ROME — Karl Marx once said that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Never is that more true than the case of three aging radical left-wing German terrorists who have been leaving tracks at the scenes of recent crimes after retiring nearly 20 years ago. But like many people who slow down as their birthday candle count goes up, these once crafty criminals are clearly showing their age, bungling heists and leaving their DNA behind.
They weren’t always so inept. Ernst-Volker Staub, 61, Daniela Klette, 57, and Burkhard Garweg, 47, were once part of Germany’s deadly Red Army Faction or RAF, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, who were responsible for around 30 murders of German capitalists and American military officials during a reign of home-grown terror that lasted from the ’70s until 1998, when the group officially disbanded.
In its heyday, the gang was infamous for intricate plots that kept law enforcement officials on their toes and made ordinary Germans feel vulnerable. No one knew when they would strike next—or how. There was the time, in 1977, when a woman pushing a baby buggy seemed to accidentally step onto the street in front of a chauffeur-driven car in Cologne, causing the driver to screech to a halt. The woman then pulled two semi-automatic weapons out from under the baby blankets and killed the driver and bodyguards while her associates commandeered the car and, with it, took Hanns Martin Schleyer, a noted industrialist, hostage. He was found dead a month later in the trunk of the car.
The group formed as a revenge protest movement after German police killed an activist at a rally against the Shah of Iran who was on a state visit to Berlin. According to the BBC rap sheet on the group, Andreas Baader, one of the group’s founders, vowed revenge for the death of the young activist by detonating bombs in department stores in Frankfurt. The mastermind was caught but escaped during a prison visit to a local library after Ulrike Meinhof, his close female friend and left-wing journalist, orchestrated a plan for his escape.
The two then led a group of followers to Jordan, where they were trained in weaponry and guerrilla warfare by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, according to numerous court documents and historical records associated with their violent history. They returned to Germany and started a campaign of bombing and kidnapping, which was financially supported by swift robberies. Both Baader and Meinhof were eventually captured and took their own lives in their prison cells, but the RAF lived on and enjoyed the support of around 25 percent of young Germans during the height of its dubious glory in the ’70s and ’80s.
Once the darlings of German wanted posters and news stories, the group then simply disappeared, announcing its end. “Today we are ending this project. The urban guerrilla group in the form of the RAF is now history,” they wrote in a statement to various press outlets in 1998. “We are stuck in a dead end.”
Several of the group members have since finished their prison terms, and no one in Germany has given much thought to the group until last June, when three of the terrorists came out of retirement with a hapless attempt to get up to their old tricks. Dressed in somewhat dated camouflage garb, according to witnesses and surveillance footage, the three staked out an armored security van in the parking lot of a supermarket in Bremen, Germany. They approached the van carrying assault rifles and a rocket launcher after blocking it with their Volkswagen van. They fired on the van, but their out-of-date munitions were no match for the updated reinforcement armor on the vehicle. The officers inside were unable to use their cellphones to call for help because of jamming devices, but since the gang members couldn’t get into the vehicle, they gave up and escaped in a beat up Ford Focus, which they later abandoned, apparently failing to realize that their DNA could still be collected in the absence of fingerprints.
A similar incident happened in December, again in a supermarket car park in a small German town. Again the trio failed to penetrate the armored vehicle, and they once again left DNA in their abandoned getaway car.
Now German authorities are offering a €200,000 ($220,000) reward for the threesome who have been reduced to quick-hit grocery store heists. They have stolen sums of €380,000 ($420,000) and €70,000 ($78,000) in two separate incidents, again leaving sloppy traces that tie them to the crimes.
German officials say the Baader-Meinhof alumni are likely stooping to grocery store hold-ups to pay for their retirement. Klaus Ziehe, a spokesman for the German prosecution investigating the ties that link the former RAF thugs together, said that there is no other explanation.
“They have lived undercover for a long time, supported by sympathizers who are now all dead or having their own economic problems,” Ziehe told reporters in Germany. “These are obviously desperate times for them and they have to do something to make ends meet.”
If caught, the trio face life sentences for crimes tied to ancient RAF activity, which would certainly take care of any concerns about retirement costs.