09/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Interview: Stefan Aust on 'The Baader-Meinhof Complex'

They were a 1970s phenomenon: a group of domestic terrorists in West Germany whose anti-war, anti-establishment, left-wing political activities included arson, murder and bombings aimed at government officials.

But the Baader-Meinhof Gang were like rock stars, in the admiration they excited among the college-age and younger in Germany and elsewhere in the world.

"There was an amazing cult about those people," says writer and journalist Stefan Aust, author of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, the book from which Uli Edel took his Oscar-nominated film of the same name, which opened in New York last Friday (8.21).

"You had to show their story in a film or people wouldn't understand why it lasted so long," Aust says of the Red Army Faction, the radical group that became synonymous with founder Andreas Baader and journalist Ulrike Meinhof. "At the time, young people were fascinated. The RAF came from the same political movement and shared goals with the global liberation movement. They were around for 28 years, which was twice as long as Nazi Germany."

Aust was a young journalist in 1960s Germany, when he joined the staff of Konkret, a leftist political magazine.

"I was not a political activist," says Aust, 63, who went on to serve as editor of Der Spiegel, one of Europe's largest magazines. "I got an opportunity to work for the magazine because I knew the younger brother of the editor. I was always more or less a journalist; I never believed in the ideology. But it was fascinating to me as a young journalist, particularly when you know these people personally."

At Konkret, Aust worked with columnist Ulrike Meinhof. Together they wrote articles critical of the American war in Vietnam and of German support for the war, such as allowing American military bases in Germany.

Aust never knew Andreas Baader, the charismatic leader of the RAF -- but Meinhof met him and, eventually, took part in Baader's 1970 escape from police custody that left three wounded. Eventually, as part of Baader's group, Meinhof was involved in several bank robberies in which people were killed. She also wrote extensive justification for the group's numerous bombings around Germany.

"When I knew her, Ulrike was a more traditional socialist," Aust says. "If she'd gone to East Germany and become a communist, I could have imagined that. But I was surprised when she took up the gun. For me, as I knew Ulrike, the actress in the film (Martina Gedeck) is very close to her looks and behaves similarly to the Ulrike Meinhof I knew. For Martina, it was easier because there was a lot of footage to see. There was virtually no film of Andreas."

The Baader-Meinhof Complex film covers the period from the late 1960s to the deaths of Meinhof, Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, among other RAF leaders, in Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart. Meinhof hung herself in 1976; the rest died in a single night in 1977 -- and were ruled suicides, despite the fact that Baader died from a gunshot to the back of his head.

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