Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Neverending German Autumn

The day before yesterday it made moderate headlines that one Jürgen Vietor is handing back his "Federal Cross of Merit", the Bundesverdienstkreuz.

Who is Jürgen Vietor and for what did he receive the Bundesverdienstkreuz?

Let me go farther back first, to October 13, 1977. That day, flight LH 181, the Lufthansa Boeing 737-200 "Landshut" with 91 people on board, several children and five crew members among them, was hijacked by Palestinian Arab terrorists on a trip from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt/Main, an event that marked a new level of terrorist brutality and government response.

The hijacking was the means to the end of freeing eleven Baader-Meinhof/Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) terrorists from prison. Crew and passengers had to fly several sectors to various airports in the Mediterranean and the Middle East under threat of death by guns or explosives. Because Yemeni authorities had blocked Aden airport, captain and first officer, facing the fact of being almost out of fuel, managed to land, in a maneuvre of unique aeronautical mastership, the 30 meter long jet safely on a sand strip nearby. At Aden it was, that Captain Jürgen Schumann was forced to kneel down in the aisle, in front of his passengers and the crew, and executed. After the cold-blooded murder of his captain, the first officer had to fly the 737, which had just undergone a gruelling emergency landing, solo to land safely at Mogadishu, Somalia, an airport, that had before, literally and metaphorically, not been on his, a Boeing 737 pilot's, map. Both men had a military background, Captain Schumann was a former Starfighter pilot, his first officer a former navy pilot. At Mogadishu airport, passengers and crew were forced to undergo an ordeal of almost twenty more hours before an elite unit of German federal police, the GSG 9, finally and successfully raided the plane, killing three of the four terrorists and only hurting one of the hostages. The heads of the Baader-Meinhof gang at Stammheim prison commited suicide only hours later, Hanns Martin Schleyer, president of the German employers' association who had been held hostage by the RAF for the same purpose, was found the next day. He, too, had been mudered -- executed.

Lately, more than thirty years after the hijacking of the "Landshut", it transpired that Christian Klar, a leading member of the "second generation" RAF, will be set free early next year after spending 26 years in prison. Klar, 56, has shown no remorse whatsoever for the nine murders and 11 attempted murders for which he was convicted. In 1985, he was sentenced to five terms of life imprisonment and has served the minimum 26 years required by German law. Judges at Stuttgart court declared that he no longer "posed a threat to society", an argument that was used to legally underpin the release of other former Baader-Meinhof gang members before.

Relatives of the victims said they were shocked and dismayed by the court's decision. Joachim Hermann, the Bavarian state's justice minister, pointed out that Klar had refused to identify those who carried out the gang's murders. Hermann described the judges' decision as an "incomprehensible abuse of justice ... Christian Klar deserves no sympathy so long as he continues to show none for his victims and their families." Not many share his views.

Among those who made their opposition to the court decision publicly known, was the then first officer of the "Landshut", Jürgen Vietor, who had been awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz for his bravery during the hijacking. "Setting Klar free is an insult to all of the RAF's victims," he wrote in a letter to German head of state, President Horst Köhler.

The Landshut in Rome. Italy refused to comply with German wishes and let the aircraft take off.

The odyssey of the Landshut

On October 12, 2007, the Frankfurter Rundschau published a remarkable interview performed by Mark Obert with Jürgen Vietor, which I luckily happened to save, as it is now offline. I translate a few excerpts here.

Are you frequently asked whether you never made the attempt to overpower Mahmud [the leader of the terrorists]


Do you consider it a reproach?

No, I always tell precisely what happend aboard. One has to understand: We couldn't risk to antagonize Mahmud. There were 86 passengers we had to bring home safely. Our four hijackers defined themselves as freedom fighters, they weren't suicide assassinators like those on September 11. Our hijackers had two goals: The freeing of eleven prisoned terrorists, including those in Stammheim [i.e. the Baader-Meinhof gang members]. And they wanted to survive -- like we did. Based on this common ground we had to cooperate.

And to cope with the fear of the hijackers?

That too. Mahmud's fear played a decisive role at one point. Before we touched down at Aden ... something happened , which explains Mahmuds later atrocious behaviour. He wasn't able to fasten his seatbelt. He sat there like paralyzed because he was obviously scared to death. Therefore Jürgen [Captain Schumann] and I had to fasten his seatbelt. [Vietor explains earlier in the interview that they had to do that because a dead Mahmud bulleting through the cockpit in case of an emergency would have endangered the entire aircraft.] After touchdown, Yemeni military came to the aircraft straight away and talked to Mahmud, who was still upset. Mahmud then told us: "They are adamant to force us to depart. They have issued an ultimatum." Imagine the humiliation for Mahmud: First the thing about the seatbelt and now the rejection by those he had considered his friends. South Yemen was at that time a training center for the PLO. [Notabene that the Baader-Meinhof terrorists received training at PLO camps, thus reviving a long-standing tradition of cooperation between Arabs and Germans.]

Did you consider Mahmud's defeat as dangerous for yourself right from the start?

Mahmud had suffered a loss of face. I understood that he was bound to compensate it sooner or later...


At that point you have been for two days in the hands of the hijackers already. Did you have a clear picture of Mahmud and the others?

Something like a profile? No. But that they, too, were highly under stress was obvious from the first moment: all the darting around, the shouting and the gun-waving. The first thing Mahmud did was to sport Jürgen Schumann's captain's cap. That's what he wanted to be, Captain Mahmud. After that, one had to assume that he was a psychopath.

Did you anticipate that Mahmud would kill Schumann?

I had to, because Mahmud had in the meantime informed the passengers as well that he was going to hold a revolution tribunal... In Dubai he had selected passengers for execution. Stupefying. Luckily, he didn't go through with it. But then he became more mistrustful and irritated by the minute because he didn't know what Schumann [who had left the aircraft under the pretense of inspecting the undercarriage which might have suffered through the landing on the sand strip, but, so it became known later, had gone to the airport building to plead for the people in the "Landshut"] was up to. That was an additional loss of authority on top of the other humiliation. I had a very bad feeling, but what could I do?

Does the question haunt you?

It is a non-starter, really. I don't know for sure what Jürgen Schumann would have done in my place, but I think he'd done the same. It was the sensible thing to do.

Feelings of guilt can exist in spite of rational decisions.

His death makes me sad.

The hijackers had thrown his dead body out of the aircraft the next day at Mogadishu.

That wasn't quite so. In fact, they've let him down the rear emergency chute.

Is this difference important for you?

It is a little bit less undignified.

Did you know Schumann well?

He was a young pilot, I was young. [Schumann was 37, Vietor 35.] We had first met before takeoff at Mallorca. And during the hijacking there was no opportunity to talk about private matters.

Do you sometimes think of what Jürgen Schumann might have thought on his way back to the plane?

I thought of it a lot, but without result. Now, after the statement of that General [Sheikh Ahmed Mansur, head of the unit that had surrounded the "Landshut" at Aden airport] I see that he must have known what was waiting for him. And so it happened. Exactly between Economy and First Class before everybody's eyes he had to kneel and Mahmud asked him: "Are you guilty or not guilty?" And Schumann said: "I tried to…" Then Mahmud again: "Are you guilty or not guilty". And again Schumann tried to explain what happened, but Mahmud didn't want to know it at all. He murdered the captain to appear as the resolute leader.

Herr Vietor, is it permissable to think that your chance of survival increased because of Schumann's death because now you'd become indispensable for Mahmud?

One can think that. One can ask as well the basic question why Mahmud murdered the captain and not the first officer.

He almost murdered you as well.

Before Schumann died, I was going to be shot dead twice. First, because I wore a Junghans watch with a "J" on the face and a company logo that looks a bit like the Star of David. Therefore Mahmud thought I was a Jew. The second time, because I was caught calling the Baader-Meinhof group, whom Mahmud intended to free, terrorists instead of freedom fighters. Then there were all the denied clearences to land, the emergency landing in Aden. Five days long it was about nothing but to survive the next hour, not to make any mistake, to keep an eye on the technology... Captain Schumann had just been shot dead when the ancillary unit went out. If one doesn't pinch off the battery pronto, one needs a new one. I didn't want to risk that. Therefore I went to the cockpit as fast as possible and had to step over Schumann's dead body, very carefully, over his legs, his arms, and over his head. Gosh, I couldn't even mourn -- the more as it was me who had to fly the aircraft now. Because I had no idea of the condition of the plane, I had at least to try and to delay the takeoff until daylight to have a better chance for an emergency landing in case of technical problems. I thought feverish how to play for time. First I asked ... for manual refuelling... then for weather charts, which won me ten more minutes. In the end, I had to take off in the middle of the night. Believe me, to fly with an aircraft that had just gone through such an emergency landing was risky enough and then Mahmud topped it all by telling me that we were flying to Mogadishu. Mogadishu? I had no idea, where that was, I didn't even know where Somalia was. As a first officer on a 737, the farest I had ever gotten was Cairo. Lucky for us, on our maps, which only showed the 737-routes, the southernmost spot was just Mogadischu, two millimeter away from the bottom margin.

How was Mahmud after his act of violence?

Very focused. I needed a first officer. And finally he was where he wanted to be all the time, in the pilot's seat, with Jürgen Schumann's cap on his head.

How did you react to him?

We all behaved just right without thinking much about a strategy. We were cooperative without sucking up to the hijackers just as every instructional film recommends.


Did it help that you had to concentrate on the technology?

Very. Being ruthlessly exposed to those people was the most difficult thing I had to suffer because I like to be in control. But at least I had something to do whereas the passengers were confined to their seats, belts fastened, without information. They weren't even allowed to speak. And because the sunshades had to be down all the time they didn't even know where we were. Sometimes they were allowed to use the lavatory, that was all. That was much worse than what I experienced -- I believe.


What do you think [of the fact that the 20th- and 25th anniversaries of the "Landshut" hijacking went almost unnoticed, different from the 30th]?

Maybe the media are so eager because most of the witnesses will be dead in a couple of years. To think of how old the then chancellor [Helmut Schmidt] is now. Not to forget the discussion about the petitions for clemency of Mohnhaupt und Klar [Brigitte Mohnhaupt and Christian Klar were among the masterminds of the "second generation" of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) and the crimes commited during the "German Autumn". The were detained, trialled and sentenced in the Eighties, Mohnhaupt to five terms of life in prison and additional 15 years. After the minimum term of 24 years, she was set free in March 2007 on parole. Klar was sentenced to six terms of life in prison and additional 15 years. 1992 he got an additional life sentence in a different trial.] ... This discussion has irritated me very much.


... When the consequences of terrorism are discussed, it's mostly about the consequences for the state. And now the state is supposed to show mercy because state and society have overcome terrorism. That may be, but have the bereaved overcome it? If somebody is able to show mercy it's the bereaved. I think that Klar and Mohnhaupt deserve more than just those 26 years. They ought to leave prison only in a coffin.

The discussion about pardon [for the Baader-Meinhof terrorists] has offended you.

Very much so. In spite of the fact that my suffering was limited. But I don't even want to begin to imagine how Jürgen Schumann's widow feels, or the widows of Schleyer und Buback [Siegfried Buback, German chief federal prosecutor from 1974-1977, his driver and a security officer, can be considered the first victims of the "German Autumn". They were murdered in a drive-by shooting on April 7, 1977.], or the children of the security officers. I don't intend to mention all the names here, there are so many who were murdered in cold blood. Okay, there may be good reasons to ask for mercy, but then the perpetrator ought to be deserving of it. Does Mohnhaupt? I don't know. But Klar, who is still adamant that the fight insn't over yet? How can he ask a state for mercy he is fighting? That is cowardice. Alright, the president has denied Klar that [in 2007, Christian Klar's mercy petition was rejected], but I fear that Klar will be released sooner or later.

What does a life sentence for Klar mean to you?

Satisfaction? It would go together with my sence of justice. That in any case. I will tell you something: Three of our four hijackers were killed by the GSG 9, and the only survivor, Andrawes, is suffering for life. I am glad for that.

She was shot during the raid and can't walk properly anymore…

… and is in pain. Yes.

Do you wish she were suffering from a bad conscience as well?

How can one determine anything like that? It's not measurable anyway.

[Notabene that Jürgen Vietor's witness account at Souhaila Andrawe's court trial exonerated her in many details because he chose to tell the facts instead of taking revenge.]


Did you ever have nightmares?



Never been scared again?


Did you assess passengers henceforth? Who looks suspicious? Who is acting oddly?


But you surely forewent the "Landshut", didn't you?

I'll tell you something now that is hardly believable. When a colleague asked me years later whether I've ever flown the "Landshut" again, I said that I didn't know.

What? Tourists have nicked pukebags from the "Landshut" and you didn't care whether you had to enter that plane or not?

Wait, it gets even more remarkable: I looked up my old flight schedules. My first scheduled flight after the hijacking was with the "Landshut". Of 80 possible 737-jets the "Landshut". I have proof of that.


The last hours on October 17 and 18.

Yes, things were coming to a head now. Day five, Mahmud was at the end of his tether. He submitted his last ultimatum. At 15:00 at the latest, the Baader-Meinhof group and the other terrorists were to arrive at Mogadishu or he'd blow us all up. Our last information was that the federal government wasn't going to give in. So they tied our hands behind our backs with the women's nylons, shoved us into seats and fastened the seatbelts. Even the children's seatbelts were fastened. Then they uncorked the duty-free spirit... and emptied the bottles on top of us. "So that you will burn better." Ah well... In the end, they applied plastic explosives everywhere. I had been in the military and saw at once that it looked like the real thing. And the detonators were definitely genuine: brass sheathing. When I looked at the clock it was ten to three.

May I ask a fallacious question?

Whether we didn't fight even then, right?

Is that the question you are asking yourself?

It has been asked before many times. I have always admitted that we let ourselves drive like lambs to the slaughter. But who has never felt a gun at his neck ought to judge very carefully.

What I really wanted to ask is whether it is true that in the face of death one seed a fast-motion playback of one's life.

That is a myth. I saw nothing at all anymore, only the hands of the clock. Now you have ten minutes more to live, now nine, when suddenly, five minutes before time, excited radio voices could be heard from the cockpit. Mahmud came running and asked me how long it would take a Boeing 707 from Frankfurt to Mogadishu. I started to do the numbers. Adrenaline works miracles. Imagine, I hadn't slept even a minute for several days. So I figured out: we are close to the equator, Frankfurt lies 50 degrees north of us, roughly 3000 miles, a bit of slope distance as well: roughly seven or eight hours. That was good because it was exactly the time they had told Mahmud via the radio. Then he cried joyfully: "They'll exchange! They'll exchange!" What a relief.


Then, when it was dark, the plane was raided. Your second birth.

One can put it like that.

The mission of the antiterror unit GSG 9 was triumphal.

Yes, brilliant.

Was it worth the risk? Just to not having to release eleven imprisoned terrorists?

I never gave it a thought.

You never gave it a thought? The state could have given in and set you free without such a risk.

That is a touchy point. Let me put it like that: Should somebody ask me whether I thought while we were in that situation that the state ought not to budge and I'd reply with yes, I'd lie. We have beseeched the chancellor to exchange, we begged over the radio. Life is important. Who wants to victimize himself. But had I been in front of a TV set I, too, would have said that the state must not budge.


So you understand [Chancellor Helmut Schmidt]?

His moral dilemma, yes. Guilt and liability are hard to escape. At that time I have simply begged for my life, as Mr. Schleyer did.

The chancellor considered himself to be in a sort of war against terrorism and put himself, together with his crisis squad, almost all of them former Wehrmacht members, in a sort of combat situation.

But it was a war the terrorists waged against the state. That a politician taps into his experience as a soldier I can, as a soldier, understand.

What do you think if hostages are taken in Iraq or Afghanistan. To pay or not to pay?

What is the state supposed to do? To budge? How big is the danger to produce copycat crimes and thus even more victims in the long run? Exactly that is the question to which nobody has an answer. I am not presumptious enough to consider my opinion important just because of my experience as a victim.


I could have died through an officer's bullet. Did this thought occur to you?

The government had even taken into account that some of us hostages would die ... It is bordering on a miracle that no hostage and no GSG 9-officer died.

It must have been an incredible ruckus.

The banging away seemed endless and if the GSG 9-boys hadn't hollered all the time we hadn't even known that there were Germans attacking. "Where are you pigs?" "Here, you pigs!"

They hollered that?

Believe it or not. And it felt good to hear it.


Did you ever talk about that to the GSG-9-commander, Ulrich Wegener, the hero of Mogadishu?

I met him recently for the first time since 30 years. It was very helpful because he was able to explain some details previously unknown to me. For example that at the latters they got at Mogadishu rungs were missing.

Not a personal word?

Only technical stuff. Nothing deep.

What do you consider deep?

Something like questions of innocence and guilt, like those we just discussed. That is deep. In the sense of profound.

You close yourself off, in a psychological sense?

I don't have any secrets.


And still, many think you are a hero.

I don't. Heroes look out for danger. I was exposed to it. And even that by mere chance. On October 13, the day we took off from Mallorca, I was on standby when the first officer fell sick and I stood in for him.

Good God, how does one ever say "thank you" for anything like that?

He never said "thank you". I am still waiting for my bottle of bubbly. But seriously, I don't even know the colleague's name. I have never tried to find it out.

Are you sometimes amazed at yourself?

A little bit. And at this point I remember a peculiar thing. When I was with Mahmud in the cockpit, I heard scratching noises and suddenly turned around and saw an empty seat in front of the emergency exit. I thought I go and sit down there. Later I learned that the GSG 9 was watching us with night sights and hoped that I would move away from Mahmud. I don't believe in telepathy but that is truly amazing, isn't it?

Do you believe in luck? In fate? Or is everything mere chance.

We were damned lucky.

There had been children on board.

Yes, it could all have been much more sad than it was anyway.

Have you ever met Jürgen Schumann's widow?

No, never. There isn't anything about her in the media. She must be very bitter.

Mr. Vietor, you are retired. What are you doing now?

My partner and I do a lot of travelling with the camper.

You are divorced?

Yes, and believe me, that really hurt me. I was vitually depressive. It had nothing to do with the hijacking.


Sure. I am fine now. I just regret that I can not live in Canada.

Nice and far away.

In Vancouver, wonderful city. But the Canadians don't want a pensioner.
So far Jürgen Vietor's account. What happened to the other participants in the drama?

Jürgen Vietor and flight attendant Gabriele Dillmann 1977

Jürgen Vietor and Gabriele von Lutzau 2007

The "Landshut" served the Deutsche Lufthansa until 1985 and then went on an odyssey serving many owners around the globe. Until January 2008 she flew for TAF Linhas Aereas under the registration number PT-MTB in Brasil. Since January 2008, after 38 years and about 30.000 trips, she is now placed as a monument of herself in a remote spot of Fortaleza airport. The name "Landshut" is still in use by the Lufthansa. Currently, an Airbus A330 is thus named.

The Bavarian town of Landshut named a street after Jürgen Schumann and the Lufthansa the building of their flight training school in Bremen. Different from his colleague Vietor, Schumann can not hand back the Bundesverdienstkreuz that had been awarded to him posthumously.

Monika Schumann is still, so it can be safely assumed, serving her life sentence. Waltrude Schleyer's ended when she died on March 21, 2008 at the age of 92, 31 years after the RAF had murdered her husband.

From October 1964 until June 1965, Leutnant Jürgen Schumann received training at Luke AFB under Colonel James Jabarra. Memorial page here (in German).

Christian Klar, apart from Birgit Hogefeld the last RAF member still in prison, will be released by "the heirs of Freisler, Inc." early in 2009. He already enjoys unsupervised furloughs and a job is waiting for him.

Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the man whose strength, authority and brains saw Germany safely through the most difficult time since WWII, was, at the age of 89, recently publicly reproved because his smoking habit was setting a bad example for society, to show that we have got our priorities right.

The Federal Republic of Germany, who was adamant in 1977 never to talk to terrorists again, pledged at a donor conference on December 19, 2007 twenty million Euro for the Palestinians, payable until 2010.

Cross-posted at Roncesvalles.


Snouck said...

This post was breathtaking!

Bedanke mich höfflichst!


The_Editrix said...

:-) Dankeschön!

You are welcome!

Anonymous said...

I couldn't see the point in the last phrase:

"The Federal Republic of Germany, who was adamant in 1977 never to talk to terrorists again, pledged at a donor conference on December 19, 2007 twenty million Euro for the Palestinians"

Palestinins are terrorists?