On a recommendation from John of Obscene Desserts, I watched this joint French/German documentary about the origins of the German terrorist group the Red Army Faction. (The title of this post is my translation of ‘Eine deutsche Jugend/Une Jeunesse Allemand’). It consists of nothing but media documents from the late 1960s: political talk shows, revolutionary student films, Germany in Autumn, and contemporary news reports, and contemporary documentaries.
Those who aren’t familiar with this era in German history may have a hard time following it, because there’s no voice-over explanation or modern interviews to explain dated references. But that’s the point of the movie: the story of the RAF has been encrusted with decades’ worth of commentary, analysis, and speculation. This movie scrapes these barnacles away and shows you what a reasonably well-informed German or French person would have seen as events unfolded in real time.
‘Growing up in Germany’ also presents some excerpts from Germany in Autumn, an odd omnibus movie made by four German directors which, at least nominally, addresses the wave of RAF terrorism and the state’s response to it during the autumn of 1977. We see Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the most overrated (I didn’t say bad, just overrated) German director of the 1970s, harassing his own mother in a (likely coke-fueled) interrogation designed to reveal her alleged authoritarian tendencies. At the time, the interview was celebrated by some as a ‘devastatingly personal reckoning’ with the ‘hidden authoritarian conformism’ of elderly Germans. Now it just looks like some greasy-haired guy yelling at an old woman.
The film offers a few interesting insights into the “leaden years” of German political terrorism, especially Ulrike Meinhof’s early appearances on German political talk shows. In the mid-1960s, she was a fairly well-known commentator for the radical journal konkret (g), and represented the leftmost fringe of respectable German public opinion on political talk shows, usually as the only female on the panel. She emerges as equally smart and dull. Her arguments, conveyed in agonizingly long sentences, are sometimes pretty convincing — the troubling authoritarian holdovers in German society in the mid-1960s which she criticizes were all too real. However, she always speaks in a near-monotone, sometimes almost mumbling, with very little eye contact with fellow panelists. She seems incapable of humor in any form. Today, we might put her somewhere on the mild side of the autism spectrum.
The director also dug up some of the student films made by Holger Meins, who later participated in several RAF terrorist actions, was imprisoned, and starved himself to death during a hunger strike, thus becoming the movement’s martyr. The excerpts of Meins’ films show young, smart, middle-class Germans striking poses while discussing revolutionary thought and assessing the contemporary state of German society and its readiness for revolutionary transformation, reminiscent of Godard’s ‘La Chinoise’. It all seems quite dour, lacking Godard’s wit, and, not to put too fine a point on it, German.
The verbosity of the RAF’s communiqués provides one of the few points of comic relief, as a West German news commentary shows scenes from the life of one of the ‘exploited workers’ the RAF claimed to be saving from the clutches of capitalism. We watch a montage of him leaving work, riding home in his nice little car to his nice little wife, pouring himself a frosty beer from the refrigerator, and settling in for an evening of bland, inoffensive public television. Meanwhile, a narrator reads a typical passage from an RAF communiqué, an clot of German caterpillar-sentences about objective and subjective conditions, revolutionary potential, alienation, consumer terrorism, the continuity of post-war German society with National Socialism, etc. The narrator asks whether any ordinary German worker could even understand this gobbledygook, much less be moved to give up his rather comfortable life for it.
I found the film a bit depressing. Germany, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was, overall, a prosperous, stable, pleasant place to live — at the time, probably one of the most prosperous, stable places to live on the planet. Yet, through a rigorous program of tunnel-vision indoctrination, a small group of student radicals managed to convince themselves that it was actually a grisly, contradiction-riddled nightmare of exploitation, just waiting to be swept away by revolution.
‘Growing up in Germany’ shows you just how this echo-chamber process of self-radicalization evolved in real time. It’s not a pretty sight, but an informative one. The intellectual tropes which drove radicalization still exist on the German hard left: the tendency to conflate all coercive state actions — even those which are part of the necessary functioning of any state — with fascism; the failure to draw distinctions between isolated social problems and total corruption; a hermeneutics of radical suspicion discerns conspiracies behind every unanswered question; cynicism toward every claim by authority figures to be acting in the name of any ideals higher than profit.
Underlying all of this is a tendency toward totalizing, principle-driven conceptual critiques (also a very German thing) which, followed to their logical conclusion, require rejecting Western society as a whole. In the words of one of the most famous revolutionary slogans: “It is impossible to live rightly within a wrong system” (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). Adorno coined this phrase in Minima Moralia, published in the direct aftermath of National Socialism. The fact that student radicals blithely applied this formula to the very different Germany of the late 1960s is a useful reminder of the human capacity for self-delusion.