Traces of Germany in Lebanon
Stranded in the Hamra District: RAF Terrorists at the ‘Strand’ Hotel in Beirut

„The Strand“ in al-Hamra
© Goethe-Institut Libanon

“My name is Mahler. As a lawyer, it is my legal opinion that West Berlin isn’t part of the Federal Republic, an independent political unit, and therefore, a simple West Berlin ID card is valid.”

What do these bizarre remarks by former RAF terrorist Horst Mahler have to do with a dark, run-down seven-storey building in the Hamra district with the word ‘Strand’ written on its facade in Latin and Arabic script?

There is nothing left to suggest that this building once contained a simple apartment hotel. And there’s even less to suggest the farcical events that transpired here and elsewhere on the night of 8 June 1970.

There are at least three different versions of these events, two of which only differ from each other in nuances. The two better-known versions are recounted here:

Looking back, former RAF sympathiser Peter Homann and, later on, journalist Stefan Aust gave an account of that day on which a group of French and German passengers arriving from East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport were literally ‘stranded’ against their will in Beirut and at the former Strand hotel in the Hamra district.

The predominantly German group consisting of Hans-Jürgen Bäcker, Manfred Grashof, Horst Mahler, Petra Schelm, French journalist Michèle Ray and the Fatah go-between Said Dudin had never planned to leave the transit area of Beirut Airport. After all, the group hadn’t travelled to the Middle East to experience Lebanon’s thousands of years of history. Their actual destination was a training camp operated by the Palestinians in Jordan, where they were to receive two months of basic military training.

But the connecting flight to Amman was cancelled because of fighting in the Jordanian capital, so the group led by Horst Mahler had to leave the transit area and pass through passport control. This set the scene for the cat-and-mouse game that ensued.

The problem was that three of the travellers had, with a certain lack of professionalism, failed to bring their passports. Since the officer at the immigration desk was unable to stamp a visa into their ID cards which they presented in lieu of passports, he called his supervisor, who promptly confiscated the passports and ID cards, locked them in a desk and confined the group to a separate room. After that, he finished work and headed home.

Taken by surprise by this development, Horst Mahler then came up with the bold idea of phoning the French embassy. Apparently he thought that the French also represented the interests of the German Democratic Republic in Lebanon. However, this was not the case. On the contrary, in 1965 the Federal Republic had broken off diplomatic relations with Beirut, but had posted liaison officers in the French embassy.  

Peter Homann later reported in the political weekly Der SPIEGEL that Mahler had spoken the above words over the telephone. As soon as he heard the name Horst Mahler, the duty officer immediately informed his colleagues, who had the passenger list checked to confirm exactly who it was who had entered the country. They immediately asked the Lebanese security forces to arrest the group.

However, this proved impossible because a unit of Palestinians freed the group and accommodated them for the night at the Strand hotel. The Palestinians also attempted to get hold of the passports. They went to the home of the person they assumed to be responsible for their confiscation, beat him up and demanded that he hand out the key to the desk. However, they had picked out the wrong man – he was only the duty officer’s deputy. So then they carried the desk out of the airport building and loaded it onto a truck.

The travel group didn’t get a good night’s sleep at the Strand hotel because a Lebanese militia group turned up in the middle of the night, took them back into custody and returned them from the Hamra district back to the airport. 

After that, the group were once again freed by the Palestinians, but this time they were immediately taken by car over a mountain pass to the Beqaa Valley and from there on to Damascus.

Some time later, they travelled on to the training camp in Jordan, where they were soon joined by another group led by Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof. Their journey had not been without its complications either. 

The brouhaha at Beirut Airport, which was also widely reported in the West German press, had unfortunate consequences for Horst Mahler: shortly after they were reunited, Andreas Baader severely berated him in front of the entire group. This was a significant blow to Mahler’s authority.

 

References:

  • Aust, Stefan: Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, Hamburg 1985; referenced here: pp. 103-106
  • Homann, Peter: Little Berija – so nannten wir Horst Mahler (We Called Horst Mahler ‘Little Beria’). Former sympathiser Peter Homann reports on the training of members of the Baader-Meinhof gang at an Arab guerrilla camp, in: Der SPIEGEL, No. 44/1972, 23/10/1972, pp. 93-96
  • Only one week after these events transpired, Der SPIEGEL printed an account, which differed significantly with regard to the details and background, entitled: Affären. Baader / Meinhof. Bis irgendwohin (Affairs. Baader / Meinhof. Heading Somewhere or Other), in: Der SPIEGEL, No. 25/1970, 15/06/1970, pp. 71-75