There has been a heated exchange of views in our comments sections on some of our recent posts dealing with Nazis, Communists, and other socialists, particularly on yesterday’s post, Tomorrow belongs to them, and the extract from Jillian Becker’s essay The Fun Revolutionaries, July 26, 2015 (posted in full under the title The Darkness of This World [Part Two], to be found under PAGES at the top of our margin). Today we post an article by Jillian Becker on the same subjects, with an explanation of how it came to be written.
A new production of Hamlet is being put on at the Barbican Theatre in London, starring the impressive actor, Benedict Cumberbatch. The director, Lyndsey Turner, sees generation rebellion as an important aspect of the story, and observes that the events of the play take place some 30 years after a war between Denmark and Norway (a war which Denmark won). The assistant-director, Sam Caird, wrote to me on June 8, on behalf of the director, asking me (as the author of Hitler’s Children) to come and speak to the company about generational rebellion in West Germany in the late 1960s, when the New Left movement protested against the parent generation of the Third Reich (which of course lost the Second World War). I felt honored by the invitation, but explained that I could not travel from America to speak to the company, much as I’d have liked to. Instead I promised them a paper on the subject. Here it is:
Generational Rebellion and its Effects in West Germany, 1967-1977
Most of the declared causes of the 1967-1968 student protest movement in West Germany were ideological. The protestors were for pacifism, and against authoritarianism, capitalism, militarism, nuclear arms, the re-armament of Germany, and – intimately associated with all that – “Amerika”. A more immediate cause, and the one they felt most strongly about, was university reform. They wanted more representation on the governing boards, and the dismissal of teachers who had been members of the Nazi party.
Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Western allies had carried out a “denazification” campaign. It had worked well. Most West German voters became firm democrats. Their children grew up knowing what the Nazi regime had done, but its ideology was literally locked away from them. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, for instance, was inaccessible to post-war generations. One could look at it in a university library, but only if a professor certified that one needed it for approved research. With that sort of policy, the campaign went too far. All ideas should be critically examined.
Shame and guilt kept most parents from talking to their children about what they had done and thought in the years of the Third Reich. Nevertheless, as a generation, the parents were stigmatized in the eyes of their grown children. Those fathers who survived the war had their personal authority weakened by the Nazi police state, and fathers and mothers alike were demoralized by defeat and the revelation of the death camps. The student protestors held the crimes – though not the defeat – against the older generation in general. Some of the more radical activists proudly proclaimed that they were doing what their parents had failed to do: denounce and defy the Nazi regime. They disregarded the fact that they were doing it many years too late. They saw Nazism in all authority – in the schools, the universities, the Federal government, the states’ governments, the press, the commercial world, the military, the police, the banks, and “Amerika”.
Among the fiercest of the student rebels were children of liberal parents. Their sons and daughters accused them of not doing enough to compensate for their past, and of hypocrisy – preaching egalitarianism but living in luxury while others were poor.
In fact, almost nobody in West Germany was poor. All classes had worked extremely hard; and aided by the Marshall Plan, by which America provided vast sums for reconstruction, they had succeeded beyond all expectation in creating astonishing prosperity. It was called an “economic miracle”.
And the student rebels have been called the “the spoilt children of the economic miracle” – ungrateful for the freedom and plenty bestowed on them. They were well housed, well fed, well educated, supplied with all the goods the cornucopia of the West could pour on them. What did they have to complain of?
The answer they needed came from the New Left political philosopher, Herbert Marcuse. He asserted that the apparently free peoples of the West were oppressed by plenty and repressed by tolerance. They were hoodwinked into an illusion of contentment by material abundance and ample choice, while they were actually subject to the vicious tyranny of big business, the military-industrial complex, and “American imperialism”. The student protestors, he declared, were the “advanced consciousness of humanity”, whose mission it was to lead the revolution.
It may seem strange that of all West Europeans, these young Germans, with their country divided between a Communist east and a free west, should be so easily persuaded that New Left Communism was preferable to liberal democracy. Some of them were even refugees from Communism, their families having fled to the West before the Berlin wall was built. How could West Germans be unaware of the poverty, the privation, the bleakness and anxiety of life on the other side of the Wall? Why did the students so naively swallow the Soviet line that the Russian-led Warsaw Pact was all for peace, while American-led NATO was a war–monger? Why did they so furiously demand that the West destroy its nuclear bombs, but not Russia? How could they not know that in the USSR rebels against the system were routinely imprisoned, tortured, killed? If they did know, the knowledge had little or no effect on their passionately held opinions. They blamed America for the war in Vietnam, the wretchedness of the peasants in South America, the oppression of the Iranians, and inequality everywhere; but the USSR they exonerated, and even admired, no matter what it did. Why? Because they accepted the lie that Communism is the opposite of Nazism, rather than its twin, which it is.
A voice raised in support of the protestors was that of the journalist Ulrike Meinhof. She wrote for a leftist periodical, Konkret, owned by her husband. Her columns were ardently pacifist, anti-American and pro-Communist. Her foster-mother Renate Riemeck, who had fled from Communist East Germany, typified the attitude of liberal West Germans to Communism. She believed that “anti-Communism was the fundamental foolishness of the twentieth century”.
Through the early months of I967, the demos in the universities and on the streets grew ever bigger and more unruly, and clashes with the police ever more violent. The students hurled stones at the police and clubbed them with thick staves; the police charged and struck about them with their batons. (Only a very few of the marchers knew that Soviet agents had launched the movement. Not until the fall of the USSR did evidence emerge that it had funded the “peace movement” in Western Europe.)
On the 2nd June, 1967, there was a very large demonstration in West Berlin protesting a visit by the Shah of Iran, and in the midst of a skirmish a student was shot and killed by a police bullet.
For days and nights following the event there were meetings of student organizations for highly emotional discussions of what had happened and what should be done. There was general agreement that the shooting had proved them right – the fascist state was out to kill them. They must organize for resistance. They could only answer violence with violence. At one gathering, a young woman named Gudrun Ensslin shouted , “It’s the generation of Auschwitz – you cannot argue with them.”
Protest demos continued at intervals for another year. In February 1968, older citizens, including large numbers of trade union members, staged a massive counter-demo organized by the Berlin senate, to protest against the students’ revolt and “anarchy”. It was a rare public display of anger by the parent generation.
After the middle of 1968 the students’ movement faded. The majority of protestors were mollified by new university constitutions granting the students more say in the conduct of their affairs. But there were some who could not easily give up the heady excitement and return to normal life. And there were a few who did not find their way back at all.
In 1969 there were random bomb attacks on property, and though they harmed no people, they created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. The official explanation was that those responsible were “isolated individuals and small militant groups on the fringes of the New Left”. But not everyone believed it. Rumors spread of an “underground resistance” being formed. Gudrun Ensslin, the woman who had shouted that the older generation could not be argued with, and her lover, Andreas Baader, had firebombed a store in Frankfurt in March 1968.
They had been sentenced to three years in prison. But as the “fascist” authorities were in fact lenient to a fault, they soon let them out again, pending an appeal. The arsonists absconded, helped by sympathetic members of their parents’ generation: lawyers, parsons, teachers, professors, doctors, journalists, artists. As soon as asked, they provided the fugitives with cars, money, and apartments. Later they excused their weakness by pleading for the terrorists that “their hearts were in the right place, their aim for peace was good, only their violent method was wrong”.
When Baader was re-arrested and returned to prison, after he had been on the run for nearly a year, Ulrike Meinhof helped him escape again. She sought permission for him to work in a public library with her, and the all-too-soft authorities granted it. While they sat together in a room barred to the public, three raiders shot their way past two armed policemen guarding the prisoner, and got him out through a window. Ulrike Meinhof fled with them.
In their reports of the drama, the media designated Baader and Meinhof as the leaders of the group. They called it the “Baader-Meinhof gang”. At the same time the group itself took the name “Red Army Faction”. Its members robbed banks, shot policemen, bombed public buildings, maimed, kidnapped, tortured and murdered until most of them were caught and brought to trial.
At every point of the story until that stage was reached, the authorities of the Federal Republic of West Germany, far from exhibiting fascist tendencies, acted with so much restraint that it often amounted to foolhardy indulgence – at least partly because they feared to be accused of “authoritarianism”. It was the terrorists who acted like fascists.
Their generation could be called “Hitler’s Children” simply because they were born in the Hitler period. But when applied to the terrorist rebels, the label means more than just a generational relationship. It implies a family resemblance between the Nazis and the New Left activists.
An incident in their history illustrates the similarity. On June 27, 1976, an Air France airbus, on its way from Tel Aviv to Paris, was hijacked by two Germans and two Arabs. The pilot was forced to fly the plane to Entebbe, in Uganda, which was then under the dictatorship of Idi Amin (a keen fan of Adolf Hitler). The Jews were separated from the rest of the passengers. In return for the lives and freedom of the Jewish hostages, the terrorists demanded the release of fifty-three prisoners, of whom forty were held in Israel and six in Germany.
Among the Jewish hostages there were some who had been in Hitler’s concentration camps. Yet again they found themselves being sorted out from others by Germans, to be victimized and possibly killed. Again they were ordered about at gunpoint, slapped and shouted at to move quickly: “Schnell!” One of the captives showed the Germans his arm with a number indelibly branded on it, and told them he had got it as a prisoner of the Nazis. He said he had supposed that a new and different generation had grown up in Germany, but with this experience he found it difficult to believe that the Nazi movement had died. One of the hijackers snapped back that this was something entirely different from Nazism; that he was a member of the Red Army Faction, and what they wanted was world Marxist revolution. But the man with the number on his arm and the other Jewish captives could not see a difference.
All but four of the Jewish hostages were rescued by Israeli commandos. Along with the Arab hijackers and 48 Ugandan soldiers, the Germans were shot dead.
Did the terrorists themselves really believe that their actions would inspire a general uprising in West Germany? Or were they just playing a very dangerous game? As they had no obvious cause of their own to justify their tactics, they have been called “the fun revolutionaries”. They themselves feared not being taken seriously, which is why some of them, including Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin, went to Jordan in June 1970, to join the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and undergo “urban guerrilla” training.
The PFLP is an Arab nationalist and Marxist group, founded by a Greek Orthodox doctor, George Habash, who believed that his fight for the Palestinian and Arab nationalist causes was a necessary part of world revolution. He and his men came to despise the German men as soft, inept – and unserious. Both sides disliked each other, though Meinhof said that the training was “much more fun than sitting at a desk with a typewriter”. After two months the Germans returned home.
It was with the PFLP that some members of the group later co-operated in the hijacking of the Air France plane to Entebbe. Three of the six German prisoners whose release was demanded were “Baader-Meinhof” members, but Andreas Baader himself was not on the list. And by that time Ulrike Meinhof was dead, having hanged herself a few weeks earlier. New terrorists joining the “armed struggle” were not sorry to be rid of them. And their former helpers in the general population had finally lost sympathy with them. Meinhof had been given up to the police by a teacher with whom she had sought asylum.
Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin all killed themselves in prison: Meinhof in May 1976, before the court had given its verdict at their trial; Baader and Ensslin in October 1977, after they were sentenced to “three times life plus fifteen years”.
Some members of the gang admitted when they were caught that they had joined because it was “so romantic to go underground and make revolution”. Meinhof might have come close to convincing herself that she was working effectively towards the transformation of the world, but she became ever more confused, to a point where she was rapidly losing her reason. Ensslin, volatile and truculent, and Baader, a doltish bully and natural delinquent, finally understood when the judges pronounced their sentences that what they had done would not be admired, or excused, or forgiven. The game was over.
Their last hope was for martyrdom. They tried to make their suicides look like murder by the “fascist” state. They fantasized that their deaths would enflame multitudes to rise and avenge them by making revolution at last. Of course nothing of the sort happened. They neither led nor inspired a Communist uprising in West Germany. But all the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down, and in October 1990 Germany was reunified.
An afterword: What did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union think of them? A Moscow publication of the late 1970s said (rather to my dismay) that I was right to call them “Hitler’s Children”. And it explained that the CPSU scorned them because they were “left-wing Communist individual terrorists” – meaning they were not controlled by the Party – and as such, according to Leninist doctrine, they were not acceptable participants in the “revolutionary armed struggle”.
Jillian Becker June 2015