How to Survive the Underground

From 1970 until his arrest in 1972, MANFRED GRASHOF’s face was on a wanted poster. He spent 15 years in jail for the murder of a police officer. Today he lives in Berlin and works in a theatre as a technician.

Grashof (left) during his arrest in 1972.

Grashof (left) during his arrest in 1972.

MORITZ VON USLAR: Now, Mr. Grashof, before we get started—you speak excellent Berliner dialect.

MANFRED GRASHOF: Ah, you noticed? Actually I was born in Kiel. But Berlin has its own sound. It’s very contagious.

From early 1970 until you were arrested in March of ’72, you went underground and were an active member of the RAF. Underground, specifically, what is that like? How did everyday underground life work?

These are all questions of memory and suppression. We are talking about prehistoric times after all.

When did you first hear the word Underground?

Long before the RAF it had already become a practical reality for me long before it actually entered my consciousness. Being a deserter form the German Army, I was dependent on people that were anti, like anti-state. I had to secure my existence, in an offensive manner not by begging and pleading, but by forging ahead. We won’t let ourselves be trapped like flies and deported to West Germany.

“Conspirare, Latin: breathe together. To be in on something together.”

What event marked the start of your membership in the group?

Membership, I’m not sure. It isn’t quite like joining the taxpayer’s association. In late ’69 I was one of a few that had jail experience. I had also had a gun in my hands and had a look behind the scenes of a tightly run organization that was both violating people as well as miseducating them. In the German Army you were taught what marvelous things tanks are. I met Baader and Ensslin, the Frankfurt department store arsons, through my contacts to the Republican Club and let’s put it this way; to me it was quite obvious that there would be plenty of people offering them places to sleep.

Was there ever a manual for practical survival in the underground, a handbook or a tract?

Baader definitely made a few landmark discoveries concerning that. For instance, the corkscrew, with which you can both jimmy locks and ignitions in seconds, has become the standard tool for car thieves. In ’69 there were illegal copies of Carlos Marighela’s brochures regarding his Urban Guerilla concept in circulation: motorization, acquiring weapons, paper, boxes of money, apartments. Ultimately, the whole conspiratory logistics were summarized there by key words. Let’s not forget Robin Hood-type sympathy operations that had mass impact. Emptying out a supermarket with five trucks, or imaginatively kidnapping a general director and presenting him with his pants down. That, in regard to Tupamaros and South American theory.

“If things get hot you use abbreviations. “Grandma is dead” then means that the apartment is hot.”

“Conspiratory” Now that’s another catch phrase, that even has foreign etymology. What does that actually mean?

Conspirare, Latin: breathe together. To be in on something together. You must remember that we really didn’t have a clue “Urban Guerilla”, excuse me, what? But there was this certain feeling something was about to happen. The Vietnam War was happening… Germany was totally uncritical. One segment of the extra-parliamentary opposition had become derailed in political sects, like the KPDLM, you know, the Chinese fraction. The others went hippie, did drugs and disappeared in country communes. We said, we weren’t going to let them kick our heads in. They’re going as far as murder Benno Ohnesorg, the shots fired at Rudi Dutschke we decided to arm ourselves as well.

The first step towards the underground.

What is private is political and what is political is private. This saying was consequently implemented in our daily reality. Disguise and deceive, deceive and disguise, nothing else. Whoever made a suggestion would then immediately demonstrate it. Under no circumstances let the others do it. So off you go to rent an apartment in a wig and pepita cap. Day to day life consisted of endless walking, looking, checking things out, always thinking up new things, acting and covering traces. One difficulty paying rent. Of course we didn’t steal credit cards, we stole cash. So that meant finding and hiring either first or second-degree sympathizers that had a bank account. What ever you did, it had to be watertight.

Further steps.

Now, we didn’t invent the term underground. It all depends on a few small tricks. You agree on code names. Avoid telephones. If things get hot you use abbreviations. “Grandma is dead” then means that the apartment is hot. You have to make sure not to run into any friends from the old days. You walked around with a type of circumvision, all antennae set to receive, and you changed streets quickly. “So, what are you doing now…?”. That question is death! Not happening! One day you look back and you have gotten used to your double life and your new identity.

When was day and when night in the underground?

During both day and night you were wallpaper. That means, be unobtrusive, a little gray mouse. That started in the hall of your apartment that you did up to look as conventional as possible, while in back you had no more than a mattress… maybe also a little workshop to forge papers. There was always the possibility that the superintendent would speak to you or that your neighbor might be looking to chat, or a pipe could burst.
Reconstruct, preconstruct, you were constantly in a state of alarm, noticing all details, and then there was always the gun that was tucked into your trousers. I’m not sure if it is possible to do that for more than two years.

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One always imagines an illegal apartment to be like a student commune.

No, living in pairs was always a good solution. One had to think of one’s requirements. It wasn’t possible to go out at night and pick up girls.

Did the formula the more apartments the more safety hold true?

At the peak there weren’t more than eight or ten apartments in Berlin. The formula that counted was the Urban Guerilla strategy of moving like a fish in water. Conversely the attacks of the counter Urban Guerillas were to fall into the water.

Did you try to come up with any alternatives to robbing banks?

Heavens, we started slowly, we weren’t dying to rob banks. We also weren’t trigger happy. Our first money-collecting scheme still was legal, but also quite clever. We took advantage of low interest Berlin Loans. Back then, if a normal worker, preferably with wife and child, moved from West Germany to Berlin, he only had to show his rental agreement and would get 5000 Marks. So we looked through all of our legal women to see who might come into question for marriage.

Were you able to get at cars without corkscrews or money?

At the beginning we just sent three men to the Ruhrgebiet. They rented cars, drove them over and misappropriated them. That just led to us shooting up every police officer that controlled us. We were armed which due to a few more or less questionable reasons really wasn’t a big deal at the time. But we could identify ourselves at all times. Car papers – it was all forged. Your identity card could of course under no circumstances be reported as being stolen.

Does one simply forge a driver’s license?

I was a bit graphically inclined because of my father. You just had to fiddle your way into it.

“Let’s put it this way. After each bank robbery you had to start thinking about the next one.”

Fiddle your way into what?

It was trial and error. All I can say is offset printing. No stamps. Lightsensitive aluminum foil, two glass plates and a 2000-watt lamp.

Were there ever any doubts in regard to the necessary practical finesse?

Man, did we ever worry! There could be shots fired. There could be dead and injured. Not to mention jail. My dear people, imagine that! Quite a few people decided it wasn’t for them in the early stages.

What did one month in the underground cost?

Let’s put it this way. After each bank robbery you had to start thinking about the next one.

Shopping?

Of course, you can’t go without. We bought cigarettes by the carton.

Did you register your televisions and radios?

Good question! No, I don’t think so.

Where there ever fights about such ridiculous questions?

Of course there were quite a few shouting matches. Of course there were people that didn’t have their heads together or wouldn’t admit their fears or came up with nonsense during important discussions, causing people like Baader or myself to tell them to shut up and not to bother us. Get to the point. What did the black panthers say? Either you are part of the solution or you are part of the problem. This horrible either or. No blathering. Things became terribly concrete. The best example: Someone rushes into the conspiratory apartment, that has the name John Smith on the buzzer, and says that he thinks the cops are downstairs. This is totally off. This is the moment that you lose it. A. Why on earth has this idiot then even come into the apartment in the first place? B. What does he mean by, he thinks? Has he checked it or not? In the underground not being sure is not done.

How did you keep in touch with each other?

We drove by and used knocking codes. In emergencies, the telephone. In really difficult situations we sent first-degree sympathizers as couriers.

Excuse me, but it really doesn’t sound as if one could have survived life with you.

We accepted resignations. This old legend that we didn’t accept peaceful resignations is impossible to kill. It was not our group’s main goal to expand. We weren’t aiming to go higher, faster and farther – not at all. We thought of ourselves as the core cell, in elitist terms as the nucleus and not the tip of a pyramid. We wanted to inspire people to act like us.

Did you ever consider quitting?

In two years I didn’t have one cold. Ninety-nine percent of daily life in the underground consists of checking things and running around, checking further, running around and doing things. But in actuality your real goals are different: You want to put a spanner in the works of the state.

Doesn’t one become paranoid?

You stick with the group. We had a mission.

Hunted by the state, not loved by the left – doesn’t this set of circumstances lead to ruin?

Yes.

 Was there a way to take time out?

You could lie down on a green field. We would say “I know a nice deserted beach on the Baltic. Let’s go there and practice shooting.”

Ever go to the movies or a pop-concert?

There were times when the whole group would go to a big cinema on the Ku’damm and see Peter Pan.

By MORITZ VON USLAR

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