Show, Trial, and Error

  • Leith Passmore


ARAF lawyer wrote in the info that he would respond to a summons for prisoners to appear in a Berlin trial by demanding an end to isolation and an end to the “show trials.” 2 Berlin was a show trial, as was Zweibrücken before it and Frankfurt after it, just not in the sense intended by the lawyer. The trial in Stammheim, however, was the biggest show in town. The Stuttgart suburb of Stammheim has become synonymous with the RAF. It is shorthand for the debate over prison conditions, it will be forever linked with the deaths of the leading RAF figures, and from May 21, 1975, to April 28, 1977, it was the site of the most expensive trial in the history of the Federal Republic. This trial, in particular, provided a stage for both the West German judiciary and the RAF prisoners to communicate with their respective audiences beyond the courtroom. It offered the state the chance to perform due process and reframe the terrorist threat as mere criminality, while for Meinhof and the RAF it offered an opportunity to again repackage the group’s terrorism, this time in terms of human rights and international law. Having reshaped its message for the prison context via self-starvation, the group developed two main performative strategies for the courtroom: the constructions of the “political prisoner” and the “prisoner of war” (POW). Both sets of strategies must, however, be seen in the context of the numerous proceedings that came before Stammheim, during which both sides honed their tactics through a process of trial and error.


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© Leith Passmore 2011

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