By Léa Carresse

On the night of 18 October 1977, the remaining three key members of the first generation of the Red Army Faction died in mysterious circumstances in Stammheim prison. Another member barely survived severe stab wounds. Immediately following what became infamously known as the “death night” in West German history, the second generation of the Red Army Faction executed their hostage, Hanns Martin Schleyer, a prominent German business executive and former rabid SS officer. This marked the climax of the “German Autumn”, a series of attacks led by the Red Army Faction in 1977.

What was the Red Army Faction, better (and incorrectly) known as the Baader-Meinhof Group? In the words of Gudrun Ensslin, founder of the self-proclaimed urban guerrilla group, and among the dead on the night of 18 October 1977, the RAF embodied the expression of “the awareness of a duty of resistance in the Federal Republic [of Germany]”. Those words may seem incongruous to most readers, often brought up to see the former West German government as a shining example of democracy post-1945. And yet, it is easily argued that this was far from the truth. The FRG was filled with ex-high-ranking Nazi officials at the top of the system, many of whom would never face trial, and many more whose past would be swiftly forgotten.

A wanted poster containing details on prominent RAF members

Uncritical support of American policies by the government – such as the Vietnam war – also prompted a crisis within parts of the FRG population. In addition, the FRG had few qualms in using its monopoly of violence, exerted through police brutality and media companies such as Axel Springer, whose most well-known victims were Benno Ohnesorg and Rudi Dutschke. This existence of a form of repression triggered the creation of many underground left-wing groups who advocated for theories of self-defence and resistance. The RAF, possibly the bloodiest of these groups, saw themselves as leading the “compensatory resistance”, as Hans Kundnani so well phrased it, that their parents, fervent Nazis or passive bystanders between 1933-1945, failed to undertake. Led by two women, Gudrun Ensslin, a PhD student, and Ulrike Meinhof, a well-known intellectual and journalist, and motivated by Marxist-Leninist ideology, the RAF fought against what they saw as the imperialist, capitalist and neo-fascist order in the FRG.

It is a popular view in academia and the mass media that one of the fundamental inconsistencies of the Red Army Faction was its authoritarian system, despite its pretensions of overthrowing capitalist society and establishing anti-authoritarian structures in its place. That view, if true, is certainly reflected in the language of the many tracts that the RAF produced within the three generations that it spawned. The various tracts – and even prison letters – of the urban guerrilla fighters are filled with conscious and potentially subconscious borrowings from Soviet language, and by extension, from GDR language, as well as, more chillingly, National-Socialist language.

Borrowings from both GDR and National-Socialist discourse would hardly be surprising. Ulrike Meinhof had been a member of the illegal KPD, establishing contacts with the Stasi in 1970, and the GDR had become a safe hub for RAF members fleeing West German imprisonment until reunification, taking in for example Susanne Albrecht, who assassinated family friend and Dresdner bank chairman Jürgen Ponto. As for the presence of National-Socialist discourse, it seems that the crushing weight of intergenerational guilt haunting the RAF unfortunately and ironically translated into the reproduction of linguistic patterns that the group would have otherwise done its best to avoid. Alternatively, the similarities with Nazi discourse can be seen as a logical consequence of using Soviet/GDR discourse, if it is possible to lump Soviet and GDR discourse into similar categories.

Ensslin’s, Raspe’s and Baader’s burial in 1977. Activists hold a banner stating “Gudrun + Andreas + Jan tortured and murdered”

But what is Soviet discourse, and how could it be extended to GDR discourse? And is there such a thing as Nazi language? It would appear too Orwellian to think of a language specifically created to shape the psyche of a whole population, or, in the case of the USSR, whole populations. And yet, special “Nazi dictionaries” have been published, chock-full of the various (invented) terms acquiring particular or new definitions under National-Socialism, from the infamous “Endlösung” (Final Solution) to “Julfest”, as used in adoring letters addressed to Hitler, better known as “Weihnachten” in today’s Germany, or Christmas, in English.

One would also have to take into account various linguistic effects of Nazi discourse, whether that be through the frequent use of superlatives and a tendency to use infinitive constructions in the place of modal verbs, or a form of “ideologizing” language through the adding of pejorative prefixes to adjectives (“undeutsch” literally “unGerman”, meaning foreign, or “nichtarisch”, “Non-aryan”).

Soviet discourse appears to be more complex and harder to define. Stalin dreamt of a common socialist lingua franca once the proletariat would rule the world, and with the creation of the USSR came about a whole new lexicon, whether that came about through redefining Russian words (for example “tovarishch”, which once meant co-worker in tsarist Russia, became the well-known term “comrade” across the USSR), or the invention of words such as “profsoiuz” (“professional union”). More relevant perhaps are the (disputed) differences between East German and West German discourses, with East German discourse described as “Sowjetdeutsch” by the FRG, a deviant of the standard German that the West Germans held claim to.

This “Soviet German” consisted mostly in the creation and redefinition of terms to reflect Marxist-Leninist ideology, such as “Staatsrat” (State council) or “Produktionsgenossenschaft” (agricultural cooperative – notice the use of the word “Genosse”, which is the German translation of the Soviet term “comrade”). GDR discourse was also marked by a certain stiffness and pedantic use of language, as primarily shown through SED General Secretary Erich Honecker’s speech for the 40th anniversary of the GDR. Of course, one might have to bear in mind that these potential differences between GDR and FRG discourses might form part of the divisive myth of the GDR as being “other” to the FRG, deviant and degenerate, in desperate need of Western assimilation, rather than simply another part of the German nation under a different regime.

So how is this reflected in RAF tracts? Because Soviet and GDR discourse seems primarily based on lexicon, similarities established between both can be seen mostly in terms of vocabulary which reflect the same broad themes. Most striking is the consistent use of the term “Genosse”.  The only difference here would be that traditionally in Sovet and GDR discourse, the term “Genosse” would refer to fellow Marxist-Leninists or at least, fellow USSR citizens. In RAF tracts, “Genosse” acquires a far more ambiguous meaning in that it is also designated for RAF traitors, so that in their April 1971 tract, the RAF denounces the “viele Genossen…” that “verbreiten Unwahrheiten über uns.”[1]

Schleyer held hostage by the Siegfried Hausner Commando in 1977

Of course, a key feature of both RAF and GDR discourses is the integration and frequent use of Marxist-Leninist terms within the language, which includes terms such as “antifaschismus” and other nouns ending with the suffix “-smus” pertaining to both the chosen and enemy political ideologies, such as “Imperialismus”, “Chauvinismus”, “Militarismus”, “Sozialismus”. However, where GDR official discourse is arguably monolithic, painstakingly attached to its Marxist terms and formality, RAF discourse is fluid and lively, fluctuating from the aggressively provocative, almost vulgar to the highly academic or literary, or blending both, creating a highly original form of language.

Where RAF discourse is more similar to Soviet than GDR discourse, particularly in terms of early Soviet propaganda,  is in the use of rhetorical devices to attract the reader’s attention: slogans (“Sieg im Volkskrieg!”,[2] written at the end of an April 1971 tract); informality (both the RAF and early Soviet/Mayakovsky propaganda posters and advertisements use the informal second-person plural, instead of the formal plural pronoun use); and the use of linguistic caricature . Linguistic caricature would take the form of repetitive verbal abuse with which the RAF targets the State or passive by-standers, who are termed as “Schweine”,[3] “Superschwein”,[4] or “Hosenscheißer”,[5] where a same noun or adjective is often used to qualify the same person or institution in question, as though it is their only defining trait.

What about Nazi discourse? First of all, similarities between Nazi and GDR discourses are not uncommon, in the excessive use of superlatives for example, such as “heroisch”[6] or “episch”,[7] or in the constant impression that the GDR is in constant struggle/at war, with the use of “kämpfen”[8] and its variations. However, in RAF tracts, one could say that the similarities to Nazi discourse are primarily present in the linguistic dehumanization of the enemy, as well as in the construction of an oppositional, “you are either with us or against us”, discourse.

Hitler’s Mein Kampf infamously uses medical terminology to metaphorically designate the Jews as germs and parasites. While the RAF does not go to such lengths, it similarly denies the humanity of its enemies.Meinhof’s famous 1970 Spiegel article states: “Wir sagen, der Typ in Uniform ist ein Schwein, das ist kein Mensch […] und natürlich kann geschossen warden”. [9] The RAF borrowed the pig terminology to designate the police from the Black Panther Party, a major influence on the group. As for the oppositional discourse, this is present in National-Socialism through a multiplicity of ways; one example would be the obligatory “Heil Hitler!” to signify one’s allegiance to the Party.

Ensslin and Raspe in Stammheim

Of course, the invention of such terms as “undeutsch” also serve to reinforce the binary between who is considered of Aryan race as who isn’t, and therefore, who ought to be eliminated. In RAF discourse, this is clearly outlined in Holger Meins’s last letter where he pens “Entweder Schwein oder Mensch…Entweder Problem oder Lösung/Dazwischen gibt es nichts,”[10] as well as through the Mao quotes peppering the tracts, insisting on drawing the line against the enemy, what Ensslin describes in her prison letters as a “Trennungsstrich”, or a dividing line.

Finally, could there be a tie between both Soviet and National-Socialist traditions in RAF culture, so to speak, through the presence of the cult of personality present in all three? It is well-known that Stalin and Hitler invited adulation through all forms of propaganda. The RAF’s own kind of cult of personality could be interpreted in the given names of the commandos, usually the names and dates of death of fallen members, such as the commando Petra Schelm/15th July commando (the date at which 20 year-old RAF member Petra Schelm  was killed in a police shooting), the Holger Meins commando (who died in a hunger strike, protesting against deplorable incarceration conditions), and, more tellingly, the Ulrike Meinhof commando, after Meinhof’s death in mysterious and controversial circumstances.

Meinhof acquires a mythical, cult-like status in the April 1977 tract justifying Attorney General and former fervent Nazi Siegfried Buback’s assassination. This might firstly be shown through the use of her first name, Ulrike, rather than the last name Meinhof, used by the government in naming the RAF the “Baader-Meinhof Gruppe.”[11] This refusal to use Meinhof’s last name could therefore be interpreted as refusing to play into official discourse, in addition to “humanizing” Meinhof, so to speak, especially in the face of the “pigs” that are the State and the police. Meinhof also repeatedly appears as the sentence subject, such as “Ulrikes Zeugenvernehmung,”[12] “Ulrikes Geschichte”[13] or “Ihr Tod”[14]”. Verbs such as “verkörpert”[15], or the modal verb “sollte”,[16] demonstrate the symbolic force that the second RAF generation lends to Meinhof.

The 40th anniversary of the Stammheim “death night” combined with a reflection on traces of totalitarianism in structures and systems that claim the values of freedom, justice and equality for themselves – whether that be the FRG or the RAF, or any other state, government or group – is an interesting reminder that those in power, or those that claim power for themselves, may seldom follow through with the ideals they promulgate. It also provides an interrogation as to what resistance, revolt and revolution mean, and if it is possible to achieve ideological purity when leading resistance activities.

Though some of those apparent linguistic elements contradict the RAF’s ideology, as well as general left-wing ideology, particularly where Nazi discourse is concerned, aspects of RAF discourse still seems to live on in German left-wing circles, as evidenced for example by tweets and tracts produced by the #NoG20 movement in June of this year, or in anarchist graffiti on Neukölln streets. Such remnants testify to the enduring cultural influence of the RAF.

Léa Carresse is a French-American graduate of Oxford University (BA German and Russian, 2016). She recently delivered a paper on the linguistic analysis of Gudrun Ensslin’s prison letters to the Women in German Studies Conference at Oxford in June 2017, and was also part of a panel at an academic conference in Cambridge in May 2017. In this panel, she discussed the relevance of 1968 in Germany with several of Rudi Dutschke’s contemporaries. She is now a law student at McGill University, and intends to write a PhD on the linguistic aspects of the RAF after completing her degree.


[1] “Many comrades…spread lies about us”.

[2] “Victory in the people’s war!”.

[3] “Pigs”.

[4] “Super pig”.

[5] “coward”, literally: “someone who shits their trousers”.

[6] “heroic”.

[7] “epic”.

[8] “to fight”.

[9] “We say that the chap in a uniform is a pig, that it’s not a human being […] and so of course you can shoot.”

[10] “Either a pig or a human being…either a problem or the solution/There’s no in between”.

[11] “Baader-Meinhof Group”.

[12] “Ulrike’s witness examination”.

[13] “Ulrike’s story”. “Geschichte” also means “history” in German, so the word by extension may point to some sort of legend that Meinhof is/represents.

[14] “Her death”.

[15] “embodies”.

[16] “shall”.


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