Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Baader Meinhof Gang

Fires at Kaufhof and Schneider

It was the night of April 2, 1968 when incendiary bombs started fires in two Frankfurt department stores. One was the Schneider, a rather homely crowded establishment. The other was the more impressive Kaufhof that proudly occupied a corner. No one was injured in either fire although a worker at the Kaufhof suffered a bad fright. As described by Stefan Aust in The Baader-Meinhof Group, "he saw a wall of flame reaching to the ceiling five to seven metres away. The smoke was drifting towards him. He coughed, his eyes streamed, and he ran from the burning bedding department."

The German Press Agency got a phone call while the fires burned. A woman's voice informed them, "There are flames in the Schneider and Kaufhof. It is a political act of revenge." Then she hung up.

Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Thorwald Proll, and Horst Söhnlein at their trial
Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Thorwald Proll, and Horst Söhnlein at their trial

Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Thorwald Proll, and Horst Söhnlein were arrested on arson charges only two days after the fires at the department stores.

Thorwald Proll
Thorwald Proll

Born in Kassel in 1941, Thorwald Proll was the son of an architect and a hausfrau. His mother left his father when Thorwald was in his late teens. Generally a lackluster student, he eventually went to Berlin to study art. He quit school in order to try his hand at manual labor so he could be, as he later said he wished to be, "one of the Lumpenproletariat." However, he worked only haphazardly and spent much of his time at demonstrations or hanging out in bars and engaging in energetic, political bull sessions. It was at one of these that he fell in with Andreas Baader.

Horst Söhnlein
Horst Söhnlein

Horst Söhnlein had been born in Thuringia in 1942. It became a part of Communist East Germany after the war. The elder Söhnleins were apparently dissatisfied with life in the workers' paradise for they soon immigrated to West Germany. There the father got a position as factory engineer and head of a department that allowed him to provide handsomely for his family. Horst had ambitions as an actor and decidedly left-wing political inclinations when he met those who would eventually be his co-defendants.

At the trial, the accused appeared in high spirits, often giggling and sometimes hugging each other. At first, the defendants refused to plead because "defending ourselves against a class-based legal system when the script's already been written is not worthwhile." However, on the third day of the proceedings, Ensslin and Baader surprised the court by announcing that they had laid the bombs without any assistance from either Proll or Söhnlein.

Ensslin said that she had "lit a torch for Vietnam." She went on to say that the arson had been "a mistake, an error . . . however, I will discuss that with others, not you."

Baader backed up Ensslin's account, adding that they "had no intention of endangering human life."

A witness appeared in the courtroom to testify to Gudrun Ensslin's fine character. He was Bernward Vesper, the father of her child and the man she had deserted for Baader and the revolution. Before taking the stand, Vesper handed a bunch of red roses to his former girlfriend.

During the trial of the four leftists, most newspapers and magazines ran editorials condemning their political violence. However, to a minority of journalists, the defendants were idealists, laying their lives on the line to fight oppression. Articles lauding the bombers appeared in the more extreme left-wing publications.

One of those who admired the department store bombers was journalist Ulrike Meinhof. Meinhof was the editor of, as well as a columnist for, the left-wing magazine konkret (it did not capitalize its first letter; translated into English, "konkret" is an adjective meaning "concrete" or "real"). She was especially well known in West Germany because the articulate and opinionated Meinhof frequently appeared on talk shows. Meinhof attended the trial, wrote sympathetically about the defendants, and visited them.

Despite the efforts of Baader and Ensslin to shoulder all the blame, all four defendants were convicted of arson endangering human life. The judge sentenced them to three years behind bars.

They were also freed on June 13, 1969, pending appeals.

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