“If you want to understand the RAF [Red Army Faction], you have to read Moby Dick”, Stefan Aust said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that was published in 2007. Herman Melville’s great American novel was an important text for the West German terrorist group, about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz. The members of the group seemed to have imagined themselves as the crew of the Pequod, the whaling ship in the novel – though it is not clear how many of them had actually read it apart from Gudrun Ensslin, who had studied German literature. It was Ensslin who came up with the idea of giving them codenames taken from characters in the novel, which they used in correspondence with each other while they were in prison in the early 1970s. Paraphrasing Andreas Baader, one might say they saw whaling and shooting as the same thing. But what exactly does reading Moby-Dick actually tell us about the RAF?
The basic idea behind the identification of the RAF with the crew of the Pequod is clever. The whaling ship in Melville’s novel is sometimes understood as a metaphor for the American republic (see Andrew Delbanco’s introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel on this). But the RAF instead thought of the white whale as the West German state – which they wanted to destroy. Ishmael, the narrator, refers to the whale as the Leviathan, the biblical sea monster that Thomas Hobbes had also in turn famously used as a metaphor for the state (or “Commonwealth”) in his famous book of the same name. Aust points out in the interview that Melville includes the opening sentence of Hobbes’s Leviathan in the “Extracts” at the beginning of the novel: “By art is created that great Leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State—(in Latin, Civitas) which is but an artificial man.”
In the interview, Aust focuses on what the codenames tell us about the individual members of the group and the dynamic between them. Unsurprisingly, Baader, the undisputed leader of the group, was Ahab, the captain of the Pequod. Ensslin herself was Fleece, the (black) cook. Holger Meins was Starbuck, the chief mate. (This is perhaps the most well-known of the codenames, in part because of the documentary about Meins, who was a film student before joining the RAF and died from a hunger strike while in prison in 1975, made by the German filmmaker Gerd Conradt and released in 2002.) Gerhard Müller was Queequeg, the harpooneer from a fictional Polynesian island whom Ishmael befriends at the beginning of the novel. Jan-Carl Raspe was the (unnamed) ship carpenter who, among other things, makes Ahab’s prosthetic leg from whalebone. Horst Mahler was Bildad, one of the ship’s Quaker owners.
Aust suggests the characters in the book neatly correspond to the personalities of the various members of the group and their roles. Some are clear – Raspe, for example, was actually the group’s handyman. But others are more puzzling. It is odd that Ensslin imagined herself as such a marginal character as Fleece, which downplays her role within the group. Conversely, making Meins Starbuck, the second in command of the Pequod, suggests he was a more powerful figure within the RAF than he really was. Aust focuses on how Starbuck ultimately submits to Ahab’s will. But Starbuck is the only member of the crew of the Pequod to resist Ahab and in one famous scene even challenges him in front of the crew – whereas Meins did nothing like this. (In that respect, it would have made more sense for Ulrike Meinhof – who apparently wasn’t given a nickname from Moby-Dick at all – to have been Starbuck.)
Most interesting of all, though, is the comparison of Baader to Ahab. In the interview Aust says Ensslin was “an excellent psychologist” and cites a letter that she wrote to Meinhof in which she defends Baader by quoting the following passage from Moby Dick:
Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.
The suggestion appears to be that Ensslin saw some kind of similarity between the psyche of Baader and that of Ahab. (Aust says the passage refers to Ahab. In fact, it comes early in the book before Ahab has even been introduced, though it can be seen as anticipating him.)
However, Aust seems to me to stop short of thinking through the implications of this. After all, it is clear that Ahab is mad. He is a monomaniac who is projecting his anger onto the white whale, as the following passage in chapter 41 describes:
That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; – Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred White Whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
Is this really how Ensslin saw Baader? If so, it seems to me to change our understanding of her and the RAF somewhat. The whole idea of the RAF as the crew of the Pequod – a ship on a crazy and ultimately doomed mission – suggests more self-awareness on the part of the group, or at least Ensslin, than it otherwise seems that they, or she, had. Even as their actions became more brutally violent in the late 1970s, the RAF insisted to the outside world that their struggle was a political one and they were political prisoners. They imagined the Federal Republic was a fascist state and they were the “resistance”. In other words, they seemed to remain convinced that they were fighting – and killing – for justice. But did they at some level realize that they were really just seeking revenge, like Ahab in Moby-Dick? Did they realize their struggle was futile and even insane?