blog The Return of the Red Army Faction?

The Berlin Hauptbahnhof; where a bomb disposal crew recently defused a petrol bomb apparently left by left-wing extremists, an attack eerily similar to the attacks by the Red Army Faction / Baader-Meinhof Gang 40 years ago.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 – Berlin. The discovery and defusing of a bomb planted in Berlin’s main train station yesterday, the third bomb in a row created apparently by left-wing extremists, unexpectedly sent shivers down my spine. A leftist group called “Hekla Reception Committee — Initiative for more Eruptions in Society ” has claimed responsibility, saying the bombs are in response to Germany’s role in the Afghanistan war and as an arms exporter (the name is a reference to the Icelandic volcano that caused so much havoc on European travel recently.

Having studied Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhof Gang for 15 years, I am well acquainted with the desire to compare every single bombing or terrorist act to those committed during Germany’s own “War on Terror” in the 1970s. It’s a somewhat natural instinct, but it inevitably is a non-illuminative task; the differences are often more profound than the similarities yet it become very easy to ignore those differences and focus exclusively on the parallels.

So why did yesterday’s news hit me with such a wallop? Part of it is obviously personal. Exactly 40 years ago my father was the head of the US Army’s Berlin Bomb Disposal Unit. On many occasions he found himself in the identical situation of the bomb squad yesterday: walking down a Berlin public utility corridor, tools in hand, ready to disarm a device that would possibly kill him. A device left by leftist radicals determined to attack the state through terror.

People often assume that I have some form of deep scarring or emotional baggage from my family experiences in Berlin in the early 1970s; after all, terrorists came close to killing my mother and father on separate occasions. But the truth is that I never really knew about any of this until I was in my 20s, and my dad was so detached from the whole experience when describing it that he could have just as easily been describing his first job as a paperboy. It really wasn’t until I began interviewing some of the victims and witnesses to some of the Baader-Meinhof bombings that I began to appreciate how haunted these people have been by the bombings and how close I came to having my entire life defined in a similar way.

The Daily Mail in the UK today spilled a couple of gallons of ink directly comparing yesterday’s bombings to those of the Red Army Faction in the 70s and 80s. As to be expected with the Daily Mail, it high on sensationalism and short on facts. They seem to be making the argument that in fact these bombing represent an actual resurgence of the Red Army Faction; an absurd notion given that group officially disbanded 13 years ago and effectively disbanded right after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But I find it much harder to avoid the parallels to the Baader-Meinhof era that I normal do. Germany is awash in low-level attacks on symbols of capitalist excess. In the last few years there have been close to a thousand firebombings of mostly luxury cars all across the country. In Germany in the very late 1960s there were hundreds of similar low-level attacks by activists and proto-terrorists in groups like the West Berlin Tupamaros. Later, some of these activists escalated their attacks; Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and two others destroyed portions of two department stores with petrol bombs shortly after Easter in 1968–a significant precursor to their later career leading the Red Army Faction and planning deadly bombings across Germany. Then, as now, the motivation was fueled by partially by German involvement in an American “imperialist” war.

And young people are marching in the streets, in both the US and Europe, in ways and numbers mostly unseen since 1968. The Occupy Wall Street movement (which I am extremely sympathetic towards), has a similar vibe to the student marches of 1967-1969. They often felt random and organic; not dutiful and planned like the anti-war marches of 2002-2003. It was this optimistic an anarchic milieu that helped foment the terrorist movement that came later because, ironically, the marches had very little effect on public policy. For a very small subset of highly radicalized activists, it was proof that the only real way to effect change was through bombs and guns.

So will it come to that in Germany today, or perhaps America?

I doubt it. For no other reason than policing is massively more effective now than it was 40 years later. By necessity these groups have to be extremely small and extremely disciplined, and yet that still would provide little protection. The German BKA (essentially the Germany version of the FBI), has some of the best anti-terrorism agents in the world. It would be hard to imagine twenty or thirty known terrorists now, running around Germany for two solid years, robbing banks and blowing up bombs, as the Baader-Meinhof Gang did from 1970 to 1972, without them being quickly and efficiently captured.

But what exactly do I know? Not much, really. I can only look on from a distance, in worry and horror, that Germany is reliving a particularly painful bit of history.

I would also hope that the Hekla Reception Committee would remember what is probably the most important lesson from the Red Army Faction: that their violent campaign was a complete and total failure. In fact the most profound effect that the Red Army Faction had on German society was to help provide justification for the state to become much more intrusive, to have civil liberties curtailed to a much greater degree, and to make the government much more powerful. It’s a “war” that couldn’t be won then, and certainly won’t be won now. Much better to follow the example articulated by Rudi Dutchke and “take a long march through the institutions” — meaning; become part of the government and business class, work your way up the ladder, and change society from within.