Eight years before her trial in Vermont, when 20-year-old Kristina Berster arrived in Heidelburg to study in 1970, German young people were restless and angry. The rhetoric had turned revolutionary since the days of "Ban the Bomb." This paralleled the trajectory of American dissent. The US "New Left" had also passed a tipping point, marked by the Chicago police riots and the "days of rage" that launched the Weather Underground.
In West Germany, protest turned violent with demonstrations in Berlin and the bombing of two empty department stores by Andreas Baader and Gudrin Ensslin. The purpose of the bombing, announced Baader, was "to light a beacon" against the consumer society. Ensslin added, "We set fires in department stores so you will stop buying. The compulsion to buy terrorizes you." A superficial analysis, it nevertheless struck at the core of German complacency in a time of intensive economic development.
The couple was caught, along with some accomplices, and convicted. But not before they found support from one of Germany's leading leftist journalists, Ulrike Meinhof. When they were released in 1969 during the appeal of their cases, Baader and Ensslin went underground with Meinhof's assistance. On September 29, 1970, with the robbing of three West Berlin banks, the Red Army Faction was born. As justification, Baader explained that the first problem of the revolution was financial support.
A dark cloud of repression soon began to descend. West German police turned to automatic weapons and extreme tactics, anyone who looked like a nonconformist risked spontaneous interrogation, roadblocks became common on the autobahn, and new search, arrest, and gun laws were passed. The excuse for such a broad extension of police powers was the nationwide search for the Baader-Meinhof group. No matter that the fugitives were responsible for only five of the 1,000 robberies committed during their heyday.
Witnessing the isolation of prisoners and the alienation around her, Kristina couldn't accept it. She was already steeped in politics and radical concepts of therapy. One US thinker who exerted a strong influence, Thomas Szasz, had written about the "myth of mental illness" and the emergence of a therapeutic state. In Law, Liberty and Psychiatry he proposed that, "The parallel between political and moral fascism is close. Each offers a kind of protection. And upon those unwilling to heed peaceful persuasion, the values of the state will be imposed by force: in political fascism by the military and the police; in moral fascism by therapists, especially psychiatrists."
She was fascinated by the critique of institutional psychiatry, and simultaneously repelled by German psychiatric units where patients had no rights and anything could be interpreted as crazy. A new criminal psychiatric unit was about to be built in Heidelburg, geared toward mind control and the use of complete isolation. During the dispute over it, someone tried to set fire to the construction site.
The violence escalated with the shooting of several police officers. In response, the government widened its dragnet to root out the conspiracy. Help came from an informer, Hans Bacchus, who had been reading books on guerrilla warfare just before leaving the student scene. He subsequently supplied the police with a list of people he accused of radical activity or terrorist sympathies. Among the names was Kristina’s.
Apprehended as a suspect, she was charged with having "built up a criminal association." The maximum sentence was five years, but even pre-trial detention could mean serious time. Some suspects were already being detained in solitary for long periods. It was exactly the type of treatment she had been protesting.
Berster spent the next six months in detention, watching the erosion of her right to legal counsel. Even her lawyer's office was raided. Police alleged that Eberhard Becker had photographic files of the Heidelburg police department's employees. Although the evidence was never produced, he was barred from participating in her trial. Obstruction of justice charges were later leveled at two other attorneys representing defendants in the case.
A pattern of harassment aimed at defense attorneys was emerging. The pressure intensified with laws that permitted the exclusion of lawyers and the holding of trials without the presence of defendants. In reaction, some young people joined the Red Army Faction. Kristina went back to school, but continued her prison reform work.
In early May 1971, the Red Army decided to strike at political targets in retaliation for the bomb blockade of North Vietnam. They hit an officer's club in Frankfurt, the Augsburg Police Department, the parking lot of the State Criminal Investigation Office, and finally, on May 24, the US Army's European Supreme Headquarters in Heidelburg. A month later they were caught. At first, people thought the country would finally return to normal, easing attacks on civil liberties and ending the state of emergency. Instead, the "emergency" was institutionalized.
Red Army leaders were locked in "wipe-out detention," a luminous white world of total sterility in which fluorescent lights were always on and every window was covered. Their soundproof cells, filled with nothing but white noise, were in a section of the prison called the Dead Wing, a place off limits to all visitors except lawyers and relatives. Reading material was heavily censored, and other prisoners were never seen or even heard. When Jean-Paul Sartre saw Baader after two years in the Dead Wing, he said, "This is not torture like the Nazis. It is torture meant to bring on psychic disturbances."
This type of confinement was "the most effective way to destroy personality irreversibly,” Kristina told me. "Humans are social. When you cut that off, when people are not able to talk or relate to others, an internal destruction begins. You become catatonic, and somatic problems begin."
Despite the growing risks, she continued to fight for small improvements like allowing prisoners to see and hear one another. But reforms faced new obstacles. Not only had public sentiment hardened against the Red Army; the Right, prodded by the Springer newspaper chain, had pushed through more repression laws. A Decree on Radicals, passed in 1972, denied "a position of civil service...if the candidate has been politically active in either an extreme rightist or leftist group." Any doubt about a person's support for the "free democratic basic order" would henceforth be sufficient grounds for blacklisting. It was an effective job ban in a country with 16 percent of workers in this sector.
The Decree also permitted the executive branch to create political isolation without directly banning political parties. Instead, it created a category of "constitutional enemies." Acts no longer had to be proven; the job ban punished attitudes, and the enemies list extended to "sympathizers" who were indifferent to or critical of the state's war on terrorism. A prominent target was Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boll, who had criticized the demagoguery of the Springer press. Conservatives tried to ban his books, and the police harassed his son. His hate mail was signed, he once noted sardonically, while complimentary notes were apt to be anonymous.
Kristina and her co-defendants became convinced that a fair trial was impossible. There was ample evidence that the outcome was rigged: exclusion orders against their lawyers, the treatment of prisoners, new laws, and Right-Wing propaganda. Therefore, in an open letter to the court they announced that they weren't showing up, and would instead hold a counter-trial at which they could present themselves for judgment. A huge audience, gathering from across Western Europe, attended that event. But many people left confused. Disagreement had erupted over the use of violence.
Although Kristina had problems with armed struggle, many people were attracted by the idea. Nevertheless, persuaded that the official trial couldn’t be just, she joined those who decided not to appear.
Chapter 19 of Prelude to a Revolution
Next: Guilt by Association