Judt on German Terrorist Empathizers in the 1970s

From Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005), pp. 472-473:

Reitz and Fassbinder were among the directors of Deutschland im Herbst (‘Germany in Autumn’) a 1978 collage of documentary, movie clips and interviews covering the events of the autumn of 1977, notably the kidnapping and killing of Hans Martin Schleyer and the subsequent suicide of Ensslin and Baader. The film is notable not so much for its expressions of empathy for the terrorists as for the distinctive terms in which these are conveyed. By careful inter-cutting, the Third Reich and the Federal Republic are made to share a family resemblance. ‘Capitalism’, ‘the profit system’ and National Socialism are presented as equally reprehensible and indefensible, with the terrorists emerging as latter-day resisters: modern Antigones struggling with their consciences and against political repression.

Considerable cinematic talent was deployed in Deutschland im Herbst—as in other contemporary German films—to depict West Germany as a police state, akin to Nazism if only in its (as yet unrevealed) capacity for repression and violence. Horst Mahler, a semi-repentant terrorist then still in prison, explains to the camera that the emergence of an extra-parliamentary opposition in 1967 was the ‘anti-fascist revolution’ that did not happen in 1945. The true struggle against Germany’s Nazi demons was thus being carried through by the country’s young radical underground—albeit by the use of remarkably Nazi-like methods, a paradox Mahler does not address.

The implicit relativizing of Nazism in Deutschland im Herbst was already becoming quite explicit in intellectual apologias for anti-capitalist terror. As the philosopher Detlef Hartmann explained in 1985, ‘We can learn from the obvious linkage of money, technology and extermination in New Order Nazi imperialism … (how) to lift the veil covering the civilized extermination technology of the New Order of Bretton Woods.’ It was this easy slippage—the thought that what binds Nazism and capitalist democracy is more important than their differences, and that it was Germans who had fallen victim to both—that helped account for the German radical Left’s distinctive insensitivity on the subject of Jews.

On September 5th 1972, the Palestinian organization Black September attacked the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics and killed eleven athletes, as well as one German policeman. Almost certainly, the killers had local assistance from the radical Left (though it is a curiousity of German extremist politics of the time that the far Right would have been no less pleased to offer its services). The link between Palestinian organizations and European terrorist groups was already well-established—Ensslin, Baader and Meinhof all ‘trained’ at one time with Palestinian guerillas, along with Basques, Italians, Irish Republicans and others. But only Germans went the extra mile: when four gunmen (two Germans, two Arabs) hijacked an Air France plane in June 1976 and flew it to Entebbe, in Uganda, it was the Germans who undertook to identify and separate the Jewish passengers from the rest.

If this action, so unmistakably reminiscent of selections of Jews by Germans in another time and place, did not definitively discredit the Baader-Meinhof gang in the eyes of its sympathizers it was because its arguments, if not its methods, attracted quite broad consent: Germans, not Jews, were now the victims; and American capitalism, not German National Socialism, was the perpetrator. ‘War crimes’ were now things that Americans did to—e.g.—Vietnamese. There was a ‘new patriotism’ abroad in West Germany, and it is more than a little ironic that Baader, Meinhof and their friends, whose violent revolt was initially directed against the Germany-first self-satisfaction of their parents’ generation, should find themselves co-opted by the reverberations of that same nationalist heritage. It was altogether appropriate that Horst Mahler, one of the few surviving founders of Left terrorism in West Germany, should end up three decades later on the far Right of the political spectrum.

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