BETWEEN THE peaks of excitement over who won Big Brother and the whys and wherefores of Geoff Hoon’s holiday arrangements, you may have missed an unnerving and at times unpleasant TV history of the Baader-Meinhof episode. It told the story of what happened when a group of Germans in what was then West Germany formed the Red Army Faction.
They were what used to be called insurrectionists, but they probably wouldn’t have minded being called Marxist and/or anarchist rebels, revolutionists, liberationists…you get the sort of thing. We’re talking the early 1970s here, which was in many ways a very peculiar time. The ups and downs of life don’t really follow the arbitrary divisions of the calendar into decades. Yet there is a strange way in which the 1960s seem to mark a time of immense struggle, hope and achievement for the left, while the 1970s mark a time of setbacks.
By 1970 West Germany could proclaim to the world, but especially to the Stalinist East Germans, that a miracle had happened on their soil. A country which had in 1945 been virtually obliterated by the bombs, tanks and infantrymen of what seemed like every country in the world except Italy and Japan was now a glorious capitalist success.
We now know that this wasn’t done by some magical German bootstraps, which when pulled on enable a country to rise from the ashes. The US pumped billions of dollars into West Germany-not as some act of selfless generosity, but as a way of stemming the tide of socialism and Communism that was flooding across Europe.
Running the country at that time was a range of politicians from very right wing to centre right, all of whom sang the same tune-stability, stability, stability. Hijacks and bombings
If that meant letting old Nazis back into their old jobs as judges, policemen, civil servants and bosses; if it meant not touching all the companies who had profited from the Nazis’ slave labour programme and state-sponsored plunder in the East; if it meant striking up unholy alliances with apartheid South Africa and apartheid-like Israel-then so be it.
By the end of the 1960s a generation of radicals had emerged in West Germany. I met some who were unbelievably well versed in the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Bakunin and Kropotkin. Others were equally well versed in the virtues of different kinds of hash.
But for all the talk, smoke and rebellion, some of them felt that there wasn’t enough to celebrate. So they went underground, formed the Red Army Faction, and carried out bank raids, kidnappings, hijacks and bombings.
The TV film last week showed a series of interviews with survivors of the group, the police who hunted them down and the politician who directed the repression. For me, one of the most telling moments was when an ex police chief said the group had done him an enormous favour.
It had gifted him the perfect excuse to ask for and get whatever he wanted-more men, more guns, more police stations, more surveillance of the population. One theory around at the time was that as this repression bit, the working class would rise up in revolutionary indignation.
It was crazy. For all the words they pumped out exposing the West German state’s collusion with reactionary regimes of the past and present, the group overlooked one vitally important fact.
There is no substitute for grassroots organisation. What’s more, if you try and make your rebellion the alternative for that organising, taking on the armed might of the state almost single-handed, you end up alone and dead. And socialism is not an inch nearer.
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