A German killed by Germans in Germany probably sounds like the most unlikely fatality of the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland. Yet, in 1972, sixty-six year old Erwin Beelitz was killed by a bomb planted in Berlin in ‘solidarity with the IRA’. His name doesn’t typically feature in any lists of those who died during this period, but this is his story.
On the evening of Bloody Sunday, a young German, Michael Baumann, had watched a television report on events in Derry that day. Like many of the post-war generation in West Berlin, there was a certain level of resentment at the continued occupation by the victorious allies of various sectors of Berlin. This lent itself to empathising with others they perceived to be sharing an experience of military occupation, whether that was in places like Vietnam or, since 1969, Ireland. And, just as the presence of US troops in Germany had created a target for protests over US actions in south-east Asia, the presence of British troops meant that there was a highly visible focus for protests over British actions in Ireland. At the time, watching reporting of Bloody Sunday in Derry on television, Michael Baumann claimed he was so moved by events that he decided that he “…had to do something about it”.
Next day, Monday 31st January, Baumann and a friend, Hans-Peter Knoll, met with Verena Becker, Harald Sommerfeld and Inge Viett who had also concluded that the killings of unarmed civilians by the British Army demanded a response. Becker, Sommerfeld and Viett had been members of Schwarzen Hilfe, a support group for political prisoners, but had recently joined Baumann and Knoll in Bewegung 2 Juni or B2J (the June 2nd Movement).
B2J had been founded the previous year by individuals associated with some of the German groups that had emerged from the student and radical campaigns of the late 1960s. Even the B2J name commemorated the day in 1967 (June 2nd) when unarmed Benno Ohnesorg was shot by a police detective, following vicious police repression of a protest against a visit by the Shah of Iran to Berlin. The events of that day were repeatedly cited by many individuals involved in the radical groups as a pivotal moment in their transition from peaceful and largely conventional protests to more militant actions.
Like many of the German radical groups, B2J were trying to adapt urban guerilla tactics, largely following the outlines sketched by Brazilian Marxist-Leninist Carlos Marighella (in his Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla). They hoped that the example of actions by a small, elite, guerilla group would catalyse support for their aims. Ultimately, this was meant to lead to ‘the people’ seizing power from the conservative, capitalist forces that controlled the state. This marked a departure from the successful, ‘focalist’ model used in the likes of Cuba and Vietnam, where the impetus began in remote rural areas prior to marching on, and seizing, the urban centres. In the metropolitan western states, the focus needed to be on building support in the urban areas rather than rural districts. The Tupamaros in Uruguay and, historically, the urban IRA operations organised by the likes of Michael Collins were seen by Marighella and others as exemplars of the urban guerilla method. Up to 1972, B2J had mainly confined itself to robberies and shootings. A response to Bloody Sunday seemed to provide an opportunity to progress to widen its campaign. This was largely following the template set out by Marighella in his Minimanual.
B2J itself was a loose coalition of anarchists unlike the better known Marxist-Leninist group, the Rotte Armee Fraktion (R.A.F.). The latter is usually rendered in English as Red Army ‘Faction’ although ‘Fraction’ is more accurate and reflects the intention to identify the group as an integral part of wider society (i.e. a ‘fraction’), rather than a discrete entity in its own right as the term ‘faction’ implies.
Famously, the R.A.F. included Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. A name that was often, erroneously, given to the first generation R.A.F. was the ‘Baader-Meinhof’ Group or just ‘B-M’ (mistakenly taking Meinhof to be a leader). The R.A.F. didn’t really have leaders, per se, but the most prominent female figure was Gudrun Ensslin rather than Meinhof. Emerging from those same left wing challenges to the aging conservative establishment in West Germany, the R.A.F. held a particular appeal to young Germans. In a television era, imagery and optics were important and the group’s public personae, consciously or subconsciously, resonated with a sort of revolutionary chic. For instance, a mythical preference for using stolen BMWs (dubbed the Baader-Meinhof Wagen) is believed to have brought the then provincial and largely unheralded BMW brand to prominence. And when Baader was arrested in 1972, he had a bleeding gunshot wound in his thigh, he still managed to keep his Raybans on for the cameras. The high profile female voices within the organisations, like Ensslin and Meinhof, similarly signalled an aspiration towards gender equality that both increased their youth appeal, and, differentiated them from the older male-dominated West German establishment which was also tarnished by the country’s history under the Nazis.
I think you can see influence of the projected media image of the likes of Ensslin and Meinhof in Irish republican depictions of female activists in the early 1970s, much of it resonating with second wave feminism. Presumably this would equally apply to media imagery of women involved in loyalist organisations in the 1970s (check out the new Her Loyal Voice blog which might explore some of the history there). Bob White’s documentary on Cumann na mBan, that I posted about recently, suggests there is scope for more exploration of the interplay of second wave feminism and interaction between the IRA and Cumann na mBan (keep an eye out for Dieter Reinsich’s work in this area too, eg see here).
While there had been widespread student and radical protests in Europe in the late 1960s, only really Germany, Italy and Ireland had also saw the development or renewal of a range of militant groupings. The publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who was connected to both German and Italian radicals, provided some of the thinking and resourcing behind the development of the Italian groups. He was instrumental in setting up the Gruppi di Azione Partigiana (Partisan Action Groups) which was founded around the same time as other left radical groups like Lotta Continua and Gruppo XXII Ottobre (October 22nd Group) in 1969, soon to be followed by the more durable Brigata Rossa or ‘B-R’ (‘Red Brigade’, later ‘Red Brigades’ as it absorbed members of the other groups as they disbanded). Unlike the German groups, there were very few prominent women in the Italian organisations.
In Italy, right wing groups were also active. They carried out occasional bombings and shootings from 1969 onwards to which the left wing radical groups responded in kind. Media coverage meant that left wing protests around the world quickly reached a much wider audience (just as from October 1968 onwards, Irish events also began to feature on television news bulletins). The patterns of militant activity and scale of fatalities in Italy and Germany (and indeed Ireland) were not vastly dissimilar for much of 1969 and 1970. While there were points of contact between the various groups, there was little in the way of formal links. However, all were constantly aware of, and sympathetic to, events in other countries. As late as 1985, the third generation R.A.F. had a unit called ‘Kommando Patsy O’Hara’.
For that reason, Baumann and the others identified with events in Derry on Bloody Sunday. In West Berlin, a peaceful protest by fifteen hundred people on the Tuesday following Bloody Sunday had converged on the British Consulate-General. The protesters had demanded the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland. Trouble flared afterwards and eight windows of the BBC’s Berlin office were broken by stone throwers.
While that was going on the former Schwarzen Hilfe members in B2J, Verena Becker, Inge Viett and Harald Sommerfeld and another inexperienced member, Willi Räther, were scouting for British military targets to attack in the Gatow and Kladow districts along the western outskirts of West Berlin. Figuring most were too well protected, they happened upon a sign for the British Yacht Club on the Havel, just off Kladower Damm which was mainly used by British officers. They reconnoitred the club and decided it would make a suitable target. As it was out of season, it was deserted and so there was little risk of anything more than damage to property.
Up to then, B2J had mainly been involved in a handful of encounters with German police and bank robberies to raise funds. Baumann and Knoll had went to see other leading figures in a Schoneberg apartment including Heinz Brockmann, Ralf Reinders and ‘Ina’ Siepmann to see what could be done. It was agreed that Brockmann would manufacture explosive devices to be used in mobile attacks. Next day Baumann acquired the necessary materials and brought them to an apartment in Sybelstrasse where Brockman manufactured three bombs using fire extinguishers, water pipes, clock parts, gunpowder and fireworks. Baumann made explosives from weed killer and sugar. Meanwhile, Becker and the others reassembled in Eisenbahnstrasse and prepared a letter to leave at the British Yacht Club stating that the attack was in solidarity with the IRA and in revenge for the British Army’s actions in Derry.
The bombs were all set to detonate at 2.15 am on 2nd February.
The inexperienced Becker, Viett, Sommerfeld and Räther were to plant one bomb at the deserted British Yacht Club. They drove to Gatow by car where Viett stayed in the car with the lights on and engine running while Becker, Räther and Sommerfeld climbed the fence. Once inside, Becker kept watch as Sommerfeld and Räther carried the bomb around to the side of the clubhouse facing out onto the Havel. Räther placed the bomb on a chair and set the time for the ignition, delaying it until 2.30 am to allow them more time to get away. Having attached the cables so the bomb was now live, he covered it in a bag while Sommerfeld left the A3 sheet with their statement by a window of the building. Without waiting for the detonation, they headed for home.
The remote British Yacht Club was assumed to be a safe target. The other two bombs, on a public street, brought a much higher risk of passersby becoming casualties. Those two bombs were carried by the more experienced B2J members around Charlottenburg in Berlin. They drove around with the armed bombs looking for targets of opportunity. Brockman spotted a car with British plates in Theodor Heuss Platz, where he planted one of the bombs under it himself. Baumann and Knoll planted the second after finding a similar car.
At quarter past two in the morning, the two Charlotteburg bombs exploded. Even allowing for the slight delay, the Yacht Club bomb didn’t explode. At 8 am the next morning, a boat builder employed at club for twenty years, sixty-six year old Erwin Beelitz, found the bag covering the bomb on his morning inspection of the premises. He took it to his workshop where he put the contraption in a vice to open it up. The bomb exploded, blowing fingers off Beelitz’s right hand and sending fragments into his stomach and thigh. Three students visiting the club later that morning find him bleeding and dying.
Erwin Beelitz (Getty Images)
Shortly afterwards, B2J started officially using the name Bewegung 2 Juni on communications. By May 1973, Sommerfeld had been captured and was tried and sentenced for the Yacht Club bomb (various members were to face the courts by 1974). He received a sentence of four years and nine months for the bombing as the court accepted that the intention had been to damage property only and that it had been intended as a show of solidarity with the IRA.
You can read more about the German radicals in Peters Butz’s 2017 book, 1977: RAF gegen Bundesrepublik, Wolfgang Kraushaur’s 2012 book Verena Becker und der Verfassungsschutz and in contemporary news reports in Irish press and Der Spiegel. Richard Huffman has a blog and podcasts dedicated to the R.A.F. and related groups here.
And you can read an online edition of Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla here.
The omission of Erwin Beelitz from conventional lists of violent conflict deaths is part of a broader issue that is worth exploring further in terms of understanding the wider impact of violence. I’ve another post on it here, with a preliminary look at structural violence.
An earlier version of this post appeared in 2017.