Inge Viett, 1944-2022

Several weeks ago, we learned that Inge Viett had died. She passed on May 9, at the age of 78. We offer the following notes to English-speaking readers, so that they can know something of this former guerilla and her legacy.

Inge Viett was a central participant in armed left politics in West Germany in the 1970s and early 80s. More than simply following the arc of the militant edge of her generation, she made decisions that shaped and determined the course of this arc, for both better and worse.

Born in 1944, Viett had been one of the millions of European children orphaned in the chaos of the war and its aftermath. Taken in by a family in Schleswig-Holstein, from a young age it was clear that her function was to provide manual labor, her status little different from that of a farm animal. Sleeping on a bed of hay (shared with her foster-sister) in the same annex where pigs were butchered, her childhood was replete with deprivation and abuse.

Like many, her life was changed by the struggles and realities of people in the Third World; she would later credit a trip to North Africa in the 1960s with opening her eyes to politics, and her first arrest was at a demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1968. She moved to West Berlin and lived in a lesbian household on Eisenbahn Straße before moving into the anarchist Liebenwalder Straße commune. She carried out her first attack (a failed firebombing of the right-wing Springer newspaper chain) and engaged in low-level direct actions with her new friend Verena Becker, who was also part of the same feminist/anarchist/lesbian milieu. They put up stickers announcing “The Black Bride is Coming” on the windows of bridal shops and porn stores, stormed the cosmetics sections of department stores and gave speeches about the exploitation and debasement of women, and engaged in collective shoplifting sprees to put together packages to send to prisoners.

As things in the West Berlin scene heated up, with members of the political police visiting the commune and street violence escalating to new levels, Viett and Becker chose to join the 2nd of June Movement, a guerilla group with eclectic radical left politics often (incorrectly) described as “anarchist” and held up (favourably or unfavourably, depending on the writer’s proclivities) in comparison with the better-known Red Army Faction. What was key to the 2JM’s strategy in those early days was the decision to seek out contradictions and to ground their struggle in their own society and context. As some members would later write:

The “2nd of June Movement” is a political concept. It constitutes the daily concretization of the youth revolt that characterized the political resistance of the 60s. That is to say, the 2nd of June Movement above all encompasses the past and present efforts to mount resistance against and create alternatives to the daily capitalist terror. Squatters and young people who want to make their youth centers autonomous are part of this process. Prison groups and women’s groups, antiauthoritarian daycares and alternative newspapers, organizers of rent strikes and organizers of abortion trips, as well as international solidarity committees with the people of Vietnam, Iran, Palestine, Angola, West Sahara, and wherever else are also part of this process. (Ralf Reinders and Ronald Fritzch, Die Bewegung 2. Juni, 62–63)

Viett was first captured in 1972; she and three men were found sleeping in a van with bomb-making materials—it is said that they had been planning to bomb the Turkish consulate. Not one to wait for her sentence to end, she sawed through the bars of her cell and escaped with three other women. She sought shelter that night at a women’s collective house; they fed her and dyed her hair, and after a few days she left to find her comrades in the underground.

She helped to organize what would be one of the most successful guerilla actions of the decade: on February 27, 1975, the 2JM kidnapped Peter Lorenz, a West Berlin conservative mayoral candidate, demanding 120,000 DM and the release of six political prisoners. After five days of negotiations, the state acquiesced and the prisoners were granted safe passage to South Yemen.

Like others in the guerilla in the 1970s, Viett spent a lot of time in the Middle East. Palestinian camps, notably those run by Waddi Haddad’s PFLP(EO), provided a place to train, hold discussions, and develop politically. Viett would later credit this time in the Middle East and contact with Palestinian guerillas with her emergent international perspective, which rejected the 2JM’s initial focus on domestic contradictions and on primarily cultivating structures and contacts in West Berlin. Divergent views within the group would take form as so-called “social revolutionary” and “anti-imperialist” lines; within this process, Viett was a firm advocate of the latter.

Viett was arrested for the second time in 1976; once again, in less than a year she had escaped, this time along with three other female guerillas from the RAF and 2JM. As the Associated Press reported at the time:

The women locked themselves out of their cells early Wednesday. When two female guards came through the cellblock on a routine inspection, Miss Viett pulled a gun on them. They bound and gagged the guards with bedsheets and locked them in an outer room of the library. The prisoners climbed out onto the third-story roof from the library, made their way to a corner of the building by hanging onto window bars and dropped over the wall to the outside where a getaway car was apparently waiting.

Viett remained active with the 2JM for the rest of the decade, participating in actions and pushing the group to adopt the “anti-imperialist” perspective. During this period, she also entered into contact with the East German Ministry for State Security—the MfS, or Stasi. The initial contact occurred when she was detained while transiting through East Berlin; she was interviewed by Colonel Harry Dahl, the head the GDR’s “anti-terrorism” division, who assured her that the guerillas could move freely through the GDR, asking only that they contact him with the details first.

In 1980, a police raid on a safehouse in Paris would see most members of the 2JM captured: only Viett and Juliane Plambeck remained on the outside. Discussions had been ongoing for some time with the RAF about a possible merger between the two groups; with the 2JM now having adopted the anti-imperialist line long promoted by Viett, and with the group down to two members, the decision was made. The merger was announced in a public paper in which the 2JM was officially dissolved. (Replete with “self-criticisms” and admissions of “errors”, the paper elicited an angry rebuttal from 2JM members in prison at the time.)

Viett was only active in the RAF for a short while, but during that time she helped resolve an important problem facing the group. Eight members—a significant portion of the group—wanted to leave; safehouses, paid for out of the RAF’s war chest, were being maintained to house them, but this was obviously not a permanent solution.

One of the first things the group asked of Viett was that she use her contact with the Stasi’s Colonel Dahl to see if he could help them out. Dahl suggested that the eight relocate to East Germany. The RAF had never considered that, but when Viett presented them with the offer, it seemed to solve the problem. The eight were relocated and given new identities in East Germany in the fall of 1980.

Viett remained with the RAF for a little over a year, staying with a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who understood her circumstances and nonetheless assured her she would always be welcome at his home. Yet this was not a pleasant time, as she recounts in her autobiography: her new RAF comrades accused her of having a “commodity relationship” to the struggle, criticized her for not integrating into the group, and were quick to notice any error, real or imagined, she might make. It was clearly not a good fit.

One hot summer day in 1981, Viett was riding her motorcycle around Paris when a cop tried to pull her over for not wearing a helmet. She ducked into a parking garage, and when the cop followed she surprised him with her gun drawn; she shot him when he went for his weapon. Already wrestling with doubts, this close call proved to be the final straw: Viett left for South Yemen, where she spent several months weighing her options. Finally, she decided to contact Colonel Dahl, who arranged for her to receive a new identity in the GDR. Her time in the guerilla was done.

As part of the process of being taken in by the Stasi, Viett was debriefed, a process in which she provided the East German secret police with information about the urban guerrilla groups operating in the FRG and West Berlin and their members. That this information would eventually fall into the hands of the West German Bundeskriminalamt (BKA; Federal Criminal Bureau; the German equivalent of the FBI) may not have been considered likely at the time, but this is exactly what would eventually transpire when the Eastern bloc crumbled. The notes from these interviews are said to be extensive, but only a few have ever been made public.

Viett lived in Dresden under the name Eva-Maria Sommer for three and a half years, working at a printshop, until a coworker took a trip to West Germany and recognized her on a wanted poster. The Stasi quickly relocated her to Magdeburg, giving her the new name Eva Schnell. She would always speak very positively of her time in the GDR, about the Stasi, and about the political system in the country; she had even wanted to join the Party but was told this was not an option, as it might blow her cover story. She would later heap scorn on the West German left for seeing only the problems and not the accomplishments of “real existing socialism”:

The left in the West have no idea how serious their lack of experience of socialist reality is. History will not offer them another chance. In their arrogance they even think that they can afford to not acknowledge this as a problem. The real socialism of their time, on their doorstep in the GDR, was their only chance of ever finding out how the idea of socialism, i.e. the ideal, can actually be socially effective and how not. But they preferred to withdraw from this historical process, to nag it, to criticize it, to smile at it from afar. They preferred to cultivate imperialist reality, including themselves, with their socialist theories. They always struggle with the existential umbilical cord of capitalism and know nothing else. (https://www.jungewelt.de/artikel/426644.bewaffneter-kampf-die-andere-erfahrung.html)

Nonetheless, protests in the GDR combined with liberalization within the Soviet Union led to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the eventual dissolution of the country, and its reunification with West Germany on October 3, 1990. All nine former guerillas in the GDR were captured in the period between these two events. Almost all of the defectors testified, as did many former Stasi officers, providing information to West German investigators; in some cases this led to new charges being laid against RAF members already in prison. Viett would be charged with the attempted murder of the police officer she had shot in Paris. She was the only one of those captured in the East who did not testify against her former comrades from the guerilla. Yet, she did not refuse to cooperate—in what she would later describe as a serious miscalculation, she entered into discussions with West German investigators, and the information she provided led to charges being laid against Stasi agents, now accused of having “supported a terrorist organization” by assisting the RAF.

Viett received a thirteen-year sentence, but only ended up serving six years. While in prison, she wrote her memoirs, which were published by Nautilus, a left-wing publishing house, under the title Nie War Ich Furchtloser (Never Was I More Fearless). Her decision to write a book while incarcerated, to talk to investigators from the BKA, and also the relatively short amount of time she spent in prison (other guerillas were decades behind bars) elicited suspicion and were severely criticized by some of her former comrades. It was said that she had cut a deal and that her memoirs (which were highly critical of the RAF and of several of her former comrades) were dishonest and self-serving, if not part of a counterinsurgency campaign, then at least conducive to being weaponized as such. Both Christian Klar (RAF) and Klaus Viehmann (2JM), former guerillas and political prisoners, released public statements to this effect, accusing her of duplicity and opportunism. She was also confronted with the transcript of an interview she had underwent with the BKA in 1999, in which she provided information about various matters, including who had been present at various Palestinian training camps at different times.

Viett responded to the public criticisms, acknowledging that she had made serious errors, the most important of which being to agree to have a discussion about the GDR with the investigators from the BKA:

And of course, they sent an intelligent, respectful, polite young man with whom it was possible to have a discussion, who was not intellectually clumsy, but critical, open-minded, and so on. . . . The constant pressure and my preoccupation with my own situation were not conducive to a clear perspective on my part: [I thought] I could always handle a discussion like this with this young BKA officer, and maybe I could learn something new and get out of the cell and make my position clear to them, etc. These “discussions” turned into statements about my role in the [guerilla’s] connection to the GDR and about military training in the GDR. Why my specific account was so important only became clear to me when the [Stasi] officers were arrested the very next day.

While admitting her responsibility, she denied the claim that there had been any kind of deal:

I did not at any time—as is insinuated in various ways—make a “deal” with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office or the court or the BKA with this statement, nor did my lawyers. . . . That I did not get a life sentence but 13 years was a nice surprise. It was an unpleasant surprise to learn that my sentence was based on a partial application of the article governing leniency for crown witnesses, in exchange for the information I had provided about the Ministry for State Security.

Following her release in January 1997, Viett worked as an author. When the film Die Stille nach dem Schuss (The Legend of Rita) was released—detailing the “fictional” story of a female guerilla who sought refuge in the GDR—she accused the filmmakers of having plagiarized aspects of her own life from her autobiography; they reached an out of court settlement. She also remained politically active. In 2008, she was arrested at a demonstration against the German army being held at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate; quoted in the media, she explained, “That was an anti-militarist action. And every anti-militarist action is good.” She was eventually fined 225 Euros for resisting arrest. A couple of years later, in 2011, she participated in a panel discussion at the International Rosa Luxemburg Conference in Berlin; a criminal complaint was lodged and she was eventually fined 1,200 Euros for “endorsing criminal acts.”

Beyond these incidents that made headlines, Viett reintegrated herself within the radical left, continuing to write and to forge political relationships with generations who had come of age long after the RAF and 2JM had ceased to exist. She sought to contextualize and defend the armed struggle experience, explaining that the West German guerilla had been motivated by anti-colonialism and solidarity with national liberation movements in the Global South. In a death notice in junge Welt, she was remembered as someone who was “a ‘bridge builder’ who brought her experiences closer to a younger generation.” The group RevolutionĂ€re Aufbau Schweiz (Revolutionary Construction Switzerland) has made a collection of her texts available online at https://www.aufbau.org/2022/05/23/inge-in-unseren-kaempfen-lebst-du-weiter-broschuere-und-videobotschaft.

Viett’s legacy is both complex and murky. Her advocacy of an “anti-imperialist” position focused on the global perspective, as opposed to immediate local conditions, ended up shaping the later history the 2JM. For some, this was a disastrous development, in which insights and accomplishments drawn from the group’s close integration with the West Berlin scene and its orientation towards contradictions in its own society were not built upon but were instead dismissed and abandoned. Later on, while only in the RAF for a short time, she brokered an arrangement that solved a significant problem facing the group, and allowed several former members to obtain refuge. And, of course, she was a participant in actions (kidnappings, prison breaks, robberies, etc.) that constituted an important reference point, consciously or not, for resistance movements much broader and more politically diverse than the guerilla within which she operated.

Her sympathies, at least from the 1980s on, seem to have been firmly with the political perspective represented by the East German government and the politics it represented. It is difficult to describe what it was like on the radical left in the early 1990s; the sense of defeat was overwhelming, even for those who did not identify in this way with the “real existing socialism” of the Eastern Bloc. That Viett’s choices in this period were weaponized against her former comrades, against her politics even, is undeniable. We are not in a position to determine whether her choices then represented a temporary lapse or something more, nor to assess her explanation that she acted out of disorientation and weakness due to this broader context of defeat.

This brief account of Inge Viett’s political itinerary and choices is presented to allow comrades in the English-speaking world to know of a remarkable woman, of what she did, and of how she dealt with the circumstances she found herself in, for both good and bad. Neither praise nor denunciation strike us as appropriate—the more important task for those in our place and time is to simply work to understand and remember. If we see shortcomings, all that means is that we must prepare ourselves to do better when facing the challenges presented by our own context.

the above text has been reposted from the germanguerilla.com website at http://germanguerilla.com/2022/06/19/inge-viett-1944-2022/