe we would leave comrade Baader in the lurch for 2 or 3 years? Did the pigs really believe we would eternally fight with colored eggs against push sticks, with stones against pistols, with Molotovs against MG`s? Did anyone of the pigs really believe we would talk about the development of the class struggle, the re-organization of the Proletariat, without arming ourselves at the same time? […] Berlin is an outpost of American Imperialism. Our enemy and the enemy of South America, the enemy of the Japanese and Vietnamese people, the enemy of all blacks in the U. S., the enemy of the workers in Berlin – the enemy is American Imperialism.”[48]

After a stay in Jordan in the training camp of the Palestinian group Al Fatah – where they were trained, among other things, in the use of fire weapons – they returned to Germany, robbed three banks to raise funds, and recruited members. Finally, in May 1972, RAF left the stage of preparation.

The May Offensive

The series of attacks the RAF launched in several German towns in May 1972 kept the country holding its collective breath for almost two weeks:

  • On May 11, bombs exploded in the U.S. Army V Corps headquarters and in the National Security Agency of Frankfurt. Thirteen people were injured, and a U.S. citizen named Paul A. Bloomquist died.
  • The very next day, May 12, car bombs exploded in Augsburg and right in front of a police building in Munich; thirteen people were injured.
  • May 16: A bomb exploded in the car of Federal Supreme Court Judge Wolfgang Buddenberg. His wife, who was driving the car, was severely injured, but survived.
  • May 19: Seventeen workers and employees were injured, several of them seriously, in the bombing of the building of Springer in Hamburg.
  • Finally, on May 24, the RAF parked two cars loaded with explosives near a data processing center and an officers’ club at U.S. Army Headquarters in Heidelberg. The explosions killed Captain Clyde R. Bonner, Specialist Charles Peck, and Specialist Ronald A. Woodward, and injured five others.

A widely-published poll suggested that sympathies for the RAF’s “armed struggle” were amazingly high among West Germans under the age of 40: Forty percent of respondents described the group’s violence as political, not criminal; twenty percent “could understand” efforts to protect RAF fugitives from capture; and six percent indicated that they themselves were willing to hide a fugitive. This poll, however, had been taken in 1971, before the “May Offensive,” when Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin still had the image of some Bonnie & Clyde-like underdogs hunted by an overbearing state. This situation was one that many people who’d engaged in any kind of political activism could relate to. Interpreting the data of 1971, Sebastian Scheerer explained that:

the RAF became less a symbol of popular aspirations than of victimization by the state’s security apparatus and by authoritarian measures that were felt to be highly problematic.[49]


“We will not talk about armed propaganda, we will do it.”

Although vague, the description which Jim Jones gave to his Jonestown audience on the RAF’s political goals was not inaccurate:

The leading leader of the Baader-Meinhof group… believes that there’s only one way to bring down capitalist institutions, and that is by violent acts of demonstration wherever possible.[51]

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in June 1986, Valerio Morucci, one of the kidnappers of Italian Prime Minster Aldo Moro, spoke about “a difficult relationship” between the Red Brigades and RAF, since, unlike the Red Brigades’ goals, those of the Germans were “highly abstract.” Far from focusing on political situations or developments in their own country, Morucci said, the RAF viewed their actions as part of an international “anti-imperialistic struggle,” with the aim of nothing less than “bringing down capitalism.” Accordingly, their main enemy had always been the U.S.[52]

A statement following the “May offensive” of 1972 seems to confirm this:

We demand an immediate end to the bomb blockade against North Vietnam.
We demand an immediate halt on the bomb attacks on North Vietnam.
We demand the withdrawal of American troops from Indochina.[53]

Another student described the bombing campaign as just one step in

the long and weary battle for freedom from fascism, from capitalist exploitation, and the oppression of the people.[54]

It had been the conviction of RAF members that the only way to really help the people in Vietnam was to weaken the U.S. With their attacks – they hoped – West Germany would no longer be a safe haven for the U.S. military. Contrary to what Morucci said, however, the RAF addressed the “situation” in their home country as well, and encouraged the German public to “[f]ight the SS style practices of the police! Fight the exploiters and the enemies of the people!” “The institutionalized fascism in the criminal justice system” was again addressed in the statement regarding the bomb attack on Buddenberg.[55] As to the Heidelberg U.S. Army quarters, the war in Vietnam again served as justification, only this time, the two situations merged: Vietnam was referred to as “genocide” and “Endlösung” (“final solution of the Jewish question”, as the Nazis put it). The two perceived enemies – U.S. and Nazi Germany – blurred into one, and the targets of imperialism, capitalism, fascism became more and more abstract.

The RAF’S consciousness of being part of an international revolutionary movement also became clear in their second manifesto, “The Concept of the Urban Guerilla.” As Martin Klimke writes:

The “combination of national issues with international ones, of traditional forms of struggle with internationalist ones” in the tradition of the student movement… formed the basis for the urban guerilla and the anti-imperialist struggle in the metropolis. The previous, mainly rhetorically declared solidarity with international groups now translated itself into the concrete “acquisition of weapons and money.”[56]

For the time being, however, neither weapons nor money would be acquired, because Ensslin, Baader, and Meinhof were captured shortly after the May bombings. For the rest of their lives, they would remain in prison awaiting their trials under conditions that were – at least in the beginning – dreadful. Considered as extraordinarily dangerous, RAF members were held in complete isolation, separated from other prisoners, in cells where not even the distant sound of another human being could be heard.[57]

Sympathies for the RAF had substantially faded after the bombings, with a great majority of former supporters regarding their violence now as criminal. While the goal to end the war in Vietnam was shared, the murder of U.S. army personnel who bore no direct responsibility for America’s aggression was viewed as cruel and politically meaningless. Almost unanimously, the West German Left had condemned the “May Offensive.” RAF had been mistaken in their assumption that “the people” (however defined) would applaud these actions:

“[They] erroneously interpreted the limited and largely fleeting public sympathy for RAF fugitives in prior police hunts as an endorsement of its violence. Overwhelmingly, the May bombings produced outrage and fear among the public…. The RAF, in addition, remained evasive on the issue of the human toll of its violence. Its communiqués, which scarcely even acknowledged the victims, failed to specify the political value of injuries and deaths or define precisely whom it considered a legitimate target. Did the group consider any American serviceman or official in West Germany fair game by virtue of the war in Vietnam or “U.S. imperialism” in general? Did anyone associated with West Germany’s security forces or judicial system bear criminal guilt, punishable by injury or death, for the state’s pursuit of the RAF? And who or what empowered the RAF to make such judgments, especially in the absence of any popular mandate?[58]

The RAF’s story might as well have ended at that point. That it didn’t, was in large part – if not entirely – due to the state’s reaction. The captives’ harsh conditions of imprisonment led to a massive resurgence of support. In prison,

The group developed a political stature they had previously lacked. The larger than life security precautions endowed the prisoners with a political significance they had never come near achieving with their writings and actions.[59]

“Anti-torture committees,” formed to protest the RAF’s conditions of imprisonment, attracted whole series of new supporters. The group’s hunger strikes – especially when Holger Meins died in 1974 – gave it another boost. The police had hunted some 40 people in 1972; two years later, they were looking for 300. As the former RAF member Klaus Jünschke says in an interview,[60] there wouldn’t have been a RAF without the war in Vietnam, and there would have been no “German Autumn” without these hard conditions of imprisonment.

With the group’s leadership behind bars, both the goals and the tactics of the RAF changed. Its actions – a bloody siege of the German Embassy in Stockholm in 1975; and the murders of Buback, Ponto, and Schleyer during the “German Autumn” – were aimed exclusively at the release of prisoners. No more political demands would be uttered for years; the “anti-imperialist struggle” of the RAF had become one of a group that would circle around itself for nearly a decade.

However, the RAF would recreate itself in several more “generations” until its official dissolution in 1998. In the 1980s, the group refocused on attacking NATO and U.S. military bases; its last political murder was that of Detlev Rohwedder, who’d been in charge of restructuring and privatizing East Germany’s publicly-owned businesses in the course of the re-unification of the two Germanys in 1990.

Over the intervening decades, all RAF prisoners have been released. Whereas some of them continue to defend their choices, others have distanced themselves from the violent methods of the group. “There’s no justification for murder,” Jünschke, who served 16 years in prison, said.[61] Nevertheless, he insists that the actions of RAF ought to be seen in the context of the economic and political conditions that triggered them: conditions of global economic injustice that – according to Jünschke – also fuel today’s Islamic terrorism.[62]

The body as a weapon

Suicide is the last act of rebellion.
Ulrike Meinhof

During the whole year of 1978, the RAF and the Red Brigade played a prominent role in Jonestown’s news broadcasts. The Red Brigade’s kidnapping and execution of Italy’s Prime Minister Aldo Moro in the spring of 1978 was covered in great detail, as was news about the German group’s focus on the aftermath of the “German Autumn,” the trials, the jailbreaks, and the successful escapes of RAF and Movement June 2 members.[63]

As David Chidester writes:

Toward the end of Jonestown, Jones referred to the body as a weapon in the revolutionary struggle. Each individual body, as well as the body of the community as a whole, was regarded as a weapon that could be used to strike a blow against the enemies of the revolution. … Only a revolutionary death could transform the body into a strategic weapon against the forces of fascism in America.[64]

In an August 1978 report on a jailbreak which had been carried out by two female members of Movement June 2, Jones explicitly referred to the issue:

One guard, taken in by a lady who knew how to direct her body for revolution, ended up dead with a fingernail file.… These women were trained not to be passive females.[65]

Framed by the narratives of a common enemy – fascism, as exemplified by the U.S. and West Germany – and of the David-against-Goliath, us-against-them choice that many Jonestown people were confronted with, the radical political groups in Germany and Italy could indeed serve as a model in a struggle yet to come. Apparently, they were meant to. “Responses to What One Would Do with Their Body,”[66] a report to Jim Jones compiled by Rita (Lenin) Tupper, summarized the answers that Jonestown citizens gave to the question of how they plan to make use of their body as a weapon for revolution. Several statements explicitly mention the Red Brigade:[67]

I would be willing to participate in some tactics like the Red Brigade is doing, like kidnapping or killing a fascist or any of our enemies.

I would like to help a group like the Red Brigade get money for the people’s revolution or free political prisoners wherever they may be.

I believe we as a group or individuals are being readied to put the final touch to the fascists with situations like the Red Brigade are doing.

Most other statements described similar plans: attacks on fascists, the participation in a revolutionary movement in order to free oppressed people, the fighting and dying for socialism. Although almost everyone confirmed their willingness to die, there was a clear preference for dying in a fight, “defend[ing] socialism till the breath left my body”; to “die fighting on the frontlines,” to “take as many enemies with me as possible.” One person even wrote: “To die without taking as many as possible along with me would be a waste.”

What had triggered these martial ideas in the first place? Jonestown had been conceived as a peaceful place. Even if the ideological framework set by Jones – socialism versus capitalism – was much alike, the aims of the settlers couldn’t be further from those of violent revolutionary groups. The RAF’s disillusionment with their country had led them to declare open war to the West German state and to “imperialism” embodied by the U.S. The disillusionment in Peoples Temple with the U.S. had caused its members to leave it. The RAF fought by means of war and destruction, crossing legal and moral lines, and from within their country; Jonestown’s answer to the injustices of U.S. society was constructive and optimistic, to create a better society, a community free of racism, sexism, ageism. RAF members went underground and placed themselves outside society, leaving their children behind; death for the cause was in the plan from the very start. In contrast, Jonestown was meant to be the model of a new and inclusive society; it was full of children, and they’d been brought there to live. Jonestown people were settlers and builders, not warriors. To die as violent revolutionaries had certainly not been in their plans.

With Jones’ and the Temple’s commitment to the civil rights movement, protest against America’s war, racism, and social injustice, had – as in West Germany – always been a major topic in Peoples Temple. As Jones said in 1974, three years before the migration to Guyana, “Until America stops dropping bombs on the colored people of the world, there’ll be violence in our streets.”[68]

But as to the methods of such protests, his position had been moderate. In remarks on the Black Panther movement of the same year, he criticized their attitude and language, and encouraged his followersrs to use nonviolent speech:

These people want to look cocky, and swagger down the street, and smart off to “pigs” and that sort of thing, using those languages, which we never use. I don’t believe in labeling anybody, including policemen. We don’t like to be called niggers, except when we do it to each other friendly, so we should not call anybody a name. We should not be name-callers.[69]

The tone has changed in Jonestown. In late 1977, Jones said:

There [is] no use for a socialist to try to communicate with people who’ve turned over to fascism. And I don’t think that anybody that can go from socialism to deal with racist pigs deserve our conversation, and I goddamn well refuse to talk to them.[70]

After the move to Guyana in 1977, the image of the U.S. Jones presented to people became more and more sinister, and his was the only voice the people of Jonestown heard. The accusations and bad press against Peoples Temple that had caused him to leave the U.S., fueled his paranoia and may have sharpened this image. At the same time, the living conditions in Jonestown became more and more repressive: any communication with the outside was censored, newcomers’ belongings were searched and confiscated at their entry, infractions – or what Jones declared as such – were severely, often cruelly, punished; evening sessions – often used to single out and berate individuals who’d sinned against one of the community’s rules on “stolen” food or falling asleep during Jones’ speeches – were endless; armed guards patrolled the settlement. Pioneers who’d built the encampment had definitely seen better times. The introduction of harsh rules of “discipline” was often justified as responding to a situation of serious dangers from outside. And suddenly, there was such a situation: the agricultural project at Jonestown became a town under siege.

A custody suit over John Victor Stoen, a 6-year old who lived in Jonestown as Jones’ son, had triggered the events. The boy’s mother and legal father, Grace and Tim Stoen, had defected. In the fall of 1977, they prevailed in a California court hearing to regain custody of John-John and sent a lawyer to Guyana to persuade local authorities to intervene in the case. A Guyanese court issued an order compelling Jones’ appearance, but he refused to accept it. When the order was posted in Jonestown, it was ripped down. Not only Jones, but the community considered John-John as one of them. An arrest warrant was issued. Shortly after this, Jones was shot at, supposedly by mercenaries who were hiding in the jungle.

Further attacks were expected any minute. The inhabitants of Jonestown, on high alert, assembled to defend all that was dear to them. Rebecca Moore writes:

Men, women, and children armed themselves with farm implements and stood on the perimeter of Jonestown for days, expecting an armed assault.[71]

In Deborah Layton’s Seductive Poison, a young woman remembers:

Father had us paint our faces black with coal and circle the camp with machetes and sickles to stop them. We stayed out there for six days and nights. We even ate and slept out there. Father said they would kidnap and torture the children. …It is frightening what the CIA is trying to do to us. They want to invade and kill us. Father says that they’ll try again, too. We’ve had several attacks.[72]

Only a few of Jonestown’s inhabitants would live to learn that Jones himself had staged the whole drama. At the time, the “Six Day Siege” of September 1977 was all too real, including the people on the outside who expressed their solidarity via radio: Black Panther leader Huey Newton, civil rights leader Carlton Goodlett, and Angela Davis.

As to the aggressors’ identity, interpretations seemed to vary: mercenaries could have been hired by Tim Stoen who not only wanted his child back, but who was – according to Jones – hostile towards the whole community; alternately, Guyanese Defense Forces might invade the settlement to serve a warrant of arrest and capture the leader. And there was always – as Jones phrased it – the “imperialist executioner”[73] CIA. Angela Davis had talked about a “very profound conspiracy designed to destroy the contributions which you have made to our struggle”: i.e. the Temple’s civil rights activities. She had added: “When you are attacked, it is because of your progressive stand, and we feel that it is directly an attack against us as well.” Davis thus placed the supposed crisis of a Jonestown under siege into a far broader political context: Had the news ever reached West Germany, demonstrations of solidarity would have been sure to happen.

In the following year, the perceived aggression against Jonestown would never really end, and Jones managed to keep the inhabitants of Jonestown in a state of alert. By declaring they were all communists, and presenting Jonestown as “the only communist U.S. community alive” – so, in a way, “the better U.S.” like communist East Germany was “the better Germany”, and communist North Korea the “better” Korea – it could also easily be included in the scenery created by the propaganda of the Cold War. Clearly, Jonestown was on that side of a divided world which the U.S. opposed to, with which “capitalist” hostilities appeared all but unlikely, and the fight against “the fascist forces of America” a necessity. In her Jonestown diary of 27 May 1978, Edith Roller notes that “US Embassy tells us we will have some hard times.… Present attempt of US to kill us off economically, though Jim has assured we will eat. We’re low priority for invasion.” She captured the thoughts from a besieged town, where the idea of aggression – although no factual attack had so far happened – was never far. As Chidester relates, after the exhausting Six Day Siege crisis of September 1977, many inhabitants of Jonestown had developed an equanimity toward death Jones had presented to them as a “socialist” ideal.[74]

This willingness to die for the cause became an increasingly prominent theme in Jonestown. A revolutionary death in battle against oppressors, invaders, class enemies, enemies of the people, and mercenaries was regarded as the only fully human death. … Only the nobility of revolutionary death provided human beings an opportunity to be more than animals. If death comes to all, Jones asked in May 1978, “why not make it for a revolutionary purpose, [a] beautiful goal.”[75]

In this, the numerous broadcasts on RAF or Red Brigades presented to Jonestown inhabitants in an entirely positive, almost shining light,[76] could serve to include their anxieties and struggle into some bigger “revolutionary purpose”; the brother- and sisterhood of revolution in the larger community of those who suffer and fight oppression. Only within such a frame does a “revolutionary death” make sense at all: if it is meant to make a mark, there must be others, survivors, to interpret it in this sense. Neither socialism nor revolution are a matter of individuals, nor of one isolated community. They aim at a sense of connectedness and solidarity on a broader scale.

The responses collected by Rita Lenin Tupper suggest that people had indeed embraced the idea to die fighting oppressors and/or aggressors. To judge from their statements, however, the idea of a suicide without fighting was not widely accepted. Quite the contrary, it was rather felt to be meaningless. At that time, Jonestown’s inhabitants must have participated in at least one, if not several of Jones’ “suicide drills.” But with few exceptions, a “revolutionary suicide” – as Jones interpreted it – didn’t seem to make sense to them. The vast majority imagined scenarios that involve struggle, activity, or even a way out. “We shouldn’t give up so easily,” one person wrote.

A revolutionary death for Red Army Faction was, in the first place, also a death in the struggle against the perceived enemy: it meant to be killed in the fight. Yet, in prison, when no other weapon was available than the body itself, suicide, or at least the threat of it, began to play an important role. The group’s collective hunger strikes were one such threat: After the first one had been abandoned, Baader decided that the next time, RAF would have to mean business: Even before it began, he wrote to Ensslin: “We must realize that one or two people may die during this hunger strike – but certainly no more. And then its effect will alter anyone’s situation anyway.”[77]

Ulrike Meinhof

Holger Meins’ death by starvation was meant to make a mark. It was a death of strategic value,[78] not just meant to improve imprisonment conditions, but to serve the “cause” itself. And indeed, it provoked spontaneous demonstrations in several West German towns, an outburst of violence that resulted in the assassination of Federal Judge Günther von Drenkmann, and an enormous rise in the number of RAF sympathizers and activists. Meins, or rather the photograph of his famished body, would become a new symbol for RAF’s struggle. Likewise, when one year later, in 1975, Ulrike Meinhof was found hanged in her cell, her death would also be used to serve the cause. The group insisted that she had been murdered,[79] and although the version was not widely taken literally, it was generally accepted that the political circumstances – the “system” – had destroyed and in the end murdered her, a woman who had once been one of the country’s most important activists for social justice. Again, the outrage and grief of many resulted in violent acts, and in a renewed zeal for freeing the remaining leaders. Shortly after her death, a “command Ulrike Meinhof” demanded their release during a bloody siege of the German Embassy in Stockholm.

On October 18, 1977, Baader, Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in the prison of Stammheim. Negotiations with the government to release and let them move to a country of their choice, in exchange for RAF-hostage Schleyer, had led to no end; it had become clear that the government was just buying time. Finally, the very evening before their deaths, the German antiterrorism unit GSG9 had successfully freed the hostages of the kidnapped airplane Landshut. Other RAF members declared later that they’d been well aware of the “suicide plan” in case the kidnappings didn’t lead to the ending the RAF had hoped for. Likewise, in the weeks and days before their deaths, the three captives had threatened on several occasions that, unless they were released, the government would have to deal with “dead prisoners.” Directly asked if the plan was to commit suicide, Raspe, said he wasn’t yet sure and mentioned a thirst strike – that would equally lead to a quick death – as one possible alternative.

At the same time, however, Baader stated in writing that none of them was even considering it. In case they were found dead, he wrote, it could only be because the state had murdered them.[80] Whatever thre circumstances, then, their collective suicide, or in the other interpretation, collective martyrdom by murder, would again serve to attract new activists, and to keep the RAF and its struggle alive. Much more than any political writings or actions, the fire of RAF’s “anti-imperialist struggle” was kept alive by the dead bodies of RAF prisoners.

* * * * *

After Jonestown’s “Red Brigade” had murdered Congressman Leo Ryan, three journalists, and one of their former members at the Port Kaituma airstrip, the community of Jonestown, in shock and dismay, must have felt as though they were trapped behind bars. There was, after those murders, still a way out for individuals – at least in theory, and if there hadn’t been armed guards to prevent it – but none for the community as a whole. People’s ideas of the consequences to come, aggrandized by Jones’ images, may have been exaggerated. Still, there was no doubt this was the end of the community of Jonestown. Up until then, they’d been “violent” only in rhetoric; there was no reality to back such statements. The murder of a congressman and American journalists, however, was likely to be seen as an act of terrorism. The consequences, whatever they’d be like for individuals, were sure to rip the community apart.

One woman, Christine Miller, bravely tried to outline an exit for them. In a lengthy dialogue with Jones she articulated several arguments and ideas, even as the poison for a collective suicide was being prepared, but angry community members silenced her. They perceived her efforts to change Jones’ mind on the suicide of all as an effort to impose the rights of individuals upon the community at large, just as others earlier that day had imposed their rights as individuals with the help of the congressman. They’d walked away with him, turned their backs on them. Some of those who stayed may have shared their desire to leave and still resented them for doing so. To subordinate individual wishes to the greater good and to common goals is the very backbone of communal life. The efforts of so many to overcome selfishness, to put their work, money, lives at the service of all, had built up the once thriving community of Peoples Temple. To many, and despite all its flaws and wrongs, this had given a strength, purpose, self- respect, and sense of belonging they’d never experienced before. To take any other way out was a threat, a negation of what the community had been. A real revolutionary group would call it treason.

It has often been stated, and rightly, that with armed guards patrolling the area, with Jones’ exhortations, with the poison already prepared, the procedure long known, and an aggrandized fear of consequences, their options were limited. Many – and not just the children – were certainly killed against their will, looking for an out until the very last moment; many others had given up their resistance while watching more and more of their loved ones go. Still, many others may not even have considered their individual options, but deliberately chosen their community whose only chance to persist as such – or so it may have felt in that moment – was to go down.

Unlike with the RAF, there would be no spontaneous demonstrations of sympathizers denouncing their “being murdered by…”; no silent mourning marches to remember their sufferings, achievements, or dreams; no acts of violence, raised fist, or solemn promises to “revenge” their deaths. With the context of their lives and worldview hardly known outside Jonestown, their deaths would not be interpreted as “revolutionary” by any larger community. They would not be understood at all.


It has often been said that Jonestown inhabitants’ perception of the world, especially of the U.S., had been distorted by Jones’ very selective news broadcasts and his interpretations of it. This may have been true, but they were not alone. The propaganda of the Cold War had a madness and paranoia of its own. It was a welcome backdrop for Jones’ depiction of racist, murderous Americans who were always ready to invade and cruelly oppress communist people of color all over the world, as portrayed in many a Soviet poster of the time. On the other side, Jonestown inhabitants could hardly have forgotten U.S. anticommunist propaganda of the 1950s and 1960s which painted an equally paranoid picture of the other side (“If Russia and the communists should win the next world war, many American men would be sterilized,” read a poster from about 1960). Once Jones had declared Jonestown to be a communist community by Jones, its inhabitants could easily be convinced that the U.S. was a threat to them. With no other news than those from the Eastern Bloc, it was no wonder they could believe that conditions in the U.S. were getting worse to the degree of bordering fascism (especially as many of them had never experienced conditions to be very good anyway).

The propaganda of the Cold War, rather than one of opposed governments, was one of opposed “-isms.” The terms “capitalism” and “imperialism” were used as opposites of “socialism” and “communism” on an international scale, dividing the world in two blocs, and suggesting an unreal, irrational uniformity of the respective “other side.” “-isms” render the “enemy” faceless; in that sense, they can easily be used to promote a dangerous “othering,” leading to the total lack of empathy, the inability to perceive the people who seemingly represent the opposed “-ism” as human. While soldiers’ uniforms are a means to blur out the person in favor of the force she or he represents, Cold War “-isms” did a far more thorough job. They equated the respective “other” bloc of forces, countries, societies, with “evil,” and at the same time, “othered” individuals in the own society who criticized – or who just didn’t seem to share – the values attributed to it.[81] (In West Germany, people who uttered these protests were frequently denounced as “communists” even if this was not at all what they’d called themselves. Later on, when some leftist groups had turned to violence, it was generally assumed that “communists” were prone to violence, despite the fact that West German communists had always strongly condemned RAF’s actions.) The perceived sharp opposition of two conflicting worldviews in war – both cold and hot –also led to a situation where the ends seemed to justify the means. In its attempt to fight an increasingly abstract “capitalism,” the RAF deliberately created threatening situations that would provoke the state to react with hash measurements, and so to reveal its “real fascist nature,” which – in the RAF’s view – would encourage “the people” to join or support their fight. The other side, in its attempt to convince the very same people of the necessity of harsh antiterrorism measurements, was not above staging incidents that would highlight the danger that the RAF represented.

In 1978, a bomb attack left a hole in the outer walls of a West German prison (“Celler Loch”), supposedly to facilitate the violent jailbreak of RAF member Sigurd Debus, in whose cell further evidence – i.e., tools – was found. As a consequence of the attempted jailbreak, Debus was put under extremely harsh conditions of imprisonment, and he died in a hunger strike in 1981. Only in 1986 it would turn out that the “attempted jailbreak” had been the work of a unit of West German intelligence service, who had placed the “evidence” in Debus’ cell. Other international examples of incidents that resemble very much Jones’ staging of a siege, and other methods to radicalize his peoples’ views are easy to find.[82]

Rather than a story of one isolated “cult,” the story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown is one that cannot be separated from its historical context and the political and social circumstances that caused people to look out for a possibility of change in the first place. Racism, social segregation, the existence of a whole class of people without any perspective, and on a broader scale, global economic injustice, poverty and wars have led many to protest, a few to engage in violent activities, and others, like Peoples Temple and a number of communes in Europe, to try and work out alternative projects for an equal and just society.[83] Neither in applying highly questionable methods to reach an unquestionably positive goal, was the Temple an isolated case, nor in being led by a highly manipulative, and destructive leader. Rather, the story of Jonestown’s tragic failure and ending reflects political situations of its time on a far larger scale, the least of which was the thorny endeavor of solving problems by -isms or ideology.


[1] SPIEGEL 27.03.1978 Italien: Terror nach deutscher Art.

[2] Moro, a Christian Democrat, had been negotiating a reconciliation and alliance (the so-called “historic compromise”) between the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democrats, with the aim of preventing the development of authoritarian structures within the Italian state. The Red Brigade viewed this effort as a danger to the final victory of communism – and indeed, after Moro’s death, the plan was dropped.

[3] Die ZEIT, September 30, 1977, p. 3.

[4] Hanshew, Karrin. Terror and Democracy in West Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 6.

[5] Transcript, Q437.

[6] The Encyclopedia of World War II, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, 2004 ABC-CLIO, LLC.

[7] Sovereignty of both German states would remain restricted, though, with the former occupational forces remaining in the country. – That West Germany “prided itself to be the inheritor of Hitler’s German Third Reich,” as Jones maintains on several occasions, is of course wrong. The country claimed to be the legal successor of the “German Reich” – which had been the country’s official name since 1871.

[8] One of the most thorough accounts in English language of denazification in Germany is: Taylor, Frederick. Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle-Version.

[9] NSDAP – “Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei,” in literal translation: “National Socialist German Workers Party.”

[10] Adenauer himself had been removed from his post as the mayor of the city of Köln in 1933 because of his opposition to the Nazi authorities.

[11] Norbert Frei, Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

[12] “Welle der Wahrheiten”, in: DER SPIEGEL, 2.1. 2012.

[13] Catherine Abbott, Communism, Marxism, and Socialism: Radical Politics and Jim Jones (2015).

[14] Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Indianapolis, IN: University of Indiana Press, 2003, 96-97.

[15] Jewish Communist expats in East Germany recall heady 1950s.

[16] Salomea’s story can be found on the ExBerliner website.

[17] Götz, Katharina: Die Darstellung des Nationalsozialismus im Geschichtsschulbuch, Schulbuchanalyse: DDR/BRD, 2012, p.36

[18] Bernd Faulenbach, in: Gründungsmythos der DDR, p. 37.

[19] Transcript, Q 792.

[20] ExBerliner

[21] ExBerliner

[22] Transcript Q 792.

[23] Hoffmann, Dirk; Schwartz, Michael, and Wentker, Hermann (eds.). Vor dem Mauerbau: Politik und Gesellschaft in der DDR der fünfziger Jahre. Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, München 2003.

[24] Jewish Communist Expats, The Times of Israel.

[25] Transcript, Q 767.

[26] Transcript, Q 753.

[27] Transcript, Q 792.

[28] Transcript, Q 309.

[29] Transcript, Q 309.

[30] Transcript, Q 753.

[31] Transcript, Q 753.

[32] Transcript, Q 792.

[33] Transcript, Q 437.

[34] Catherine Abbott, Racial Thinking and Peoples Temple (2016)

[35] Abbott, Racial Thinking.

[36] On the original “author” of the “King Alfred plan”, see Bonnie Yates, “Jim Jones: Purveyor of Fake News” (2017).

[37] Reiterman, Tim, with Jacobs, John. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Dutton, 1982, pos 10671, Kindle edition.

[38] For an account on the relationship between U.S. and West German movements, see: Klimke, Martin. The Other Alliance: Student protest in the United States and West Germany in the global Sixties. Princeton University Press, 2010.

[39] Translation from: Colvin, Sarah. Ulrike Meinhof and West German terrorism. Language, violence, and identity. Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture. Rochester, NY: Camden House.

[40] Boelich, Walter, “Schleyers Kinder,” in Jahrbuch Politik 8 (Berlin: Klaus Wagenbach, 1978), p. 8. English translation in: Varon, Jeremy Peter. Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (p.343). University of California Press. Kindle-Version.

[41] There is no evidence, though, that East Germany had anything to do with the incident. The GDR took an immediate distance to Kurras and adopted the students’ movement’s view of a “West German fascist policeman.”

[42] Soukup, Uwe: „Tod von Benno Ohnesorg: Bitte nicht schießen!”, in: DER SPIEGEL, 01.06.2017.

[43] Brecht, Bertold. Die Maßnahme, known in English as The Decision or The Measures Taken. The passage had been marked in a book that was found in Ulrike Meinhof’s cell after her death in 1975.

[44] Klimke, pos. 2854-2855.

[45] Bauer, Karin, in: Meinhof, Ulrike. Everybody Talks About the Weather… We Don’t: The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof (p.17). Seven Stories Press. Kindle-Version.

[46] Unlike Ensslin, Meinhof didn’t believe that setting fire to warehouses was apt to awaken people from their indifference towards the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless – and not very consistently – she concludes that, as a positive aspect, the criminal act questioned the laws of property and ownership. – An English version can be found under the title SETTING FIRE TO DEPARTMENT STORES (1968) in: Meinhof, p. 244.

[47] As to the wounding of the library worker – whose name was Linke – Meinhof would later explain: “As for the question, asked often enough, whether we would have liberated Baader if we knew that Linke would be wounded—the answer to this question can only be no. The question of what would have happened if… is ambiguous, pacifistic, moralistic, and whoever asks it is just sitting on the fence…. It is an attempt to trivialize the question of revolutionary violence and give [it] and bourgeois morality a common denominator, which isn’t possible…. There was no reason to believe that a civilian would intervene. The idea that one can perform an unarmed prison liberation is suicidal…. We shoot only when someone shoots at us; the pig who lets us go, we let him go as well.” [ellipses in original] In: Varon, Jeremy Peter. Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (p.207). University of California Press. Kindle-Version. For the first years, Meinhof would hold up the principle that no civilians should be hurt. However, already the statement above lacks consistency. Linke was unarmed, he hadn’t shot at anybody, and was still shot.

[48] Waldschmidt-Nelson, Britta; and Winkler, Robert: Brothers in Arms? The Red Army Faction (RAF) in its perception of the Black Panther Party. www.jfki.fu-berlin.de/academics/…/waldschmidt_winkler.pdf

[49] Varon, p. 199.

[50] “Build up the red Army!” RAF founding manifesto, in: Varon,, p. 21.

[51] Transcript, Q437.

[52] „Die RAF und wir –feindliche Konkurrenten.” DER SPIEGEL, 28.07.1986.

[53] Colvin, p. 121.

[54] Colvin, p. 122.

[55] The bombing was an act of revenge: RAF member Manfred Grashof had been injured in a shooting (in which one policeman was killed), and, in the words of the RAF, “Buddenberg, the pig,” had Grashof moved from the hospital to a prison cell when the latter hadn’t yet been fit for it. The group demands that the life and health of RAF prisoners should not be “targeted and destroyed,” and announces further bomb attacks on federal judges and lawyers.

[56] Klimke, pos. 2861.

[57] It has been said that the RAF prisoners’ bad imprisonment conditions were a mere legend, a part of the group’s strategy to present themselves as victims, and that in reality, their situation had been rather privileged. Indeed, in Stammheim, where the leading members served time, male and female RAF prisoners could get together for many hours a day, and were all but isolated. But this was not at all so for the far bigger number of other RAF members. And also Ulrike Meinhof, probably for being the most prominent figure in the group, had suffered many months of isolation before she was transferred to Stammheim.

[58] Varon, pp. 211-212.

[59] Aust, p. 211.

[60] http://www1.wdr.de/archiv/deutscher-herbst/juenschke_isolationshaft_raf100.html

[61] http://www1.wdr.de/archiv/deutscher-herbst/juenschke_isolationshaft_raf100.html.

[62] Klaus Jünschke is an activist for the rights of refugees and immigrants, and an author of books on how to improve conditions in youth penitentiary. He lives with Christiane Ensslin (sister of Gudrun) in Köln.

[63] For background information on the incidents Jones refers to, see the Appendix to this article.

[64] Chidester, p. 126-127

[65] Transcript, Q437.

[66] http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=13127

[67] Revolutionary struggle and its representatives were apparently, at least in 1978, also part of the Jonestown school’s instructional plan: Tim Reiterman quotes from the notebook of fourteen-year-old DeeDee Lawrence, who lists as topics that “Yemen has offered sanctuary to the Red Brigade,” and “we are jungle guerrillas.” Some pages later, a composition on how she would wish the news of the world to develop, reads as follows: The Red Brigades kidnap Jimmy Carter, the Rockefellers, and Mobutu, and they threaten to execute them if some political prisoners won’t be released. Reiterman, pos. 9256.

[68] Transcript, Q953.

[69] Transcript, Q1058-3.

[70] Transcript, Q942. Jones’ statement reminds of Ulrike Meinhof’s shortly after the Baader jailbreak, although she goes one decisive step further: “Of course we say the cops are swine, we say a man in uniform’s a pig, not a human being, so we must tackle him. I mean, we mustn’t talk to him; it’s wrong to talk to these people at all. And of course there may be shooting.” In: Aust, p. 11.

[71] Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Kindle-pos.1135-1138). Kindle-Version.

[72] Layton, Deborah. Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple (Kindle positions 3012-3013). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle-Version.

[73]Transcript, Q 309.

[74] Chidester, p. 51.

[75] Chidester, pp. 126-127.

[76] Although certainly not all agreed to see them in this light.

[77] Aust, p. 212. It is notable that Baader himself ate during the hunger strikes.

[78] In total, the RAF would stage ten collective hunger strikes between 1973 and 1989.

[79] The case has been heatedly disputed. Also Meinhof’s ex-husband is convinced she’d been murdered, but – unlike the RAF – he maintains that the murderers were not the German state, but her co-prisoners. There had been serious conflicts between Ensslin, Baader, and Meinhof, with the latter one finding herself isolated and cruelly bullied. Other authors, however, maintain that these conflicts had been long solved by the time Meinhof was found dead. Investigations concluded that the death had been clearly been one by suicide. Still, irregularities in those investigations have raised suspicions again and again.

[80] http://www.zeit.de/1978/05/zweideutiges-aus-stammheim

[81] The frequently used term “islamism,” applied today to very different governments, groups, communities, and even lifestyles, seems to have the same effect.

[82] As to NATO’s “Operation Gladio” – a “stay-behind” network in Western Europe established during the Cold War with the purpose to prepare for armed resistance in case of a communist invasion – an involvement in violent activities falsely attributed to the Red Brigade in Italy has been denied. However, it is still a subject of debate; Gladio’s activities have caused parliamentary inquiries in several European countries.

[83] Jonestown is not the only community that ended up in tragedy: The arts and agricultural project “Friedrichshof” (Austria), a commune of roughly 600 people, dedicated to build up a utopia based on equality, socialism, free sexuality, and creativity, was founded in the early 1970s and existed for almost two decades – until it turned out that, somewhere on the way, it had turned into a strictly hierarchic, oppressive dictatorship. The leader and some female co-leaders went to jail for massive abuse of minors; many of the former children of Friedrichshof, who went through a hell of suppression and abuse, are still struggling for reconciliation with some elders who cannot but remember the commune as “the best thing that ever happened” to them.