The terrorist's family album

She was once one of the most wanted criminals in the world, and even now Astrid Proll cannot shake her revolutionary past
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Over the years, Astrid Proll has been known by several names: Rosi, Anna Puttick, Anna the Spanner, Miss Terror. None has the resonance of her own name, once plastered on "Wanted" posters all over Europe.

Thirty years ago, Astrid, then 20, joined what was to become the most notorious terrorist organisation in the Western world: the Baader-Meinhof Group, or, as it called itself, the Red Army Faction (RAF). Now she has published a book about it.

The history of the Baader-Meinhof Group, from 1968 to 1988, is complex, but its first wave is clarified for posterity by Astrid in her stark collection of photo-documentary. Called Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the Run 67-77, it follows the group from its formation as part of the anti-Vietnam protests in 1968, until the suicide of their leader Andreas Baader in Stannheim prison.

"Understanding the times is difficult because the history is distorted by the media," Astrid says. The book is her attempt to set the record straight.

Astrid Proll is, in terms of her public image, the quintessential former female terrorist. The publication of Proll's book demonstrates that, far from shedding that image, she's still living in its shadow: "In Germany, the subject was always the number one headline. It went on and on for 20 years, with the same intensity. Like Northern Ireland."

Because of her involvement with it, the former gun girl will always be considered a dangerous woman linked to a vicious gang whose ideological anti-establishment stance was always outweighed by its cold-blooded assaults on human life.

"I was not there, after it had got really cruel," says Astrid Proll. But her relationship with the group has defined her life, distorted it, and at times come close to destroying it. Many of her comrades in arms are dead. Proll has spent years in prison and on the run, hiding her real name and her former life. After enduring the torture of an isolation cell in a "dead wing" in prison, and a subsequent breakdown, she eventually escaped to London, where she concealed her identity, had a marriage of convenience, worked as a fitter's mate and taught motor mechanics - hence her nickname, Anna the Spanner.

After the publication of Hitler's Children, a history of the RAF by Jillian Becker, published in 1977, Astrid was recognised from a photograph and arrested when police came to the workshop where she worked, showing some of her students how to use the skills she'd taught them to steal cars.

She was extradited back to Germany in 1977. Charges of attempted murder were dropped in 1979, but her role as an inner-sanctum member of the RAF has cast a pall which she wears with a mixture of defiance and shame. "I paid my price," she says with a degree of understatement. "I survived the insanity of the project of armed struggle."

The irony is that Astrid Proll was an active member of the Baader-Meinhof Group only in its formative stages - for less than a year. The former photography student was drawn to terrorism because her brother Thorwald was intimate with Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ennslin, who were the group's leaders. "I was involved through people with common ideas and emotions," she recounts - revolutionary and protest ideology was intensely hip in the years of anti-Vietnam protest.

Astrid Proll became their getaway driver. She planned and participated in bank raids, and carried a gun. After a year underground, following the springing of Baader from jail with the aid of the journalist Ulrike Meinhof, Proll was arrested and imprisoned. "Living underground is boring and isolating," says Astrid in retrospect. "Living illegally is a dead end when you are young."

But despite that, and although she admits that the ultimate achievement of the RAF was that Germany "was left with tighter laws - and a myth", even today her voice fills with passion at what the group represented in its early stages. "It meant everything. It was uncommercial, radical, international, breaking with society. We wanted to be a better generation than that of our parents. None of us wanted to be Fascists or criminals, but we partly became just that." Hastily, she adds, "not Fascists."

The ideological fervour that motivated Astrid to join a terrorist group was modified, during her time in Britain, to include living on the fringes of a squatter's community in North London. "Squatting was big in the Seventies," she says. "It meant people were collectively responsible. But I did not live underground in England," she insists. "I lived with other youths who also read Marx and idealised the working classes. I worked on the shop floor and as a car mechanic. This attitude was very admired in the Seventies." The vulnerable side of the former terrorist is apparent as, bristling, she reveals how important a sense of belonging has been for her.

Astrid Proll is, perhaps understandably, a defensive and extremely wary interviewee. At times she is hectoring, abrasive and evasive. She brusquely refuses to provide information about her involvement in the RAF. "I do not answer that," she snaps dismissively. She assumes I know little or nothing about the RAF.

Yet she is also conscientious and meticulous, promptly returning calls to her Hamburg home. Above all, she behaves with dignity, consistently understating her position and never attempting to gain understanding, let alone sympathy. She points out, several times, that she is a journalist too. For many years she was picture editor of the German magazine Tempo. Now she is looking for a new job. "I had known all the existing photographs of the Baader-Meinhof Group," she says. "I am very interested to tell history through photographs - not just telling my own story. I wanted to show as many pictures as possible of the student movement and the early days of the RAF."

What sets Pictures on the Run apart is that Proll was part of the terror she documents, yet she claims a wider community of experience. "I am not so different from other women of my age who were there in '68," she insists, "only my experiences are a bit more extreme." But the photographs in the book insist otherwise. Pictures of a young, intense Astrid are scattered throughout a visual narrative whose protagonists are familiar from shocking headlines and newsreel images.

Proll disappears from the visual content after a shot of her on her way to her trial; after that, the photographs are a bleak record of the prison lives of Meinhof, Baader, Ennslin and their cohorts, and the kidnapping by the second wave of the RAF of the industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer.

Proll says that one purpose of her book is to add to the information about the revolutionary year of 1968, characterised by student protests and the anti-Vietnam protest. "This year," she says, "you can find all sorts of books about 1968." But not written by former members of terrorist organisations. She is cagey about discussing her knowledge of the Baader- Meinhof Group's history. "We will confine this to the first wave, which is what the book is about," she insists. Then she says, as if she cannot help herself, "It was the most exciting, the most glamorous."

Since her enforced return to Germany, Proll has been able to reinvent herself as a photo-journalist, but her reputation as a woman terrorist is inescapably part of her. Pictures on the Run's title is, under the circumstances, uncannily appropriate. Astrid Proll was on the run; in this book, witnessing her own history, she has given herself up.

`Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the Run, 67-77' (Scalo, pounds 13.50)

Comments