Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

The Limits of Violence

In Guest Feature on October 21, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Through the example of Baader Meinhof, Richard Huffman from Seattle, USA questions violence as a serious means of social protest.

When I marched in the November 30, 1999 anti-WTO rally here in my hometown of Seattle, the brutal tactics and sporadic yet stunning violence by the Seattle Police felt eerily similar to a catastrophic Berlin protest a generation ago. On June 2, 1967 tens of thousands of young Germans, many of them students at Berlin’s Free University, lined up on Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse early in the evening to protest a visit by the Shah of Iran. By the end of that night, however, a young pacifist lay dead, shot by the police.

After the rally, thousands of angry, frustrated students converged at the Berlin offices of the leading student organisation – the Socialist German Student Union. Among those present was a young woman called Gudrun Ensslin who declared “This fascist state means to kill us all! We must organize resistance. Violence is the only way to answer violence. This is the Auschwitz Generation, and there’s no arguing with them!”

This article looks at Gudrun’s exclamation asking whether her experience offers us a warning as to the limits to violence just as there are limits to our consent.

While leader of the Socialist Student Union – “Red” Rudi Dutschke – was sympathetic to Ensslin’s goals he proposed “a long march through the institutions”. For her part, Ensslin went on to form the Red Army Faction – the “Baader-Meinhof Gang”.

During the next decade Ensslin, intent on bringing a form of Socialist Revolution to Germany, and the 50 or so young Germans who joined her and her boyfriend Andreas Baader, embarked on a campaign of bloody terror throughout West Germany. The R.A.F. blew up symbols of capitalism like department stores; killed American soldiers and high-ranking figures on the West German Supreme Court. They kidnapped wealthy and influential German industrialists, blew up the German embassy in Stockholm and high-jacked a Lufthansa jet.

Others meanwhile chose the path of Rudi Dutschke instead.

In time it was these activists who built a new progressive German environmental movement that went on to found the Green Party in 1979 and, twenty years later, sharing Government in coalition with the SPD.

The Baader-Meinhof gang’s adherence to violence made a considerable impact on German society. At first their actions held the support of a new post-war generation. Polls showed an extraordinary number of Germans supported their cause in one way or another: 20 percent of Germans under the age of 30 expressed “a certain sympathy” for the Baader-Meinhof Gang; one in ten young northern Germans indicated they would willingly shelter a member for the night.

But as the violence increased empathy decreased. Before their pursuits West Germany had no national police force as such and it was in response to their terror campaign, the BKA (which later became the German equivalent of the FBI) was created. Instead of progressing social justice their actions lead the German government to pass sweeping laws that restricted the rights of average citizens; instituted loyalty oaths for all civil servants, and random general searches of peoples’ homes was not uncommon. And yet this was exactly what the R.A.F. hoped would happen.

They anticipated German state repression and expected it to be applied with disproportionate violence. Their hope was the proletariat would be shocked from their complacency and would spontaneously rise up in revolution.

Instead the German population, angered and frightened by the violence, applauded their government’s repressive response. Seven million ‘Wanted’ posters were printed.

Within five days of their May 1972 week of terror, all the ring-leaders were in jail. Within five years they were all dead. After an airplane hijacking by Palestinian comrades failed to secure the release of the three imprisoned leaders of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe all committed suicide deep in the night of October 17, 1977.

Activists marched on Berlin in 1967 in anger. Out of that anger came Baader-Meinhof. Their rage sought to change German society but failed. Now their generations’ “long march through the institutions” has borne fruit: in 2003 when much of the West marched to Stop the War on Iraq, Germans marched in support of their Government and their decision not to participate in it.

©2010 Copyright the author. Sourced & edited by C. Spiby; this article first appeared as two articles and in a different form in Satya magazine, March 2004.

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