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Helter Skelter, German Style

The German director Uli Edel’s recent film, The Baader Meinhof Complex, portrays the violent history of West Germany’s radical left as a saga of passionate personalities whose moral idealism brought them to an expected but tragic end. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, the charismatic leaders of the so-called “Red Army Faction” (RAF), including Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader, were involved in demonstrations, bombings, kidnappings, and even hijackings, all in the name of progressive resistance. They imagined themselves at war, bent on exposing and bringing down what was, in their eyes, the enduring legacy of fascism in the postwar Bundesrepublik. About this violent history the film tries very hard to be fair. Perhaps a bit too hard. Events unfold chiefly from the point of view of the young protagonists. The effect, intentional or otherwise, is to cast the RAF in the softening light of anguished heroism. The leading actors are so credible that, perhaps inevitably, it is their human complexity alone that seizes one’s attention, right up to the moment when Meinhof and Baader, imprisoned and awaiting trial, commit suicide. What is largely absent from the film is a sense for the moral derangement—the absolute loss of perspective—that consumed the leadership of Germany’s radical left in those years.

To comprehend this history in its proper dimensions, one could hardly hope for a better guide than Hans Kundnani, an independent journalist based in London whose excellent book reconstructs the political agonies of the German Left from the sixties to the present day. Unlike Edel’s film (which was inspired by Stefan Aust’s recent book of the same title), Kundnani does not indulge in dramaturgy, nor does he omit the worst parts. The detail is extraordinary, the tempo deliberate, the moral analysis unsparing. Kundnani wants us to see the idealism of the Achtundsechziger, the ‘68ers,' but also their depravity.

Ultimately, however, he tells a tale of political maturation. To be sure, this was the generation that saw the bombing of a department store as a symbolic defeat for capitalism. But it is also the generation of Joschka Fischer, a student radical in the late 60s, the Green Party’s representative to the Bundestag from 1983-85, Minister of the Environment for Hesse from 1991-94, and, beginning in 1998, the leading figure in Germany’s so-called “Red-Green” coalition government, for which he served Gerhard Schröder as foreign minister. Kundnani’s book is, in part, an attempt to explain how Fischer managed to break free from the pathologies of the German Left to become one of the more respected dignitaries in recent German political history. But it is also, more importantly, an attempt to explain how Germany’s postwar generation struggled to overcome the ghosts of the Nazi past. It succeeds at both tasks.

The young German radicals were in some ways no different from the student agitators in other parts of Europe and North America. They protested against authoritarianism and repression, rioted against the police, bemoaned capitalism, inveighed against the war in Vietnam. But in one crucial respect they were different: their parents belonged to the generation that reached adulthood during the Third Reich. Some had held positions in the regime, as judges, educators, lawyers, administrators. Others had been soldiers, “simply following orders.” Others had remained silent bystanders. But very few were willing to speak about their past. Instead, postwar Germans tried to imagine that the brutality was entirely behind them, that 1945 was a Stunde Null, or “zero hour.” West Germany’s first chancellor, the Christian Democratic Konrad Adenauer, presided over the fourteen years of Germany’s “economic miracle” and helped to forge his country’s Westbindung, its financial and military bond to NATO and the West. In an atmosphere of muscular growth, conformity was in fashion while the notion of “working through the past” remained little more than a dutiful slogan.

But it was a brittle silence. The unpleasant truth was that many former Nazi officials were still active in politics. One of Adenauer’s closest aids was Hans Globke, a state secretary, who had helped to draft the notorious Nuremberg laws of 1935; he was the one responsible for the clever little detail of assigning all Jewish men and women the names “Israel” and “Sarah.” And Globke’s case was only one among thousands. ‘What did you do during the war?’ was a question that would have disturbed the peace.

But by the 1960s, the silence was beginning to crack. In 1960, the Mossad’s capture of Adolf Eichmann and his subsequent trial in Israel awakened a long-suppressed debate about what it really meant to just follow orders. In 1963, seventeen former guards from Auschwitz stood trial in Frankfurt. As Kundnani reminds us, the Auschwitz trial had a tremendous impact on the younger generation. This was Germany’s very first confrontation with the question of war crimes since the Nuremberg trials of 1945-1946. Many of the defendants had been living without incident since the war. An especially troubling example was Victor Capesius, who had worked alongside Mengele in Auschwitz. After the war, not far from Stuttgart, Capesius was running a pharmacy.

When the spirit of rebellion seized Germany’s youth in the late 1960s, it therefore took an extreme form. Many young people discerned a strong continuity—material, ideological, even spiritual— between the apparatus of the Third Reich and the present-day Federal Republic. Nourishing this perception were the theories promoted by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the aging representatives of the Institute for Social Research who had returned to Frankfurt from their American exile. For the Frankfurt School theorists, fascism was not merely a socio-political affliction particular to a certain time and place; it was a general pathology of modernity and Western industrial capitalism. Student radicals took this analysis to heart and were primed to see Nazism everywhere. “Anti-fascism” seemed to demand a wholesale rejection of contemporary society.

Kundnani calls this the “continuity thesis” and it serves as an explanation for the extremity and, eventually, the self-destruction of Germany’s radical left. Seeing the FRG as a “fascist state” meant there could be no compromise, because all political struggle was conceived as “resistance” against the “Auschwitz generation.” The continuity thesis meant that violence—even terrorism—could find an ultimate sanction. More temperate voices on the left feared that the advocates of armed struggle were losing their moral bearings. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas warned of an incipient irrationalism and even “left-wing fascism.” (That phrase opened an insuperable rift between Habermas and his most militant contemporaries.)  

Events quickly spiraled out of control. Following Israel’s military victories in 1967, radical left factions in Germany such as the APO (Außerparlementarische Opposition) increasingly turned their attention to the Middle East. The great mass of inherited historical burdens were now projected onto an external enemy—Israel—which became in their eyes the latest and perhaps the worst example of present-day fascism. Responsible criticism of Israeli policies would have been valid—it was then, and it is now. But the passion with which the German radicals disburdened their accumulated resentments upon Israel was nothing short of perverse. The most convenient objects for their rage were Jews living in Germany, many of them survivors or the children of Holocaust victims who were struggling to rebuild their community. 

In the fall of 1969, the day before the November ceremonies commemorating Kristallnacht, Jewish cemeteries in Berlin were desecrated with graffiti such as “Al Fatah,” and “Shalom and Napalm.” In the Jewish community center on Fasanenstraße, a bomb was discovered. Young advocates of armed struggle increasingly saw themselves as fighting a vague and omnipresent enemy—imperialist, capitalist, Zionist. Members of the Red Army Faction even began to draw strange analogies, likening themselves to Holocaust victims. The ultimate perversion came in the summer of 1976, when an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by members of the PFLP working together with two German members of the Revolutionary Cells, Winfried Böse, and Brigitte Kuhlmann. The plane eventually landed in Entebbe, where the hijackers singled out the Jewish and Israeli passengers, releasing the non-Jews. 

Was this moral dissolution inevitable? Kundnani is admirably restrained in his verdicts and he prefers to let the facts speak for themselves. But it is clear he believes that, as a premise for political action, the “continuity thesis” proved disastrous: It blinded an entire generation on the German left from seeing any distinction between present-day democracy and the fascist past, and it encouraged them to conceive of political struggle in absolutist terms, condemning their enemies as latter-day Nazis even to the point of imagining themselves as Jewish victims. He agrees with the historian Dan Diner’s argument that the attempts on the German radical left to invoke the Third Reich amounted to an “exonerating projection” and a “relativization” of Nazism. But this may not be altogether fair. There were, after all, powerful continuities between past and present, and it is in part thanks to Germany’s postwar Left that the silence was eventually broken. There is also greater meaning to the Adorno-Horkheimer theory of fascism as pathological modernity than an illicit effort to relativize Nazi brutality. Surely the RAF and other militants understood the continuity thesis in too crude a fashion. But a theory is not wholly refuted by the errors it may inspire. The alternative would be to fix Nazism as an incomparable standard of evil. But how can one sustain the watchword, “Never Again Auschwitz” if one is forbidden in principle from drawing comparisons? The incomparable is also the irrelevant.

It is a crucial lesson of Kundnani’s book that the more responsible members of Germany’s left, such as Jürgen Habermas and Joschka Fischer, understood that the continuity thesis was mistaken. Still, there are many sorts of continuities and not all comparison can be dismissed as psychological evasion or relativization. In the 1990s Fischer, by then a seasoned politician who had long ago abandoned his ragged sweaters, was one of the most vocal advocates for finally shattering the postwar taboo on German military action in foreign territory. When the Serbs attacked Kosovar Albanians in 1998, it was Fischer who prevailed against the more pacifist members of his own party to insist that Germany should contribute to the NATO campaign. “I didn’t just learn ‘never again war,’” he explained. “I also learned, ‘never again Auschwitz.’”

Peter E. Gordon is Professor of History at Harvard University.

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