- The Observer,
- Sunday October 6, 2002
Her face on 'Wanted' posters throughout Britain, where she was in hiding for years, Astrid Proll would like to think her life has moved on. But now she is engaged in another struggle - to meet the growing demand for the memories of her generation of activists.
'I haven't put it behind me, it will keep coming up - but it's not me who finds it difficult to forget, it's other people,' she says. 'Of course, I have fond memories, or I couldn't exist. But they're unrecountable. That's not where I'm at because - thank God - life goes on.'
Not for Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carle Raspe, who are all dead. Many more of Proll's former comrades committed suicide or are still in prison. But others on the periphery of those tumultuous times - the lawyers who defended them and those who contributed to the cause as street fighters, including the Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer - sit in the German cabinet, while other so-called 68ers form the backbone of the judicial system and the media.
Which leaves Proll, 55, feeling isolated. Despite repeatedly insisting she escaped from the Baader-Meinhof Gang 'before it got really cruel', she has never been allowed to forget her past, or what she calls the 'hole I got myself into'.
The group she belonged to and for whom she drove the getaway car - be it an Alfa-Romeo or a Mercedes, all part of the group's fashion appeal - killed no fewer than 90 people, many of them former Nazi officials. Proll describes the RAF as 'the knife-edge of the general reaction of the young', who were furious at their parents for unquestioningly supporting Hitler.
'Of course it wasn't healthy,' she says. 'The RAF wasn't healthy for anybody - neither the participants, nor their children, nor the State, but it happened and you have to deal with it. But you have also to remember that it was a group of no more than 30 people, yet it did something unheard -of - it took up a concept and followed it through in a very German-determined way.' She remarks that this is not dissimilar to the 11 September terrorists, though insists she does not mean to take the comparison any further.
Proll first went to London in 1974 after her trial for robbery and attempted murder was adjourned due to fears for her health. She worked under various guises and in jobs from park attendant to car mechanic before being arrested in 1978. A year in Brixton prison fighting extradition followed before she was returned to Germany, where she agreed to face trial again. 'London was my refuge. It remains very important to me,' she says.
She - and a group of her friends in London - spent years fighting for her return, while Britain tried desperately to keep her out. Finally she was granted permission and drove across Europe, arriving by ferry in 1999. By the autumn she was working as a picture editor on the Independent newspaper
This month is the 25th anniversary of an event that stunned Europe: the discovery on 18 October, 1977, of the bodies of Baader, Ensslin and Raspe in their cells at Stammheim high-security prison in Stuttgart. Meinhof had hanged herself in prison the previous year.
To mark the event, the Institute of Contemporary Arts has invited Proll to return to London to take part in a season of films and talks reflecting on the era. Proll, who has just moved to Berlin after three years living in London, is extremely evasive about her involvement in what she describes as 'some sort of profession, or life-call'. But she knows when it is useful to bring her past into play.
Asked what the anniversary means to her, she says: 'I don't know, nothing. It's a media event, really,' she adds over scrambled eggs in a bar in the bourgeois Berlin district of Charlottenburg. '[But] I at least want to get some money out of it, you know what I mean, and it'll help my profile.'
Referring to a coffee-table-style book of pictures of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, including a few of herself, called Pictures on the Run '67-'77, which she published two years ago to wide critical acclaim, she says: 'I earn my money from the RAF, so why not keep it up?'
The statement seems ironic from a former revolutionary and fervent anti-capitalist. But even more so does her throwaway remark that Germany is in grave need of modernisation - with its trade unions too strong and civil servants underworked - and 'could do with a Margaret Thatcher'. It is a comment she later retracts, somewhat embarrassed: 'I don't want to be associated with this woman, but you know what I mean.'
Times have changed and so - evidently - has Astrid Proll. But the market demand for her and others with her past has increased of late, with an extraordinary revival in Germany of 'Terror Chic'. The catwalks are full of the crushed velvet flares and Ray-Bans favoured by Baader, the red RAF star adorns T-shirts, and one fashion designer has even adopted the provocative slogan 'Prada-Meinhof'. Collectors pay large sums for original RAF 'wanted' posters, sales of Moby Dick, an important novel for those held in Stammheim, are unusually healthy, and a fictionalised account of the Baader-Ensslin romance is a best seller.
In one breath, Proll dismisses the current craze. 'They're arseholes, just into marketing and making money.' But a second later she hints at her delight at young people - as she sees it - trying to understand the era. 'This is their entry and access, and if they choose to be interested in fashion I cannot help it.
' Wir sind alle den Moden unterworfen ,' she whispers. (We're all slaves of fashion).
On a positive note, she says, this period of youth revolt produced the Green party. 'Look at Joschka Fischer - he is Germany's most popular politician and has just won the election for Gerhard Schröder.'
She believes the class struggle need not have turned out the way it did - with Meinhof's suicide and the bloody deaths, almost certainly also suicide, of the others.
'Helmut Schmidt, the Social Democrat Chancellor at the time, still says he's proud his government never negotiated. But even the Conservatives negotiated with the IRA. Yet Schmidt's generation, if not Nazis, were militaristic. There was no room for manoeuvre, which is why the end was so harsh.'
Proll escaped the same fate as Baader et al largely because of her years hiding in London under assumed identities. She worked as a park attendant, toy car factory worker and car mechanic. When she was finally extradited to Germany in 1978, she escaped going to jail following a bank robbery conviction because of time already served - four years in the early Seventies during which she suffered sensory deprivation which led to temporary madness.
There are those from the RAF milieu, she says, who resent her for the leniency she has been shown and for her ability for self-publicity.
'Some people claim others have stolen their stories, but obviously with me they can't, because I'm authentic. It's a bit of a shame, but I think a lot of people, as far as they survived, had a very hard time because they spent a long time in prison - even longer than me, so I suppose I'm lucky.'
Not least among those who appear to resent her is her elder brother, Thorwald, whom she followed from Kassel to Berlin as a 20-year-old, lured by the promise of an exciting, underground life and the family security she had failed to find at home.
'Our relationship is not in a good shape' is all she will say of the brother who renounced his involvement with the group much earlier than his sister. At the heart of their dispute, however, is said to be not the revolution but an argument about family inheritance.
But she has befriended the children of several of her former comrades, particularly Felix Ensslin, the son of Gudrun, whose mother abandoned him for the cause. 'I'm not trying to be a goody-goody, but he came to see me, I helped him get a job with the Greens, and he wanted to know all about his mum.'
While at the Independent, Proll was outed by a freebie newspaper, which ran stories on a 'terrorist working in Canary Wharf tower'.
'There was no consideration that I might have changed, that I hadn't held a gun for 30 years,' she says. 'The British tabloids were one of the most terrifying things I have experienced.'
The ICA's Red Army Friction season runs from 11-18 October. 020-7930 3647; www.ica.org.uk