Asylum for Kristina Berster

Title

Asylum for Kristina Berster

Subject

New Left

Description

On July 16, 1978, West German, Kristina Berster, and two American accomplices were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol officials in Vermont for illegally crossing into the United States from Canada. Initially, the FBI and other law enforcement claimed Berster was a terrorist on the lamb from Germany, where she was a member of the Baader-Meinhof gang, also known as the Red Army Faction.

Baader-Meinhof was a radical, left-wing organization established in 1970 that engaged in a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades, though their activity peaked in 1977. Stefan Aust, who wrote a book about the history of Red Army Faction, detailed the background and emergence of the group, “World War II was only twenty years earlier. Those in charge of the police, the schools, the government — they were the same people who'd been in charge under Nazism. The chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, had been a Nazi. People started discussing this only in the 60s. We were the first generation since the war, and we were asking our parents questions. Due to the Nazi past, everything bad was compared to the Third Reich. If you heard about police brutality, that was said to be just like the SS. The moment you see your own country as the continuation of a fascist state, you give yourself permission to do almost anything against it. You see your action as the resistance that your parents did not put up.” As Red Army Faction member, Gudrun Ennslin, is reported to have said after the death of one his comrades, “They'll kill us all. You know what kind of pigs we're up against. This is the Auschwitz generation. You can't argue with people who made Auschwitz. They have weapons and we haven't. We must arm ourselves!” Aust went on to explain the appeal of Baader-Meinhof to some West Germans, “The Baader-Meinhof Gang drew a measure of support that violent leftists in the United States, like the Weather Underground, never enjoyed. A poll at the time showed that a quarter of West Germans under forty felt sympathy for the gang and one-tenth said they would hide a gang member from the police. Prominent intellectuals spoke up for the gang's righteousness (as) Germany even into the 1970s was still a guilt-ridden society. When the gang started robbing banks, newscasts compared its members to Bonnie and Clyde. (Andreas) Baader, a charismatic action man indulged in the imagery, telling people that his favourite movies were Bonnie and Clyde, which had recently come out, and The Battle of Algiers. The pop poster of Che Guevara hung on his wall, (while) he paid a designer to make a Red Army Faction logo, a drawing of a machine gun against a red star.” Red Army Faction was organized into cells and practiced what Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella called the “urban guerrilla.” According to Marghella, an urban guerrilla, was “A person who fights the military dictatorship with weapons, using unconventional methods... The urban guerrilla follows a political goal, and only attacks the government, big businesses, and foreign imperialists.” In response, West German authorities initiated a growing clamp-down on left-wing activists and lawyers, as well as critics of the government, generally.

At the same time in the U.S., legislators and law enforcement were growing increasingly concerned about “terrorism” and looking for legal and social bases to tighten strictures on so-called “terrorists.” One point of concern was the northern border with Canada. In this context, many saw the Kristina Berster case as an opportunity for U.S. law enforcement in the post-1960s era to promote this new anti-terrorism agenda. At first, the FBI Press Officer claimed the arrest “marked the first time a member of the notorious urban gang has been caught trying to enter the country.” In Burlington, Vermont, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Jerome O’Neill, stated that Berster was one of the 34 most wanted persons in the world. These were explosive claims that were picked up and repeated by national press across the country, including the New York Times. Quickly, though, those grand assertions began to unravel. West German authorities corrected FBI statements, saying that Berster was not, in fact a member of the Baader-Meinhof gang, and that they may not even be interested in extraditing her, prompting a corrected statement by the FBI. Yet, the cat was out of the bag in the U.S. media and the retraction did not change the overall tenor of coverage in the case, with most media continuing to refer to Berster as a “terrorist.”

American journalist Greg Guma has written extensively about the Berster case. In an article titled, “How disinformation turned Kristina Berster into an ‘enemy of the state,’” he described the context of growing radicalism in Germany when Berster entered the university: 

“WHEN KRISTINA Berster, then 20, arrived in Heidelburg in late 1970, the student movement was well underway. The young in Germany were restless and angry, mostly about Vietnam. The rhetoric had turned revolutionary since the days of ‘Ban the Bomb!’ and the Berlin Wall. Student radicals numbered over 170,000, some of them turning gradually to Communism or Maoist ideology.
     
In a sense, German youth were emulating American dissent. The New Left in the US had reached a crisis point with the police riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the Days of Rage, which sparked the formation of the Weather Underground. German protest erupted with demonstrations in Berlin and the bombing of two empty department stores by Andreas Baader and Gudrin Ensslin.
     
The purpose of the bombings, said Baader, was ‘to light a beacon’ against the consumer society. As Ensslin explained, ‘We set fires in department stores so you will stop buying. The compulsion to buy terrorizes you.’ The analysis was superficial, but it struck at the core of German complacency in an era of intensive economic development.
     
With their accomplices, the couple was caught and convicted on arson charges, but they found support from one of Germany’s leading leftist journalists, Ulrike Meinhof.
     
When they were released in 1969, pending appeal of their cases. Baader and Ensslin went underground with help from Meinhof, and on September 29, 1970, the Red Army Faction (RAF) was officially born with the robbing of three West Berlin banks. Baader said the first problem of ‘the revolution’ was finding financial support.
     
By early 1971, West German police were turning to automatic weapons and brutal tactics at demonstrations. Anyone who looked like a nonconformist risked a spontaneous interrogation. New search, arrest and gun laws were passed; roadblocks were a common sight on the Autobahn. The excuse for the broad extension of police powers was a nationwide search for the Baader-Meinhof group, even though the political fugitives were responsible for only five out of 1,061 bank robberies committed during their heyday. The first suspect killed by police was a 20-year-old hairdresser named Petra Schelm.

Berster was interested in psychology and grew increasingly alarmed at what she viewed as the isolation, atomization and alienation of people in West German society, as well as the frightening new psychological tactics authorities were developing against political dissidents. Berster was deeply influenced by radical concepts of therapy articulated by people like Thomas Szasz, who wrote, “The parallel between political and moral fascism is close. Each offers a kind of protection. And upon those unwilling to heed peaceful persuasion, the values of the state will be imposed by force: in political fascism by the military and the police; in moral fascism by therapists, especially psychiatrists.” After Berster was implicated by an informant as a left-wing sympathizer, she was detained and imprisoned for six months. During that time, she saw first-hand the erosion of legal rights in the West German system, as her lawyer was targeted and sanctioned by the state.

When Baader and Meinhof were arrested in 1971, they were placed in what was called “wipe-out detention.” As Guma explained, “It was a world of total sterility: luminous white, with fluorescent lights always on and all windows covered. The cells were soundproofed and filled only with white noise. In the ‘Dead Wing’ there were no visitors except lawyers and relatives. Reading materials were censored and other prisoners were never seen nor heard. When Jean-Paul Sartre saw Baader after two years in the ‘Dead Wing,’ he said, ‘This is not torture like the Nazis. It is torture meant to bring on psychic disturbances.’
 
Berster called this form of solitary confinement ‘the most effective way to destroy personality irreversibly. Humans are social. When you cut that off, when people are not able to talk or relate to others, an internal destruction begins. You become catatonic; somatic problems begin.’”

As a result of her own experience and the treatment of members of the Red Army Faction, Berster became increasingly interested in and involved with the prisoner’s rights movement in her country through the Socialist Patients Collective. In 1972, West German political leaders passed repressive new legislation against radicals, heightening concern that Berster and others would not receive fair trials. At the same time, growing debate divided the New Left in West Germany over the necessity of armed struggle. Berster later told supporters in Vermont that she had “problems with violence… I can’t shoot someone. I could never do violence.” As the 1970s pressed on, Berster decided to flee West Germany, spending time in Yemen, obtaining an Iranian passport and then ending up in Montreal. At her trial, Berster explained why she had crossed over to the U.S. in Vermont, “When I was in Paris, I was told that to get into the States, all you had to do was walk through Vermont’s northern border… They gave me a plan, with a map they drew, to enter from Noyan, Quebec, to Vermont.” Berster hoped to receive asylum in the U.S.

The Berster case attracted the support of a group of New Left activists in Vermont, including Roz Payne, as well as famed radical lawyer, William Kunstler, who represented Berster and saw in her case an opportunity to press back against increasing legal attacks against leftist lawyers in Germany, as well as new forms of political repression in the U.S. “This case goes far beyond Kristina Berster,” Kunstler told the press. “I am very concerned with West Germany’s treatment of so-called terrorists and the so-called left wing lawyers who defend them.” Kunstler also expressed concern over the “panic” reaction in the U.S. over the “terrorist” label, which resulted in $500,000 bail for Berster, to date the largest amount ever set for a border charge. The Berster Defense Committee in Vermont conducted a regional survey to assess public perceptions of the case and mounted rallies in support of Berster.

In October of 1978, after the longest jury deliberation in Vermont history, Berster received a mixed verdict, convicted on a felony and misdemeanor charge related to her border crossing, but acquitted of the more serious conspiracy charge. Several jurors were clearly sympathetic to Berster’s political plight and expressed hope after the trial that she might still win asylum in the U.S. The judge sentenced her to 9 months in jail, all but two weeks of which she had already served. The prosecutor in the case continued to stoke public fears about Berster, revealing to the media that Berster had spent time in Yemin. Immediately, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service initiated deportation proceedings against Berster. Roz Payne worked as an investigator and paralegal for attorneys Bill Knsutler, Jesse Berman, Bill Kittel and Chris Davis on Berster’s immigration case. Ultimately, in 1979, a deal was brokered between U.S. and West German officials to drop the original charges against Berster and allow her to return home without a deportation order.

Reflecting on the case years later, Guma wrote:

“What to make of the Kristina Berster case? In one sense, it was a matter of human rights. Victimized by shifting international politics, a student activist whose only crime was crossing a border to seek asylum had spent almost two years in prison, in Germany and then the US.

But there was more to it than that. Berster’s case demonstrated how a campaign against terrorism can easily go off the rails, threatening anyone who actively tries to change the way society is run – from civil libertarians and prison reformers to anti-nuclear protesters and feminists. Across the country, despite claims that the days of COINTELPRO were over, reports were surfacing – harassment, covert agents provoking violence in nonviolent groups, wiretapping, political grand juries, and intrusive surveillance. As the 1970s wound down a chill was setting in, and terrorism was becoming an excuse for virtually any tactic the government found effective…
[Berster’s] US stay had revealed a few things — for example, that officials, working in and with intelligence agents, were ready to lie in court and sanction illegal surveillance, and that some media could be used to distribute rumors and falsehoods; The evidence remained circumstantial, but it also looked like Vermont had witnessed the manufacturing of a terrorist scare, an attempt to warp public perceptions for political gain. The FBI had lied, so had the prosecutor. Anyone who supported the defendant was targeted for surveillance. Then there was the simulated terrorist ‘siege.’

In essence, it looked like a concerted effort to influence public opinion, what would soon be labeled ‘perception management’ in a Defense Department manual. Basically, this tactic involves both conveying and denying information ‘to influence emotions, motives, and objective reasoning.’ The goal is to influence both enemies and friends, ultimately to provoke the behavior you want. ‘Perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psychological operations,’ according to DOD.

In the Reagan years this type of operation was euphemistically labeled ‘public diplomacy,’ which was officially expanded to include domestic disinformation during the Bush I administration. In those days it was mostly about stoking fear of communism, the Sandinistas, Qaddafi, and anyone else on Reagan’s hit list. Clinton modifications were outlined in Directive 68, which still showed no distinction between what could be done abroad and at home. When Bush II took office, the name was changed again, this time to ‘strategic influence.’


Creator

Kristina Berster Defense Committee

Source

Roz Payne

Publisher

Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Date

1978

Format

poster

Citation

Kristina Berster Defense Committee, “Asylum for Kristina Berster,” Roz Payne Sixties Archive, accessed April 14, 2021, https://rozsixties.unl.edu/items/show/73.

Output Formats