“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean that they are not out to get you!”
This remark was probably made by Woody Allen, but it certainly applied to Gudrun Ensslin, Bernward Vesper, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. They were members of that generation of Germans who had become adult around 1960, and then realised that their own parents had been complicit in the Nazi regime, and by implication, in the gassing of millions of jews.
This difficult situation has been explored in German cinema with such films as Margarethe Von Trotta’s The German Sisters (1981), and more recently in Uli Edel’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008). These films explore why young members of the middle class intelligentsia erupted into armed struggle against the West German state.
Despite the post-war denazification process, many ex-nazis held senior posts in the West German police and judiciary and were virulently anti-communist. They were glaring over their shoulders at the Soviet-dominated German Democratic Republic next door. Any alleged leftist was prevented from being employed by the West German state by the 1972 Berufsverbot “radical law”.
Independent thought was discouraged. Conformity was the norm. The West German economic miracle had been founded on the incorporation of the trade union movement into an alliance with the employers There was at this time, little room for dissent, even within the Social Democratic Party. Any demonstrations against the regime were ruthlessly repressed
Against this sterile background, the radicalisation of these young Germans is illustrated by extracts from newsreels showing significant moments during the Cold War. Among these events were the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and most importantly the Vietnam war. A documentary flashback shows the napalming of Vietnam by the US air force.
There were resonances of this in Europe, Spain had been fascist for decades, and in 1967, the army had seized power in Greece. In Italy, links were being unearthed between the fascists and the security services. Key events in Germany were the bludgeoning of protesters during a demonstration against the Shah of Iran, the attempted assassination of the Rudi Dutschke by an anti-communist fanatic, and the shooting dead of the pacifist student demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg by police,
In view of the brutal state repression Ensslin, Baader, Meinhof and the other members of the Red Army Faction decided that they could not capitulate as their parents had done under the nazis. Their perception was that the only reply to state violence was armed struggle.
But these intellectuals had little connection with the working class movement, and their acts of terrorism divorced them further from the wider society. They could therefore be dismissed as anarchists. They were arrested, imprisoned and ultimately died in jail. Their images have now been immortalised in the blurred monochrome paintings of Gerhard Richter, in which the artist demonstrates that post-modernism can deal with major and traumatic historical events.
With hindsight, the Baader-Meinhof group can be dismissed as a bunch of wild ultraleftists, rich kids whipped up by their own rhetoric into a state of paranoia. But by the early 1970s, the evidence appeared increasingly ominous, even to us Brits. In Chile, Allende’s Socialist government had been overthrown in a US-backed military coup on 11 September 1973.
In Britain, there were whispers that Harold Wilson was a Kremlin agent, and over their whisky, ex-army officers spoke of action to save the nation. At Sandhurst, Brigadier Kitson was theorising sophisticated repression against the republican community in Ulster. The Warwick University student Kevin Gateley was killed by a mounted policeman at a demonstration in Red Lion square in 1974. Following this event, the International Marxist Group confronted the Special Patrol Group riot squad at Hyde Park in crash helmets. “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean that they are not out to get you!”
So at this time, the UK developed its own home-grown version of the Red Army Faction. This was the Angry Brigade, whose bombings and communiques continued for some years until they are arrested. The Red Mole called for solidarity with the accused, but with this reservation. “It is no use the organised left criticising the politics of the Angry Brigade, unless we also recognise why a lot of potentially very good comrades reject the various leninist organisations, and indeed resort to bomb-throwing ….. an easy option that does not deal with the problem of helping to change the understanding of millions of people”.
The films of Margarethe Von Trotta, Uli Edel and Andreas Veiel are a fascinating trip down memory lane to a more volatile political period in West Germany. Lessons can be learned from them. At that time, the danger was ultraleftism, but today we have the opposite pole of political passivity. But we still have the ongoing “problem of helping to change the understanding of millions of people”.