Thanks to friend SK, I was altered to this essay by Paul Hockenos (an American?) on the 30th anniversary of the German Autumn. It’s pretty rare to find well-informed English-language discussions of the RAF, but here it is. Shorter Paul Hockenos: the RAF story discredits large portions of the German body politic, and is probably best forgotten. First up, the state and the 1970s left:
The state’s overreaction and heavy-handed response brought out its worst. Rather than reach out to its radical critics, it criminalized them and treated the entire left as terrorist collaborators, which fueled suspicion, even among non-leftists, that the state had indeed murdered the RAF prisoners.
As for West German leftists, in retrospect their failure to distance themselves from the ultra-left RAF is embarrassing, as is their paranoia about a proto-fascist Federal Republic. The greater left waited far too long to criticize the underground, whose activities produced no progressive social change, but justified the state’s creation of an extensive high-tech security apparatus to spy upon, infiltrate, and harass left-of-center activists.
Next up, conservatives:
Although the 1967–1970 student revolt and its successors in the new social movements failed to alter the political and economic foundations of the Federal Republic, they permanently transformed attitudes toward gender relations, morality, sexual orientation, citizenship, work, and religion. Germany today is indebted to these movements for helping facilitate its liberal metamorphosis and making it a more open, worldly, and democratic place. Yet this debt is often overlooked. Conservatives, hoping to take back lost ground, gladly see the debt diminished in the country’s collective consciousness.
And finally, a stray lash for the young lefties of today:
Some German leftists (very often of a younger generation) are still attracted to the idea of effecting radical social change in a cataclysmic burst rather than through the tedium of grassroots organizing or gradual social movements—the processes that are essential to progressive social change in liberal democracies. As much as the German left has changed since the late ’70s and as critically as it has distanced itself from the RAF and its like, there persists a mythical aura around Baader-Meinhof as the true believers who fought the good fight in its purest form. Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin are still considered heroes in some left-wing circles, even though their unsuccessful assault on the state cost the lives of 57 people and ended in disaster for the German left.
But it’s not all carping. Hockenos is another voice in the chorus of those who think German media’s obsession with the RAF obscures much more significant stories of social transformation:
[T]he contemporary shadow cast by the RAF obscures the much more important work of the nonviolent extraparliamentary movements of the 1970s and ’80s—such as the women’s movement and the environmental, anti-nuclear-energy and peace campaigns. Known as the “new social movements,” these activists mobilized literally millions of German citizens and brought about genuine democratic and social change in the republic. Despite their enormous impact on the political culture of the Federal Republic, today these grassroots mobilizations, which took parliamentary form with the creation of the Green Party in 1980, are conspicuously underrepresented in public discourse.
I agree with Hockenos on pretty much all counts. The RAF itself is, as a subject of study, unedifying. Having spent some time researching the group for a project, I came away feeling nothing but vague contempt, and complete mystification at the attention it still receives. Active RAF members fell, as near as I can tell, into two general groups: ruthless monomaniacs or deluded dupes. What united both camps was their second-rateness and insufferable pomposity. Their "manifestos" are dull and turgid; their personalities one-dimensional and unappealing. Once they began their RAF careers — at the very latest — most RAF cadres morphed into Godzillas of screechy self-righteous bitterness. Some former members, such as Horst Mahler, have gone downhill from there.
I can understand why the right would focus on the RAF, since it plays into the narrative (dissent leads inevitably to anarchy!) justly denounced by Hockenos. But Germany’s left-wing press is also obsessed with these has-beens. This makes no sense tactically: from a left perspective, stirring up memories of the RAF is utterly counterproductive.
I can only surmise that this RAF obsession must be a product of the incestuous German media landscape: former student radicals who now run media outlets turn reflexively to their old buddies and the battles of their youth whenever they need to fill more column inches or program spots.
Consider this a humble appeal for them to finally turn the page.
* This post should be read to the tune of I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.