Leftist terrorist group in West Germany. The Red Army Faction (RAF) grew out of the West German student movement that began around 1965 as a nonviolent protest against poor conditions in universities, widespread political apathy, and, most generally, the vestiges of authoritarianism that young people perceived in their society. The German movement had at its core a unique psychological dilemma as young, idealistic Germans brought up in postwar peace and affluence felt overwhelming guilt for the crimes of their parents’ generation. Within a few years the movement was espousing, in theory at least, violent struggle against the "fascist" state in imitation of that seen in colonized lands in the Third World. The RAF, officially founded in 1970, aimed, through specifically directed violence, to induce the state to overreact, revealing a true fascist nature that it had carefully hidden behind the mask of democracy.
Women were involved in the leadership of the RAF from its inception. In 1968 Gudrun Ens-slin was one of four radicals who set several fires in a Frankfurt department store. Two years later, Ensslin and journalist Ulrike Meinhof, with the help of Irene Goergens, Ingrid Schubert, and Astrid Proll, as well as several men, freed Andreas Baader, one of the arsonists, from prison. The act brought the group, called the Baader-Meinhof gang by the press, into existence. It later adopted "Red Army Faction" as its official title. Although Ensslin, Baader, and a few others formed the core of the group, Ulrike Meinhof, as a well-regarded journalist for the leftist paper konkret (Concrete), was the best-known member of RAF, and she wrote most of the group’s manifestos and other explanatory material. In 1970 nine RAF members, including five women (Meinhof, Ensslin, Monika Berberich, Brigitte Asdonk, and Petra Schelm), traveled to Beirut to train with Palestinian militants. In the early years of the group’s existence, a majority of members were women, and from 1970 to the group’s dissolution in 1998, women comprised almost 40 percent of its membership.
As was the case in other left-wing terrorist groups in Europe and the United States, core members of the RAF tended to embrace radical political views and movements but forsook normal political action as they embarked on a policy of direct action. Women in the RAF felt the psychological burden of the Nazi past just as men did; their ideological construction of the state as a fascist entity to be opposed with violence demonstrated their determination to "redo" the past by responding to evil as they wished their parents had done. Of course, the government of West Germany, whatever its faults, did not in any way approach the criminality of the Third Reich.
The presence of women in the RAF had an unintended beneficial effect for the group, as members could satisfy their emotional and sexual needs through relationships with other group members. The RAF was therefore less vulnerable to betrayal by outsiders, and members’ loyalties were less likely to be diluted by the pull of personal relationships outside the group. On the other hand, rocky relationships within the group consumed time and energy and at times diminished the effectiveness of the organization.
By including women, the RAF, unlike extremist right-wing groups, doubled the number of potential recruits it could reach. Some female members of the RAF became involved through their relationships with male members, such as Astrid Proll, who was drawn into the group by her brother, Thorwald. Astrid went on to play a central role in the group while Thorwald lost his nerve and was excluded. Monika Berberich was RAF founder Horst Mahler’s assistant, and Petra Schelm was the girlfriend of member Manfred Grashof. Eyewitnesses noted that female RAF members were more cruel than male members; the observation may be accurate, or it may reflect a tendency to find female violence more shocking than male.
Women in the RAF carried out activities that men could never have done. Perhaps the best instance occurred in 1985, when a female member of the group met a young U.S. soldier in a bar and lured him to a nearby woods, where he was killed and his military identification stolen. The card was used by a male RAF member to gain access to Rhine-Main Air Base, where a bomb was set off, killing two.